Holy Macaroni!

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.

A manuscript image of a person in white kneeling before an altar. Their head has been split open by a person dressed in purple and green holding a sword, who is on fire.
Sercambi manuscript fol. 307r. A man who attacks a Bianchi participant spontaneously combusts.

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.

The Virgin dressed in white with small white discs on her dress
Madonna dell’Oliva, Orvieto

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

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Bill MacLehose: A Tribute

Many of you probably know that my second PhD supervisor, Bill MacLehose, died in May 2020. This came as an enormous shock. In my book acknowledgements, I mention that he died and thank him for his help with my project. There was so much more to say, but I just didn’t feel there was space to do it justice there, or that anything I could manage to fit in would just feel inadequate, so I’ve written a longer tribute here.

I first met Bill during my MA when he agreed to co-supervise my dissertation with Catherine Keen. I traipsed up the stairs to his office, where we had conversations about plague and plague tracts. Bill and Catherine also supervised my PhD — I was very lucky to be able to keep the same team for both, ensuring continuity, and also help as I navigated the murky waters between Italian Studies and Medieval History. Bill introduced me to the Wellcome Premodern History of Medicine seminars, helping to integrate me into the history of medicine community both at the talks and at the lively dinners afterwards.

Bill always pushed me to define my key terms, especially things that would only be obvious to an Italianist. His expertise in the Children’s Crusade was enormously helpful for helping me to ground my research on a another popular religious revival in previous traditions. He listened enthusiastically to tales of my exploits on my research trips to Italy, and provided thoughtful feedback on my writing.

I taught for Bill on a course on Science and Religion in the Global Environment. The students really enjoyed his lectures, hanging behind to ask questions or tell him what they were interested in. Bill gave me free rein in the seminars, leading to some amazing Galileo memes which he greatly enjoyed. I will always remember Bill when someone uses the word “impact” as a verb, which he detested in student writing as it reminded him of impacted bowels. I taught on the course again this academic year, which was very different, especially as I gave the lecture on medieval medicine, using his materials to guide me.

Bill never knew that my book got accepted for publication, and yet it would never have happened without his help and support. The last time I saw Bill was to discuss what is now the second chapter of my book. We met in the café at Student Central and sat on the neon stools. While I couldn’t be convinced to move *all* the tables to the appendix, that’s where most of them ended up, and all his other suggestions were very helpful. It was the last piece of the puzzle I needed before sending off the whole draft to the publishers for peer review. I’m glad that he at least got to see what some of it would look like, but it will always be bittersweet that he never knew that it all came to fruition.

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Getting Image Permissions

As there are so many amazing artworks associated with the Bianchi, I wanted to include as many as possible in my book. This is not a particularly straightforward process, and I needed to get permission from twelve different places for the thirty images I wanted to reproduce.

Image of a Bianchi procession- many people dressed in white, painted on a blue background.
The Bianchi at Vallo di Nera

I knew that “payment” for some of the images would involve a copy of my book, so was able to negotiate a few extra copies in my contract explicitly for this purpose. I was very glad I did, as most places wanted a physical copy for their records. In fact, this was the only payment that most places required, although some also required actual monetary payment as well. I kept a spreadsheet of all the images, with columns for the contact details of the archive/church, and when I’d emailed them. This really helped for when I had to follow things up.

Some things I needed to be able to say when emailing about image permissions were the number of copies of the book that were likely to be printed, as well as the series and publisher I had a contract with. For Italian archives, there are specific conditions to be met for an image to be free- I’d met these before for articles, as the price of the item and the circulation were under the limits, but the price of the book was over the limit, so I had to pay this time.

Image of the Virgin dressed in white on a church wall.
Madonna dell’Oliva, Leonessa

For these ones, I went on the website either of the archive or the cathedral and downloaded and completed the relevant form. I then had to pay the archive either by bank transfer, which was pretty straightforward, or by making an account on their online platform. The bank transfer was pretty straightforward, and it was only €25, but I was a little more worried about the online platform as that was more than €200. I was lucky that there were no fees for the bank from the transfer, and I used my Monzo card for the other transaction which made it more straightforward with the foreign currency. It all went through ok in the end.

It was not this straightforward for all the images- some of the churches I had photos from didn’t have any kind of online presence at all- not even a social media page. So, I had to find the right diocese, and email through them. I also made use of some contacts I’d made in Italy to ask for permissions, and got a couple of permissions through confraternities they were in contact with. In Rieti, the diocese didn’t respond, but I found the Twitter page of the parish newsletter. I emailed them, and they were able to give me the correct person to email, who said I could use the images no problem. Some people were very helpful: I sometimes got sent versions of images to use from, which were often better quality than the ones I already had. It definitely pays to be creative, and to play “don’t ask, don’t get”.

Frescoes of the tre pani story and the Madonna dell'Oliva story.
Tre pani and Madonna dell’Oliva, Terni

There were a couple of images where I just didn’t ever get a reply from the church, so I had to skip over them for the publication. It wasn’t the end of the world, as they were just copies of other images I already had. It would have been nice to have the set, but at least there will be other, comparable images in there.

Next time, I think I’ll try asking about image permissions while I’m actually physically in places. This is difficult, as publishers can need permission in writing, but at least I would be able to set up an email chain with the right person, or even just get their email address. It’s also challenging if you’re not 100% sure you need an image, as sometimes they need payment, and they often need the title of the work you’re going to be publishing.

Getting permissions can be tricksy and sometimes expensive, but I think it’s all going to be worth it in the end. I’m now hoping that I’ll be able to go too all of the places to deliver the book “payment” on another Bianchi road trip – fingers crossed that something like that will be possible soon.

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Plague and Coronavirus: Mobilising the Community

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.

Shows empty shelves in a meat and veg section in a supermarket, there are about three items left in the whole shelving unit.

Empty shelves in a supermarket during the coronavirus epidemic

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.

TikTok showing different responses to Clap for the NHS

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.

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Hit Record: Teaching with Zoom

Many of us have had to make the quick shift to delivering online courses with very little preparation. One of my institutions is using Zoom, and I’m going to write about how that’s gone, and how I’ve managed the last two classes I’ve done this week.

Zoom is a software that lets you connect to lots of people at once. My class has 18 students in, and some “attended” together, so I didn’t have 19 people trying to connect. I was lucky in that my institution set it all up for us in the VLE, so all we had to do was download Zoom, schedule the meetings and share the link with the students.

When you’re in Zoom, you can share your screen with everyone. I normally use a PowerPoint to show the questions I ask the class, so this means they can all see that. I also uploaded it to the VLE beforehand just in case. I usually modify the PowerPoint in real time in class instead of using a whiteboard anyway, so I shared a Google Slides link rather than a download. Be mindful when sharing the screen though, as they’ll be able to see everything on it. I had my phone on to do other things if needed, like check my email. (I told students to email me if they had problems with the stream, which they did, and which I answered during discussions).

The students worked out that they could virtually raise their hands, and “clap” for others. They can do this in the Webinar controls, and it makes managing a whole group discussion a lot easier. The fact that someone has put their hand up flashed on my screen, so I could keep a note and know who had asked to speak next.

I managed a class presentation by getting the students to send their PowerPoint beforehand and displaying it on my screen while they spoke. They just asked me to move to the next slide when they needed it. This worked pretty well, and the students said they could see and hear everything fine. I’ve also given the option of filming/recording the presentation or doing it one-on-one with me at a different time.

As my class is so heavily discussion based, I was worried how this was going to work. However, there’s a function in Zoom called Breakout rooms. You have to enable it in the settings, but once you’re live, it’s really straightforward- you just click the breakout button. I knew already which students were physically together, so just asked them to mute their microphones and talk together. For everyone else, I split them into the “rooms”. I did this during the class, deciding on three rooms with 2-3 people in and just assigned them manually so that those already together weren’t put in a breakout room. I gave them a few minutes to discuss, then announced that the room would be closing. When you click “close” on the breakout rooms, it gives the students 60 seconds before the rooms close, so it doesn’t happen immediately.

The connection was initially struggling, so we turned off all video and just had audio, which made things a lot better. It’s pretty easy to toggle this. It also worked well that the students muted themselves unless they wanted to talk, so there was no extra noise going on. They were also great at telling me if they couldn’t hear me, so I needed to get closer to my computer. Next time, I’m going to use my wireless headphones to hopefully mitigate that issue.

Also, I’m required to record all my classes so those who can’t tune in during the class time can watch it back after. I only remembered a couple of minutes in, so next time, I’m going to add a slide to remind me to press record.

It’s a very different teaching process, and I found I was much more tired afterwards as it required a lot more concentration from me to get accustomed to the new technology. I’m hoping things will get easier now I know better what I’m doing. I’ve also made sure to be clear with students that this is all new to me, and that they can let me know if they have any suggestions for how to make it smoother for them.

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A Class Trip to the British Museum

For my course on Social Foundations in the ancient world, I decided to take my class to the British Museum. I’m really keen to get students thinking about all kinds of sources, so I wanted to introduce them to objects pretty early on.

Before the class, I set a reading on the decolonisation of the British Museum. I wanted the students to understand where the objects might have come from and the circumstances of their arrival, especially the global ones I’d be asking them to find.

I came up with a task which had various functions. I have paired my students to give class presentations, and so they were to go round the museum in their pairs. I hoped they would support each other with the navigation of the museum, and have good conversations about which objects to choose. So, one key element of this task was teamwork in their pairs. Before the class, I told students to come with a phone/camera and something to make notes with.

The task I set was to select objects from the different geographical areas that we would be studying as well as from the two monotheistic faiths we’ll be covering towards the end of term. They had to select pieces that they thought would fit into one or more of the key themes of the course. These are identity, life after death and history of medicine.

As this was the first time I’d attempted this kind of task, my expectations of them finding objects to tick all seven boxes weren’t too high, but the key thing was for them to find two objects that resonated them for a reflective writing piece. This task will get the students to introduce two objects from the museum and write about why they chose them, and how they connect to the key theme(s) they’ve picked.

I reminded the students of their group pairings and we went into the museum. I encouraged them to pick up maps, and then told them where I’d be if they needed to come and ask a question. I explained that I expected them to come and find me by a certain time to show me what they found. I gave them just over an hour to complete the task, the usual time period of our class.

I sat and waited for the students to come and approach me. I saw a few walk by and checked in with how they were getting on. I deliberately sat in a main thoroughfare so it was likely they’d have to go by me at least once on their travels through the museum.

As the time I’d suggested drew closer, the students started turning up in their pairs. One pair had got separated, but had managed to find each other again. They were quite keen to share phone numbers etc. so were able to contact each other no problem. I was really pleased with how enthused they had been by the collections. One pair spent so long in one section and was so keen that they planned to go back the following day by themselves!

When the pairs came to check in, I asked them about the objects they’d chosen for their task, and if they’d managed to find things for all the areas I’d suggested on the handout. Most of the geographical areas had good coverage from all the students, but a couple were less easy and others not found at all. I was pretty impressed with the ground that they’d covered and how they had been thinking deeply about the objects they’d seen in terms of the class themes. I asked each student if they’d picked their two objects yet, and most had, although others were still to decide. They’d all taken lots of photos, both of objects and the accompanying information, which was really pleasing to see.

Next time, I think I’ll include a slightly shorter list of things for the students to find, but otherwise I don’t think I’ll modify this exercise much. I think my relatively hands off approach was successful. At this stage, I wanted the students to experience the objects for themselves and not feel they had to impress anyone while they were going around and selecting their objects.

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Getting to Know You: Icebreakers

I’m teaching in three institutions this academic year, so there are lots of students to get to know in each of the different classes. I’ve never been the biggest fan of ice breakers, as I struggle to think of fun facts to share about myself. However, it really helps me to learn students’ names when they say their name and tell me something. This can be about themselves, or something related to the course. I also think it helps the students to get to know each other and can release a bit of the initial tension.

The first one I tried this year is something I have used before. I ask students what three objects they would take with them if they were to go back in time for a week. The period depends on the course I’m teaching. This time, it was an ancient course, so students had to decide what they’d take with them if they went back to ancient times. It was up to them where they went. This always elicits interesting responses, some students go for creature comforts and others go for more practical things like antibiotics and hand sanitiser.

In one of my jobs, students can move between classes in the first two weeks, so my register isn’t fixed yet. This meant that I had a new student in my second class. I decided to try out another ice-breaker-style activity so that they wouldn’t be the only one not to know any names, and to reinforce everyone else’s names within the group. This time I tried one that I’d seen on Twitter- getting students to say their name and a boring fact about themselves.

The students didn’t seem to mind doing a similar exercise to the one they’d done in the first class, and came up with excellent boring facts including their age, what pets they had and what they’d had for lunch.

Icebreakers do serve an important function, but thinking about them as icebreakers and getting people to share personal information can make people (including me!) feel uncomfortable. These ones are either geared towards the course, to get students thinking about the time period we’ll be covering, or are pretty generic, not asking for anything particularly demanding or deep.


If I were to go back in time for a week to ancient times, I’d probably take some antiseptic, a fully charged Go-Pro and some gold. And my favourite colour is purple.

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Biblioteca Casanatense: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

I’m writing my monograph at the moment, largely based on my PhD thesis on the Bianchi of 1399 in Tuscany. I’ve broadened the focus out to central Italy more generally, taking in Umbria and Lazio as well. This means that lots of the material that got cut from the thesis can be used, but that I needed to do a little more research.

During my trip in Rome, I wanted to see a manuscript from the Casanatense library. It’s a laudario, a collection of songs, similar to the one I went to see in the Vatican Library the first time I went. The vernacular laude were transcribed in the 1920s (1), but not the Latin ones, and that was what I needed to see. I’ve known that I needed to see this manuscript for about three years now, so I was really excited about planning my trip.

In January, I emailed the library to let them know which manuscript I wanted to look at and to check the library would be open. Lots of Italian libraries are closed on feast days, and so it’s always worth emailing in advance in case there’s a local celebration you don’t expect. (This happened to me last time I went to Rome, and believe me, bank holiday busses leave a lot to be desired).

I emailed the week before to check in again and reserve the manuscript. However, the specialist librarian emailed me back to say that I wasn’t going to be allowed to consult the manuscript as it was too damaged. I was really disappointed, as I’d planned my whole trip to Rome around seeing this one thing. I was a bit annoyed that it hadn’t been flagged up in my January communications either. They said that I could ask for a photographic reproduction, which I did.

The really key thing I needed to see in the manuscript was the first folio, so it was especially frustrating that they wouldn’t even let me see that. I was told that a reproduction of the whole manuscript would cost about 50 euros, which I thought was a bit steep, but would definitely be worth it.

I emailed the photographer who told me that in fact, to reproduce the whole manuscript would be 180 euros! That was far too much, but luckily I had brought along my edition of the vernacular laude so I was able to work out precisely which folios I needed to see. I emailed the photographer and we worked something out. I went to the library to pay him in person, which was much easier than waiting to get back to the UK and paying to transfer the money at the bank.

I got the images a week later, and it was great to finally see the manuscript. I’ll be able to finally do my analysis on the first lauda in the collection, and there was another Latin lauda that’s going to be really important as well. It’s a shame that I didn’t get the whole manuscript as there are some other Bianchi laude in the bit I didn’t get, but they’re pretty much all in the edition.

I suppose the moral of the story is to always have a plan b and always be prepared to not be able to see the manuscript you want. I had been prepared for this possibility, and ultimately I was glad to know before I got to Rome, and was able to spend my time there at the Vatican Library instead.

(1) Gennaro M. Monti, Un Laudario quattrocentista dei Bianchi (Todi: 1920)

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Vatican Library 2.0

I visited the Vatican library a couple of years ago to see a laudario- a manuscript collection of songs, some of which were sung during the Bianchi devotions. There were two other manuscripts that I wanted to see at the library, so I decided to make the most of my time in Rome and pay them a visit.

Getting back into the library was pretty straightforward. Luckily, I had brought my card from a few years ago, and this meant that I could just walk straight through the Porta Sant’Anna. I had to show it to three Swiss Guards on my way in, but it was much easier than having to leave my passport the first time. 

I got to the library a bit early and sat to wait for the admissions room to open. I had a chat with the woman in admissions, who renewed my card for the few days that I will be here. Luckily, my PhD supervisor had written me a letter of presentation saying that I’d completed my doctorate, and so they updated my status on the system. It’s always worth taking a letter of presentation with you as well as ID cards from the institutions you’re a member of. I kept the card from before (in which I was actually wearing the same jacket I had on this time), but got a snazzy new lanyard. It’s now compulsory to wear these all the time in the library. I think that’s the only real difference.

The manuscripts room worked just the same. You write your name and desk number by your locker number on the list at the front, and use the computer terminal to order up your manuscripts. The librarian was very helpful in showing me how to do this. The wait for my first two codices was about half an hour.

The first one I saw had been digitized, and some of it has been edited into an edition,(1) but I wanted to see if any colour had been used in it. I was not disappointed- there was red all over the place. There had been space left to add in initials for the first set of laude in the manuscript, and some of the later ones had been filled in, but in red. The first letter of each stanza was tipped in red too, and some whole lines were even written in the colour. This wasn’t a book that the Bianchi would have taken with them as it was written later- and on paper rather than parchment.

The second manuscript was a copy of a chronicle from Citta’ di Castello. There was an ellipsis in the edition I had used, and I wanted to see if it was the editing of the person who had made the edition, if it was missing, or just illegible. As this was a much later copy, the handwriting was pretty different to what I’m used to, much more like Victorian copperplate than the secretary hand I love to hate.

Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take any photos. I know that there was a change in the law that means you’re allowed to take your own photos in Italian archives, but unsurprisingly this doesn’t apply in the Vatican (!).

I had remembered about the patchy wifi, so had downloaded some music onto my laptop before going in, and this time I wasn’t the only one with earphones in, so I didn’t feel as awkward about it.

It was great to get back into the archives after such a long time away, especially to see manuscripts I’ve been writing about for years but have never seen in the flesh.


(1) Paolo Renzi and Anna Mori. Le laude dei Bianchi di Perugia nel Codex Vaticanus Latinus 4835. il lavoro editoriale, 2013.

Posted in Archives, Italy, library | 1 Comment

Teaching Science and Religion: Tweet Yo’ Self

This year, I’m a teaching assistant for a course on Science and Religion. This is in UCL’s BASC department, a mixed bachelors of arts and sciences and STS, science and technology studies. The lectures are given by my secondary PhD supervisor Dr Bill Maclehose and I’ve got four tutorial groups. This was a new subject for me as far as teaching is concerned, so I’m trying out some new techniques. I’m teaching a mix of second and third years from the departments where the course sits, as well as study abroad students and intercalating medical students, so there are lots of different perspectives every time.

One of the sessions was on the trial of Galileo. This is usually something that’s presented as a bit of a watershed moment in the history of science and religion: an epitome of the conflict between the two. Things are actually quite a bit more complicated, and for my tutorial students had to read some extracts from Galileo’s letter to the Duchess of 1615. In this letter, Galileo seeks to explain how religion fits into his theories and that he’s not just advocating science instead.

I set my students the task of condensing a key idea from this letter into a Tweet. By Tweet, I meant something no longer than 280 characters, and suggested that students could be as creative as they wanted. They could write informally, use emojis, hashtags and even memes. No-one tried putting their whole idea into emojis, but there were some amazing responses in terms of the ways they expressed their ideas. I asked students to submit their Tweets beforehand so I could collate them into class groups.

In the class, I read out each Tweet, and then got the student who had written it to explain the ideas they were pulling out of the text. This worked really well. Some of the tweets were quite humorous and out of left field, so the mood was really positive. It also meant that students had to delve deeper than just their 280 characters to explain what exactly they had found interesting about the letter Galileo had written.

While part of the point of the exercise was a bit whimsical and silly, there was a serious point too. By getting the students to only write 280 characters, I was getting them to summarise the source, or at least a key idea from it. They had had to think carefully- some spoke about finding it hard to condense it down to one idea, or had used particular elements like hashtags to convey complex ideas that they were happy to explain when I asked them to expand a bit on what they’d written.

Universal mechanics are #NotThePoint of the Bible. It’s to teach @God’s will and how to #SaveOurSouls. He left out the detail so you could understand Him. If anything, @Copernicus gave theologians a gift! #LayOffGalilei

I made it very clear that everyone was to do the assignment in their own way- some were more creative than others, but all of them summed up key aspects from the text that we’d all read. Most of the students hadn’t really worked with early modern sources before, so I thought that it was a fun way to get them engaged with the source material, as well as thinking about the way they summarise texts and make notes. Also important was the students writing things in their own words. This is something I often struggle to get students to do when writing summaries, but they really went for it with this!

I also had a quick sidebar about accessibility, and how each word in a hashtag should be capitalised to make it easier to read.

Proverbs 8.26: He had not yet made the earth, the rivers, and the hinges of the terrestrial orb…

Galileo: SEE!?!? He needed HINGES because the earth MOVES!!! Who puts hinges on something that won’t move!?

One thing I would do differently next time is make the instructions clearer. Some students were super creative of their own accord, but others felt they had to be more serious because it was an academic assignment. I was after almost irreverent takes, as you can see some of them are! (Another tip if you’re teaching this is check your spam, as my uni email filtered out any swears)

Church: The Bible is always right.

Galileo: I agree.

Church: And it clearly says the sun was stopped briefly but is otherwise moving…

Galileo:Anja Basc

#ThatMomentWhen you’re at the end of your bible exam and you realise you read the whole thing wrong #MonkProblems #MetaphorsAreAThing

I got a good selection of memes as well, here are a couple of my favourites:

Copernicus meme

Evolving brain meme: Aristotle’s Cosmos>Ptolemy’s Cosmos>Copernicus’ Cosmos>Galileo’s Cosmos

Elipses everywhere

Woody and Buzz Lightyear meme, where Woody is the Pope and Buzz is Kepler. Buzz: Elipses. Elipses everywhere.

(All tweets/memes used with students’ permission)

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