Medieval Christians that practiced self-mutilation in obedience to their masters

1260 - present

The Flagellants were a medieval movement of Christians who embarked on a macabre journey of self-mutilation. It all started in 1260, a year after a devastating plague ravaged northern Italy, leaving people in a state of hopelessness. In addition, there was widespread tyranny and anarchy, as well as reports about the coming of the antichrist and the end of the world, adding to their despair. For unclear reasons, thousands of citizens in Perugia, Italy suddenly began marching in the streets while whipping themselves in a desperate attempt to repent of their sins.

The movement spread like wildfire, with groups of up to 10,000 people in various Italian cities publicly whipping themselves. Carrying crosses and banners, they would march through the streets with their faces covered, beating their bloody bodies in a desperate attempt to save themselves from God’s wrath. Despite the morbidity of this act, the movement continued to grow in size and scale, spreading rapidly beyond Italy and throughout cities across Europe, leaving the authorities and the church in a state of frenzy. Eventually, the pope had to ban the movement in a bid to save Christians from further harm, and the movement began to die out.

However, the movement rose again in 1346 as the Black Death spread throughout Europe; this time, it was more powerful than ever. During this pandemic that ultimately wiped out a third of Europe’s population, Christians were left confused, horrified, and helpless as they watched their loved ones die. Their troubles became even worse as massive earthquakes shook Italy the following year, and widespread scandals rocked the church. For many, this was proof that the end of the world had finally come, so they took to publicly mutilating their flesh again in hopes of saving themselves from impending doom.

In the Teutonic countries, the flagellants became an organized movement known as the “brotherhood of the cross.” Members wore white robes, whipped themselves at least four times a day, and swore obedience to their “Masters.” In the northern cities, they gathered in circles to be whipped by their “Master,” after which they would proceed to severely scourge themselves. The Master would then read messages supposedly sent by angels, claiming that Jesus was furious with the world and would destroy it but that those who participated in this practice would be saved. This public spectacle galvanized the observers who joined their ranks. As thousands continued to join this movement, the rules of the Masters became even more strict, and their teachings became more heretical.

The pope eventually banned the movement again, and it rapidly declined. However, a trickle of followers remained for centuries, and self-flagellation is now an accepted form of penance within the Catholic church that is still practiced today.

Religion: Christianity 

Denomination: Catholic

Founder: Arguably Peter Damian in the 11th century

Founded: First documented in 1260 in Italy

Size: Not an organized movement, but groups were as large as 15,000 members

Location: Most commonly practiced today in Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico, and Spain

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Short video about Flagellants during the Black Death

Footage of modern Flagellants