From ancient times, whipping was associated with purification. The Roman festival of the Lupercalia involving participants undergoing a light, symbolic scourging. However, during the Black Death, this ancient precedent was taken to a more extreme and masochistic level by a once marginal cult known as the Flagellants. The Brethren of the Cross-, or Brotherhood of the Flagellants predated the Black Death. It started life as a small sect in Italy and Eastern Europe. However, the advent of the Great Plague changed things, and the Flagellants went mainstream.
People believed that the plague was a symptom of God’s wrath against a sinful world. The flagellants thought they could appease god and so save people through self-laceration- and the desperate populace believed them. Processions of flagellants, led by priests carrying a cross and banners became a familiar sight, moving from town to town. Barefoot and two abreast, these doleful, hymn singing snakes of people consisted of all classes and ages and both sexes. It was impossible to differentiate between them, as all wore the same, robes with a red cross, their faces hidden by a hood.
Once they reached a town, the flagellants were greeted by inhabitants who would flood out to welcome the flagellants. Both groups would have congregated in the local church where the Flagellant’s leader led them all in a special litany. Then it was back outside for the main event. The flagellants formed a circle around the sick of the parish and while the parishioners looked on, stripped themselves to the waist. The master would then beat any offenders against the order. Once this punishment was complete, the ritual scourging began.
Each flagellant had their own scourge, typically consisting of three or four-pronged strips of metal studded leather. Scourges could however by more vicious, with once chronicler Henry of Hervodia describing flagellants using cattle prongs. The flagellants used these scourges to beat themselves bloody across the back and breast in time to the chanting of three of their brethren. As the ceremony progressed, the chanting and whipping became more frenzied, carrying along the audience who joined in with the flagellant’s groans.
However, once the plague was over, the flagellant’s day was done. The church, alarmed by the idea of wandering groups of laity preaching salvation outside of the clergy declared the sect heretical. Long before this, however, the cult had degenerated as opportunists hijacked flagellant groups, using them as a way of intimidating and bullying villagers. However, warped though it was, this masochistic ritual began from a genuine belief that extreme self-harm could absolve sins and so defeat the plague. Elsewhere in Europe, people did not blame God for their misfortune but instead targeted marginal minority groups.