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Scourge of Europe-The Religious Hysteria Created by the Black Plague

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Written by Rosanne E. Lortzand edited by Paul Rushworth-Brown


Rats plagued historical Europe
Rats plagued historical Europe

Death has always been one of the most frightening prospects faced by mankind. The fear of death has its own word to describe it—thanatophobia. In a society where a third to a half of the people around you have succumbed to death within the past year, the terror of knowing that you might be next can become overwhelming. It can drive a person to bizarre and unthinkable acts as he tries to prevent death’s icy grip from descending on his own shoulder. This is what happened in the mid-fourteenth century, during the years of the Black Plague. The world went wild with thanatophobia, and the country of England was no exception.



The medieval chronicler Geoffrey le Baker wrote: Men who had been one day full of life were often found dead the next. Some were afflicted with abscesses which erupted in various parts of their bodies and were so hard and dry that even when cut with a knife, hardly any liquid flowed out…. Others had small black sores which developed all over their bodies. Only a very few who suffered from these survived and recovered their health. The great plague reached Bristol on 15 August [1348]

17th century peasant woman with the plague
17th century peasant woman with the plague

and London around 29 September. It raged in England for a year or more, and such were its ravages that many country towns were almost emptied of human life. For some, the proximity of the plague created the pernicious attitude of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Immorality, excess, and crime became rife in towns and cities, especially in the metropolis of London, as despairing people grasped after every last piece of self-gratification before death should come for them. Others still nourished the hope that the plague might be avoided. Doctors tried the normal remedies of bleeding and laxatives and prescribed more outlandish cures such as drinking one’s own urine. However, it soon became obvious that medicine had failed to find the answer. As corpse after the corpse was thrown in the common burial pits, the only course left to the living was to repent of their sins, cast themselves on divine mercy, and entreat the angel of death to forbear.


The plague doctor's
The plague doctor's mask

Like the rest of the medieval period, the fourteenth century quickly considered any disaster (natural or manmade) as a judgment from God. Earthquakes, fires, Viking invasions, Muslim conquests—all these things came about because of the sinful backsliding of God’s people. When the Black Plague, the greatest disaster in human memory, beset Europe, it was not hard for the deeply religious and deeply frightened populace to believe that God was exceptionally wroth with the world. Someone must intercede with the Almighty and prevail upon Him to stay His hand. The early Church had understood Christ to be the intercessor between His people and God the Father. But somewhere, between the age of the Church Fathers and the era of the Hundred Years’ War, Christ, the “shepherd of tender youth,” had metamorphosed into Christ, the stern and implacable Judge. With Christ seen as the author of the plague itself, the desperate looked for a mediator in His kinder, gentler mother Mary.


Across Europe, a strange sect known as the Flagellants began to gain followers. Wearing a uniform of a white robe marked with a red cross—much like the Knights Templar’ surcoat seen in so many period films—the Flagellants were a society of ascetic laymen determined to atone for the sins of the world. They gathered in groups of 50 to 500 men, travelling around the towns of Europe and performing the ritual of publicly scourging themselves.


The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this description of the Flagellants’ activities:

Twice a day, proceeding slowly to the public square or to the principal church, they put off their shoes, stripped themselves to the waist and prostrated themselves in a large circle. By their posture they indicated the nature of the sins they intended to expiate, the murderer lying on his back, the adulterer on his face, the perjurer on one side holding up three fingers, etc. First they were beaten by the "Master", then, bidden solemnly in a prescribed form to rise, they stood in a circle and scourged themselves severely, crying out that their blood was mingled with the Blood of Christ and that their penance was preserving the whole world from perishing.

After the Flagellants had gathered a crowd to watch their bloody antics, the Master read aloud from a “heavenly letter,” trying to terrify the onlookers with its apocalyptic contents. Matthew of Neuenberg wrote:

In this [letter], the angel said that Christ was displeased by the depravities of the world, and named many sins: violation of the Lord’s day, not fasting on Friday, blasphemy, usury, adultery. The letter went on to say that, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and the angels, Christ had replied that to obtain mercy, a man should undertake voluntary exile and flagellate himself for thirty-three and a half days….

The number was symbolic, standing for the thirty-three and a half years that Christ had dwelt in human form upon the earth. By identifying themselves with Christ and taking on his sufferings, the Flagellants could redeem the world from the death and destruction that had come in the form of the Black Plague.


At first, the Church did not know what to make of this strange new sect. The clergy appreciated the Flagellants’ calls for repentance but feared that this parachurch organization would rival the Roman Church’s authority. When the Flagellants began to speak out against the Church, blaming it for allowing the corruption that had brought God’s judgment, and also began to embellish their teachings with flagrant heresy (e.g. denial of the sacraments, professing their ability to grant absolution), the Church reacted violently. Pope Clement VI commanded that the brotherhood be suppressed in whatever country they appeared throughout Europe.


The Church’s antagonism toward the Flagellants, however, did not necessarily reflect the popular perception of them. The fear of death that had overshadowed Europe created a ripe breeding ground for the Flagellants’ fanaticism. The movement grew quickly in Germany and the Netherlands. Matthew of Neuenberg remarks that after the Flagellants proceeded through Strasbourg, about a thousand men joined their brotherhood. France also had many converts to the sect until in 1349, King Philip VI forbade public self-flagellation on pain of death; this decree effectively nipped the movement in the bud throughout his domains.


Interestingly, England was one of the countries where the Flagellants made the fewest inroads. In 1349, a group of fanatical Frisians came across the Channel hoping to gain converts in London. They put on a dramatic public display outside of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But although their bloody flails and eerie chants unnerved the crowd, the chroniclers record that not a single Englishman wished to don their red-cross robes and take up the scourge himself.


Fortunately for Europe, a movement like this could not last forever. The fuel of the Flagellants’ fanaticism had always been the terror created by the Black Plague. The sect's numbers diminished significantly when the pestilence began to abate in the early 1350s. Although it was not eradicated entirely, the Flagellant brotherhood disappeared from public view and into obscurity. Throughout the next couple of centuries, pockets of it would crop up here and there, but the brotherhood never again gained the same following that the Black Plague had brought them. The scourge of Europe had disappeared, and there was no longer any need to scourge oneself to avoid it. The thanotophobia had receded and with it the religious hysteria that had turned the fourteenth century on its head.



Rosanne E. Lortz (“Rose”)
Rosanne E. Lortz (“Rose”)

Rosanne E. Lortz (“Rose”) is a writer, editor, teacher, history-lover, and mom to four boys. She loves to read, sing, draw, compose, write, and create. Education is one of her passions, particularly a classical, liberal arts education. She has taught English composition and grammar, Latin, history, music, and various other subjects for fifteen years at both the elementary and secondary level and is currently an administrator at a classical Christian school.

Rose writes historical novels full of adventure, mystery, and romance. Her Pevensey Mysteries transpose stories from the Middle Ages into Regency Era romance/murder mysteries. Her newest series is the Allen Abbey Romances, three linked novellas set in Regency England.




Paul Rushworth-Brown is the author of three published novels.


He was born in Maidstone, Kent, England in 1962. He spent time in a foster home in Manchester before emigrating to Canada with his mother in 1972. He spent his teenage years living and attending school in Toronto, Ontario, where he also played professional soccer in the Canadian National Soccer League. In 1982, he emigrated to Australia to spend time with his father, Jimmy Brown who had moved there from Yorkshire in the mid-fifties.


​Paul was educated at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia. He became a writer in 2015 when he embarked on a six-month project to produce a written family history for his children, Rachael, Christopher and Hayley.



Skulduggery - The bleak Pennine moors of Yorkshire; a beautiful, harsh place, close to the sky, rugged and rough, with no boundaries except the horizon, which in places, went on forever. Green pastures and wayward hills are the colours of ochre, brown and pink in the Spring. Green squares divided the land on one side of the lane, and on the other, sheep with thick wool and dark snouts dotted the hills and dales. The story, set on the Moors of West Yorkshire, follows wee Thomas and his family shortly after losing his father to consumption. Times were tough in 1603 and shenanigans and skulduggery was committed by locals and outsiders alike. Queen Bess has died, and King James sits on the throne of England and Scotland. Thomas Rushworth is now the man of the house the older of two boys. He is set to wed Agnes in an arranged marriage, but a true love story develops between them. A glor


ious read of a period well versed and presented with accuracy and authentic telling by an author who is as much engrossed in his prose as the reader he shares with...masterful and thoroughly enjoyable...5 stars."


Red Winter Journey'- Come on this historic journey, which twists, turns and surprises until the end. If you like history, adventure and intrigue with a dash of spirited love, then you will be engrossed by this tale of a peasant family unexpectedly getting caught up in the ravages of the English Civil War in 1642. A GREAT STORY CLEVERLY WEAVING WELL-RESEARCHED INFORMATION. The research for this book was thorough. The author describes the environment and conditions of Yorkshire in the 16th century, building these facts into fictional circumstances and families living in the times. I found it fascinating that this book came from a search for family history. Very cleverly done, a must-read for those interested in the period, and a good read. Looking forward to the next book.


Reading this book can feel like time travel as you let the world pass by and explore a new one. This novel is not a history textbook, but a gripping account of a moment in time seen through your ancestor’s eyes. If you like adventure and intrigue with a dash of forbidden love, you will be engrossed by this story of sons, John and Robert, who leave the moors and travel to Leeds to earn their fortune. The story is full of colourful characters like John Wilding, a brute of a man with no manners or decorum, typical of the lower sort of the time. Will he catch Robert Rushworth and earn the reward to pay back the 'Company' to who he is hiding and dangerously indebted to. Meet Milton Killsin, a pompous little Puritan man with a secret desire. Also, Captain Girlington, with a troubled past must choose between life on the seas and love for another. Facing fear head-on! Meet professional beggars, cutpurses, felons, debtors, lifters, prostitutes, and sneak thieves, "You’ll find ‘em all in the Shambles." At a time when anyone caught stealing goods worth more than thirteen shillings was tried and hanged. Will Robert pay for his indiscretions? Murder, mystery, and mayhem keep you guessing; only astute readers will predict the ending.



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