Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Geisslerlieder and Flagellant Music

with 5 comments

During my research about music during the Black Plague in the 14th century, I’ve tripped over quite a few interesting tangents. Probably the most intriguing is that several groups thought that they could either cure the plague or prevent it by publicly self-flagellating. Crazy, eh?

Part of the reason for this movement was a superstitious and extreme belief in the Catholic religion. And the other part was that it was generally felt that the Catholic Church wasn’t doing enough to help believers. Pre-science, there was no way to know what was causing the plague, and evil spirits were just as likely an explanation as tiny organisms that destroy people’s innards.

Different strokes, eh? (See what I did there?)

A Little Flagellation History

Before you get all huffy that the Catholic Church was horribly cruel, they didn’t come up with the idea of flagellation, whether imposed as a punishment or as an act of personal worship. The Romans used flagellation as a prelude to crucifixion and the ancient Greeks used it as a test for manhood in Sparta. Whipping was a severe form of punishment for the ancient Jews, with only the death penalty more severe. Whipping as a punishment has slowly been outlawed around the globe; Saudi Arabia only made it illegal in 2020 and it’s still legal in a few places, such as Singapore and Syria. I’ll just leave that right there.

In Ancient Rome during the festival of Lupercalia, young men ran through the town wielding thongs of goat skin and women who wished to conceive took blows on their hands. Eunuch priests of Cybele in ancient Rome self-flagellated during certain festivals. Greco-Roman mystery cults employed ritual flagellation.

So it wasn’t a leap when, in the 13th century, Roman Catholic flagellants went from town to town, beating themselves and each other while preaching repentance. It’s a hobby that’s carried on to the present day.

Pope Clement VI approved self-flagellation as a method for preventing or curing the Black Plague in 1348. Later authorities often tried to suppress these demonstrations, but they kept popping up until the 16th century.

This is going to come as a surprise: Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, was a self-flagellant. So was Congregationalist writer Sarah Osborn (1714-1796), as were members of the Tractarian (or Oxford) movement within the Anglican Church in the 19th century. St. Therese of Lisieux practiced self-flagellation in the 19th century, while preaching that God smiled on people who fostered loving relationships and showed patience during difficult times.

Opus Dei, that cultish lay organization within Catholicism made famous by Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code” were self-flagellants. Pope John Paul II (late 20th century) was a self-flagellant, and there are still some communities in Colombia, the Philippines, Mexico, Spain, and Peru where it’s common practice.

In Shi’a Islam, it’s no longer allowed to cut the body with knives or chains as a form of self-flagellation, so some adherents use blood donation and flailing to satisfy this urge. In some communities in the west, the rituals are coordinated with the Red Cross, so the blood doesn’t go to waste.

We can’t ignore the BDSM community. This sexual practice seems to date back (documented, anyway) to the 14th century. There’s art depicting sexual flagellation from the 1600s, and of course, there it is in fiction, starting with John Cleland’s “Fanny Hill,” in 1749, which set off a whole flurry of documents, both frivolous and academic. Ladies who offered this service advertised in the 18th century in London. Movies have contained scenes of flagellation (seldom self-flagellation) since 1905, although some of the earlier of these involve children being spanked, including kids from the Little Rascals series. By the 1940s, the violence is much less moderate. Even Star Trek had Captain Kirk receiving lashes from Nazis in S2:Ep21, in 1967. Of course, to switch back to the whole music theme (you thought I’d forgotten, didn’t you), there’s Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” These guys are singing from the Requiem and clubbing themselves with a plank: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4q6eaLn2mY. They’re singing the words on a psalm tone, which makes a nice rhythmic way to stay together, and they carry a blank banner.

I had a hard time finding specific groups that practiced self-flagellation—most reports seem to be about individuals. The few I found were Tractarians (Anglicans), White Penitents (Catholics), Benedictines (Catholics), the colonial Spanish Hermanos Penitentes (Catholics) in the Americas, Brothers of the Cross (Germany and the Low Countries), and a group of Roman Catholics just called Flagellants. Initially, the Catholic Church tolerated them, but the tide began to turn in the 12th and 13th century, and by the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, they were against it all together and made futile efforts to suppress it; it’s still being practiced today. There were Jews and Muslims doing this too, don’t forget. (I didn’t find evidence of eastern communities doing this. Perhaps it’s a One God phenomenon.)

Tools of the Trade

The main instrument of self-torture is a cattail whip, called a discipline. It’s a collection of knotted cords that the participant flings over his or her own shoulder. Fancy ones have little diamond-shaped metal or leather bits attached at the ends.

Italian Confraternities

Starting in the 10th century, lay people gathered together for religious reasons into groups called confraternities. They weren’t directly affiliated with the Church (the Catholic Church was pretty much the going concern—there were followers of other faiths living in the same towns, like Jews and Muslims, but they were the minority)—and offered a faith-based community for people who couldn’t afford to or weren’t interested in becoming monks, priests, or nuns. In fact, they were often very much the pillars of their communities and had busy and productive lives as part of the town’s economy.

Some confraternities were based on doing good acts (specifically the Seven Acts of Corporal Mercy that are listed in the New Testament—Matthew 25: 31-46). In some communities, such as Bergamo, they collected money for dowries and to ransom captured soldiers, and they helped those affected by natural disasters. Others emphasized personal mortification of the flesh as a way to salvation, beating themselves bloody thinking that they or others would be saved because of it. These folks, called battuti or disciplinati in Italian, flagellated themselves at public gatherings or during religious processions.

As I mentioned, this started in the 10th century, but during the height of the plague years, convinced that the Catholic God was punishing His followers, they thought that mortifying their flesh would appease a grumpy God despite their personal failures. You’ve got to remember that the Church was selling indulgences and (sometimes fake) saints’ relics to forgive sins, and it was pretty commonly thought that virtue was transactional: Be bad, buy an indulgence, be forgiven.

Frankly, the fear brought to the population by the seeming randomness of the Black Plague caused them to turn to just about anything as a possible remedy. Flagellation was as likely a cure as anything else, and the church sanctioned this “work,” at least during the plague years.

I found scholars who think that the flagellation practice originated in Italy, spread through Switzerland to Germany and France, to Poland, Britain, and on to Scandinavia (although it’s hard to follow the trail anthropologically). Self-flagellation was particularly common in the 14th century, as mentioned, as a possible cure for the plague. And the Geisslerlieder were written down by clerics who found the practice both inspirational and terrifying. There’s the music at last!

On to the Music

Someone self-flagellating in private worship might punctuate the words of a prayer with a strike, but it was desirable for public groups to stay together. Thus arose the need for a whole new species of music.

Remember that during the 13th and 14th century, sacred music didn’t have rhythm—it was basically Gregorian chant. Although polyphony was starting to welcome some sort of regular beat (a tactus), it wasn’t really essential until the middle and end of the 15th century, and even then, it was performed by music specialists, not lay people or ordinary monks and nuns.

Geisslerlieder (the German for Flagellant Songs) were simple pieces, sung in the vernacular, not Latin. In this way, they were closer to secular music than to sacred. They were often call-and-response (like an antiphon). They were always sung, with instrumental accompaniment strictly prohibited. Remember that last bit when you’re listening to the examples below.

Some flagellant songs survived into the 17th century as folk songs, probably through the Minnesinger tradition, but I have some more research to do on this particular topic.

The first recorded Geisslerlieder are from 1258, when the breakdown of civil order resulting from wars, famine, and plague in Northern Italy sent the superstitious scurrying after some cure for their ills. In general, the songs pled with God for relief. Initially, it was nobility and merchants who participated, but as the movement spread outside of Italy, everyone got into the act. You could even sponsor someone to flagellate for your benefit. There’s transactional virtue again.

Very few songs have survived intact from that 13th century movement. There are several collections that include lyrics, but few melodies were preserved, possibly only one. Music notation wasn’t really a thing lots of people knew.

During the Black Death outbreak of 1349, there was a resurgence of interest in self-flagellation and the music that went with it. This time, more of it was preserved. Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen (1285-1360) transcribed a bunch of it, and his work is one of the earliest examples of collecting folk songs. His treatise was the Chronicon Hugonis sacerdotis de Flutelinga (1349). It contains largely monophonic verse and refrain, call-and-response-style. Interestingly, Hugo wrote variations among the verses sung by the leader, which was not at all common in sacred music but was common in secular music. This lends credence to the melodies being more like secular music than sacred. This 1349 resurgence of flagellants spread even further, reaching England, Poland, and Scandinavia.

Eventually, the movement was suppressed by the church. Imitators, such as those in Switzerland, used different texts with the familiar melodies to make bawdy drinking songs. They probably thumped their tankards on the table instead of swatting themselves with a switch, though.

In some flagellant songs the leader sang “kyrie-eleis” (not a typo) and the flagellants responded by repeating it. Here’s one of the ones with more interesting words:

The words mean (my translation): “Now the final journey is here, Christ enters Jerusalem. He leads from the cross in His hand, now the savior helps us.” I think it’s from the story of Christ carrying his cross through the town.

Here’s another:

This one means (according to Hoppen): “Now approaches the deluge of evil. Let us flee from burning Hell. Lucifer is an evil companion. Whomever he seizes, he besmears with pitch. Therefore, we want to shun him.” It’s thought that the flagellants prostrated themselves in the shape of the cross during the refrain. Rhymed couplets form the words and the music repeats (AABB) or alternating (ABAB).

Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen documented six songs: three processional or traveling songs, and three for a flagellation ceremony. One of the processional songs is 57 stanzas long!

Here’s ONE stanza of that long one:

According to Hoppin, this one means: “Mary, our Lady, Kyrie eleison. Who [is] in godly sight, Alleluia. Praise be to thee, Maria.”

I found some music and verses for the song that appears three times in the Listening Posts section in Reese, if you want to research that on your own.

The songs slightly followed the form of laudes (or lauda, as the plural should be), which were songs of worship that followed the call-and-response and vernacular hymn rules. Of course, they were monophonic (no harmonies), until polyphony became more popular in the 15th century. Melodically and structurally, they somewhat anticipate the Lutheran Chorale form, you know, the one Bach made so famous.

Listening Posts:

My French barely even qualifies as minimal, so I may have misunderstood what I read, but it’s possible that the only surviving piece is the “Maria Muoter reinu mait” from 1349. Someone with better French than me, please read a book by Claude Abromont and tell me about it.

If you go searching for music on YouTube, be forewarned. There’s a lot of heavy metal and doom band music out there (some by a band called Flagellant), including videos with disturbing content. I have only provided links to less disturbing videos. They might still bother you though—they’re about people beating themselves.

I’ve ordered another book (in German), so there may be a follow-up post.

Sources:

“The New Grove Dictionary of Music,” ed. Stanley Sadie. Online.

“Medieval Music” by Richard Hoppin. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1978.

“The Black Death; The Great Mortality of 1348.” By John Aberth. St. Martin’s, New York, 2005.

“Music from the Earliest Notation to the Sixteenth Century,” by Richard Taruskin. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010.

“Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music,” by Don Michael Randel. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, 1978.

“Early Medieval Music up to 1300,” by Dom Anselm Hughes. Oxford University Press, London, 1954.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton, New York, 1940.

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 21, 2020 at 8:56 am

5 Responses

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  1. Dear Melanie, I think you have duplicated the first example as the third as well?

    Peter Maslen Vessey

    September 21, 2020 at 9:33 am

  2. Very interesting article! One comment though: After the third notated musical excerpt above, it says that “According to Hoppin, this one means: ‘Mary, our Lady, Kyrie eleison. Who [is] in godly sight, Alleluia. Praise be to thee, Maria.’” But as we speak, the third excerpt is a copy of the first one.

    Donald Wright

    September 23, 2020 at 4:20 am


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