THE BLACK DEATH AND THE FLAGELLANTS
History provides an interesting example of group‐as‐a‐whole reenactment behavior in the Flagellant Movement. The fourteenth century was an extremely trying time for European humanity. The Black Plague first hit the ports on the Adriatic, spread to the Mediterranean in 1348 and then across to England, spending itself in the Baltic in 1350. It recurred again in 1361. At least a third of the population of Europe was wiped out. In some areas the numbers were even higher, sometimes reaching two‐thirds of the population. Such losses are unimaginable, perhaps, today, but it is safe to assume, and clear from contemporary accounts, that the result was massive detachment from others:
“Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that showed fellowfeeling for another, how kinsfork held aloof and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women that, in the horror thereof, brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister and, oftentimes, husband by wife, nay, what is more and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers” (Ziegler, 1969).
The prime cause for the plague was clear ‐ it was retribution for wickedness of the present generation. The people were not exactly sure what they had done, but they were guilty. This sense of collective guilt, however, did not stop them from blaming the poor, lepers, and Jews for the catastrophe and these groups were persecuted, serving as scapegoats for the disease, particularly in Germany (McNeil, 1976; Ziegler, 1969). Subsequent to the plague, the artistic vision of the human condition darkened, the “Dance of Death” became a common theme in the arts, confidence in rational theology was radically diminished with an upswing in mysticism, and faith in the clergy was seriously shaken (McNeil, 1976; Mollat, 1986).
The plague provided a massive, shared, European prototype for social alienation, as the quotation above illustrates. Even touch and smell were labeled as poisonous. Established authority of church, state, and aristocracy failed miserably to bring relief. And the citizenry saw the plague coming as it marched across Europe, producing a prolonged period of horror against which there was no defense that was effective. For survivors of the plague, death was all around, ever imminent, waiting to take its next victims. The old rituals of the church were ineffective against the tide of disease.
The Flagellant Movement has been seen as a ritualized way of managing anxiety as a response to the plague. It was largest in Germany, although Flagellants did appear in other parts of Europe as well, and it was only after the plague that it appeared as a group activity. The Flagellants would move in procession from town to town, men and women segregated by gender. When they reached a town, they would form a large circle, strip to the waist, march around the circle and then at a signal from the Master, would throw themselves on the ground for the master to whip. Then the flagellation became collective. Each member carried a heavy scourge “a kind of stick from which three tails with large knots hung down. Through the knots were thrust iron spikes as sharp as needles which projected about the length of a grain of wheat or sometimes a little more. With such scourges they lashed themselves on their naked bodies so that they became swollen and blue, the blood ran down to the ground and bespattered the walls of the churches in which they scourged themselves”. Members of the town would gather around, urge them on, and there was a belief that there was healing to be had in their vicinity. Pope Clement VI finally banished the practice in 1349 and many of the Flagellants were incarcerated, tortured, or executed. The movement continued to be encountered into the fifteenth century, but it had by then, lost its power to effect the prevailing culture. Interestingly, the Flagellants played a significant role in inciting the massacre of Jews in many of the towns they visited(Ziegler, 1969).
Group flagellation provides a powerful illustration of socially‐induced and condoned self‐mutilation, a practice so typical of victims of trauma who have suffered serious insults to attachment systems. These were acts of self‐sacrifice in service of the group as well, attempts to control the uncontrollable. The close relationship between victim and victimizer is also apparent in the role the Flagellants played in persecuting each other, themselves, and Jews as well.
A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE OF GROUP REENACTMENT
A few months ago, a nurse from another unit overseas came to visit our inpatient psychiatric unit for two weeks. This is a program devoted to treating the profound psychiatric effects of childhood trauma (Bloom, 1994). The nurse was initially an outsider to the group, but she rapidly integrated into the staff milieu and provided a unique observer/participant role for the time she was present. The first week, the patient community was unusually obstructive. The patients were not functioning well as a group. There were frequent complaints about the usual things ‐ staff not being attentive enough, poor food, not enough hot water, and the like ‐ all of which consumed an inordinate amount of time in individual and group discussion while serving to allow everyone to avoid the necessity of dealing with their real reasons for being in the hospital. No amount of staff redirection seemed able to get the community back onto its therapeutic tasks. The level of acting‐out in the form of self‐mutilation, suicidal ideation, and minor boundary violations escalated throughout the week. Yet these patients were in no substantive way different from a similar group of patients on any other week. By the end of the week, the staff were bitterly complaining that this is the “worst community we have ever had”.
There was a regular staff meeting scheduled for the end of the week, and although not designed to talk about the immediate situation of the patient community, the visiting nurse tentatively broached the subject as a question for the group. In doing so, she took the valve off the pressure cooker and the staff began voicing their concerns, conflicts, and fears about upcoming changes. In a few months the unit was due to be moved to an entirely new hospital, forcing all of us to adjust to many unwanted changes including the loss of important relationships, while also offering more opportunities for growth and the potential for greater safety. As the conversation continued, focused exclusively on staff, not patient concerns, what also emerged was a previously unexpressed recognition that this week signaled the second anniversary of a suicide that had occurred on the unit and that had been a traumatic experience for everyone involved.
Seemingly miraculously, and through no other intervention, by the next week we had “the best community ever”. The patients ‐ the very same patients ‐ were eagerly and wholeheartedly embracing therapy, focusing on their significant issues, and working together with care and compassion as a group. And the staff had at least surfaced their conflicts and were greatly relieved at the transformation in the patient community.
A miracle? No, just the seemingly unpredictable and random events of a group. But I have seen similar phenomenon occur as a routine part of therapeutic milieu functioning and know that it is neither random nor unpredictable, nor is it being guided by a single individual or even can be explained by a simple summing of individual experiences. Before our visitor had hinted at the problems, they remained unconscious for the entire group, despite a combined experience of several hundred years of group work. She was able to see it because she functioned on the boundary ‐ partly in and partly out of the group process. But once the conflict was surfaced, we all became quite conscious of the way our group had been functioning, unwittingly, and outside the desires or intentions of any individual. Something emerges out of group process that is more than a simple sum, whether we want to call it “groupmind”, “group consciousness” or group‐as‐a‐ whole. Likewise, the group unconscious can exert a powerful influence on everyone in its field of influence, and the most vulnerable members of any community ‐ in this case our patients ‐ are the ones most likely to signal the conflict through overt disturbance.
Bloom, S. L. (1994). The Sanctuary Model: Developing Generic Inpatient Programs for the Treatment of Psychological Trauma. Handbook of Post-Traumatic Therapy, A Practical Guide to Intervention, Treatment, and Research. M. B. Williams and J. F. Sommer, Greenwood Publishing: 474-491.
McNeil, W.H. (1976). Plagues and peoples. New York: Doubleday.
Mollat, M. (1986). The poor in the middle ages. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Ziegler, P. (1969). The Black Death. New York: Harper and Row.