note: One of the great benefits of reading history is being able to watch the evolution of ideas and their consequences over the course of long periods of time. D’Aubigne is a master of tracing and portaying such things, and what you find below is a helpful example of it. -jr
“What most of all deformed Christianity was the system of penance which rose out of Pelagianism. Penance at first consisted in certain public signs of repentance, which the Church required of those whom she had excluded for scandal, and who were desirous of being again received into her bosom.
By degrees, penance was extended to all sins, even the most secret, and was considered as a kind of chastisement to which it was necessary to submit, in order to acquire the pardon of God through the absolution of priests.
Ecclesiastical penance was thus confounded with Christian repentance, without which there cannot be either justification or sanctification.
Instead of expecting pardon from Christ only by faith, it was expected chiefly from the Church by works of penance.
Great importance was attached to the outward marks of repentance: tears, fastings, and macerations, while the internal renewal of the heart, which alone constitutes true conversion, was forgotten.
As confession and works of penance are easier than the extirpation of sin, and the abandonment of vice, many ceased to struggle against the lusts of the flesh, deeming it better to supply their place by means of certain macerations.
Works of penance substituted in lieu of the salvation of God kept multiplying in the Church from the days of Tertullian in the third century. The thing now deemed necessary was to fast, go barefoot, and wear no linen, etc., or to quit house and home for distant lands, or better still, to renounce the world and embrace the monastic state!
To all this were added, in the eleventh century, voluntary flagellations. These, at a later period, became a real mania in Italy, which at that time was violently agitated. Nobles and peasants, young and old, even children of five, go two and two by hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands, through villages, towns and cities, with an apron tied round their waist (their only clothing,) and visit the churches in procession in the dead of winter. Armed with a whip, they flagellate themselves without mercy, and the streets resound with cries and groans, such as to force tears from those who hear them.”
from D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation