As part of project I’m working on, I recently read Sidney Heath’s Pilgrim life in the middle ages (1911 ; link is to archive.org copy). One chapter that I really got some inspiration from was “Flagellants and dancers.” I haven’t had the time to really delve further into these topics, but I thought Heath’s discussion was pretty interesting. Flagellants are probably familiar to anyone who’s seen Monty Python & the Holy Grail (a more serious depiction of them features briefly in both The Seventh Seal and Black Death) or played Warhammer Fantasy Battles. The “Dancers” mentioned here don’t quite match the modern interpretation of the phenomenon (St. Vitus’ Dance/St. Anthony’s Fire, i.e. ergot poisoning) I’ve always read about. So I wonder if there might not have been two distinct things going (religiously ecstatic dancers as described below and ergot-poisoned people running amok) which were conflated and swept together in one explanation. I guess you’d have to look at the source material. Anyway, since this is a very short and very vivid chapter from the book, I’m posting it in its entirety below.
Chapter IV: FLAGELLANTS AND DANCERS
One of the most extraordinary features of the Middle Ages, and the direct outcome of pilgrimages, were the wandering bands of penitents. These companies were numbered by hundreds, and each of them possessed some individual characteristic. Some were composed of the poor only, others were limited to men, while one or two were made up entirely of children. Occasionally a brotherhood would arise with membership extended mainly to those who held peculiar opinions. The great majority, however, were free to all Christians without distinction of age, sex, rank, or opinion, though each of them had some particular form of discipline for their adherents.
Thus every now and then these bands of people would journey from shrine to shrine, praying and mortifying as they went, and gathering recruits along the way. After exciting interest for a short time the larger number of these associations would dissolve as suddenly as they had appeared ; a few survived for years, while one or two underwent periodical revivals down to comparatively recent times.
The most persistent of these bands of fanatics were the dancers, the palmers, and the flagellants.
The dancers made their first appearance at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1373, when they were composed of a 96 Flagellants and Dancers ragged set of wanderers who made begging and vagrancy a profession. They had a secret system of initiation, at which it was said, as with most of these secret initiations, they practised all kinds of abominations. Wandering about in bands of thirty, or forty, their apparent poverty, their earnestness, and their frantic fanaticism gave them an extraordinary hold on the multitude.
Wherever they went their singular reputation caused large crowds to assemble to watch their performances, and thousands who went as sightseers became infected with the mania, which came to be regarded in the nature of a contagious disease that was even more dreaded than the plague.
Everywhere the dancers became the centre of a writhing mass of humanity making violent motions of worship, offering prayers in the form of convulsive shrieks, and acting as though they would take heaven itself by storm. Their hysterical ravings were regarded as prophetic. It was quite in vain that the axe beheaded hundreds of these maniacs, or that the gibbets broke down with the weight of their bodies.
The flagellants were unquestionably the strangest of all these itinerants of faith as they were the most tenacious of existence. Wherever the shrieks and groans of the gloomy flagellants alarmed the ears, those in the vicinity fled and hid themselves, for the penitential torrent of blood and tears absorbed all with whom it came in contact. There was no escape for any, rich and poor alike ; resistance was vain, remonstrance unheeded. Under the penalty of having the flesh flogged from their bones those who happened to cross their path were forced to become flagellants until they were released at the first celebrated shrine.
It was in 1260, about the time when the enthusiasm for the Crusades was flagging, that public associations began to spring up in Italy for the purpose of discipline. Multitudes of people, of all ranks and ages, practised this mortification of the flesh along the open streets in the hope of obtaining Divine mercy for their sins.
Perugia is said to have been the first scene of this madness, and a hermit named Rainier the instigator. The custom, after practically dying out, was revived in all its fury during the fourteenth century, and for ten years the flagellants perambulated and agitated Europe. This revival is said to have had its origin during a plague in Germany in 1349, when from the first the Teutonic knights met it with fierce opposition. In 135 1 these warriors assembled and set upon a body of flagellants, massacred thousands of them on the spot, and compelled the remainder to be re-baptized.
The flagellants propagated the extravagant doctrine that flagellation was of equal virtue with the Sacraments ; that by its administration all sins were forgiven, that the old law of Christ was soon to be abolished, and that a new law enjoining the baptism of blood administered by flogging was to be substituted in its place. They were not supported by the heads of the Church, and Pope Clement VII issued a bull against them, with the result that many of their leaders were taken and burned at the stake. The custom, however, continued to crop up at intervals. At the beginning of the fifteenth century flagellants are again mentioned in Lower Saxony. They rejected every branch of external worship, and entertained some wild notions respecting the evil spirit.
The infection, as in the former outbreaks, spread with great rapidity, and was only suppressed by the Kings of Poland and Bohemia expelling all flagellants from their territories.
As enthusiasm for these various sects began to decline active measures for their total abolition were adopted by the Council of Constance (1414-18), but a remnant of them continued in existence until the close of the century. Lastly came the palmers, a class of foreign pilgrims whose real history and condition are but little known. Their designation is thought to have been derived from the palms, branches of which they brought home from Palestine as evidence of their pilgrimage. The distinction between them and ordinary pilgrims was that the pilgrim had some home or dwelling-place, but the palmer had none. The pilgrim travelled to some specific shrine or holy place, but the palmer to all. The pilgrim journeyed at his own charges, but the palmer professed poverty and went upon alms. The pilgrim might give over his profession and return home, but the palmer must persist till he obtained his palm by death. The profession of the palmer was originally voluntary, and arose from that rivalry of fanaticism so prevalent during the earlier years of the Middle Ages. During the tenth and eleventh centuries men| were sometimes ordered to become palmers — to give up wife, family, home, and country — as a penance for their sins.
Flagellants — a 15th century woodcut; image from the Wikimedia Commons.