5 May 2010

Flagellant Processions

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:51 pm

“When the whip is raised, when leather, scourge, and cane strike against covered or naked flesh, we stand before a stage — a stage on which a ritual unfolds.”

So begins In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal, Niklaus Largier’s scrupulous chronicle of the curious practice of flagellation. While flogging has always been a popular method of punishment and torture, and while during the Lupercalia festival of ancient Rome women were whipped to ensure fertility, and although medieval Christianity was notoriously enthusiastic about penitence and penance, it isn’t until the tenth century that the disciplina of self-flagellation first appears in the annals of Christian asceticism. Even when practiced in eremitic seclusion, flagellation is intrinsically theatrical, for the act of self-abnegation is always staged for an audience of at least one: God Himself. But flagellation isn’t only an act of penitence; it is also, and perhaps predominantly, imagined as  a staged participation in the final scourging of Jesus that culminated in his crucifixion. In effect the flagellant’s blood intermingles with Jesus’ blood in a bodily re-enactment of the atonement. It’s in this sense of participating in Christ’s redemption that the public act of self-flagellation bears bodily witness to the Scriptural testimony. Enthralled by the multisensory image of the flagellant’s performance, the observer is brought through the inflamed imagination into an enactment of the Passion, where the torn flesh of the penitent commingles with the Word and the Spirit.

Largier traces the historical role of the intensely transcendent sensuality of flagellation through Ascesis to Erotics and finally to Therapeutics, these being the three main divisions of the book. While eventually we reach some risque bits and a few naughty pictures, I’m going to stick with ascesis in this post, because I learned about something I’d never heard of before. Did you know that there were flagellant processions during the Middle Ages? These were widespread popular movements that erupted not once but twice, eighty years apart. The first uprising of the flagellant processions began in 1260-1 in Perugia during a time of epidemic and famine; the second wave, in 1349-50, kept one step ahead of the plague that swept the continent.  Largier quotes at length from Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen, who witnessed some of the processions that erupted nearly everywhere in central Europe during 1349-50 and just as suddenly vanished.

“Priest and count, knight and serf participated… as well as monks, burghers, farmers, and professors… In those day, the flagellants moved about the land in great throngs. They tortured their bodies with gruesome whips whose effect was increased by the presence of knots in the straps. Whoever goes with them places himself under the sign of the cross, for as Scripture teaches us, all those who bear the cross are worthy and acceptable to the Virgin. They wore crosses on the front and back of their coats, also on the front and back of their hats… They even wear hats when flagellating themselves in a circle, so that… the cross is constantly before their eyes…

“They would spend each night in a different place, They stayed overnight at various sites, often quite impoverished ones, and would move about for a total of 34 days, since Christ spent exactly that many years on earth. The last day is only half a day, then everyone returns home.

“Once at nice and twice during the day, they tormented themselves with blows of the whip before the astonished crowd, and together they sang hymns while moving about in a circle and throwing themselves to the ground in the form of a cross. They did this six times, remaining on the ground each time until they had prayed two Pater Nosters.”

Bearing flags emblazoned with a cross, the flagellants, barefoot and clad in rags, would walk from town to town.  Until the 33½ days of their pilgrimage were completed the flagellants would neither bathe nor wash their clothes nor trim their beards. They were not permitted to ask for lodging, but could accept if a place was offered for the night. They were forbidden to sleep in beds or to associate with women.

“While on the path engaged in communal flagellation, they walked in side-by-side rows, like siblings, and sang songs as if they were scholars. As soon as they entered a place, the bells would ring and the people would stream out to gape at them and their fascinating terrible wounds. But they also came to beg of Christ the crucified, to fend off terrible and sudden death, and to give grace to the dead, peace to the living, and heavenly joy to the close of their lives… Crowds of men formed, and after a while they disappeared and no one knew any longer what had become of them.”

The flagellant processions made a significant impact on the towns they visited. Residents confessed their sins publicly, longstanding disputes were reconciled, thieves returned what they’d stolen, jails were emptied, slaves and captives were freed, exiles were welcomed home. Through strange behaviors, mass migration, egalitarian communality, and independence from most political and ecclesiastical authority, the flagellant processions constituted a radical if short-lived “deterritorialization” of medieval European culture.

Oh, and did I mention that this book was translated from the German by one Graham Harman?

UPDATE: Inasmuch as Graham linked to this post calling it a review, I’ll supplement my obsession over the flagellant processions with at least some review-like material. Briefly, I enjoyed the book and found it informative and stimulating. Largier spends more time describing than analyzing, but the wealth of material he’s assembled and the way he’s organized it maps an intellectual trajectory that’s self-validating. He doesn’t interpret, and implicitly condemn, medieval flagellation in terms of sublimated sexuality. Instead, he traces the gradual historic compartmentalization of a libidinal energy that a thousand years ago permeated body and spirit and imagination in a “conspiratorial connection” which, Largier contends, “became unbearable.” Phallic sexuality has thus become the only legitimate locus and interpretive context for erotic pleasure, including an odd variant like flagellation, while “the only place imagination is now allowed to occupy is the arts.”

Not having German myself, I cannot remark on the quality of the translation.



  1. But does the flagellant aspire to CLEANSE his body of evil in this way?

    If so, this is still far removed from the kind of cleansing in Porno Gang!


    Comment by voice of parody — 5 May 2010 @ 9:59 pm

  2. Well it’s an interesting progression that Largier traces which I only hinted at in the post. The church began questioning flagellation, suggesting that the striking of the back and loins and ass (the usual targets) inflamed the sex organs and stimulated the activity of the semen, thus leading into sensual arousal. Pretty soon we see a kind of pornography in which the private confessional becomes a scene of debauchery, in which the priest administers penance with the whip, in the process inflaming his and the penitent’s passions, so pretty soon they’re getting naked in the confessional. Then we move on to Sade, whose fictional adventures are modeled on the lives of the saints and for whom the whip institutes a kind of bodily “cleansing” and renewal that has nothing to do with traditional Christian penitence. It’s farther along this trajectory that the Porno Gang would find itself joining the procession.


    Comment by ktismatics — 5 May 2010 @ 10:09 pm

  3. For those following along at home, Porno Gang is a recent indie Serbian movie. I’ve not seen it, but apparently the story follows a troupe of live porno performers who travel from city to city. Some of the performers agree to be featured in snuff films with the agreement that they get paid money to support their families after they’re killed. So there seems to be a sort of redemptive component to this extreme form of collective public flagellation. I’ll have to reserve further comparisons until I see the film.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 May 2010 @ 7:21 am

  4. There’s also an analogy to Fight Club as a collective gang of flagellants trying to purify themselves and the society they live in.


    Comment by ktismatics — 6 May 2010 @ 8:52 am

  5. […] 6, 2010 ktsimatics REVIEWS Niklaus Largier’s In Praise of the […]


    Pingback by In Praise of the Whip « Object-Oriented Philosophy — 6 May 2010 @ 2:08 pm

  6. Thanks for this. Although the flagellant processions are not enough part of popular culture to be familiar, I’m sure you’ll remember the periodic appearances of processional self-abusers in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail?”

    “Through strange behaviors, mass migration, egalitarian communality, and independence from most political and ecclesiastical authority, the flagellant processions constituted a radical if short-lived “deterritorialization” of medieval European culture.”

    Well this is the question, whether there was something rising to the level of deterritorialization here, or if these were ‘just’ charivaris writ large. The carnival is a ritualized special occasion in which order is momentarily suspended or reversed, but its function is ultimately to release pressure and affirm order. Which, looking at the longer duree’ here, seems to have been the case.


    Comment by Carl — 7 May 2010 @ 8:41 am

  7. Good call on the Monty Python, Carl — I’d forgotten about that.

    Largier explicitly applies the word “deterritorialization” to the flagellant processions. I think you put your finger on the difference between these processions and carnival. As a ritualized suspension or reversal of the social order, carnival is in a sense co-opted by and integrated into that larger order. In contrast, the flagellant processions were one-off, spontaneous, self-organizing vectors slicing through the social hierarchies and physical spaces of medieval Europe. The churches weren’t quite sure what to do with them. After all, flagellation had by then become an accepted discipline among monastics and priests and fervent laypeople, but ordinarily the practice was performed in private. These were mass public displays. Some churches decided to attach a cleric to the processions in order to hear confessions and administer the sacraments, thereby normalizing the phenomenon within the established ecclesiology of the day. Eventually though the bishops and ultimately the Pope condemned the processions, unleashed the Inquisitors on them, and hung and burned a few hundred — tried and true tactics for reinforcing the territorial markings.

    Afterward communal flagellation went underground, with societies of “cryptoflagellants” performing their bizarre rites in secrecy (like the Fight Club dudes). The church issued official warnings about these heretical sects, accusing them of all manner of sexual perversions carried out in the dark, total deterritorialization being the presumed end of all sinful disobedience. And maybe, by being forced into the outlaw position, the cryptoflagellants did some serious partying when they got together.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 May 2010 @ 9:46 am

  8. Also, the flagellant processions seem pretty clearly to have been motivated by fears of an impending apocalypse. On the first wave it was famine and epidemic and political disputes between pro-church and pro-government factions; on the second it was the plague. One gets the sense that the flagellants thought that the world was disintegrating and that their expiatory rites would preserve and restore order in the world. This intent is pretty much the opposite of deterritorialization, even if the consequences of the restorative acts did prove disruptive to routine. It’s the prophetic tradition I suppose, where the prophets are prepared to ruffle some feathers and make some waves in order to preserve the deeper structures.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 May 2010 @ 10:05 am

  9. K: The flagellant processions made a significant impact on the towns they visited. Residents confessed their sins publicly, longstanding disputes were reconciled, thieves returned what they’d stolen, jails were emptied, slaves and captives were freed, exiles were welcomed home. Through strange behaviors, mass migration, egalitarian communality, and independence from most political and ecclesiastical authority, the flagellant processions constituted a radical if short-lived “deterritorialization” of medieval European culture.

    K: One gets the sense that the flagellants thought that the world was disintegrating and that their expiatory rites would preserve and restore order in the world.

    This discussion reminds me of our discussion on Girard’s “scapegoat” emphasis and his commentary on mimetic desire. A private flagellation serves as a retribution for one’s own sins, but the public masochism seems to serve the scapegoat role, punishing one’s self on behalf of the people.

    I’m fascinated that the result was reconciliation of differences. This goes to Girard’s idea that differences, disputes, and ultimately violence stems from desiring the desire of the other, and that these disputes reach a point where the feuding parties need to punish a scapegoat in order to reconcile and cease the violence.

    But what’s the threat to the Church? Why step in and abolish this sort of thing? Is it possible that the people were finding reconciliation outside of the church? Was this a threat to Church authority? Another thought is that the Church may have had a vested interest in keeping people from reconciling together. If people aren’t fighting amongst themselves, then there may be danger for the establishment powers.

    Thanks for an informative post. I was not aware of these historical events.


    Comment by Erdman — 10 May 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    • I like the Girardian angle, Erdman. Certainly the flagellants presented themselves as scapegoats, explicitly identifying with Jesus who was the scapegoat par excellence in the Christian tradition. And certainly they made themselves into a public spectacle, so the scapegoat function was visible. And the Processionists weren’t residents of the towns they visited, so there was no danger of their punishment merely starting up another round of retribution and vengeance initiated by the victims’ allies. So sure, I’ll go with this interpretation, Erdman. I expected that the flagellants would whip each other instead of whipping themselves. But the Processionists regarded themselves not as innocents but as fellow-sinners with their audience. This would serve to enhance the scapegoat function in which the observers/beneficiaries are able to identify with the sacrificial victims. Plus, by self-flagellation they were trying to establish a precedent, a praxis of self-discipline that the townspeople could perform in private after the Procession moved on.

      You’re right about the threat: reconciliation outside the church was a threat to the church’s authority. The flagellations were conceived as a rite of confession, penitence, penance, and purification. The priests were supposed to perform these rites, serving as intermediaries between men and God. For men to take the whip into their own hands was to assert the sort of self-directed religion that would eventually come to a head in Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, and the Anabaptists.


      Comment by ktismatics — 10 May 2010 @ 5:29 pm

  10. The Fight Club connection is interesting. The Fight Clubs were a place of personal purification, solidarity, and personal growth. Those who came felt cleansed in a very spiritual sense. They also joined together as the common people and eventually rebelled against the commercialized culture. They also came to the fights in order to kind of chisel themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Their bodies were hardened, their minds sharpened, and their wills focused on a higher purpose.

    This all meant trouble for the establishment. It also resulted in a cult of violence that spread to the establishment, an anarchistic revolt. It all started, though, with a desire to not die without being scarred and beat up a bit.

    How does this tie in with the rise in interest in mixed martial arts fights? The no-holds-barred raw man-to-man violence that you can get on cable. Is there a similar dynamic at work?


    Comment by Erdman — 10 May 2010 @ 4:08 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: