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The flagellants: suffering, sex and salvation

The spectacle was overwhelming. Groups of several hundred bloodied men stood in circles and whipped themselves on the back with a three-tailed whip to which sharp pieces of metal were attached.

Some women went out with rags to catch the drops of blood that spattered the walls and then rub their faces with them. They believed it had purifying qualities of highly spiritual power.

A master of ceremonies sang prayers, sometimes in Latin and sometimes in their vernacular language. The rest would repeat as if it were a litany. Meanwhile, they would continue whipping their naked bodies from the waist up. Once they finished, they fell to the ground and started all over again. The ritual was repeated three times, twice during the day and once during the afternoon. It was exhausting. It was purifying.

Woodcut of flagellants (Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493)

Although flogging was not a new ritual, in 1348 its public practice spread like wildfire. The penitents thought that God was punishing all mankind for their sins and all they wanted was to show repentance.  They wanted to placate the wrath of God. However, the remedy did not seem to have an effect since the Black Death was rapidly decimating the population of almost all of Europe. It was the end of everything.

The flagellants traveled from town to town with the intention of not only saving themselves but also saving others. When they entered a new town the bells of the church announced their arrival. The neighbours came, completely open-mouthed to witness the bloody spectacle. If they mortified their bodies enough, as it happened to Jesus before dying on the cross, perhaps God would have mercy on them and end this plague that tormented everyone, especially the people of the cities.

Mortality among the clergy was particularly high. The convents and nunneries were sources of contagion due to overcrowding in small spaces. These were favourable conditions for the rats that in turn carried the fleas transmitting the disease. This was, of course, not known until much later.

Faced with this situation, the church saw the need to ordain more monks and nuns to compensate for the loss of its members. Many of the priests, understandably terrified, fled from the dying by refusing to give them last rites. At that time, dying without having received the Holy sacrament was the worst thing that could happen to a Christian person. The Church had to be creative in its solutions and to avoid greater evils the Pope blessed the waters of the Rhône river so that instead of burying the dead, they would be thrown into the waters and cleansed of any sin. It was also provided that if the dying could not find a priest, a 'normal man' was authorised to do so, and if none were willing, even a woman could do it. However, it was necessary for the Church to do a quick recruitment of new members, but this meant that many of the recruits joined without having any real vocation. They were motivated only for pure material interest and the consequences of that were soon felt. Corruption increased enormously and sometimes the sessions of public punishment ended in scenes of excessive alcoholism and sexual orgies.

The Renaissance author and Humanist, Giovanni Bocaccio describes in The Decameron the social collapse of the previous order in the following way:

Thus, doing exactly as they prescribed, they spend day and night moving from one tavern to the next, drinking without mode or measure, or doing the same thing in other people’s homes, engaging only in those activities that gave them pleasure… And they combined this bestial behaviour with as complete avoidance of the ill as they could manage.

The flagellants (Pieter van Laer, 1635)

As a result of the Black Death, society changed a great deal. The feudal system and serfdom disappeared in much of Europe, especially in the North. It remained, however, in some areas such as the South of Italy. Over time this would lead to the development of the institution of the mafia, but that is another story. The peasants no longer depended on a feudal lord who owned all the land and who allowed them to use it in exchange for abusive percentages. It was a medieval and ineffective system of land exploitation since the peasants did not have enough motivation to increase crop production.

Interestingly, the material and economic conditions of the survivors improved substantially as well as the productivity of the land. After the enormous death toll caused by the Black Death epidemic, the workforce to plough the land and carry out other trades was scarce. Consequently, peasants and manual workers could  demand a higher payment for their efforts and their products. In addition, a large part of capital and assets had been made available by the deaths of their former owners.

With the fear of the Black Death, religious sentiment increased, reaching its climax in the public martyrdom shows of the flagellants. However, with the evolution of the pandemic and the desolation it caused both in those who suffered from it and in the survivors, the attitude was changing. Some believed they saw God's disinterest in human affairs, but many others considered it a divine punishment for the corruption of the Church and its faithful. Consequently, society began to be more critical of the Church and its customs. In hindsight, it is easy to see how all this process had to culminate in something like the Protestant reform.

(Exerpt from the book The End of Everything: A society in trasition by Adrián Gordaliza Vega)

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