Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/33

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21
EPIDEMIC DELUSIONS.

not known in this country since the great plague of London in Charles II.'s time, and one or two smaller outbreaks since, but which has now entirely left us. The severity of this plague in Europe was so great that upon a very moderate calculation one in four of the entire population was carried off by it; and in some instances it is said that nine-tenths of the people died of it. You may imagine, therefore, what a terrible infliction it was. And you would have supposed that it would have called forth the better feelings of men and women generally; but it did not. One of the worst features, morally, of that terrible affliction, was the lamentable suspension of all natural feelings which it seemed to induce. When any member of a family was attacked by this plague, every one seemed to desert him, or desert her; the sick were left, to die alone, or merely under the charge of any persons who thought that they would be paid for rendering this service; and the funerals were carried on merely by these paid hirelings in a manner most repulsive to the feelings: and yet the very people who so deserted their relatives would join the bands of flagellants, who paraded about from place to place, and even from country to country—mortifying their flesh in this manner for the purpose of saving their own souls, and, as they said, also making expiation for the great sins which had brought down this terrible visitation. This system of flagellation never gained the same head in this country that it did on the Continent. A band of about 100 came to London about the middle of the reign of Edward III., in the year 1350. They came in the usual style, with banners and even instruments of music, and they paraded the streets of London. At a given signal every one lay down and uncovered the shoulders, excepting the last person, who then flogged every one till he got to the front, where he lay down; and the person last in the rear stood up, and in his turn flogged every one in front of him. Then he went to the front and lay down; and so it went on until the whole number had thus been flogged, each by every one of his fellows. This discipline however, did not approve itself to the good citizens of London, and it is recorded that the band of flagellants returned without having made any converts. Whether the skins of the London citizens were too tender, or whether their good sense prevailed over this religious enthusiasm, we are not informed; at any rate, the flagellants went back very much as they came, and the system never took root in this country; yet for many years it was carried on elsewhere. One very curious instance is given of the manner in which it fastened on the mind that mothers actually scourged their new-born infants before they were baptized, believing that in so doing they were making an offering acceptable to God. Now all this appears to us perfectly absurd. We can scarcely imagine the state of mind that should make any sober, rational persons suppose that this could be an offering acceptable to Almighty God; but it was in accordance with the religious ideas of the time; and for a good while even the Church sanctioned