Expressions of faith during plague

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.

The Bianchi Plague Processions of 1399 Two Friends Talk History

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.

Bronze coin of Antoninus Pius minted in Abonoteichos and showing the snake god Glycon with the legend “ΓΛVΚΩΝ ΑΒΩΝΟΤΕΙΧΕΙΤΩΝ”- Wikimedia commons.

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.

Glycon, the human-faced snake god of the 2nd c. CE. Art by Z.Guertin

Plagues and Pandemics Two Friends Talk History

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.

Italy, 1399-1400

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 Bianchi, so-named for their white robes- were men and women who processed in groups with red crosses on their heads (women) or shoulders (men). Fresco image from tuttoggi.info, S. Maria Assunta, Vallo di Nera.

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.

Thank you for checking out my blog!

Tis the Saturnalia season!

Tis the season when we celebrate community and the change of the year! How did the Romans celebrate the end of the year?

The Roman celebration of Saturnalia was held for several days in mid-December to celebrate the passing of seasons, with its roots in the worship of the agricultural god Saturn. Saturn was syncretised with the Greek Kronos as the Romans came to control Greece, becoming increasingly invested in their gods. Saturn is often depicted as an older bearded man holding a scythe, an acknowledgement of his agrarian roots. The temple of Saturn in Rome stood prominently in the forum and is evidenced to this day by eight impressive columns and a partial podium.

From the late Republican period (the last 1oo years or so BCE) the midwinter celebration officially grew from three days to five in the Principate (December 17th to December 23rd). These were just official trends as it’s generally believed that unofficially it was a week, a bit like now depending on your employment. For the Romans work, studies and legal actions came to a halt and people were ready to party!

In Lucian’s Saturnalia, he speaks with the voice of Saturn in dialogue with a priest, observing how the revelries in his name should take place among the Romans: gaming, dancing, song and drinking were all part of the celebration of Saturnalia; it also involved things familiar to us today like decorating homes with greenery and wearing bright and colourful clothing (synthesis), like ugly sweater parties! Lucian’s Saturn is a very reasonable god who lays out three “laws” for gifting, celebrating and banqueting, emphasising fairness in all measures and not being compelled to act or gift beyond your means.

The King of Saturnalia

A king of Saturnalia acted as the ‘Lord of Misrule’ (like Carnivale) in these celebrations. Elected as the mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps, this agent of acceptable chaos in the household would walk the line between being a cheeky chap and straight up humorously (presumably) insulting guests and members of the household. Bear in mind that Roman households could be somewhat larger than ours – the nuclear family at the centre could include grandparents, cousins, adopted family members, children from other marriages, guests and the enslaved household labourers. Many of the societal norms were relaxed and played with in the household, where during this period the enslaved could eat at the head of the table with those who owned them taking a lower status position. Women too could mingle with men (in some circumstances) a little more freely and could hang together and gamble.

The fun frivolity of Saturnalia drinking parties!
Gifts for Saturnalia

Gift-giving was an important part of Saturnalia. Gifts of high value were not necessarily what one would expect, generally the humour of lower cost gifts was appreciated- like trolling a friend with a joke gift. Catullus wrote of receiving epically bad poetry for a gift and it is fun to imagine the kind of hilarious insults he possibly wrote for friends for their gifts, like getting ‘read’ by Oscar Wild but smuttier. Saturnalia gifts could include: sausages, dried fruit, wine, piglets, wax candles (cerei), dolls, toys, books, statues, tools, exotic pets and more!

The live piglet is especially appealing !
The last day of Saturnalia

As all good things must come to an end, so too did the annual revels of the Romans. On the last day of Saturnalia one would give sigillaria – terracotta or wax figurines, shaped in the likeness of familiar deities, mythical figures or easily caricatured types (grotesques). The day itself was called ‘Sigillaria‘; the gift type and gift-giving influenced the day’s name. Much like Boxing Day which one theory suggests may have started (according to the OED) as the first weekday after Christmas when postmen, delivery workers and servants of various types would receive a Christmas box, in which was some type of gift or tip. Possibly due in part to the ways gods were part of the everyday lives of Romans, and worshipped in the home in small devotional figures – the Lares – as guardians of the home, it is not surprising that a popular gift would include their likenesses in inexpensive small gifts, conferring further good luck and protection. For the wealthy, these gifts could be made from costly materials like gold or silver. Given their popularity, someone who crafted and sold this merchandise was called a sigillarius. Vendors were quite busy at this time of year, setting up stalls like the Christmas markets we are familiar with today.

The Lares could be quite varied: a Lar holding a cornucopia from Axatiana, Dionysus and Isis Panthea (all goddess).

The Romans had many festivals throughout the year, and a few days after the wild revels of Saturnalia, they celebrated the sober and solemn Compitalia, another festival in which metaphoric beginnings and endings are associated with the end of the year. Named after compita (crossroads), the recently revelrous enslaved peoples would offer sacrifices on behalf of the households within the neighbourhoods they lived to the Lares of the crossroads. Perhaps it is fitting to have a week of revels which brought families and friends together be followed up with a more sober festival which celebrated the bonds of community. Saying goodbye to the year is always fraught with bittersweet reflections with this year being notable in that regard, as surely in many world-changing years before the communities celebrating these rites would join together to celebrate and pray for better times ahead.

Compitalia fresco from exterior wall of a building in Pompeii, 1st c. CE

Stay safe and thank you for reading!

Io, Saturnalia!

Xox Archaeoartist (Zofia) and Mr Archaeoartist (Chris).