The flagellant movement had considerable impact on mediaeval crowds, who were impressed with the public spectacle offered by the penitents, by their chants and by their sermons.  Their demonstrations were accompanied by the reading of a letter that Christ was supposed to have written on a marble slab, taken from the altar of Saint Peter’s in Jerusalem:

“I thought of exterminating you from the Earth’s surface, you poor, miserable people;  you say that you are brothers, but you are enemies – you form family ties but you don’t respect them.  This is why I thought of exterminating you from the Earth’s surface, but the cohort of My angels, prosterned at My feet, begged Me to turn away My anger, and I took pity.  Tremble, oh you race of vipers, you degenerates, faithless generation.  […]  So I thought of exterminating you, as well as all living creatures, from the Earth;  but because of My holy mother, and the holy cherabins and seraphins who beg day and night in your favour, I have accorded you a delay.  But I swear to you by My holy angels, that if you do not respect My holy Day I will send you wild beasts and birds such as you have never yet seen, I will change the light of day into darkness so that you can kill each other, and great lamentations will rise, and I will suffocate your souls in smoke, I will send terrible people against you who will not spare you and will devastate your country, all this because you have not respected My day…”

The flagellants, by whipping themselves, reproduced the sufferings endured by Christ and, afterwards, sang hymns:

“Raise your hands above your heads

So that God keeps you from the plague

And now raise your arms also

So that God sends us his pity.”

Before travelling on, whipping themselves again, they sang:

“Beat yourself now, so as to suffer

For God’s adoration,

For God, let us now abandon all pride

And he will show us his pity.”

The flagellants appeared for the first time in Dresden, in 1349, during Lent.  They circulated throughout Germany, then Flanders, Picardy, Champagne, England, the Scandinavian countries and Poland.  They moved in groups of several thousand, or several tens of thousands:  they were 42,000 in Constance on 16 June 1439, and more than 80,000 in the Hainault at Christmas the same year.

A movement of such amplitude could only trouble public order, and even rattle the whole framework of mediaeval society.  For one thing, although they wanted to save humanity from its sins, and make the plague sent by Christ in punishment for its impiety go away, by their acts of contrition, the flagellants were often the involuntary propagators of it:  it was they, for example, who took it to Strasbourg.  But, even worse in the eyes of the Church, they were acting outside its authority, professed an heretic doctrine, recused certain dogmas, only recognized as holy the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharisty, and said that their mission came directly from the Lord.  As Hugo von Reutlingen notes,

“their comportment strongly irritated the real clergy because of their false legend and their stupid doctrines”

and their hymns contained

“a multitude of absurd things”.

From then on, repression became inevitable.  Without questioning the principle of flagellation (on condition that it was practised in private and under the strict control of the clergy) Pope Clement VI published a bulla against them on 20 October 1349:

“We order therefore our archbishops and elect to declare in our name in their dioceses as being impious and forbidden all associations, meetings, rites and statutes of the said flagellants, that ourself on the recommendation of our brothers of the following communities have condemned, the secular and regular clergy, as well as laicity, to keep themselves away from the sect and to never more enter into relation with its members.”

The application of this bulla was not always very energetic.  In Germany, the bishops did little, fearing public fury.  However, the movement ran out of steam the following year;  Winter, which was particularly rigorous that year, doubtless contributed to its disappearance.  Although, about fifty years later, the great French theologian Jean de Gerson, Chancellor of the University of Paris, had to pronounce a firm condemnation of them once again.

***

While the world searched among its faults for the origin of the plague, it also invented some guilty people, the eternal scapegoats.  In his bulla of 20 October 1349, Clement VI especially reproached the flagellants for having

“spilt the blood of the Jews, whom Christian charity defends and protects”.

This pontifical stance was even more courageous because the plague had created a wave of murderous anti-semitism.  It was to submerge Germany, and the flagellants would fan it furiously.  It had been born in the South of France.

The most common accusation against the Jews was that they had decided to exterminate the Christians by poisoning their wells.  To do this, they had had brought from the Orient, or made themselves, a poison put together from diverse venimous animals.  This frightful fable, spread among the people and often taken up, by conviction or demagogy, by the civil and religious authorities, led to numerous massacres.  From the Spring of 1348, the Jews in several cities in the South of France, Narbonne and Carcassonne in particular, were massacred, as well as 50,000 of them in Burgundy.  In 1349, the persecutions attained peaks of horror in the Germanic countries.  In Bale, through public pressure, the aediles were obliged by the guilds to order the massacre of all inhabitants of Israelite confession, and to forbid any Jew from settling in the town for the next two hundred years. Twelve thousand Jews were burnt in Mayence, several thousand also in Strasbourg, Frankfurt and Nuremberg.  At Erfurt, the civil authorities were unable to prevent the population’s murderous folly.  Rather than allow themselves to be sacrificed, 3,000 Jews chose to commit suicide by locking themselves inside their houses and setting them alight themselves.  Those who succeeded in escaping extermination fled to Poland, where King Casimir the Great accorded them his protection, or to Lithuania, where religious freedom had already been established in the preceding century.

To be continued.

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