Jean Froissart on the Flagellant Movement
The French historian and poet Jean Froissart (c.1333-c.1405) was educated for the church but at the age of nineteen began to write a history of the wars of his time. In 1360 he went to England, where he received a gracious welcome from Phillippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III, who appointed him clerk of her chamber. In 1364 he traveled in Scotland, where he was the guest of King David Bruce and of the Earl of Douglas. In 1366 he went to Aquitaine with the Black Prince; in 1368 he was in Italy, possibly with Chaucer and Petrarch, at the marriage of the Duke of Clarence. About 1390 he settled in Flanders, and resumed work on his Chronicle. In 1395 he revisited England, and was cordially welcomed by Richard II. He then returned to Chimay, where he had obtained a canonry, and where he may have died.
Froissart's famous Chronicle deals with the period 1326-1400. Mainly occupied with the affairs of France, England, Scotland and Flanders, he supplies much valuable information about Germany, Italy and Spain. He is of all medieval chroniclers the most vivid and entertaining, accurate and impartial in his statements.
The following brief selection describes the flagellant [penitent] movement of 1349.
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In the Year of Grace 1349, the penitents went about, coming first out of Germany. They were men who did public penance and scourged themselves with whips of hard knotted leather with little iron spikes. Some made themselves bleed very badly between the shoulders and some foolish women had cloths ready to catch the blood and smear it on their eyes, saying that it was miraculous blood. While they were doing penance, they sang very mournful songs about the nativity and passion of Our Lord.
The object of this penance was to entreat God to put a stop to the mortality, for in that time of death there was an epidemic of plague. People died suddenly and at least a third of all the people in the world died then. The penitents of whom I am speaking went in companies from town to town and from city to city and wore long felt hoods on their heads, each company with its own color. Their rules forbade them to sleep more than one night in each town and the length of their goings-out was fixed by the thirty-three and a half years which Jesus Christ spent on earth, as the Holy Scriptures tell us; each of their companies went about for thirty-three and a half days, and then they returned to the towns or castles from which they had come. They spent very little money on their journeys, because the good people of the towns which they visited asked them to dinner and supper. They slept only on straw, unless illness forced them to do otherwise. When they entered a house in which they were to dine or sup, they kneeled down humbly on the threshold and said three paternosters and three Ave Marias, and did the same when they left. Many reconciliations were achieved through the penitents as they went about, for instance, over killings which had taken place and about which it had so far been impossible to reach an accord; but by means of the penitents peace was made.
Their rules contained some quite reasonable and acceptable things which agreed with such natural human inclinations as to journey about and do penance, but they did not enter the Kingdom of France because Pope Innocent, who was at Avignon at that time with his cardinals, considered the practice and opposed it very strongly, declaring in condemnation of the penitents that public penance inflicted by oneself was neither right nor lawful. They were excommunicated for doing it, and especially those clergy who went with them. A number of priests, canons and chaplains who supported them were deprived of their benefices. Any who wished for absolution had to go to Avignon to get it. So this movement was broken up and came to nothing when it was seen that the Pope and the King of France were against them, and they did not go beyond Hainault. If they had gone to Cambrai or Saint-Quentin, the gates would have been shut in their faces.
[Source: Jean Froissart, Chronicles, selected and translated by Geoffrey Brereton, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968), pp.111-112.]
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