The Sect of the Flagallents (George Ryley Scott, 1968)

NOTE: This article is taken from The History of Corporal Punishment, pp. 109-115

The History of Corporal Punishment

Every student of sociology is well aware of the inherent gregariousness of man. It goes far beyond the gregariousness of animals or birds, which is purely physical. In mankind it is physical, spiritual and mental. It is just as dominant a force, this gregariousness, in man’s make-up today as it was in the earliest stages of civilization, and in the Middle Ages. This gregariousness, which was at the root of those manifestations which, in past ages, have shown themselves as various communal manias, such as mass dancing, demonology, witchcraft, religious crusades, and in many other ways, is similarly at the root of many present-day mass phenomena such, for instance, as national advertising campaigns, the radio, television, the cinema, the Popular Press.

The response of masses of men and women to suggestion has always been the basis of every religious, political or social movement. The actions or responses of an individual member of society to given stimuli can never be foreshadowed with any degree of certainty; the actions or responses of mankind in the mass can be predicted with mathematical exactitude. It is to this more than to any other fact that charlatans, quacks, political mountebacks, dictators, revivalists, and other merchants of much, owe their success.

Now, of all movements which owed their inspiration to waves of emotion, none has ever transcended in spectacularness, fanaticism and (to observers in other ages) incredulity, the successive waves of voluntary flagellation which punctuated the annals of the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.


There seems to be some doubt as to where precisely the first public flagellating movement broke out, or who exactly was the individual responsible for the actual genesis of the idea; but certainly St. Anthony seems to have had a good deal to do with it. Unless the chroniclers of the age lie, he went about the country preaching to sinners about the wrath of God, on the need for repentance and atonement, much in the manner of a modern drum-banging revivalist; and, in the early twelve hundreds, he appears to have set in motion the first serious organised procession of men and women beating each other with the express object of establishing themselves in the good books of their God and earning a pass to Heaven.

Around the year 1260, fresh impetus was given to the movement through the efforts of an Italian hermit and fanatic by name Ramier, a Dominican. Italy at the time was passing under a black cloud. Her list of misfortunes, through one cause and another, was apparently endless. Ramier, in the true religious spirit of the age, argued that penance was the only way to avert disaster, and, at that, penance of such a widespread nature as would surely suffice to atone for all that was inducing the anger of Jehovah.

Men, women and children in their birthday suits, and carrying nothing but thongs of hide, walked in solemn procession, praying to God for forgiveness, weeping, groaning, and, every few moments, lashing the persons nearest them with the scourges they carried. These processions of penitents were everywhere. The priests, carrying banners and wearing crosses, made up the van of the procession. To the tune of ten thousand eager souls, they marched, these fanatics, through Italy; they crossed the Alps; they ‘invaded’ Bavaria, Alsace, Bohemia, Poland, and at every step and in each country, they gathered recruits, swelling their ranks enormously and rapidly. “Those who were at enmity with one another became friends. Usurers and robbers hastened to restore their ill-gotten riches to the rightful owners. Criminals confessed. The doors of the gaols were opened and the prisoners released, those who had been banished from the country were allowed to return. In short, Christian charity, humility and good will prevailed.”

Procession of flagellants during the Middle Ages.
Procession of flagellants during the Middle Ages.

But despite its remarkable popularity with the masses, the movement met with a good deal of opposition from the leaders of other and rival faiths. It met with a good deal of ridicule too. All this is not to be wondered at, being the common lot of most new religious cults. It has been the lot of the Mormons, of the Perfectionists, of the Spiritualists, of the Theosophists, of the Christian Scientists, of the Dukhobors, of the Shakers, et al. Two thousand years ago, it was the lot of Christianity itself.

In 1349 the movement swept through Germany like a whirlwind, however. At that particular time the country was being ravaged by a plague known as the Black Death. The German movement was apparently initiated in the town of Spira, where the Flagellants went through their ritual in full view of the onlookers who gathered to watch them. Divesting themselves of all their clothes except their shirts, they lay on the ground in various postures, and were whipped, either by the priest in charge or by one another, to the accompaniment of psalm-singing, prayers to God against the plague, and other appeals. When the flagellating performance was concluded, says Albert of Strasbourg, a contemporary historian:

“One of the brotherhood rose, and with a loud voice read a letter, which he pretended had been brought by an angel to St. Peter’s Church, in Jerusalem; the angel declared in it that Jesus Christ was offended at the wickedness of the age, several instances of which were mentioned, such as the violation of the Lord’s Day, blasphemy, usury, adultery, and neglect with respect to fasting on Fridays. To this the man who read the letter added, that Jesus Christ’s forgiveness having been implored by the Holy Virgin and the angels, he had made answer that in order to obtain mercy, sinners ought to live exiled from their country for thirty-four days, disciplining themselves during that time.”

The flagellants at Doornik in 1349
The flagellants at Doornik in 1349

From Spira they moved to Strasbourg, recruits joining, solidly and enthusiastically, on the way, so that by the time the procession left the latter town, it numbered all of a thousand strong.

After this, however, the sect met with constantly increasing opposition from influential quarters. The Pope opposed the movement; the Inquisition tortured and executed its leaders.

And so, for a time, the Flagellants were compelled to pursue their cult in secret and as best they could, until, towards the close of the 16th century, the movement again burst into activity. In France, in particular, the cult spread throughout the whole country, infecting Paris itself and attracting the attention of many influential personages. Then, with the conversion, first of the Queen-Mother to their tenets, and later of King Henry III himself, the supremacy of the Flagellants was complete and their standing assured for the time being. There were soon many different bands or branches operating in various parts of France. The King, in 1585, formed a new band known as the Brotherhood of the Annunciation Day, with the Cardinal of Lorraine, the Duke of Mayenne, the Cardinal of Guise, the leading courtiers and ministers, and other members of the aristocracy, as principal officials. The Cardinal of Lorraine, after one of the public demonstrations, took to his bed and died within a few days, and the tale is told that his fatal illness was due to severe whipping and exposure.

Medieval flagellants engaged in violent self-mortification
Medieval flagellants engaged in violent self-mortification

Following the example of their lords and masters, the women took up public flagellation, joining the processions. At first, the more bashful among them, it is true, waited until darkness provided a protective screen for their performances; others, with official approval, wore masks; others again contented themselves with the mere carrying of whips; but as the number of females, and especially of aristocratic ladies, taking part in these processions increased, they shed all decorum and bashfulness, in the end entering into the performance with all the zest and vigor of men. “After the death of the Guises,” says Cooper, “the fanatical mania for fleshly mortification revived, and this time women and maidens, naked to the shift, ran about with whips. Noble ladies showed themselves to the populace in a semi-nude state, and gave themselves the discipline, in order to encourage others by their example” [William M. Cooper, A History of the Rod, 1868, p. 111].

But although the cult was blessed with royal support, as it happened, this did not suffice to render it impregnable. King Henry III of France, his royal blood notwithstanding, was no Czar able to flaunt hostile criticism with impunity, or possessing the power to consign to prison, or to exile, those who failed to genuflect to him in word and deed. There was, at the time, an opposition element of some power, and the members of this opposing party did not fail both to criticize and to heap scorn upon the antics of the King and his associates. Also, as was natural, there was once again a good deal of opposition from the leaders of the orthodox religion. One opponent, John Gerson, no less a personage than Chancellor of the University of Paris, published a treatise pointing out the evils of flagellation, which he alleged was a cruel and an evil practice, contending that it should be held by the authorities to be as unlawful as castration or mayhem.

Flagellants detail from Sant'Eleuterio by the Master of Staffolo
Flagellants detail from Sant’Eleuterio by the Master of Staffolo

Others hymned the same tune until, in response to the gathering trend of public opinion, in the early sixteen hundreds, Parliament took action, prohibiting public flagellation and proclaiming all members of the sect to be heretics.

This, so far as France was concerned, was the beginning of the end. There were, true enough, for the finding, scattered remnants of the once powerful bands. These practiced their cult surreptitiously and behind closed doors, but no public demonstrations or processions flourished or were even attempted. In other parts of Europe there were sporadic efforts to revivify the movement, but they met with little success. Cooper mentions that Father Mabillion claimed to have seen “a scourging procession of the Flagellants at Turin on Good Friday 1689;” that in 1710 there were processions still to be seen in Italy; that Colmenar “mentions a procession taking place in Madrid;” that as late as 1820 Flagellants appeared in public in Lisbon [ibid.]. Long after this, too, private ‘whipping clubs’ flourished secretly, but it is highly probable that these were then, as certain somewhat similar ‘societies’ of today are now, using the cloak of religion to cover purely erotic purposes.

And so passed into oblivion as strange a manner of stimulating religious ecstasy and fervor as the world has ever seen.

In marvelling, in these supposedly enlightened days, over the survival for centuries of such a remarkable religious phenomenon, one must never overlook the fact that all religions owe much of their success to their spectacularness. The dramatic has always been an essential feature of any religious cult, and the more effective the show presented, the greater the success of the cult. All through the ages we see examples of this in the flourishing of half a hundred different faiths, all presenting the same fundamental quackeries, decked out in half a hundred different gaudy wrappings, and presented on half a hundred different dramatic stages. The Protestant faith always depended much on its ceremonial, its rubric, its empiricism, its ritual; the Roman Catholic faith outdid it, and thus scored a wider and a more lasting success. In the early days of Christianity, there was nothing else in the way of appeals to the dramatic that could, so far as the masses were concerned, move them to admiration and acceptance as did the shows staged by the Churches. Even today, when religion in Europe and America seems to be moribund or even gangrenous, any temporary flare-up that it is able to stage is connected with the putting on of a new and a free show. The showmanship of the Revivalists, of the Aimee MacPhersons, Billy Sundays, Woodbine Willies, Faith Healers, Billy Grahams, and so on, succeed in filling the temples, stadiums and arenas, spasmodically at least, simply because the old, old act is being staged in a new dress.


It will surely be evident that with the rivalry of the cinema, television, and a score of other appeals to the dramatic, the shows that the Churches can stage are, in the main, old-fashioned and crude. Moreover, the increased prosperity of the masses has largely negated the appeal of free entertainment. They prefer to pay to go to the theater or a night-club rather than accept anything which the Churches have to offer for nothing (except what is put in the collection plate).

The influence of suggestion still exists. It is still powerful. But it works in different ways; it calls for different modes of presentation. Newspaper and television campaigns, with their strong emotional appeals, today have largely taken the place once held almost exclusively by religion.

Looking back through the centuries, as history depicts them, it is easy for the student of sociology to understand which exhibitions of self-flagellation had upon the masses. Its dramatic element, and its suggestive powers, were considerable. Its reputed painful nature merely served to increase its dramatic effects. And much of the anguish associated with it was apocryphal. The ancient pedlars of religion staged their shows with all the skill of the moderns. There is a deliciously ironical suggestion about the account given by an eye-witness of one of the flagellating services held during Lent in the Church of the Cravita in Rome. The service lasted a quarter of an hour, during which time the church was in total darkness, and judging from the sounds, some worshippers were using whips and others their hands. “Hundreds,” says this writer, “were certainly flogging something, but whether their own bare backs, or the pavement of the church, we could not tell” [James Gardner, The Faiths of the World, p. 901].


Also see:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s