Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Flagellants Hit London

by Venetia Green

flagellum – a whip;
flagellare – to whip;
“The Brotherhood of the Flagellants” – the medieval movement characterised by men whipping their own bare flesh in ritual processions as a penance for sin.

While men – and women – have been whipping themselves in the name of faith since classical times at least, flagellation first emerged as a popular millennial movement in Italy in the mid-thirteenth century. Self-scourging – already established as a form of private penance in monasteries – now became adopted by lay-people with the aim of allaying the perceived wrath of God.

The Flagellant movement revived with a vengeance when the ultimate wrath of God – the Black Death – descended upon Europe in the late 1340s. This time, the Flagellant heartland was Germany, from which it spread to the Low Countries…

…and thence to London. As Robert of Avesbury tells us:

About Michaelmas 1349 over six hundred men came to London from Flanders …. Sometimes at St Paul’s and sometimes at other points in the city they made two daily public appearances wearing cloths from the thighs to the ankles, but otherwise stripped bare. … Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails. Each tail had a knot and through the middle of it there were sometimes sharp nails fixed. They marched in single file … and whipped themselves with these scourges on their naked and bleeding bodies. Four of them would cant in their native tongue and, another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross. The singing would go on and, the one who was in the rear of those thus prostrate acting first, each of them in turn would step over the others and give one stroke with his scourge to the man lying under him. … It is said that every night they performed the same penance.

For some reason, this dramatic demonstration of penance failed to catch on in London – or within the British Isles more generally. The Flemish Flagellants of 1349 were deported and the movement did not reappear in England.

Pope Clement issued a Bull denouncing the Flagellant Movement in October 1349, and things went downhill for the Flagellants from there. Rulers from Sicily to Poland moved to violently repress the sect. In England, however, there was only the fleeting spectacle of a mass of chanting foreigners whipping themselves bloody in the streets of London in 1349 (or 1350, as Walsingham has it). Were Londoners repulsed by this eerie and stomach-turning spectacle – or did they find in it tantalising hope of salvation from the Plague?

D. G. Caramenico “Black Death, Flagellants, And Jews”, J. P. Byrne (ed.), Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues, Westport, Conn., 2008, pp.67-69.
R. Lerner, ‘The Black Death and western eschatological mentalities’, The American Historical Review, vol.86, no.3, 1981.
J. E. Lewis, London: The Autobiography, New York, 2012.
P. Zeigler, The Black Death, London, 1969.


Venetia Green was born in England and has lived most of her life in Western Australia. She studied medieval history and literature at postgraduate level, but gave it all away to write historical fiction instead. Now she writes dark romances set amongst the fjords of Viking Age Scandinavia and back-alleys of medieval London.

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