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In the Middle Ages these were groups of people, under the influence of a form of religious hysteria, who often went barefooted and inflicted beatings on their bare shoulders by scourges as an act of penance. They first appeared in Bologna in 1260 following a period of famine and strife. The prophecies of the impending end of the world by Joachim of Flora combined with the state of the times to create a mass hysteria at the possibility of divine displeasure. The orthodox belief in the efficacy of the scourge (flagella) as a sign of repentance degenerated into a depraved delight in self-torture and the conviction that flagellation was the only effective sacrament. The ecclesiastical approval given to the bands on their first appearance was later withdrawn. Clement VI repressed them, and they were condemned by the Council of Constance.

The most spectacular appearance of the Flagellants took place in N Europe in 1349 and was associated with the outbreak of the Black Death.* Their bloodletting was an attempt to stanch God's anger by sacrificial propitiation. The Flagellants believed that, because of their self-inflicted tortures, they would all be saved, that they bore on their bodies the stigmata of Christ, and that their blood mingled with his blood. They also called for the killing of the Jews, whom they believed were the enemies of God and responsible for the plague. Their language and customs were those of the commonly approved piety of their day, adapted to their desire to make a sacrifice to God of their own bodies and those of their enemies. They revealed all the signs of a mass religious reaction during a period of great popular stress.

See W.M. Cooper, Flagellation and the Flagellants (1908).