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As the priest raised the wafer of unleavened bread, praying in an inaudible mumbling, a devoted believer might easily suppose she had suddenly seen Christ. And when she was not able to bear any longer her thirst for the vivifying blood, sometimes after mass was over, she would remain for a long time contemplating the empty chalice on the altar. Such women denied themselves food as much as they could and suffered from sleeplessness as well as hunger. Some extreme fasters were rumored to take no food of any kind, receiving nourishment from nothing but the communion host.
The fasting women sent the food they did not eat to the poor, so some good came from their extreme self-mortification. Many ministered to the sick, including lepers, and would drink pus from festering wounds.
Such women frequently neglected their bodies, seldom washed or cared for themselves, but were said to emanate sweet odors wherever they went. Rumors grew that their breath or touch, or even wash water from their bodies when they washed! The extreme fasting of the saintly women of the past appears quite similar to anorexia, the psychological illness that afflicts contemporary women who starve themselves.
Women in the present day are occupied with body image and appearing thin, neither of which was considered important or desirable in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, some psychologists believe that the two practices have manifested the identical motivation — ultimate control over the body. The medieval women who fasted, some denying themselves not only food, but also attempting to do without water for long periods, believed that their nourishment was derived from the communion wafer.
Many of them forced themselves to vomit ordinary food. The starving saints engaged in various masochist behaviors beyond the refusal of ordinary food. Catherine of Genoa ate both filth and diseased items. She caught the plague from kissing a person afflicted with the disease, rubbed her nose in pus, and ate scabs and lice.
During that time, she developed a burning desire for the communion host. Many fasting and starving women of that era manifested the same self-punishing habits and the same ardor for the host. Catherine of Sienna once reported a vision that Christ pressed her mouth to the wound in his side and nursed her on the blood. The ill-concealed eroticism of such imaginative descriptions betrays the deeper motivation of the saintly women- Jesus was both lover and mother to them.
Fantastic tales grew up around the fasting female saints and mystics. I have already mentioned their alleged curative powers. There were other miracles attributed to them, such as the claim that the food they provided for the poor multiplied in quantity. Some of the saints were said not to have eaten for years except for taking communion, and yet it was averred that such women always appeared fresh and rosy.
The truth was that the extreme fasters were pale, sick, lost circulation to their limbs and developed many health problems. If they went too long without eating healthy portions of food, some eventually died, like the aforementioned Catherine of Sienna, who succumbed from starvation in CE. Some of the starving saints and mystics developed an interesting physical manifestation. The affliction was called the stigmata, and there were women who exhibited various forms of it.
The stigmata imitated the wounds Jesus was said to have suffered when crucified. The saints developed bleeding wounds in their palms, on their feet or their sides, which were said to be in the same places where Jesus had been injured when crucified. It is still unclear whether psychological issues can create physical stigmata on the human body. So are their fantasies of drinking blood from the wound on his side. It is important to keep in mind that Jesus was imagined as both mother and husband to those women.
Most of them refused marriage to suitors their families brought forward. Their erotic desires were centered on their fantasies and were probably more fulfilling to them than ordinary sex. If married, sometimes against their will, they continued with their practice of extreme fasting and often persuaded their husbands to live in chaste marriages with no sex.
Bynum is a brilliant researcher on the issue of medieval fasting by women, but fortunately she is no apologist. Here is her statement on the renunciation taken up by both women and men of that era. Increasingly, as many historians have noted, such renunciation was practiced within the world. Friars, tertiaries, and even lay people rejected the wealth and status their families might have provided; they practiced, sometimes even within marriage, not only sexual continence but also a studied ignoring of the special demands of family love and loyalty.
Late medieval women, like men, saw a certain rupture with ordinary worldly life as a mark of religious commitment. I shall discuss the ascetic life of the Desert Fathers, who literally renounced the world by taking up residence on the edge of the desert. Some of the later female saints and mystics I have mentioned patterned their practices on those of the Desert Fathers.
The rejection of the world and of the normal needs and functions of the human body that radiated throughout Christian Church doctrines may be seen in the practices and aspirations of the men who retreated to the desert. Those men saw their renunciation as a path of liberation, one more complete than remaining in their original cities. The myth of the desert and its potential for the man seeking self-transformation from the perceived evils of fornication, greed, egotism and so on, had much purchase and endured for some two centuries.
The seeker of holiness who entered the desert left behind his birthplace, his family, sometimes wealth, his status and the desire for a wife and children. The desert was an alternative world, where radical Christians could pursue what they believed were higher goals. One of their most important goals was the transformation of their private, individual will to the will of god.
Here are some quotations from his volume. Most of the men had left civilization to free themselves from the exigency of sexual desire. But the pursuit of food in the barren desert overshadowed all other demands. Food grew in the fertile valleys the monks had abandoned, not in the barren desert where they now lived. Many people who lived at the borders of the desert were awed by the new type of person, men who chose to pursue salvation in a land without human food.
Farmers would sometimes come to collect small amounts of sand from where the monks had walked. They would then spread the sand on their farm lands, believing that the crops would flourish. In order to survive, the monks were forced to perform continuous intensive manual labor. They then took their wares to village markets in exchange for bread.
They also obtained temporary jobs as migrant harvesters, carrying out back breaking labor in the fertile valley fields in order to obtain food. The monks learned that the genuine lack of food and the consequent pursuit of it created a constant ache of hunger that was more pressing and difficult to conquer than sexual desire. Even when they did have sufficient food, they fasted voluntarily. But there were untended consequences as a result of extreme fasting and lengthy prayer vigils. Some of the monks would become afflicted with a dreaded condition.
A monk beset by the disease would begin to wander around the desert in a driven state, gnawing on the scattered herbs he encountered there. I have already mentioned that the extreme fasting of many religious believers was tied to the widespread belief that the first sin of Adam and Eve was not sexual but the result of ravenous desire for food, in other words, gluttony.
Nevertheless sexual desire was still a major hindrance to spiritual transformation. Many stories were told about the relentless sexual desire that a man aspiring to Paradise had to stuffer and then extinguish. He was said to be about twenty when he began to struggle with sexual temptation. Somewhat older men were known to have achieved living in continence with their wives, and many of them eventually made their way into the desert.
But they were very aware, and watchful, of the permanence of sexual urges, which they came to see as part of human nature. They had learned that sexual desire was omnipresent in humans, that it manifested itself even in dreams and nocturnal emissions. The Desert Fathers equated the resilience of sexual temptation to the private will, the closed heart of the monk to the love of and the will of god.
They believed the private will must be broken. By frequently consulting a spiritual mentor and by aspiring to become like Christ, it was thought that a monk might actually achieve abatement of desire, a signal victory over a closed heart. There was a concrete sign of this victory over sexual desire which the most sincere monks achieved, or claimed to achieve.
When a Desert Father finally ceased experiencing nighttime emissions, he believed that he had achieved victory not only over the devil, but most importantly, over himself. If the monk continued nighttime emissions that came from sexual fantasies in dreams, it was a sign that he remained in a divided state. His public virtuous self during the day was given the lie by his clinging to the private will and experience of a closed heart at night.
It was believed that triumph would come when he melded the two, public and private, and could be the same virtuous, open person whether alone or in a crowd. The overcoming of the individual will they touted was a self-deception of the first order. The eroticism connected with the asceticism of the Catholic Church is more easily discerned in the sadomasochistic practices of flagellation and self-flagellation. There were three forms of the custom most prevalent in the later medieval era- flagellation as punishment, flagellation by others and flagellation by oneself.
Peter Damian, B. He had spent CE to CE in the mountain valley of Umbria, and he claimed, probably exaggeratedly, that not only the clergy in that area performed flagellation, but that the laymen were devoted to it as well. Flagellation as punishment in monasteries and abbeys was well known and accepted in the earlier years of the Church as a penalty for violating rules of the order.
The excesses of both practices were very exaggerated and harmful to their practitioners. Were the extreme practitioners of fasting and flagellation symbols of that corruption or were they engaged in an attempt to cleanse it? They did not break with the mainstream church, but their efforts at holiness and salvation went far beyond customary Church practices.
Peter Damian, pretended, or actually believed, that his approach to flogging was in accord with Catholic tradition. In reality however, he introduced novel aspects to the practice of flagellation. The traditional public chastisement had been a drama of punishment, penance and atonement for some type of wrongdoing. But the private practice of flagellation became the focal point for what would ostensibly be spiritual transformation in an imitation of the suffering Christ. Damian cleverly harkened back to the earlier times of the Desert Fathers when he undertook his monastery reform.
He wrote biographies of hermits in the desert, and held them up as models. By asserting that it was an ancient tradition, he attempted to introduce the practice of flagellation, especially self-flagellation, to the monasteries of his day. His claim that it had been a praxis of the Desert Fathers was disingenuous. At best, it had been the habit of a few individual monks in the past.
His insistence that scourging was a revival of a venerable custom was not true. He was arguing for a novel type of practice. Around CE to about CE, Damian wrote letters to try to refute the persistent and accurate charges that he had introduced a new practice. His type of flagellation was becoming more prevalent, but there were many monasteries that were quite satisfied with the old dispensation, as they believed it was the traditional one.
But Damian exhorted them with references to the Gospel. But he side-stepped that difficulty by arguing that to try to do away with self-flagellation was to completely nullify the goal and doctrine of attaining a perfect imitation of Christ. He pointed to the writings of the Desert Fathers to demonstrate the radical lengths they went to in their attempts to achieve perfect spirituality. Damian cited not only the Gospels, but Moses and the Old Testament as well.
In CE, Damian went further, writing a treatise-like letter to the Benedictine monks of Montecassino to urge them to resume the habit of flagellation on Fridays. They had begun to lapse in the practice, apparently because of the issue of nakedness or partial exposure during the whipping. It was also drama before the eyes of god in which the soul plays all roles in the eschatological tribunal.
The ritual of penance becomes a staging of the Last Judgment and also the symbolic self-sacrifice that repeats the divine sacrifice in a rectification that begins by destroying and desecrating the holiness of the body. He argued that fasting and flagellation were the best approaches available to humans to become one with Christ in suffering, and provided clever rationalizations to bolster his claims.
Damian built a case for nakedness during public flogging in the monasteries. He stated that it was the devil that caused the monks to blush with shame at the nakedness of the flogged person. The blushes of the monks were caused by the demons who sought to deter them from seeking spiritual perfection and put them at odds to the original condition of Adam. Once they had sinned, he argued, they became ashamed of their naked bodies and tried to conceal them.
He castigated the monks for not honoring Christ, whom they claimed they sought to emulate. Jesus, he stated, had been flogged while stripped and then crucified in the same way. Yet the monks were reluctant to show bare flesh, an insult to the suffering Jesus. Damian then waxed prophetic, with frightening and horrendous descriptions of the Last Judgment.
He told the monks that on the final day, the sun would lose its light, the moon become obscured, the mountains would tremble and the stars would fall from the sky. Water, air and all the elements would mix together. The terrible judges, he averred, would appear in order to pass judgment on humans. The saints of the early Church years would be there, with all the scars and rod marks of their suffering displayed. How would these present day soft monks, well-fed and clothed, appear to the great martyrs?
Christ did not blush at the shame of the cross, Damian argued, yet these soft monks blushed at their sagging flesh being seen, flesh that would be food for worms when they died. From all indications, his arguments carried the day.
Friday flagellations were resumed at that monastery. The practice of public flagellation, and private self-flagellation, spread with the coming decades. By the 13th Century, the acceptance of flagellation as a common religious practice had become well-established.
Monks and nuns practiced both types of flagellation, and so did lay brothers and even some laymen. But he states that the rites were often closely connected with the praying of the Psalter. Some monasteries and abbeys whipped every day or every other day. In most orders, Friday was a favorite time for flagellation, particularly Good Friday.
Advent and Lent were usually de rigueur for carrying out flagellation rituals as well. The rite was usually bound up with the notion of individual confession, penance and pain and often, where common sense prevailed, it was not too injurious. Flagellation was generally undertaken in a spirit of imitation of the innocent Christ.
Monks and nuns believed Jesus had suffered flogging for the salvation of sinning humanity, and so they did penance by being whipped or whipping themselves. There were elaborate rituals followed, with very exacting and minute instructions to be carried out, according to the rules of disparate religious orders.
The rituals are too elaborate to detail within the time limits of this lecture. One striking portion of the ritual was the correlation reported by participants between prayer and the whip. There was often an intense focus on the Fifty-First Psalm of the Old Testament, which King David was supposed to have sung after his affair with Bathsheba. The comparison of flagellation to music is a further indication of the unhealthy sensuality of the rite.
But, as with the rite of fasting, there were people possessed with greater zealotry. They desired more intense punishment than the ritualized penitence of the religious orders, painful as such rites were. There were well known saints, some of them founders of orders, who regularly whipped themselves in the most painful and punishing manner. He maintained that Rosa also wore a crown of thorns, stuck quills into her head and girded her loins with a triple iron chain.
Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia had herself whipped by her attendants; and the pious French King, Saint Louis, had his Dominican confessor or his servants flog him every Friday. One may discern the sadomasochism of the practice. Some contemporary academic apologists attempt to find other explanations for it, emphasizing the dramatic quality of the ritual. But the descriptions of flagellation cannot be separated from what we know about religious cruelty.
The Catholic Church that reigned over the age was well known for its egregiously vicious treatment of people who differed from it or its doctrine in any manner. But I would first like to devote some time to discussing the very public theatre of the Flagellants, groups of penitents who wandered in processions from town to town, whipping themselves in collective rites. Their dramatic public rites often included not just self-flagellation, but recitations of religious works, the singing of holy songs, and the wearing of distinctive garments.
The newly formed Flagellant groups were surely responding to the hysterical fear of the CE plague. The Black Death, as the plague was called, reduced the population of Europe from about million to around million. Many regarded it as a punishment from god. In the beginning, a few people in a town would gather, each one whipping himself publicly in penance for having committed sins. Then larger groups of penitents formed processions through the towns where they resided.
But those early manifestations soon grew into the phenomenon of processions from city to city by large groups of penitents called the Flagellants. Their primary purpose seems to have been to do penance for their sins by whipping themselves, but they probably unknowingly spread the plague with them wherever they went. Not only men, but women organized their own processions.
The general duration of the processions was thirty-three and a half days, which corresponded to the years that Christ had lived on earth, and consisted in size of about fifty or sixty people. They often wore pointed white hats and white clothes. When they reached the public square or some other conspicuous place in a city, the Flagellants threw themselves on the ground and by signs, let it be known what their sins had been.
For example, perjurers raised a finger and adulterers would press their lower bodies to the earth. The master of the group would then step over the first penitent, touch him with a scourge, and absolve him of his sins. He would repeat the procedure with each member. Then the Flagellants would all stand up. They would proceed to scourge themselves for three rounds while chanting prayers and singing holy songs.
Many flogged themselves at night in private, as well. The emphasis of their rituals was on the need for penance, in order to bring man closer to god. The entire process was very moving for the citizens who watched the drama, according to the accounts given by chroniclers of the time. Their songs and hymns were quite popular and well known. In addition to song, the Flagellants used choreographed movements, throwing themselves down, rising simultaneously after absolution and other coordinated actions.
Their movements can be seen as a kind of dance, and probably were regarded as such by the bystanders. Self-flagellation had moved from the realm of the private to the realm of theatre. The dramas the Flagellants staged had become a form of entertainment which was sometimes frightening, sometimes emotionally charged, but always impressive. By whipping themselves, the penitents were attempting to take the place of the suffering Christ.
Their self-flagellation was an imitation of the pain he was said to have suffered on the cross. Around CE, the public Flagellant groups suddenly disappeared as quickly as they had arisen. However, there were other varieties of flagellant groups which were regarded with suspicion by the Church. Cults such as the Cryptoflagellants appeared in Thuringia in the late Middle Ages. They were more focused on the Last Judgment than the travelling penitents had been.
They were also engaged in a serious rejection of the Church as a mediating authority in achieving salvation. Those beliefs and their often secretive behavior constituted what the Church considered heresy. The Inquisition rooted them out, persecuted them and burned some of the most intransigent offenders. A great deal of our knowledge about the Crypoflagellants comes from Inquisition documents of the 14th and 15th Centuries.
Some of the most devout Flagellants were focused on what they believed was the soon-to-come end of the world, were anti-clerical, and whipped themselves on Good Friday and many other Fridays of the year. The most excessive Flagellants embraced the baptism of blood which they believed had replaced water baptism and they spurned the other sacraments as well. The sacraments were deemed by the mainstream Church to be an important route to salvation.
But the Cryptoflagellants believed that all sins would be forgiven by practicing the rites of flagellation. The worst persecutions of the dissidents occurred in Central Europe. It was a wise decision because it allowed the penitential drama of the Flagellant processions to be played out under the domination and auspices of the mainstream Church.
The volume I cited earlier, In Praise of the Whip, contains an excellent chapter on the Flagellant groups and their practices for any readers interested in pursuing the topic. The Ingmar Bergman film, the Seventh Seal, set in Sweden at the time of the Black Death, is well worth watching for its understanding of the issues which gave rise to the Flagellants.
Its title, the Seventh Seal, is a reference to the Last Judgment. The movie fails, though, to depict the various emotional effects the drama had on the viewers. In the film, the townspeople appeared frightened and horrified by the procession. According to the historical accounts of the time, viewers were not always frightened, but entertained, and sometimes moved to tears by the performance.
Some bystanders were so impressed that they attempted to flagellate themselves rather than merely watch the performance. Jacques Boileau wrote a scathing critique of the practice of self-flagellation in CE. Although the Flagellant processions had been played out and had ceased, the practice of self-flagellation and other types of flagellation continued.
It lasted up until the early 20th Century in some quarters. It is of interest that a religious man like Boileau, who was a Catholic abbe, would write a censorious history of flagellation at such a relatively early date. He took care to keep himself apart from the Protestant enemies of the Church, such as Martin Luther, who decidedly abhorred the practice, and from the Calvinist position on scourging.
Boileau was nevertheless decidedly in disagreement with the Catholic Church on the issue. He opposed the practice with common sense, which is always disturbing to the religious mind. Boileau mounted his attack from several different positions. Such practices, he argued, contradicted piety and any sense of shame. We need to keep in mind that self-flagellators usually flogged themselves until blood flowed from the broken skin. Boileau argued that in Mosaic Law, god forbade self-mutilation.
He demonstrated that flagellation, instead, was of pagan origin. The pagans had made use of it as part of some religious rituals, or as a form of punishment. Boileau was very cultured and well-read, and quoted from Plutarch, Cicero, Lucian and other venerable ancient authors on the origin of flagellation. He charged that its ritual framework was an ascetic praxis that could be depicted in painting and was able to cause sexual arousal by such depictions.
Boileau was quite perceptive in his observations. The aforementioned volume, In Praise of the Whip, contains numerous plates from medieval book illustrations, painting and prints. Some of the pictures depict Mary Magdalene and other female penitents whipping themselves. They are most often slightly undressed, and very voluptuous.
Sometimes the works picture satyrs from the ancient world spanking very fleshy nymphs. He was quite correct. The well-researched In Praise of the Whip cites several actual cases of a confessor using the rite of confession to elicit the sexual thoughts and desires of young girls.
The confessor would then claim the girls needed to perform penance by being whipped by him. Some of the priests would carry their deception even further. They would seduce the girls into sexual compliance. But he was most perspicacious in his understanding of the sexual motives that were the underpinning of flagellation rituals.
I shall be discussing some of the reasons fundamentalist religious parents and their churches claim to have for abusing their children. They insist that they rely on the Bible when they punish the children, but it is not difficult to suspect that some of the parents and some of the ministers have darker motives. According to Heimlich, there are four main types of religious child abuse: physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and medical neglect. The circumcision of baby boys in the United States falls into the last category of medical abuse.
Deeply conservative Christians believe that the Bible condones spanking, sometimes even beating, of children.
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