FLAGELLANTS (from Lat. flagellare, to whip), in religion, the name given to those who scourge themselves, or are scourged, by way of discipline or penance. Voluntary flagellation, as a form of exalted devotion, occurs in almost all religions. According to Herodotus (ii. 40. 61), it was the custom of the ancient Egyptians to beat themselves during the annual festival in honour of their goddess Isis. In Sparta children were flogged before the altar of Artemis Orthia till the blood flowed (Plutarch, Instit. Laced. 40). At Alea, in the Peloponnese, women were flogged in the temple of Dionysus (Pausanias, Arcad. 23). The priests of Cybele, or archigalli, submitted to the discipline in the temple of the goddess (Plutarch, Adv. Colot. p. 1127; Apul., Metam. viii. 173). At the Roman Lupercalia women were flogged by the celebrants to avert sterility or as a purificatory ceremony (W. Mannhardt, Mythol. Forsch., Strassburg, 1884, p. 72 seq.).
Ritual flagellation existed among the Jews, and, according to Buxtorf (Synagoga judaica, Basel, 1603), was one of the ceremonies of the day of the Great Pardon. In the Christian church flagellation was originally a punishment, and was practised not only by parents and schoolmasters, but also by bishops, who thus corrected offending priests and monks (St Augustine, Ep. 159 ad Marcell.; cf. Conc. Agd. 506, can. ii.). Gradually, however, voluntary flagellation appeared in the libri poenitentiales as a very efficacious means of penance. In the 11th century this new form of devotion was extolled by some of the most ardent reformers in the monastic houses of the west, such as Abbot Popon of Stavelot, St Dominic Loricatus (so called from his practice of wearing next his skin an iron lorica, or cuirass of thongs), and especially Cardinal Pietro Damiani. Damiani advocated the substitution of flagellation for the recitation of the penitential psalms, and drew up a scale according to which 1000 strokes were equivalent to ten psalms, and 15,000 to the whole psalter. The majority of these reformers exemplified their preaching in their own persons, and St Dominic gained great renown by inflicting upon himself 300,000 strokes in six days. The custom of collective flagellation was introduced into the monastic houses, the ceremony taking place every Friday after confession.
The early Franciscans flagellated themselves with characteristic rigour, and it is no matter of surprise to find the Franciscan, St Anthony of Padua, preaching the praises of this means of penance. It is incorrect, however, to suppose that St Anthony took any part in the creation of the flagellant fraternities, which were the result of spontaneous popular movements, and later than the great Franciscan preacher; while Ranieri, a monk of Perugia, to whom the foundation of these strange communities has been attributed, was merely the leader of the flagellant brotherhood in that region. About 1259 these fraternities were distributed over the greater part of northern Italy. The contagion spread very rapidly, extending as far as the Rhine provinces, and, across Germany, into Bohemia. Day and night, long processions of all classes and ages, headed by priests carrying crosses and banners, perambulated the streets in double file, reciting prayers and drawing the blood from their bodies with leathern thongs. The magistrates in some of the Italian towns, and especially Uberto Pallavicino at Milan, expelled the flagellants with threats, and for a time the sect disappeared. The disorders of the 14th century, however, the numerous earthquakes, and the Black Death, which had spread over the greater part of Europe, produced a condition of ferment and mystic fever which was very favourable to a recrudescence of morbid forms of devotion. The flagellants reappeared, and made the state of religious trouble in Germany, provoked by the struggle between the papacy and Louis of Bavaria, subserve their cause. In the spring of 1349 bands of flagellants, perhaps from Hungary, began their propaganda in the south of Germany. Each band was under the command of a leader, who was assisted by two lieutenants; and obedience to the leader was enjoined upon every member on entering the brotherhood. The flagellants paid for their own personal maintenance, but were allowed to accept board and lodging, if offered. The penance lasted 33 days, during which they flogged themselves with thongs fitted with four iron points. They read letters which they said had fallen from heaven, and which threatened the earth with terrible punishments if men refused to adopt the mode of penance taught by the flagellants. On several occasions they incited the populations of the towns through which they passed against the Jews, and also against the monks who opposed their propaganda. Many towns shut their gates upon them; but, in spite of discouragement, they spread from Poland to the Rhine, and penetrated as far as Holland and Flanders. Finally, a band of 100 marched from Basel to Avignon to the court of Pope Clement VI., who, in spite of the sympathy shown them by several of his cardinals, condemned the sect as constituting a menace to the priesthood. On the 20th of October 1349 Clement published a bull commanding the bishops and inquisitors to stamp out the growing heresy, and in pursuance of the pope's orders numbers of the sectaries perished at the stake or in the cells of the inquisitors and the episcopal justices. In 1389 the leader of a flagellant band in Italy called the bianchi was burned by order of the pope, and his following dispersed. In 1417, however, the Spanish Dominican St Vincent Ferrer pleaded the cause of the flagellants with great warmth at the council of Constance, and elicited a severe reply from John Gerson (Epistola ad Vincentium), who declared that the flagellants were showing a tendency to slight the sacramental confession and penance, were refusing to perform the cultus of the martyrs venerated by the church, and were even alleging their own superiority to the martyrs.
The justice of Gerson's protest was borne out by events. In Germany, in 1414, there was a recrudescence of the epidemic of flagellation, which then became a clearly-formulated heresy. A certain Conrad Schmidt placed himself at the head of a community of Thuringian flagellants, who took the name of Brethren of the Cross. Schmidt gave himself out as the incarnation of Enoch, and prophesied the approaching fall of the Church of Rome, the overthrow of the ancient sacraments, and the triumph of flagellation as the only road to salvation. Numbers of Beghards joined the Brethren of the Cross, and the two sects were confounded in the rigorous persecution conducted in Germany by the inquisitor Eylard Schöneveld, who almost annihilated the flagellants. This mode of devotion, however, held its ground among the lower ranks of Catholic piety. In the 16th century it subsisted in Italy, Spain and southern France. Henry III. of France met with it in Provence, and attempted to acclimatize it at Paris, where he formed bands divided into various orders, each distinguished by a different colour. The king and his courtiers joined in the processions in the garb of penitents, and scourged themselves with ostentation. The king's encouragement seemed at first to point to a successful revival of flagellation; but the practice disappeared along with the other forms of devotion that had sprung up at the time of the league, and Henry III.'s successor suppressed the Paris brotherhood. Flagellation was occasionally practised as a means of salvation by certain Jansenist convulsionaries in the 18th century, and also, towards the end of the 18th century, by a little Jansenist sect known as the Fareinists, founded by the brothers Bonjour, curés of Fareins, near Trévoux (Ain). In 1820 a band of flagellants appeared during a procession at Lisbon; and in the Latin countries, at the season of great festivals, one may still see brotherhoods of penitents flagellating themselves before the assembled faithful.
For an account of flagellation in antiquity see S. Reinach, Cultes, mythes et religions (vol. i. pp. 173-183, 1906), which contains a bibliography of the subject. For a bibliography of the practice in medieval times, see M. Röhricht, "Bibliographische Beiträge zur Gesch. der Geissler" in Briegers Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte, i. 313.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)