The Flagellants: Exploration of Penitential Devotion during the Black Death

The flagellants at Doornik (Tournai) in 1349- From the Chronicle Tractatus quartus, by Gilles Li Muisis, Library of Brussels
The flagellants at Doornik (Tournai) in 1349- From the Chronicle Tractatus quartus, by Gilles Li Muisis, Library of Brussels


The Flagellants were a religious movement that emerged during the late medieval period in Europe. This group of devout individuals practised extreme acts of self-flagellation, seeking repentance and atonement for their sins. Rooted in religious fervour and a desire for divine mercy, the Flagellants left a significant impact on the social, cultural, and religious landscapes of the time.

Through the sacrament of baptism, Catholics are freed from original sin, which is inherent to their human condition since Adam and Eve. There are other sins, such as venial sins that do not require confession, or the grave sin of mortal sin, which requires confession if one does not want to go to Hell without any divine forgiveness, for God is wise but outdated, savage, and bloodthirsty.

The flagellant attitude, with its blend of servility and Judeo-Christian guilt, and a hint of Freudian psychoanalysis, is anything but repentance.

Origins of the Flagellants

The origins of the Flagellants can be traced back to the 13th century when outbreaks of the Black Death, political turmoil, and religious unrest plagued Europe. Amidst these hardships, various sects of religious zealots began to emerge, seeking spiritual purification and salvation.

The first flagellants appeared in Perugia between 1258 and 1260, in an Italy wounded by hunger, plague, and the war between the House of Welf and the House of Hohenstaufen for control of the Holy Roman Empire.

They were led by a hermit, Raniero Fasani, who organized a brotherhood called the Disciplinati di Gesù Cristo, and the movement spread throughout Italy and the rest of Europe with varying degrees of success. They would stand in front of churches and temples and whip themselves for hours, aiming to attain salvation for their souls outside the official rituals of the Church. Some processions gathered up to 10,000 people. Women, men, and children would flagellate themselves in a bloody and fanatical spectacle, wielding whips, which eventually alarmed the Catholic Church.

Flagellants in a 15th century engraving.
Flagellants in a 15th-century engraving.

Over the years, the movement declined and died out due to disappointment and weariness. However, not completely; its seed crossed the Alps and reached southern Germany, where it took on a movement openly opposed to the Church. They preached that each individual could save their soul and cleanse it of impurities with no other help than participating in a flagellant procession, a painful alternative that would absolve them of their sins.

It wasn’t until 1347 that the flagellants returned with all their mysticism intact. Europe was on the verge of being decimated by the Black Death, a pandemic that spread from animals to humans with terrifying speed and mortality. Infected rats, carrying the bacterium Yersinia pestis (which was only discovered in the 19th century), were bitten by fleas that consumed their blood and then bit humans who lived in close proximity to rats and fleas.

The Black Death

It all began on the shores of the Black Sea, in Kaffa, now known as Feodosia, on the Crimean Peninsula. Genoese merchants had settled there, and they were besieged by the Mongols when the region, or a large part of it, converted to Islam. It was within the Mongol ranks that the plague raged: the fierce and strong warriors of Khan Janibeg, who had ordered the expulsion of Europeans from Crimea, fell by the hundreds with swollen inguinal, axillary, neck, and lymphatic system nodes, ravaged by fever and suppurations.

The swollen lymph node was called a bubo, from the Greek word that designated tumours in the groin. And the plague went down in history as bubonic plague. There was a primary bubonic plague and a second variant, septicemic plague, in which the infection spread to the blood and manifested with large dark spots on the skin, which led to the plague also being known as the Black Death. And, to make it even more horrifying, there was a third variant, pneumonic plague, which directly affected the respiratory system, causing violent coughing that increased airborne transmission. There was no turning back from the Black Death and the pneumonic plague.

The Triumph of Death 1562. Painting detail by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Museo del Prado
The Triumph of Death 1562. Painting detail by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Museo del Prado

The Europeans in Kaffa fled from such horror. First, out of the terror inspired by the disease, and second, because the Mongols used their catapults to launch the corpses of their dead into the European fortifications, in what must have been an act of biological warfare. The European traders hastily returned to the continent on their cargo ships, with their holds full of infected rats, and docked in Genoa, Venice, Marseille, and Mallorca.

The epidemic then spread across the continent, ravaged by civil strife in Italy, anarchy in Germany, and the Hundred Years’ War (which lasted for 116 years) that left France in ruins and exhausted England. The Iberian Peninsula lost four million inhabitants. The region of Tuscany in Italy lost more than half its population, along with its economic fervour and efficiency. The most optimistic estimates say that out of the 80 million people who inhabited Europe at that time, only 30 million survived.

Beliefs and Practices

The Flagellants believed that the Black Death and other calamities were divine punishments for the sins of humanity. They saw themselves as instruments of God’s justice, seeking to appease His wrath through physical mortification. They believed that by flagellating themselves, they could cleanse their souls, secure forgiveness, and ensure salvation.

If the flagellants believed that the end of the world was near, the plague confirmed their apocalyptic theories. The movement intensified its fanaticism, proclaiming that the calamity was a result of God’s wrath. They sought scapegoats to blame for the evil and accused Jews of poisoning the water wells. They established a routine period of flagellation, from village to village and from city to city, lasting 33 days, one for each year of Jesus’ life, and they disregarded even the most basic hygiene practices.

Jews being burned at the stake in 1349. Miniature from a 14th-century manuscript Antiquitates Flandriae by Gilles Li Muisis
Jews being burned at the stake in 1349. Miniature from a 14th-century manuscript Antiquitates Flandriae by Gilles Li Muisis

The Flagellant movement had a profound impact on medieval society. It attracted followers from various social classes, including nobles, clergy, and commoners. The Flagellants provided an outlet for people to express their fear and seek solace in a time of crisis.

Flagellant processions were characterized by large groups of penitents marching through towns and cities, dressed in white robes with hoods, carrying crosses and banners. They would chant prayers, sing hymns, and engage in self-flagellation using whips, scourges, or knotted ropes. The flagellation was often done publicly, with the intention of inspiring repentance in others.

These manifestations of dramatic fervour across the continent were followed by rats infested with fleas, which came into immediate contact with those who provided food and shelter to the flagellants, whom they considered martyrs of Christianity. Within a year, the plague began to spread along trade routes as well.

The movement also challenged the authority of the established Church. Flagellants claimed direct communication with God and rejected the intermediary role of priests and bishops. This challenge to ecclesiastical hierarchy led to tensions between the Flagellants and the Church, with the latter branding them as heretics in some instances.

The Flagellant movement reached its peak during the mid-14th century, coinciding with the height of the Black Death. However, as the crisis subsided and the Church began to assert its authority, the movement faced increasing scrutiny and repression. The Church condemned the extreme practices of the Flagellants and officially disbanded the movement in many regions.

Pope Clement VI

Pope Clement VI threatened to exonerate the flagellants and rightly blamed them for being responsible for the relentless Black Death in 1348. In the spring of that year, a massive demonstration of men and women invaded the French city of Avignon, the seat of a papacy opposed to Rome. Its members flagellated themselves for days in front of the cathedral, which today stands as an impressive tourist attraction, reminiscent of those years of religious schism.

Clement VI - Fresco by Matteo Giovanetti in the Saint-Martial chapel14th century
Clement VI – Fresco by Matteo Giovanetti in the Saint-Martial chapel14th century

Finally, in 1349, the Pope condemned the flagellants as heretics with his papal bull “Inter sollicitudines,” a condemnation that was later ratified by the Council of Constance between 1414 and 1418. By then, the plague, driven by the flagellants, had forever altered the social and economic landscape of Europe.

Changing the European Landscape

Wealthy families fled to the countryside, while many peasants moved to cities in hopes of collective protection. Abandoned lands increased, and entire villages disappeared in Germany, Great Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal.

Spain increased the breeding of sheep, which required fewer labourers than agriculture and could graze freely in the vast uncultivated fields left behind by the plague. Labour relations also changed: the lack of manpower led to former day labourers transitioning from replaceable workers to sought-after skilled labour. Additionally, due to the sudden and drastic decline in population, rents decreased and wages increased.

There was a greater circulation of money, and doors opened to new consumers of once expensive but now affordable and calorie-rich foods such as grains, legumes, and meat, as well as previously luxurious products like lard, beer, and wine.

The Spread of the Plague in Europe, 1346 - 1353 (Illustration) - World History Encyclopedia
The Spread of the Plague in Europe, 1346 – 1353 (Illustration) – World History Encyclopedia

Even religious sensibilities partially changed. The flagellants, at odds with the Church and stigmatized as accomplices in the greatest epidemic Europe had ever experienced (which remains the case today), became more anarchic. They boycotted the Eucharist, denied the sacraments, and even advised stoning priests. At the same time, they lost charisma: the disbelief of those who believed in their miraculous healing abilities gradually gave way to reason.

The movement was exposed as instigators, promoters, and, in some cases, perpetrators of various massacres in Frankfurt, Cologne (Germany), and Brussels (Belgium). Their practice of atonement through pain survived, albeit in a very subdued and symbolic manner, within some Catholic religious organizations.

However, the idea of God’s wrath was deeply imprinted in the faith of the Europeans of that time. Such calamity, such tragedy could only be attributed to an angry God who, because humanity had offended Him, had forgotten His mercy. Nothing happened without the will of the all-powerful God. In the years following the plague, the sale of indulgences, donations to the Church, and the construction of new temples increased.

The notion that life was fragile took hold among the surviving Europeans, who then developed a cult of the art of dying, known as “Ars moriendi.” These were two Latin texts written between 1415 and 1450, offering advice on protocols and procedures for a “good death” and how to “die well.”

Flagellants Today

In the 14th century, Pope Clement VI explicitly prohibited these bloody processions. Despite this, flagellant practices have survived to this day and are now celebrated with the blessing of ecclesiastical authorities in some places, once they have been tamed, that is, without the danger that such a movement could pose to the power of the Church. What remained was the fundamentalist fanaticism of brutal and bloody ways, while anything else that the movement may have contained dissolved.

There are those who flagellate themselves for the alleged sins that their ancestors committed during conquests, as it is believed that guilt is inherited just like original sin from Adam and Eve. Similar to how the flagellants believed that their public torture during a penitential procession exempted them from confessing to a Church confessor and thus obtaining divine forgiveness, our contemporary flagellants publicly deconstruct themselves in order to obtain secular and social forgiveness.

A cilicium prepared to be tied around the torso
A cilicium prepared to be tied around the torso

Today’s flagellants feel that they must expose their flaws for the benefit of a cause, even though there is nothing to suggest that it actually benefits the cause itself. The modern flagellant sect goes far beyond pointing out one’s own sins; it seeks to extend them to the entire society, to everyone.

If someone was dishonest in the past with the women they encountered, they publicly deconstruct themselves and furthermore attribute their behaviour to all living beings. This is even more fanatical and lamentable than the medieval flagellants. Selfishness reaches the point of trying to make the rest of society dilute individual guilt and turn it into a collective matter.


Despite their decline, the Flagellants left a lasting impact on European culture. Their fervent piety influenced subsequent religious movements and contributed to the development of mysticism and religious radicalism. The Flagellants also highlighted the power of collective religious experiences and the capacity of religious fervour to unite and mobilize communities.

Their practice of self-flagellation, driven by a deep sense of penitence and the quest for divine mercy, captivated the medieval imagination. Although their movement waned over time, the Flagellants left an indelible mark on religious and social history. Their legacy serves as a reminder of the complex interplay between religious fervour, societal crisis, and the quest for salvation.

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