A World Gone Crazy
No one knew precisely where the march had begun, but it was rumored to have its origins in Perugia, that ancient Etruscan city proudly sitting a thousand feet above the Tiber River, and it appeared to be slowly making its way south toward Rome. A simple man named Raneiro led this group on a Sunday afternoon. If he didn’t look so dour and serious, the unsuspecting villagers might have mistaken their predawn visitors for one of the wandering theatrical troupes that frequented these parts of Italy. But this was no troupe; the people weren’t hungover or sleepy or even remotely jocular, and they weren’t wandering. Raneiro’s march was a planned procession of converts.
Spectators watched as this ragtag group of ordinary working Italians walked mostly single file and barefoot, the one in front carrying a banner bearing an illustration, rough woven in wool and satin, of the scourging of Christ. On that emblem the Lord God was depicted standing with his hands tied behind his back, nothing but a rag wrapped around his slender waist, while two burly soldiers whipped him. The barefoot converts sang songs and chants, mostly to the Virgin Mary. Their procession had been winding its way from village to village throughout Umbria, on either side of the Tiber River, picking up new members along the way. They called themselves the disciplinati.
Self-flagellation has been around since the Middle Ages, but Dan Brown sensationalized the practice by including in The Da Vinci Code an evil albino monk who whips himself in private each evening as a spiritual practice. Yes, people still do it. The custom is one among a collection of practices called Christian mortification. A Roman Catholic order of nearly 100,000 people called Opus Dei quietly advocates “the discipline” as a way of taming the body’s appetites and participating in the sufferings of Christ. In fact, in early 2010 Slawomir Oder, the Polish monsignor overseeing the cause in Rome for John Paul II, disclosed in a new book that John Paul II was a self-flagellator. He even took his whip with him on vacation.1
Once they had gathered in the village center, the disciplinati began to unpack satchels containing their instruments of self-torture. Raneiro slung his bag from his shoulder and plunked it on the cobblestones. He was rail thin, but his wool hair shirt added a little bulk to his emaciated frame. Hair shirts at the time were almost a layperson’s monastic “habit.” For many, a monk’s generous habit had come to stand for a life of easy excess, and not asceticism. Oftentimes only the highborn or most naturally gifted were admitted to the best monasteries, and those monasteries were often the only places in a region where sumptuous food, plenty of drink, and personal safety were to be had. The man beneath the habit was often the most portly man around. In contrast, the wearing of a hair shirt represented a truer commitment.
The disciplinati were inspired by the new religious orders that were springing up during Peter Morrone’s lifetime, among them the Franciscans and Dominicans, who dedicated their lives to chastity and poverty. Ordinary folk sometimes wore chains around the torso or in other private places hidden beneath clothing, making daily movement deliberately difficult and uncomfortable. Other practices, such as giving up the commonly accepted comforts of extra clothing or soft beds, became common as well. These lay penitents were known to sleep on wooden boards and go without shoes even in the harshness of winter. The practice of being “discalced,” or without shoes, has roots in the Desert Fathers and Mothers of late antiquity, and was intermittently practiced by thousands of penitents in the thirteenth century.
These Christians practiced their asceticism in the streets. Some of them lived simply, worked, and raised their families around Rome. Some were full-time pilgrims on their way to Rome to see the places where Saint Paul and Saint Peter were martyred for the faith, or to Compostela in Spain to view the relics of the apostle James. Their focus was on personal penitence, but they also advocated public and corporate displays of repentance for sins: they were witnessing to the need to repent for the faults of the Church at large, just as Christ had once assumed the sins of the world, hanging them upon a cross. The spread of these practices often coincided with a flaring up of the plague that was ravishing cities and villages throughout Europe. Ordinary citizens often believed that infectious disease was a form of divine judgment on them, so they began to do penance to satisfy God. Lay preachers would stand in the public squares during rallies and preach for days to all who would listen. The actions of flagellants and other groups of penitents often took the form of what we’d recognize today as protests, and seemed to be aimed at communicating warnings to their ecclesiastical leadership. They would chant things such as “We beat ourselves so that God does not have to.”2 As they tried to assume personal and spiritual responsibility for troubles that were bigger than themselves, they also carried around a feeling of dread. What did the future hold? Was the end of the world at hand?
Most of the disciplinati men were already bare to the waist. It was eighty degrees in the early morning air, with the sun beating down. Raneiro removed his rough cord whip, with thorns embedded in the knots at the ends, designed to lacerate the skin, and he untangled the strands. Then he began to strike himself. Flagellum means “whip” in Latin. Grabbing the handle of the whip in his right hand, he snapped it over his left shoulder again and again, slowly and methodically, holding his left hand firm against his abdomen.
What were Raneiro’s motives? Why was he doing this to himself? Just as the people of Nineveh avoided destruction at the hands of an angry God by fasting and putting on sackcloth (according to the book of Jonah), the flagellants making their way toward Rome were demonstrating to God that they wanted to repent for whatever humankind had done to bring on the plague, war, corruption, storms, and violence that they were experiencing.
Not long ago flagellants and other “religious enthusiasts” were written off as simply “hot-blooded.” Victorianera scholars wrote books for armchair enthusiasts about people from other cultures and eras who demonstrated passion for religious faith that seemed, to them at least, foreign. But that was the Victorian era; from the vantage point of the twenty-first century we can see how religion and passion intimately and easily intermingle. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of thirteenth-century flagellants was not typical of most Catholics. This generation had watched the rise of Gothic cathedrals. This was the time when Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus were teaching students at the University of Paris, and universities were still a new idea. So while Chartres was rising like a skyscraper and Aquinas was writing a hundred volumes of theological commentary on every subject imaginable, why is it that outside the courtyards of bishops’ residences and village cathedrals it seemed that the world was going mad? Right in the middle of the city square, some Christians were reduced to whipping themselves raw.
Children flocked into the city center like swallows at the first sounds of the approaching group. Mocking, at first, they then stood enraptured, waiting for the show, only to laugh with a certain horror and then scatter before the pigeons began to lap up the blood.
The disciplinati were the conservatives of their day. These particular ones were antigovernment, weary of corrupt local lords as well as King Manfred and his German knights, whose rule was about to end in the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. They desired more local control over their lives and they expected greater moral fortitude in their leaders. They were a missionary movement, creating their own holy crusade through self-inflicted torture and confession to show religious leaders that conversion begins right here and right now—on the flesh and shoulders of the penitent—rather than in some far-off land. And they were among the first people of the Middle Ages to become spiritually self-determining: they were finished with being told what was just and holy by ecclesiastical leaders who were usually anything but.
A Hermit’s Life
Peter Morrone knew many among this order of flagellants. He watched them with interest. He shared some of their ideas. But he was not one of them. He was a quiet man, he was poor, and he was a hermit.
Peter walked barefoot in the name of God among the cities of the Abruzzi, the Marches, and Umbria, traversing Italian villages and mountain retreats and bishoprics with his brothers in order to secure income and protection for their churches and hermitages. He was in many respects a common beggar, but a beggar in the name of Christ.
When we imagine a hermit some of us think of a crazy, misanthropic sort of character. Neither characterization is true of Peter. We might also imagine a recluse with long fingernails and matted dirty hair. Peter may have fit this description. But in essentials he was a man who had separated himself from the world. He lived austerely, as a visible reminder to other Christians—bishops, priests, cloistered monks—that Jesus went to the desert to fast and be tempted by the devil. The Gospels tell of Jesus going off to be alone on several occasions, including in the final decisive moments in the Garden of Gethsemane before the soldiers arrested him. Hermits did not live in homes. They didn’t aspire to anything permanent. They lived as self-consciously as the one who said of himself, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”3
Hermits inhabited caves and huts, sometimes lean-tos that were attached to larger buildings, and they lived always in a way that de-emphasized the values that others around them placed on a settled domestic life of marriage, children, and possessions. Jesus called his disciples out of the world, telling them to follow him totally and completely. Hermits took these words literally. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them,” Jesus said (Mt. 6:26). So, like the birds, a hermit was supposed to live without planning for the future. He had foresworn the comforts of a wife or children. He called his home a tomb, for he had already “died” to the world.
We have no descriptions of Peter’s appearance, and the only paintings of him that still exist depict him when he was in his eighties. But as a robust adult he was surely thickly bearded, with dark hair in clotted locks, for it would have been rarely washed or combed. We know that he was several inches taller than the average man of his day, his height emphasized by his uncommonly erect stature. In those days height was usually taken to be a sign of upright integrity. The medieval mind was captivated by physiological determinism: the notion that a person’s physical traits are indications of his character. To have a high nose was to be haughty. To have a large head was to be intelligent. That is why we see in old stories the eye patch of a pirate symbolizing his craftiness. The curvature of a moneylender’s spine indicates his conniving. The long, unbound hair of a woman shows that she is of loose morals. And so it goes. A hunchback doesn’t grow up to be an archbishop or pope.
Rail thin from a lifetime of ascetic practice, Peter wasn’t lithe but he was vigorous. He had the stature and bearing of a man with power. Medieval men often chose between power that was regnum (royal) and power that was sacerdotium (priestly), but Peter was destined to live both. Even in his eighties, when he was elected pope, Peter was a presence.
After his death, the people of Sulmona, the city closest to Mount Morrone, would testify that his asceticism was so severe as to make his body appear tormented. He was grizzled and worn. Peter lived a difficult sort of a life. He dressed in the religious garb he’d chosen for his monks, namely, a grey habit (emphasizing lowliness) and a starkly contrasting dark hood (signifying death). He looked the part of the penitent. “Only divine grace could allow him to remain alive,” those who knew him said, and just looking at his tortured face moved many people to tears.4
Hermits were only one of many spiritual types that kindled the imaginations of people who lived more ordinary lives in villages and towns. These were the days of traveling mystics, new religious movements, warrior monks, street ascetics, and spiritual wonders. Among them Knights Templar and Teutonic Knights were the most valiant and colorful figures of the day; they were the heroes of the Crusades. The first recorded case of someone receiving the stigmata also occurred in Peter’s lifetime—it happened to Saint Francis of Assisi, in Umbria in 1224. Many Christians, whose lives consisted of little more than a series of boring, repetitive, everyday acts, made claims to extraordinary mystical experiences. Figures and events such as these filled the minds of the women and men of Peter’s century.
But corruption and violence were very much on people’s minds as well. Kings, knights, and mercenaries routinely invaded the lands of Italy throughout the century, competing to govern more territory and to make themselves richer by levying taxes on the citizens who remained. Local civic leaders attempted to keep order. Religious leaders tried, usually in vain, to negotiate for peace. But more often than not, ordinary people either sought refuge from corruption, violence, disease, and other common hardships by entering religious life (if they were fortunate enough to be accepted by one of the monasteries or convents), or they kept their heads down and tried to work out their lives as best they could while hoping for something better.
Occasionally, a holy man would emerge who could break through the old patterns and ways of being. People believed in those portions of the Bible that spoke of prophets, leaders, liberators, and the Messiah. After Abraham came Moses; after Moses, David; from David, Jesus. Jesus, they knew, would return someday, and preparing the way for him would be good men such as Saint Francis of Assisi, whom some still remembered. The prophet Isaiah once foretold:
A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Is. 40:3–5)
Despite their troubles, people still believed that a truly honest and good man might one day be found who might save Christ’s church, the world, and their souls.