4.2.4. The Black Plague and the flagellants

4.2.4. The Black Plague and the flagellants

In a society in which the rules of hygiene and microbiology were unknown, diseases were a normal aspect of everyday life. From the 1st century until the 14th century Europe was swept repeatedly by microscopic agents. The smallpox epidemics of the 2nd and 3rd centuries exterminated around five million people, and in the 4th century the bubonic plague put an end to the life of 25 million people. In this macabre history of epidemics, the angel of the Black Plague (or the Black Death) swooped upon mankind with a legendary fierceness: between 1348 and 1400 killed around 100 million people in the entire world and it reduced Europe’s population by a third.329

Wars, famine and climate contributed to the severity of the pestilence. In the 14th century the Little Ice Age began. The unusual rainy autumn of 1314 marked the start of a series of very cold and wet winters, with almost inexistent spring crops. Between 1315 and 1322 the Great Famine stroke much of Northwestern Europe, causing extreme levels of crime and misdemeanor, diseases, collective deaths and even situations of cannibalism and infanticide. The death toll was in millions. The famine manifested itself mainly because of the adverse conditions, but also due to the demographic growth of the previous centuries; the productive capacity of crops could no longer sustain the number of people.330

The Black Plague started in China and it spread across Asia, Europe and Africa through ships. The disease attacked mankind in one of its most irrational and vulnerable periods. Wherever it reached, it found favorable conditions to reap lives: the lack of rules of hygiene, insalubrious habits, a filthy lifestyle, an underfed population, the lack of knowledge about the mechanism of contagion and idiotic societies in which ignorance and superstition could explain everything. The symptoms of the disease started with tumors in the inguinal region and swellings the size of an egg, without fever. No medicine could bring comfort and almost all the affected died within three days, humans and animals alike. In front of an invisible and incomprehensible enemy, the calamity was attributed to God’s wrath.

There was already a habit for the Jews to be persecuted for the disasters fell upon Christians. During the calamity the Jews endured terrible suffering because everywhere, and without good reason, they were accused of poisoning the air and the water wells. Under horrible tortures many confessed that they acted in this way. It was the same in the case of witches, being thought that the epidemic was the result of dark magic. Later, a rumor said that the plague spread through miasma (“bad air”).331 In Mayence, in the German regions, 12,000 Jews suffered a terrible death. At Esslingen, after they refused baptism, the entire Jewish community was gathered in the synagogue and set on fire. Pope Clement VI protected them in Avignon and through two papal bulls he declared them not guilty of spreading the plague. But his words had no effect in the face of fury and fanaticism. The horrible visit of the angel of death hardened the hearts of the people. They became cruel and merciless not only with the Jews, but also with their own patients. Everywhere the influence of the authority, human or divine, considerably diminished or disappeared altogether.332 In the 13th century Europe was already experiencing an accentuated social violence. But with the coming famine even those who were not inclined to anti-social acts came to use any means possible to feed themselves and their families. The moral effects of this dreadful calamity were, as a whole, deplorable. For some it brought penitence and the circumstances to meditate at death and salvation; for others it was an extreme experience that pushed them toward selfishness and moral indifference.333

The plague changed the social and economic patterns and paralyzed societies. For the relation between the parishioners and the church the plague was like a cold shower. In a society where the final refuge to all problems was in religion, no prayer, no beads, no worship and no flagellation had any effect in the face of this invisible slayer. The epidemic gave rise to cynicism toward religious officials who could not keep their promise of healing the victims and exorcising the disease. The clerics were dying alongside the laymen, without any discrimination. No one was capable to cure it or even to reasonably explain its causes. For the scourged population the message of the events was very clear: God turned away from mankind. The impossibility of the clergy to explain, to cure or to chase away the disease advantaged the heretic movements, which claimed that the fail of the prayer was due to the corruption of the church.334

After 1350 European culture became morbid, dominated by pessimism, and the art darkened, insisting on the image of death. All communities touched by the plague experience similar terrifying scenes, as if Hell itself descended upon the earth. In the introduction to the Decameron Giovanni Boccaccio offers a vivid picture of the destruction caused in Florence by this terrible malady, ascribing it to the configuration of the stars or divine wrath. Likewise, the personal notes of Agnolo di Tura describe occurrences from the city of Siena of a dreadful cruelty:

Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another; for the illness seemed to strike through breath and sight. And so they died. And no one could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices. Great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. And they died by the hundreds, both day and night. And as soon as those ditches were filled, more were dug. ... And I, Agnolo di Tura, called the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.335

The letter of the musician Louis Heyligen of Beerigen portrays a similar situation in the city of Avignon:

Because of the growing strength of this disease it has come to pass that, for fear of infection, no doctor will visit the sick (not if he were to be given everything the sick man owns), nor will the father visit the son, the mother the daughter, the brother the brother, the son the father, the friend the friend, the acquaintance the acquaintance, not anyone a blood relation – unless, that is, they wished to die suddenly along with them, or to follow them at once. And thus an uncountable number of people died without any mark of affection, piety or charity ... To be brief, at least half the people of Avignon died; for there are now within the walls of the city more than 7,000 houses where no one lives because everyone in them has died, and in the suburbs one might imagine that there is not one survivor. ... In Marseilles all the gates of the city save for two posterns were closed, for there four out of five people died. Nor did it help to flee, for it was believed that flight to healthier air only meant that people died more quickly. ... for fear of death men do not speak with anyone whose kinsman or kinswoman has died, because it has often been observed that when one member of a family dies, almost all the rest follow. And it is the common report among ordinary people that the sick are treated like dogs by their families – they put food and drink next to the sick bed and then flee the house. ... Priests do not hear the confessions of the sick, or administer the sacraments to them. Everyone who is still healthy looks after himself. ... They say that in the three months from 25 January to the present day, a total of 62,000 bodies was buried in Avignon.336

If there has ever been a period when people were entitled to believe that the end is coming, this was the one. The Black Plague seemed to be the opening of the fourth seal and the unleashing of the fourth horseman of the Apocalypse, Death: “And when he opened the fourth seal ... behold, a pale horse: and he that sat upon him, his name was Death; and Hades followed with him. And there was given unto them authority over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with famine, and with death, and by the wild beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:7-8). In this context, there is no wonder that people began to ask themselves when Emperor Frederick II would revive, when the angelic pope would take his seat, or when the Antichrist would rise.337 Everyone tried to pacify God the best he could: through donations to the church, prayers, public processions or preaching peace. Others simply attempted to flee. During great calamities fanatics and maniacs are engendered and brought to surface; and in the middle of the havoc of the Black Death a very strange religious phenomenon developed: flagellation.

The flagellants were groups of people of both genders and of all ages that, as a sign of penitence, publicly whipped their bodies. These had the role of purifiers of the soul, who mistreat themselves without mercy in order to absolve the sins of themselves and of others. Flagellation, as a form of penitence, is ancient; various pre-Christian religions such as the cult of Isis in Egypt or the cult of Dionysus in Greece practiced their own forms of flagellation. In Roman society women were hit at the festival of Lupercalia to be fertile. In Christianity the practice of flagellation became a form of penitence within ascetic monastic orders, which practiced the “mortification of the flesh” – a more severe form of flagellation. The idea comes from the literal application of the recommendation: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). The same advice is also offered by Paul the Apostle on several occasions: “So then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh: for if ye live after the flesh, ye must die; but if by the Spirit ye put to death the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13); “But I buffet my body, and bring it into bondage” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

The mortification of the flesh is hard to understand from a modern perspective. It can be compared with the motto “no pain, no gain,” and it can be associated with the training of professional athletes or the diets for weight loss. In Christian exegesis the purpose of flagellation is the victory of the soul over the body and in the end salvation. The needs of the body are associated with the decayed nature of man, with his selfish impulses and ambitions, which are a consequence of original sin. In this way, Jesus expects believers to free themselves from the bondage of the body’s cravings. Christians voluntarily have practiced penances to imitate Christ who voluntarily accepted to be crucified for the redemption of mankind. The early Christians mortified their flesh through martyrdom, gladly accepting torture. Another way of torture and self-denial was celibacy and the abandonment of sex and procreation. Starting with the 6th century the hermits populated the desert as a way of penitence. Jerome, the scholar who translated the Bible into Latin, is famous for the penances he applied to himself. Likewise, the 11th century the zealot Dominicus Loricatus is said to have applied around 300,000 lashes on his back within a period of six days.338 And in the 21st century public processions of flagellation can be seen in communities from Central and South America.

Unlike other ecclesiastical orders, the flagellants of the Black Plague ... (This text is incomplete. If you wish to read it in full, please purchase the book)



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