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Church and Denominational History
Writings of James Craigie Robertson
Sketches of Church History
Book 2 Church History: A.D. 589 - 1517
Chapter 19 Religious Sects and Parties
On the other hand, as I have mentioned (p 225), the Inquisition was set on foot for the discovery and punishment of such doctrines as the Roman Church condemned; and it was worked with a secrecy, an injustice, and a cruelty which made men quake with fear wherever it was established. It is a comfort to know that in the British islands this hateful kind of tyranny never found a footing.
There were large numbers of persons called Mystics, who thought to draw near to God, and to give up their own will to His will, in a way beyond what ordinary believers could understand. Among these was a society which called itself the Friends of God; and these friends belonged to the Church at the same time that they had this closer and more secret tie of union among themselves. There is a very curious story how John Tauler, a Dominican friar of Strasburg, was converted by the chief of this party, Nicolas of Basel. Tauler had gained great fame as a preacher, and had reached the age of fifty-two, when Nicolas, who had been one of his hearers, visited him, and convinced him that he was nothing better than a Pharisee. In obedience to the direction of Nicolas, Tauler shut himself up for two years, without preaching or doing any other work as a clergyman, and even without studying. When, at the end of that time, he came forth again to the world, and first tried to preach, he burst into tears and quite broke down; but on a second trial, it was found that he preached in a new style, and with vastly more of warmth and of effect than he had ever done before. Tauler was born in 1294, and died in 1361.
In these times many were very fond of trying to make out things to come from the prophecies of the Old Testament and of the Revelation, and some people of both sexes supposed themselves to have the gift of prophecy. And in seasons of great public distress, multitudes would break out into some wild sort of religious display, which for a time carried everything before it, and seemed to do a great deal of good, although the wiser people looked on it with distrust; but after a while it passed away, leaving those who had taken part in it rather worse than better than before. Among the outbreaks of this kind was that of the "Flagellants", which showed itself several times in various places. The first appearance of it was in 1260, when it began at Perugia, in the middle of Italy, and spread both southwards to Rome and northwards to France, Hungary, and Poland. In every city, large companies of men, women, and children moved about the streets, with their faces covered, but their bodies naked down to the waist. They tossed their limbs wildly, they dashed themselves down on the ground in mud or snow, and cruelly "flagellated" (or flogged) themselves with whips, while they shouted out shrieks and prayers for mercy and pardon.
Again, after a terrible plague called the Black Death, which raged from Sicily to Greenland about 1349 (p 191), parties of flagellants went about half naked, singing and scourging themselves. Whenever the Saviour's sufferings were mentioned in their hymns, they threw themselves on the ground like logs of wood, with their arms stretched out in the shape of a cross, and remained prostrate in prayer until a signal was given them to rise.
These movements seemed to do good at first by reconciling enemies and by forcing the thoughts of death and judgment on ungodly or careless people. But after a time they commonly took the line of throwing contempt on the clergy and on the sacraments and other usual means of grace. And when the stir caused by them was over, the good which they had appeared to do proved not to be lasting.
the Fifth Week after Easter