So many miracles occurred during the Bianchi devotions of 1399, and I barely scratched the surface of them in my book. I’m now working on a few articles highlighting some particular aspects of these miracles. There are some pretty fun examples — I’m really lucky to have such a fantastic corpus to draw from in the primary source materials. My article on Holy ‘Macharoni’ and a few other miracles involving food, visions and resurrection was published recently in The Mediaeval Journal. I’m so pleased they let me keep the Holy Macaroni in the title, although I did have to get rid of my TARDIS reference. I felt like this was a fair trade off, as there really are macaroni in the primary sources.
Miracles and popular religious revivals go hand in hand. The flagellant processions of 1260 were started by a vision, as reportedly was the Children’s Crusade of 1212. This article essentially looks at the motivation for people joining the Bianchi devotions using miracles of food, visions and resurrections. I use just two sources to do this, as there are over 150 miracles between them — the chronicles of Luca Dominici of Pistoia and Giovanni Sercambi of Lucca, which I’ve referenced numerous times on this blog. I use the chroniclers’ definitions of miracle — if they say that something was miraculous, then it went in my database. It’s quite unusual for chronicles to contain so many miracles, which would be much more expected in something like hagiography or shrine collections.
I decided to categorise my miracles as a way to deal with them. This is inherently problematic as different people categorise miracles in different ways. Ultimately, I let miracles fall into as many categories as relevant, so if a miracle involved food it would be checked in the food category, and if it also involved persuasion, or a crucifix, then those categories would be checked as well. I think this is the way it needs to be with the Bianchi, as each miracle often has multiple facets.
The main motivation for the Bianchi was the plague. While the processions have a complicated relationship with the actual epidemic outbreak at the turn of the fourteenth century, the most common origin narrative for the movement made the connection abundantly clear. The tre pani story (see here for Sercambi’s version) states that humankind must participate in penitential processions or risk dying through plague. You would think this would be sufficient motivation for most people, but there were a few who needed an extra little push, and that’s what the article explores.
Food was regulated for the Bianchi participants: they were supposed to fast, not eating meat, and also often avoiding eggs, as well as a special Saturday fast of bread and water. The first food miracle involved a visconte in Liguria, who cut a slice from a piece of salted, cooked meat. The meat bled everywhere, covering the chopping board it was on, the tablecloth, table and the flood. This is where I had my redacted TARDIS reference — more blood seemed to come out than could have possibly been contained within the meat. This was enough to persuade the visconte to join the processions.
Also in Liguria, a castellano did not join in the devotions with the rest of the people in Lerici. He had someone make macaroni in the oven for him. When they were pulled out of the oven, they were covered with blood. When I first read this story, I assumed it was tomato, but then my supervisor reminded me that there were not tomatoes in Italy at this point! Again, the man and his family were persuaded to join the devotions.
Both these miracles reinforce both the fasting regulations and the necessity of joining the Bianchi devotions. The blood is also very interesting. It’s not clear where precisely the blood came from. Blood in miracles is usually associated with Christ, or at least a saint. The reaction is also horror, making it seem more taboo. The macaroni is somewhat similar to a host, in that it was made of flour and water, but it was only consecrated hosts that tended to bleed. The meat bleeding was also against nature, falling into the realm of the miraculous. The upshot of both of these miracles was that the blood was the push needed by both men to make them join the Bianchi movement. The narratives also formed a warning. Sercambi reports these northern miracles in his Tuscan chronicle, suggesting that the stories travelled as cautionary tales.
Visions of angels, Christ, the Virgin and God the Father reportedly began the Bianchi devotions, providing the initial push for participation. As seen with the food miracles though, this wasn’t always enough for some individuals, or even towns in these cases.
Two miracles occurred in Cigoli in Tuscany. In the first, the Virgin told a ten year old girl to clean her local church and get those who had not yet participated to complete the Bianchi devotions. The girl was laughed at, so the Virgin had to make a crucifix above the altar spin to convince the local populace. Also, the girl who was initially described in quite unfavourable terms became gentle, beautiful and angelic, in what Diana Webb calls a ‘fairy tale touch’. The girl became a puppet, as a preacher became her voice and her face was covered as she took on a role in the renewed Bianchi devotions in the area.
The second visionary was a thirty-six year old woman who had fasted for seven years. She had a vision of the Virgin with Andrew and John, and the Virgin explained that the initial processions had not been enough, so the woman needed to persuade absolutely everyone to participate. This is the only vision to mention plague, as the Virgin describes the great mortality that will visit those who do not comply. Like the girl, the woman’s appearance was changed as proof; she received white cross marks on her hands. The local populace was persuaded to participate in the devotions.
In Assisi, a famous Bianchi miracle is referred to as the Madonna dell’Oliva. The Virgin appeared to a small boy in an olive tree, and again explained that renewed processions were necessary. This miracle is commemorated not just in the chronicles, but also laude and frescoes in Lazio and Umbria, underscoring its local importance. The Virgin’s dress was adorned with hosts, perhaps hinting at her role as Theotokos: god bearer. The second Assisi vision was less spectacular and not as well diffused. The Virgin appeared at Santa Chiara, and communicated with signs rather than speech that the populace should dress in white. Together, these miracles indicate the local impact of these persuasive visions. They bolstered the origin narratives, providing a much more local motivation for reluctant individuals and communities to join or re-join the processions.
Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, there are also resurrection miracles associated with the Bianchi. The most dramatic is of a small boy at Chianti. The boy had been murdered 16 years previously, and the murderer repented as a result of the Bianchi devotions. He told the boy’s parents where to dig, and they found him sitting up, holding a candle and saying “daddy, let’s go shout misericordia“. The group went to Rome to attempt to get the miracle ratified, but the chronicler Dominici does not offer any further explanation. He is also somewhat wary of this miracle. Most miracles are reported very matter-of-factly, but here Dominici starts the narrative with “it is said that”, perhaps due to the more astonishing nature of this tale.
The second resurrection is a little less dramatic, as a child on their deathbed was revived. For Giorgio Stella, the Genoese chronicler, this was rather a healing, but Dominici describes how he was resuscitated. This more ambiguous language is not repeated by Sercambi, who is clear that the event was a resurrection. The miracle inspired participation in the devotions in Genoa, and the transmission of the miracle further south suggests it continued to inspire Bianchi participants as it travelled.
There are so many miracles associated with the Bianchi — these are just eight. But, I think these all have a crucial theme in common: they persuaded people to participate in the processions. Whether individuals and their families with the food examples, or communities with the visions and resurrections, people were moved by these purportedly miraculous events. Each also had a clear local impact on the location where it occurred, especially with the Madonna dell’Oliva in the frescoes found in Orvieto, Assisi and Terni. I’m really luck to have such amazing source material to be working with,
I would really like to thank the team at The Mediaeval Journal especially Margaret Connolly for making this a really pleasant publishing experience.
Diana Webb, ‘Penitence and Peace-Making in City and Contado: The Bianchi of 1399’, in The Church in Town and Countryside, ed. by Derek Baker, Studies in Church History, 16 (1979), pp. 243–56