I recently presented a paper at the Virtual Leeds IMC conference. My focus was on the role of community in dealing with crisis. I thought about this in terms of the Bianchi, but also the ways in which communities have had an impact on the crisis we are currently facing.
When we think of plagues in the past, there is usually a focus on the Black Death, and the idea that people fled, abandoning their families to try to save themselves. During a plague in 1399 however, individuals banded together to join religious processions in an attempt to save their communities. The Bianchi began in Genoa in July 1399 and swept through Italy, promising salvation from plague to participants. There are lots of parallels to the way that people reacted in 1399 and the situation with coronavirus today.
Firstly, food provision was crucial. Communal authorities in towns like Lucca and Pistoia provided bread, wine, and cheese. However, towns like Florence were not quite as generous. This meant that wealthy individuals had to step up to ensure the Bianchi participants could have enough to eat. Francesco di Marco Datini (the merchant of Prato) had an impressive shopping list to provide for his entourage as they set out from Florence, including figs and peaches. These provisions meant that anyone could join the processions, safe in the knowledge they would be able to survive on the journey thanks to the generosity of governments and individuals.
During the COVID-19 epidemic, food provision was severely affected. Supermarkets ran out of basics, and people worried about getting enough to eat. There has also been a greater reliance on foodbanks. However, community initiatives have helped mitigate these issues. Local groups have mobilised volunteers to get food to those who need it. There is a reliance on the generosity of individuals, both financially and in terms of time and resources.
From a slightly more cynical perspective, individuals had to mobilise in order to keep the system going where overarching state support simply was not enough. During the Bianchi processions, it was to ensure that those who were taking action to prevent plague were looked after, and likely also an act of almsgiving – something very good for the soul. Nowadays, it is more about caring for vulnerable people. A key difference today is that the pandemic has heightened a pre-existing problem with vulnerable people accessing food, especially through food banks. The Bianchi devotions were temporary, and so was the need for the food provisions, but today, shining a light on food during the pandemic reveals more deep seated issues.
The Bianchi processions sprang up quickly and gradually tailed off once people had finished participating. I’d argue that there was significant peer pressure involved in joining in. People participated in different ways depending on their community, as well as making individual choices. For example, the red cross on the Bianchi robes signified gender in some areas, with a cross on the head denoting a woman, whereas in other places everyone wore a cross on both their shoulder and their head. Individuals could wear whatever white cloth they could get their hands on, with some people wearing full robes, but others wearing handkerchiefs and bedclothes. The key part was joining in the processions.
The Clap for the NHS started with a specific purpose, to thank the frontline workers in the NHS for their work during the pandemic. There was a certain degree of peer pressure involved here too, with neighbours being scrutinised for their participation. However, there was not a unanimous positive response either from the people clapping or the people being clapped for. One particular issue was that some people felt that it distracted from the underlying problems in the NHS, including a lack of PPE. As with the food situation, this has brought these problems into sharp relief.
There is something to be said for the positive impact of the clapping though, many NHS workers were heartened, and it also made those clapping feel better. Positivity is not something to be sneered at. I think this was a key part of the Bianchi devotions too- this was an action that could be taken. There has been community support for the NHS with individuals and groups sewing masks and scrubs, for example. People respond well to having something they can do. When we look at the national level, the responses to epidemics can seem fragmented, chaotic, and ineffectual. At an individual and local level however, we see a much clearer impact, and a much more positive view of communities rallying to provide support.