The Black Death and the Flagellant Movement


By Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.Purdue University

The most dramatic response to the Black Death came from a group of people known as the flagellants. There had been flagellant movements before the appearance of the Black Death, but most had flared up only briefly and then died out. But with the arrival of the plague, they showed up again, this time in force.

A hammer and bloody nails and a crown of thorns on the ground
The flagellants believed those who whipped themselves were joining with Christ in suffering for the sins of others. (Image: Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock)

Sudden Appearance of Flagellant Movement

When they appeared on the scene one day in 1348, one chronicler called them ‘a race without a head that aroused universal wonder by their sudden appearance in huge numbers. Although a large proportion of the flagellants seem to have hailed from what is today Germany, or the Netherlands, or the Rhineland, flagellants were found from England to Italy and everywhere in between in a sudden and seemingly spontaneous eruption of extreme faith.

One chronicler notes:

They were called cross-bearers either because they followed a cross carried before them on their travels or because they prostrated themselves in the form of a cross during their processions. They were called flagellants because of the whips which they used in performing public penance. Each whip consisted of a stick with three knotted thongs hanging from the end. Two pieces of needle-sharp metal were run through the center of the knots from both sides, forming a cross, the ends of which extended beyond the knots for the length of a grain of wheat or less. Using these whips, they beat and whipped their bare skin until their bodies were bruised and swollen and blood rained down, spattering the wall nearby.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating PlagueWatch it now Wondrium.

Three Orders of Society

The flagellants thought that, by punishing their flesh, they could atone for sinful behavior, and by doing this publicly, and traveling from town to town, they were arguably not only saving themselves but also performing generous acts of penance on behalf of the rest of humanity who were too weak or too scared to take up the cause of atonement themselves. This is part of the larger social ideal of the Three Estates or the Three Orders.

The medieval society was, ideally, organized into three groups—those who fight, those who pray, and those who work. The idea here was that each order supported the others. The knights fought to protect the society, especially the Church, whose members were forbidden to take up arms. 

A recreation of a medieval armored warrior holding up a sword.
One of the three orders of society were the ones who fought and protected the two other orders. (Image: alessandro guerriro/Shutterstock)

For their part, the clergy would spend their days praying for the rest of society, helping to alleviate the sinfulness of the world and also to move the souls of sinners out of purgatory more quickly by praying for them. 

And those who worked, which was most of society, produced food and other goods that they supplied to the first two orders to support them in their work of protection and of prayer.

So, the flagellants considered themselves to be performing the work of the second order—seeking to save the world by public displays of self-punishment.

Learn more about cultural reactions from flagellation to hedonism.

What It Meant to Be Part of the Flagellant Movement

The theory the flagellants were operating under was that, because Christ was whipped before his crucifixion, those who chose to inflict this punishment on themselves were joining with Christ in his Passion. 

And to be sure, throughout the Middle Ages, many religious people sought to punish their flesh as a means of refining their souls. But the difference is, in most cases, this punishment was supposed to be private.

The most popular approach was to wear an article of clothing, known as a hair shirt, underneath one’s outer clothing and against one’s skin. But, ideally, no one besides the penitent and his confessor should know about this. If you are walking around showing off your super uncomfortable clothing so that everyone can see just how sorry and contrite you are, then that’s not true penitence; that’s actually the sin of pride. 

Learn more about Europe on the brink of the Black Death.

Flagellants Before the Black Death

The first recorded appearances of flagellants dates back to the middle of the 13th century, so around 100 years before the Black Death. But then, with the arrival of the Great Mortality, they suddenly started springing up everywhere. The great thing about this is that we have all kinds of first-person eyewitness accounts of their behavior. 

Image of a medieval street
The flagellants would walk down the streets of a town, punishing their flesh while others watched. (Image: Estam/Shutterstock)

One chronicler relates that, “When they came to cities, towns, and villages, they formed themselves into a procession, with hoods or hats pulled down over their foreheads, and sad and downcast eyes.” They would process this way through the town, singing a hymn, until they reached the town’s church. So far, so good—this doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary for a religious group confronting their own mortality.

But then the real show would begin. The Chronicon Henrici de Hervordia gives us an exemplary description of the usual program of their behavior. According to this account, after the flagellants had entered a town, they would lock themselves in the community’s church, strip themselves almost naked, and then burst out of the north doors of the church wearing only loincloths. 

Next, they would arrange themselves on the ground in front of the various entrances to the church. Some of them might lie in the shape of a cross, but others positioned their bodies on their sides, or backs, on their faces, in some sort of physical code for the sin they were most guilty of.

Common Questions about the Black Death and the Flagellant Movement

Q: What were the three societal orders in the medieval world?

The three societal orders in the medieval world were: the warriors; those who prayed for the atonement of the sins of themselves and others, including the flagellant movement; and those who worked.

Q: What did the flagellants wear?

The flagellants would wear something called a hair shirt underneath their regular clothing. Those in the Flagellant movement believed they should punish their flesh for the sins humanity has committed.

Q: When did the Flagellant movement start in Europe?

The Flagellant movement actually happened around 100 years before the Great Mortality. But it would be around for only a little while. However, the Great Mortality was a game changer, making the movement durable.

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