In this week’s podcast on exploring plagues in the late Medieval period with Dr Alex Lee, “The Bianchi Plague Processions of 1399”, she offered an exciting perspective on religious expressions in response to plague. Alex provided details about the historical context and the religious symbolism to help explain the reasons why Italian communities dealing with the huge impacts of the plague of 1399-1400, gathered together in groups and processed from city to city across Tuscany and how their local governments work out the logistics to facilitate these religious expressions and maintain order.
Thinking about plagues from the ancient world and their impacts is something I’ve considered a lot since starting a podcast. After choosing a variety of topics and individuals to discuss, it has surprised me how frequently I’ve seen connections back to the Antonine Plague. There were many types of cures and prayers used in antiquity to deal with plague, which Liam and I discussed in our first episode, “Plagues and Pandemics“, looking at the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century CE and the cult of Glycon from Abōnóteichos (later Ionopolis), in Asia Minor. This mystery-healing cult gained prominence due to its ritual healing prescriptions and the charismatic leadership of Alexander Abōnóteichos.
Alexander mixed various traditions into his cult: he said a snake would be born of an egg in the foundations of the temple of Asclepius in Abōnóteichos, and then when it spoke, the voice and prophecy would be directly from the god. He would interpret the Harry Potter-style parcel-tongue utterances and give out cures for healing, political advice, oracles and more. For many centuries before, snake cults were intimately associated with the healing gods from Apollo, Asclepius and Hygiea, to Isis and Serapis! This new popular religious cult gave its founder influence within the ranks of the elite of Roman provincial administrators, his daughter even married the governor of the Roman province of Asia.
As the outbreak of plague swept the Roman Empire around 160 CE , desperate people sought all types of cures and protective charms; those included visits to Glycon, whose interpreters issued a little prayer: “shorn Phoebus, keep away the cloud of plague” which people have been found in the archaeological record carrying on their person (in burial) and inscribed on doorways. Christian writers in the period were incredibly sceptical and condemned Alexander and his cult as charlatans. One unexpected outcome of the religious prescriptions to the plague was that it made those who had the magic words on their person, or above their house door, more confident and less likely to stay away from crowds or those with illness, since they believed they were under the protection of Apollo through Glycon. Thus, according to Christian writers, his adherent’s were the most likely to die and also prove their case that their god was the right one.
The foundation story of the Bianchi movement has a few sources, but one is the the ‘tre pani’ story, discussed in greater depth here on Dr Lee’s website, taken from the account of Luca Dominici, a chronicler from Pisotia. In the story, a labourer is working minding his own business when an elite looking fellow (Jesus) shows up and asks for food which the labourer does not have. Miraculously, Jesus has him open his jacket to find- lo! bread! Jesus then asks the labourer (witness) to moisten the bread with water, which again, is not available but with some cajoling, the man go out looking for a fountain which was previously not there, to find a white-robed woman (the Virgin Mary) trying to convince him to not dip the bread. The labourer is ping-ponged between the two for a bit then ultimately does dip the bread, which spreads the pestilence. It seems like entrapment since the poor man didn’t know who they were and was just following hospitality norms but hey ho. The plague is released, but why? Effectively, the pestilences that humanity faced in this period were because Jesus was angry about the high levels of sinning, so decided to destroy mankind. Seems fair.
To remedy this pestilence, the Virgin suggests a white-robed procession for nine days between cities, walking barefoot, not sleeping within walled towns, singing laude, and fasting from meats and nice things 6 days a week and only water and bread on Sunday. Though as Dr Lee investigated, there were many food rules for each community and could be some significant variance as to what was not allowed and what was freely given to those on procession.
The communities of Tuscany had survived successive periods of plague, and those wishing to organise Bianchi processions could rely on existing infrastructure and guidance from civic officials and religious leaders to facilitate these processions. What was striking about discussing this medieval plague is the way the community came together and supported one another throughout this societal crisis to really inclusive worship. As we discuss, it had elevated performative aspects which were quite proscriptive and, as Dr Lee argues, likely no small degree of peer pressure to participate.
Do check out the episode for many more exciting details, and to find out more, I strongly encourage interested readers/listeners to read Dr Alex Lee’s forthcoming book, “The Bianchi of 1399 in Central Italy: Making Devotion Local“, and visit her website Bianchi 1399.wordpress.com! You can also get in touch via Twitter @AlexRALee.
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