flagellants (flăjˈələnts, fləjĕlˈənts) [key], term applied to the groups of Christians who practiced public flagellation as a penance. The practice supposedly grew out of the floggings administered as punishment to erring monks, although flagellation as a form of religious expression is an ancient usage. Among the flagellants it was an extreme expression of the ascetic ideal. Self-flagellation as a penance was approved by the early Christian church. However, the flagellant movement itself did not appear until the 13th cent., and it was not until c.1260 that the flagellants grew into large, organized bodies. Arising in the towns of N Italy, the movement spread across the Alps to Germany, Bohemia, and even to Poland. Bands of flagellants marched from town to town and in public places bared their backs and beat each other and themselves, all the while exhorting the people to repent. The disorderly and morbid nature of these exhibitions led civil and ecclesiastical authorities to suppress them. The movement died down, although it occasionally reappeared, especially in Germany in 1296 and in Italy under the leadership of Venturino of Bergamo. During the general societal confusion that accompanied the Black Death (1348–49) it flared up again. From the East bands of flagellants spread across Hungary and Germany, to S Europe and even to England, where no converts were gained. In 1349, Pope Clement VI prohibited the practice. Heretical flagellant sects such as the Bianchi of Italy and France (c.1399) and the followers of Karl Schmidt (c.1414) were suppressed; milder forms of flagellation were tolerated, however, and even encouraged by such leaders as St. Vincent Ferrer. There was a reappearance of public flagellation within the church after the Reformation. Catherine de' Medici and King Henry III of France encouraged flagellant orders, but Henry IV forbade them. The Jesuits after a time abandoned this public penance, and the practice died out again, although tertiaries from time to time degenerated into flagellant groups. In Spanish America flagellant orders persisted, usually in defiance of the ecclesiastical disapproval; in New Mexico the Hermanos Penitentes, a flagellant order, is said to practice secret rites today.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.