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.

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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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Using Storytelling in Teaching

The theme for a week of the history seminars I teach was the economy and my seminar was specifically on gift giving. The primary source for the week was a Norse saga: Auðun and the Bear. It had been chosen because there are lots and lots of different transactions that take place.

I decided that the way to do this with my classes was to act it out. I thought getting people to physically act it out wouldn’t work very well, as there weren’t really any ‘lines’ in the story, and it was quite long and I didn’t expect students to remember all the ins and outs. The teaching spaces I was in also didn’t really lend themselves to a grand performance

In the end, I decided to make a list of all the items which were given, and print off pictures of them. There were about 12 things in all, and I included some IOUs. Part of the concept of gift giving was understanding reciprocity, so if a gift was given, the students had to decide if there should be an IOU given to the person who had given the gift.

Image of a polar bear, arm ring, chalice, 3 silver coins and some sheep.

First 5 items: a polar bear, an arm ring, a chalice, 3 silver coins and some sheep.

So, I narrated a summary of the story that I had composed before the class, and the students swapped their sheep, coins, polar bears, food and arm rings. I found that this worked really well. We paused after each couple of transactions to think about what was going on. This helped the students understand the difference between a transaction, which they came up with defining terms for, and gift giving, which they had had to define for homework, but this reinforced it.

2 bags of coins, a ship, some food and a book (representing a promise to tell a story and some advice), and 4 IOUs

Second 5 items: 2 bags of coins, a ship, some food and a book (representing a promise to tell a story and some advice), and 4 IOUs

Audun and the bear 3

Final 2 items: a cloak and a sword

I found it difficult to get people to volunteer to be some of the characters, so I had to start assigning them. But, once I started narrating the story, the students got into it and asked great questions about what was going on. I did the activity with my three classes, and it took about 20 minutes each time, as I told the story, they exchanged the items, and we discussed what was going on.

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Why the Bianchi Participants Wore White

I had an article published in the ‘Chromatography’ issue of HARTS&Minds. It’s a pretty interdisciplinary publication, and I’d really recommend checking out the other pieces in the volume. My article, unsurprisingly, is about the Bianchi: ‘Dressing in White for the Bianchi Devotions of 1399’. As the issue was themed around colour, I wrote about why the Bianchi participants wore white. This is a summary of the main points of the article, as well as some of the images that didn’t make it into the final cut. You can read the article here:


Before I got into my argument, I had an important point to make. Individuals wearing white, hooded robes today would represent something quite sinister. White supremacists have stolen many aspects of medieval culture and stripped them of their context. In this case, the white robes of peace and penitence worn by Bianchi participants are now used for a darker purpose. While as medievalists we may wish to bury ourselves in the past, we cannot ignore what is going on around us.

Others have written more eloquently on the topic, see for example:

So, back to the Bianchi. Participating in the Bianchi devotions in the summer and autumn of 1399 meant that certain expectations had to be met. Perhaps the most important of these was wearing white. Images of the Bianchi devotions consistently show people in full, hooded white robes, but this was very much an idealistic portrayal. Nevertheless, this colour permeated the whole movement, including the name most commonly used to refer to the devotions: some variant of bianc(h)o is usually employed in vernacular texts, hence the way we refer to the devotions today.

The idea of white was first introduced during the origin stories of the Bianchi devotions. The Virgin appeared dressed in white in the tre pani story  and gave instructions for participants to wear white. In fact, this is the only instruction that is consistently given across all the different textual versions of this narrative. It is also the only instruction given in the book story, and it is also repeated in Capperledis’ Tale. There is significant narrative diversity in these three tales and yet one point on which they all agree is that mankind had to dress in white to process in order to prevent a forthcoming pestilential annihilation.  

Three frescoes. The first shows Christ and a peasant with his oxen. The second the Virgin and the peasant, with a piece of bread in the water between them. The final, the Madonna dell'Oliva

Bianchi frescoes, church of San Paolo, Poggio Mirteto (Umbria)

White features prominently in all the ways that the movement was described in contemporary chronicles, with Bianchi being most common in the vernacular chronicles and some version of albus in the Latin ones.

Bianchi nomenclature table

Table of names for Bianchi devotions

The Bianchi were most likely referred to in this way because it was easy, and yet this term was actually quite problematic. ‘Bianchi’ was also used to refer to a political faction: the Guelphs split into ‘Bianchi’ and ‘Neri’ around 1300. Another religious movement in 1335 was referred to as Columbini or Bianchi. Some Holy Orders and religious confraternities wore white too. Nevertheless, the fact that it was still used shows how important the colour was for the Bianchi participants in 1399.

There were various different ways of interpreting this instruction to wear white. Some of the origin stories were specific e.g. Dominici states that Battuti robes were to be worn. Wearing white marked a significant change from usual dress, as clothes were usually brown, black or grey. As a result, a variety of white cloths was worn as people wore whatever they could get their hands on that was white. This extended to shirts, cassocks, bed sheets, tablecloths and even handkerchiefs.

VdN Procession - Edited

Bianchi procession, Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Vallo di Nera (Umbria)

This variety is not captured in visual representations of the Bianchi processions, as all participants wear long, white, hooded robes. In the images in Sercambi’s manuscript as well as fresco depictions of Bianchi participants at Terni and Vallo di Nera, this ideal representation can be seen. And it must be taken as an ideal: all participants join fervently in the activities in full-length white robes. Notwithstanding, this colour was a unifying factor throughout the varied participants in the devotions: men, women, children, priests, government officials and labourers were joined together by their white garments.

Some participants adorned their robes with certain items. In lots of the images, you can see people wearing red crosses on their heads and/or shoulders. This is also mentioned in the chronicles. In some cases it denoted gender: men wore the cross on their shoulder and women on their head, but in other cases a cross was worn on both the shoulder and the head, or participants could choose which they preferred. This placement was dependent on location: the gender markings were specific to Pistoia, whereas a choice was possible in Genoa.

Priests are also recognisable, due to the albs, stoles and maniples that they wore over their Bianchi attire. In the images, their tonsures can be seen, making it even easier to recognise them. This suggests the key role of the clergy in the devotions, and that they needed to be identifiable to perform specific functions such as preaching and leading singing.

f309v Bianchi at Lucca - Edited

A Bianchi preacher, Sercambi MS (ASL 107)

Finally, local things could be added to the Bianchi robes. In Pistoia, Bianchi participants would sew a scallop shell into their robes. This local symbol of devotion to St James made these participants recognisable, but also allowed them to ground their devotional activities in their usual acts of piety.

So, wearing white was the most universally accepted and adopted tenet of the Bianchi processions throughout the spread of the movement and the reports written about it. This regulation was interpreted in a variety of different ways, with people wearing whatever white cloth they could get their hands on, and marking it according to local norms during the processions. All of these individual methods of dressing in white were brought together to perform the collective Bianchi devotions. Wearing white was the most ubiquitous requirement of participants in the Bianchi processions, but was interpreted in a variety of different ways to ensure universal, yet diverse, participation.

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On Serendipity in the (Digital) Archives

Most of us who work with manuscripts have a story about finding something as if by magic while working in the archives. I have two examples of this. The first, in searching through confraternity records in Lucca, I found a purchase that was really likely to have been made for the Bianchi. The other was thanks to another scholar working in the archive. We’d had a chat about the Bianchi, and they passed me a manuscript after they’d finished with it, saying I’d find it useful. It was a doctor’s book, something I’d never have thought to look at, and indeed, there was an entry for 1399 showing how he’d fled during the plague.

When you find something like this, it’s so exciting, and when it happens to me, I have to spend a good few minutes just looking at the folio taking it all in before I can begin to read or transcribe it.

At the moment, I’m working on a book proposal for the monograph of my thesis. It’s getting there now, and there were a couple of references I wanted to chase up. One was a manuscript, a letter written by Francesco di Marco Datini (The Merchant of Prato) during the Bianchi processions. The majority of the manuscripts I need are only viewable in person in the archive, and I know I can’t manage a trip to Italy at the moment, but I thought a quick look in the catalogue couldn’t hurt.

I went on the Archivio di Prato’s website, and navigated to the catalogue, using the search terms I’d found in the reference to this letter. It wasn’t entirely straightforward, as I had a reference number, date and who Datini had written it to. The reference number threw up 12 pages of entries of manuscript letters, and so I searched through them looking for the date I wanted. I found it 8 pages in, and expanded the section.

To my surprise, after all the information about the manuscript itself, one of the buttons in the middle at the bottom said ‘Immagine (2)’. I couldn’t quite believe it, but clicked on the link. It opened in a new window, where both sides of this letter had been beautifully digitized. I couldn’t believe it, and just like in a physical archive, I had to spend a few minutes just looking at it, not quite believing that it was there, that they’d digitized exactly the letter that I needed.

If you’re familiar with Datini, you might be aware that he’s well known for his essentially illegible handwriting. My final piece of good luck was that the letter I needed to read was not in his usual scrawl, but was beautifully (mostly) legible. Of course there was the odd word I had to work to read, but for the most part it was straightforward. This is an example of Datini’s usual handwriting. It’s written in the vernacular:

FdiM mess

Detail from Archjvio di Prato, Fondaco di Barcellona 864.12


And this is what the letter I needed looked like:

FdiM signature

Detail from AP, Fondaco di Barcellona, 864.13


(This is Datini’s signature: ‘Franciescho e  Domenicho, Salute di Firenze’)

I read through it, looking for a bit that the secondary reading I had mentioned, and found that there was an entire other paragraph about the Bianchi that I didn’t know existed. Now that I’ve finished my thesis, I thought I wouldn’t make any more discoveries about the Bianchi, but there it was, something about the Bianchi at Prato that helped support the point I was making.

After so long away from the physical archives, it’s amazing to find something like this. We all have feelings about digital manuscripts, but they are a truly amazing resource, making medieval history more accessible.


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