The Bianchi of 1399 in Central Italy: Making Devotion Local by Alexandra R. A. Lee

Today’s post comes from previous LSMS seminar speaker Dr Alexandra R. A. Lee, who discusses her monograph below.

The Bianchi of 1399 was a popular religious revival that responded to a threat of plague at the end of the fourteenth century. The Bianchi are traditionally studied as a homogeneous whole, such as in Bornstein’s excellent 1993 monograph, or in terms of individual case studies as in the wide-reaching collected volume Sulle Orme dei Bianchi (2001). In my work, I’ve done a local, comparative analysis of the Bianchi. This reveals intimate, local details about the Bianchi processions in locations they reached in central Italy, demonstrating how the movement was shaped by local traditions and norms. My book has 8 chapters, and I’ve combined them into the key ideas here: plague, origins, regulations, “Civic Religion” and legacy.

The Bianchi have a complicated relationship with the plague, as I demonstrated in my LSMS talk in October 2020. The origin stories for the movement make it clear that those who do not participate in the Bianchi devotions will die through plague. The processions overlapped somewhat with the outbreak of plague at the end of the fourteenth century, but the chronicles remain frustratingly silent on any connection they may have made between the Bianchi devotions and the actual outbreak of plague. Another key here is that plague became a constant feature of life in the fourteenth century, as it recurred roughly once a decade, meaning that it was a very credible threat for those moved to participate in the Bianchi movement.

The origins of the movement are quite disparate- it seems that even those in 1399 weren’t quite sure how the Bianchi began. There are three separate narratives, which are situated variously in Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Spain and the Orient. This meant that there was a lack of cohesion baked into the devotions, so there was scope for each town to shape the processions to their own norms. 

Participants in the devotions were expected to follow certain regulations, like fasting, going barefoot and wearing white. All of these were subject to local norms. For example, eggs were banned in Orvieto, but were actively offered to Bianchi participants in Pistoia. Wearing white could mean full, hooded robes, or just a handkerchief on your head, depending on what an individual had access to. Other activities included singing and self-flagellation. The Bianchi “theme tune” was the Stabat Mater, although there was a vernacular equivalent in central Italy: Misericordia eterno Idio/Misericordia Virgine pia– the different first line marking a regional variation between Tuscany and Umbria. With self-flagellation, I argue that most Bianchi participants engaged in a symbolic form of the practice. There were some who whipped their bare skin in a ritualised, urban context. However, the majority of the participants appear to have just carried a whip, or used it over their robes, not making contact with their skin in a much less ascetic form of the practice. 

Civic Religion is a notoriously tricky concept to tie down. Ultimately, it describes the involvement of secular authorities in religious endeavours, usually in an urban environment. Despite the fact that the Bianchi processions were often itinerant, I argue that Civic Religion is still relevant due to the heavy involvement of communal authorities. Both secular and ecclesiastical authorities were involved, and indeed it is sometimes hard to separate them, so I argue they should both be included in Civic Religion. The clergy was effectively the public face of the devotions, and the secular authorities tended to move behind the scenes. They organised things like provisions, sending out pack animals after itinerant Bianchi from their own town to ensure they would be feed and watered during their penitential procession. 

La processione dei Bianchi, Vallo di Nera, Santa Maria Maggiore (1401), created by Cola di Pietro da Camerino. Image by Natale Madeo.

The final part of my book examines the legacy of the Bianchi. Taking a broad perspective, there is very little that can be seen, so it’s at the local level where the memory of this popular religious revival comes alive. Indeed, in Florence, a Bianchi confraternity was reinvigorated in 2016 (I am an honorary member through their Facebook group). In Umbria, the legacy is mostly realised in frescoes, either of Bianchi processions, an origin narrative, or the Madonna dell’Oliva, a miracle which occurred in Assisi in August 1399. The story in Tuscany is a little different, with a focus on confraternities and crucifixes. Florence boasts at least five crucifixes which can still (allegedly) be connected to the Bianchi. One confraternity in Lucca lasted until the early 1900s- by this time it had become a catechesis school rather than maintaining its focus on the Bianchi ideals of peace and penitence, but this is a very long lifespan. 

Madonna dell’Olivia. Image by Natale Madeo.

Ultimately, individuals wore whatever white cloth they could find and clamoured to join the Bianchi devotions. They were given instruction from the origin stories, and hoped to prevent a pestilential annihilation through their participation. They were supported in their devotional activities by their local communes, who provided food and wine, as well as leadership and organisation. The Bianchi were remembered according to local norms and traditions. So, it’s through this local, comparative examination at the movement that new intricacies are revealed. 

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