Pain is Salvation: Flagellant Songs in the Middle Ages

By Sonja Maurer-Dass

In this article, the history of flagellant songs will be explored, beginning with their origin among the flagellants in Italy and tracing their transmission and adoption among flagellants in Germany, where these songs came to be known as Geisslerlieder (“flagellant songs”). Additionally, performance practices associated with the singing of flagellant songs in Germany will be examined, notably through the observations of the fourteenth-century priest and musician Hugo Spechtshart von Reutlingen (c.1285–1359/60).

In a scene from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a group of monks are depicted singing plainchant while on a procession through the streets of a medieval village. After chanting the first few lines of text, the monks abruptly hit themselves in the face and repeatedly do so during their procession. Although this scene was undoubtedly filmed for comedic purposes, and the movie, in general, propagates a number of historically questionable stereotypes of the Middle Ages, the act of monks singing while engaging in self-harm is historically sound. In fact, this scene reflects the practices of a group of traveling medieval flagellants who would whip themselves while singing songs of penance for the purpose of placating God.


The Disciplinati: Italian Beginnings

The history of flagellant songs begins in thirteenth-century Italy, with a group of penitents known as the disciplinati. According to historian Daniel E. Bornstein, the disciplinati were formed circa 1260 by a hermit named Fra Raniero Fasani of Perugia. As noted in Bornstein’s book The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy, legend holds that Fra Raniero practiced self-flagellation for eighteen years in solitude until he received a divine vision that warned him that because of humanity’s sinful acts, the destruction of the earth was imminent.

While his vision predicted the end of the world, Fra Raniero also received a message of hope: that is, the Virgin Mary agreed to plead for humanity’s survival if public communal acts of repentance were performed. To garner participants for these acts of repentance, Fra Raniero informed the Bishop of Perugia of his vision, providing tangible evidence with a letter that he claimed was from the Virgin Mary. After hearing the details of this vision, the Bishop publicly announced Fra Raniero’s need for participants in acts of penance, resulting in the formation of the disciplinati.


According to Bornstein, many citizens of Perugia followed Fra Raniero’s example and participated in public self-flagellation as a means of imploring God for forgiveness. Accompanying this self-mutilation was the communal singing of songs called Laude Spirituale.

Laude Spirituale were the most prominent form of vernacular religious songs in medieval Italy. Originally, these compositions were monophonic (meaning that they consisted of a single melody without accompanying harmony), and textual subjects often concerned Marian devotion and emphasis on participating in penitential acts. As noted by musicologist Richard Taruskin, Laude Spirituale were often performed as contrafacta (changing or altering an existing melody’s original text) to well-known melodies; that is, the melodic content of the Laude Spirituale often belonged to existing compositions, but the text was changed to suit the purpose of the flagellants.

While the practice of singing and self-scourging originated in Italy, it was not confined to that geographical region; the practice of singing songs while ritually participating in self-mutilating processions was soon transmitted across the Alps through groups of traveling flagellants. Eventually, in the fourteenth century, the movement arrived in Germany, where the practice of flagellant songs came to be known as Geisslerlieder. Additionally, the flagellant movement was transmitted across Europe, spanning from Britain to Scandinavia.

The Black Death: Atonement through Flagellation

During the Black Death (1347–1352), singing while engaging in communal acts of self-flagellation became increasingly prominent, with the hope that mass public penance would atone for the sins believed to be the root cause of the plague’s prevalence. In Germany, Geisslerlieder were the German counterpart of the Italian Laude Spirituale. As observed in Richard Taruskin’s book Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Geisslerlieder were heavily influenced by the monophonic vernacular form of the Italian Laude Spirituale, in addition to drawing inspiration from traditional German pilgrim hymns.


Unlike many musical works of the Middle Ages, information regarding the performance practices of Geisslerlieder and the notated compositions themselves are extant as a result of Hugo Spechtshart von Reutlingen’s observations of flagellants during the Black Death in 1349.

Hugo Spechtshart von Reutlingen (1285–1360) was a Swabian priest and musician who penned a treatise dedicated to plainchant that is known as Flores musice (“Flowers of music”). In 1349, Spechtshart was fascinated by the singing and scourging of the flagellants whom he witnessed engaging in public ritual as a means of plague prevention. As a result, he transcribed Geisslerlieder sung during public processions within his chronicle and documented the rituals that accompanied the singing of these pieces.

German flagellants would begin their processions across the country wearing white robes adorned with a red cross. Flagellant rituals would occur twice per day during processions and would involve removing the penitents’ clothes down to their waists, at which time the participants would kneel on the ground and whip themselves as an accompaniment to the singing of Geisslerlieder. One of the flagellant songs recorded by Hugo Spechtshart is exemplified in musicologist Margot Fassler’s book Music in the Medieval West: Western Music in Context, and is referred to as “Song of the Flagellants During the Time of Plague.” The lyrics are translated as follows:


Now here comes the wave of evil; flee from hot hell. Lucifer is an evil companion. Whomever he catches, he smears with pitch. Therefore, we intend to flee him.

Interestingly, both Fassler and Taruskin have observed that Spechtshart’s fascination with documenting the performance practices and compositions associated with ritual flogging is indicative of a very early type of ethnomusicology (that is, research and study that focuses on the cultures and people from which certain styles of music originate).

While musical repertoire may not be the primary thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking of medieval flagellants, both the Laude Spirituale and the Geisslerlieder served fundamental roles in the rituals of these penitential movements.

Sonja Maurer-Dass is a Canadian musicologist and harpsichordist. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at Western University (London, ON, Canada) where she is researching eighteenth-century French musical exoticism and its relationship to Enlightenment philosophy. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in Musicology specializing in late medieval English choral music and the Old Hall Manuscript from York University (Toronto, Canada). In 2019, Sonja presented her paper titled Royal Authorship in the Old Hall Manuscript: A New Approach for Examining Roy Henry’s Identity and Compositions at the 9th International Medieval Meeting held at the University of Lleida in Lleida, Spain. This paper is currently undergoing peer review for publication in Spain. Follow Sonja on Twitter @SonjaMaurerDass


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Further Reading:

Bornstein, Daniel E. The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy. Cornell University Press, 1993.

Fassler, Margot. Music in the Medieval West: Western Music in Context. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

Pietikäinen, Petteri. Madness: A History. Routledge, 2015. (See pages 33–36 for a detailed description of flagellant ritual related to Geisslerlieder.)

Taruskin, Richard. Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. Revised ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.

Top Image: German flagellants, such as the ones depicted in this woodcut, stripped down to their waists and whipped themselves while singing Geisslerlieder. Illustrations from the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) – Wikimedia Commons 

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.