There were those who sensed the perverted nature of this development: France refused to accept the practice and the Polish king imposed penalties on those who adopted it. But the device of organizing groups of Flagellants proved unwise, for in groups a strange contagion occurs. Perhaps the fact of being with others who are giving- rein to powerful instincts normally held in check, gives a man a sense of being licensed by public opinion to break the normal rules, as seems to occur, for instance, in lynchings, looting and other mob phenomena. Whatever the explanation, in the middle of the thirteenth century Thanatos burst loose in the populace at large, but not, as in a lynching, directed outward upon others: this time, it was directed inward in a masochistic sense. The contagion started in North Italy in 1259 everywhere people formed themselves into groups for the purpose of self-flagellation.
“Day and night, long processions of all classes and ages, headed by priests carrying crosses and banners, perambulated the streets in double file, praying and flagellating themselves.”
Even children of five years old took part. Magistrates, appalled, expelled them from their cities, but to no effect. Ultimately the movement died down, only to flare up again in 1262 and again in 1296. In the following century, stimulated by the fears aroused by repeated earthquakes this Flagellomania reappeared in 1334. Finally, the culminating horror of the Black Death, which started in 1348, caused an outbreak far exceeding any of the foregoing in scale. Beset by the fear of death and the evidence of God’s displeasure whole populations indulged in a desperate frenzy of self maceration. Processions of men and women, nobles and commoners, priests and monks, numbering hundreds and sometimes thousands, spread over Austria, Bohemia, Germany, Switzerland, and the Rhine province, to the Netherlands and even to England. (77) The movement continued all through 1348 and 1349, while the Plague raged, killing in many cases seven in every ten of the population. These flagellants, like pilgrims, moved from town to town and in each town they sought out the shrine of the most powerful saint, hoping to procure his help. They began to form themselves into a coherent organization, under the title the Brethren of the Cross. The idea emerged that one could dispense with the services of the Church in attaining salvation. Thirty-three and a half days of scourging, recalling Christ’s thirty three years of life, were the passport to salvation. The Pope, instantly alarmed, on October 20 issued a Bull accusing them of forming a new sect without permission, condemning them as devilish, and calling upon bishops and inquisitors to stamp out the heresy. Under this pressure, the movement broke up or went underground, only to burst out again two years later, and yet again three years after that. This time the sect was destroyed by fire and sword. Except for sporadic outbreaks in Italy, Holland and Thuringia in the early fifteenth century, we hear no more of Flagellomania. That is, we hear no more of a mass popular movement: we find plenty of processions of flagellants on specific occasions under control of the Church.
By giving official sanction to actions which in normal people are deeply repressed or held under control, the Church contrived that the tendencies to conformity which normally act as a civilizing force should be put at the service of the dark and uncivilised desires of the unconscious. Here, as so often in other fields, the Church acted in just the way calculated to release the very forces it was officially trying to repress — so easily do our unconscious desires mould our conscious action to their purpose. It was an attempt which recoiled on the Church and was therefore dropped: the Church’s next experiment in this field was to direct the death dealing forces outwards in the form of witch persecutions, as I shall attempt to show in another chapter.