Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Scourge of Europe: The Religious Hysteria Created by the Black Plague

By Rosanne E. Lortz

Death has always been one of the most frightening prospects faced by mankind. The fear of death even has its own word to describe it—thanotophobia. In a society where a third to a half of the people around you have succumbed to death within the past year, the terror of knowing that you might be next can become overwhelming. It can drive a person to bizarre and unthinkable acts as he tries to ward off death’s icy grip from descending on his own shoulder. This is what happened in the mid-fourteenth century, during the years of the Black Plague. The world went wild with thanotophobia, and the country of England was no exception.

Monty Python to the contrary, the Black Plague was no joking matter. The medieval chronicler Geoffrey le Baker wrote:
Men who had been one day full of life, were often found dead the next. Some were afflicted with abscesses which erupted in various parts of their bodies, and which were so hard and dry, that even when they were cut with a knife, hardly and liquid flowed out…. Others had small black sores which developed all over their bodies. Only a very few who suffered from these survived and recovered their health. 
Such was the great plague which reached Bristol on 15 August [1348], and London around 29 September. It raged in England for a year or more, and such were its ravages, that many country towns were almost emptied of human life.
For some, the proximity of the plague created the pernicious attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Immorality, excess, and crime became rife in towns and cities, especially in the metropolis of London, as despairing people grasped after every last piece of self-gratification before death should come for them.

Others, however, still nourished the hope that the plague might be avoided. Doctors tried the normal remedies of bleeding and laxatives and prescribed more outlandish cures such as drinking one’s own urine. It soon became obvious, however, that medicine had failed to find the answer. As corpse after corpse was thrown in the common burial pits, the only course left to the living was to repent of their sins, cast themselves on divine mercy, and entreat the angel of death to forbear.

The fourteenth century, like the rest of the medieval period, was quick to consider any sort of disaster (natural or manmade) as a judgment from God. Earthquakes, fires, Viking invasions, Muslim conquests—all these things came about because of the sinful backsliding of God’s people. When the Black Plague, the greatest disaster in human memory, beset Europe, it was not hard for the deeply religious and deeply frightened populace to believe that God was exceptionally wroth with the world. Someone must intercede with Almighty, and prevail upon Him to stay His hand.

The early Church had understood Christ to be the intercessor between His people and God the Father. But somewhere, in between the age of the Church Fathers and the era of the Hundred Years’ War, Christ, the “shepherd of tender youth,” had metamorphosed into Christ, the stern and implacable Judge. With Christ seen as the author of the plague itself, the desperate looked for a mediator in His kinder, gentler mother Mary.

Across Europe, a strange sect known as the Flagellants began to gain followers. Wearing a uniform of a white robe marked with a red cross—much like the Knights Templar’ surcoat seen in so many period films—the Flagellants were a society of ascetic laymen determined to atone for the sins of the world. They gathered in groups of anywhere from 50 to 500 men, traveling around the towns of Europe and performing the ritual of publicly scourging themselves.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this description of the Flagellants’ activities:
Twice a day, proceeding slowly to the public square or to the principal church, they put off their shoes, stripped themselves to the waist and prostrated themselves in a large circle. By their posture they indicated the nature of the sins they intended to expiate, the murderer lying on his back, the adulterer on his face, the perjurer on one side holding up three fingers, etc. First they were beaten by the "Master", then, bidden solemnly in a prescribed form to rise, they stood in a circle and scourged themselves severely, crying out that their blood was mingled with the Blood of Christ and that their penance was preserving the whole world from perishing. 
After the Flagellants had gathered a crowd to watch their bloody antics, the Master would read aloud from a “heavenly letter,” trying to terrify the onlookers with its apocalyptic contents. Matthew of Neuenberg wrote:
In this [letter], the angel said that Christ was displeased by the depravities of the world, and named many sins: violation of the Lord’s day, not fasting on Friday, blasphemy, usury, adultery. The letter went on to say that, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the angels, Christ had replied that to obtain mercy, a man should undertake voluntary exile and flagellate himself for thirty-three and a half days….
The number was a symbolic one, standing for the thirty-three and a half years that Christ had dwelt in human form upon the earth. By identifying themselves with Christ, and taking on his sufferings as it were, the Flagellants could redeem the world from the death and destruction that had come in the form of the Black Plague.

At first, the Church did not know what to make of this strange new sect. The clergy appreciated the Flagellants’ calls for repentance but also feared that this parachurch organization would provide a rival to the Roman Church’s authority. When the Flagellants began to speak out against the Church, blaming it for allowing the corruption that had brought God’s judgment, and also began to embellish their own teachings with flagrant heresy (e.g. denial of the sacraments, professing their own ability to grant absolution), the Church reacted violently. Pope Clement VI commanded that the brotherhood be suppressed in whatever country they appeared throughout Europe.

The Church’s antagonism toward the Flagellants, however, did not necessarily reflect the popular perception of them. The fear of death that had overshadowed Europe created a ripe breeding ground for the Flagellants’ fanaticism. The movement grew quickly in Germany and the Netherlands. Matthew of Neuenberg remarks that after the Flagellants proceeded through the city of Strasbourg, about a thousand men joined their brotherhood. France, also, had many converts to the sect until in 1349, King Philip VI forbade public self-flagellation on pain of death; this decree effectively nipped the movement in the bud throughout his domains.

Interestingly enough, England was one of the countries where the Flagellants made the fewest inroads. In 1349, a group of fanatical Frisians came across the Channel hoping to gain converts in London. They put on a dramatic public display outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But although their bloody flails and eerie chants unnerved the crowd, the chroniclers record that not a single Englishman wished to don their red-cross robes and take up the scourge himself.

In my book, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, the hero Sir John Potenhale encounters this group of Flagellants making their demonstration in London. His mother has already been carried off by the plague, his father has been driven insane by it, and Potenhale himself is in a spiritually fragile condition. The Flagellants’ bloody ceremony fills him with horror and makes him wonder whether it is indeed the sins of the world that have brought this punishment upon the land. Although he is not impelled to join the brotherhood, their ceremony does make him question his own calling as a knight, a quandary central to the plot of the novel.

Fortunately for Europe, a movement like this could not last forever. The fuel of the Flagellants’ fanaticism had always been the terror created by the Black Plague, and when the pestilence began to abate in the early 1350’s, the numbers of the sect diminished significantly. Although it was not eradicated entirely, the Flagellant brotherhood disappeared from public view and into the void of obscurity. Throughout the next couple centuries, pockets of it would crop up here and there, but the brotherhood never again gained the same following that the Black Plague had brought them. The scourge of Europe had disappeared, and there was no longer any need to scourge oneself in an attempt to avoid it. The thanotophobia had receded, and with it the religious hysteria that had turned the fourteenth century on its head.


Rosanne E. Lortz's first book, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, is a tale of arms, of death, of love and of honor--all set against the turbulent backdrop of the Hundred Years' War. 

Her latest book, Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, is set during the First Crusade and follows a young Norman noble on his quest to be the first over the walls of Jerusalem. 

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her author website. 


  1. The fear must have just been incredible to be willing to take beatings twice a day.
    Thanks for sharing this sad piece of history.

    I'm going to have to look up your books. 'I Serve' sounds pretty good.

  2. Thanks to Rosanne E. Lortz's author of I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, set in England's Hundred Years' War for this great article on Religious Hysteria during the plague.

  3. Flagellation as a religious observance has revived in Mexico. (A friend of mine has done her doctoral paper on it.) Perhaps this is a reaction to the dreadful disorders now in Mexico -- a modern social upheaval and crime plague?

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. A fascinating post - and it illustrates vividly the strange fruits fear and faith can bear.
    Your books sound very, very interesting, Rosanne - I suppose there's a bit more on my wishlist now.

    As far as I know there are Flagellants not only in Mexico today, as well in the Lent processions in Spain and parts of Italy, but I'm not sure about that.

    And I am sorry about the removed comment above...I had troubles pubblishing the comment and suddenly it was gone.


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