Major pandemics often coincide with religious or political contagions. In his “History of the Peloponnesian War,” Thucydides records how, during the plague that devastated Athens between 430 and 426 BC, people seemed to lose their moral compasses. “As the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane. … Perseverance in what men called honor was popular with none. … Fear of gods or law of man there was none to restrain them.” Disregard for both religion and law undermined the city’s famous democracy, leading to a reduction of noncitizen residents and ultimately to a period of oligarchy in 411.
During the Black Death that swept across Europe in the 1340s, flagellant orders roamed from town to town, ritually whipping themselves in acts of atonement intended to ward off divine wrath. Calling themselves Cross-Bearers, Flagellant Brethren or Brethren of the Cross, they wore white robes with a red cross on the front and back and similar headgear. On arriving in a town, the brethren would proceed to its church, form a circle, and prostrate themselves, arms outstretched as if crucified. On the command “Arise, by the honor of pure martyrdom,” they would stand up and beat themselves with leather scourges tipped with iron spikes, chanting hymns as they did so, periodically falling back to the ground “as though struck by lightning,” according to a contemporary source.