Leonardo Bruni, in his work History of the Florentine Peoples, wrote this about the events of the year 1399:
Amid the concern for war now starting or threatening to start, something entirely new and previously unheard-of occurred throughout all of Italy. The entire population everywhere put on white clothing and, after performing certain pious rites, long columns of people dressed in white made their way, with incredibly fervid devotion, to neighboring cities, praying with suppliant cries for peace and mercy. It was truly an extraordinary thing, an amazing business!
What Bruni is referring to is called the Bianchi, and he was not exaggerating when he noted that it swept through Italy. For several months in 1399, this religious movement was all the craze, as tens of thousands of men, women and children could be found travelling across the country to pray and promote peace. It was a shock to many observers and caught authorities off guard. It also brought peace, at least for a few months, to much of Italy.
Popular religious movements were a strong part of medieval Christianity – the devotion of the people often spilled out of the church and manifested itself in different ways. Many readers will know about the Flagellants, which were deeply devoted men and women who flogged and tortured themselves as a form of public penance. Other lay medieval confraternities also drew lots of participants, particularly in Italy.
War and violence were also a common element of the medieval world, particularly in Italy. In the final years of the fourteenth century, it seemed that if Florence, Milan, Siena, Pisa, Genoa, Venice and the other states were either at war with each other or dealing with uprisings and political violence within their walls. Adding to the miseries were outbreaks of the plague, which could devastate areas.
It was in the early summer of 1399, in the midst of these troubles, that this movement emerged in the areas around Genoa. The story that people were telling was that a peasant had come across a young pilgrim who asked for some bread. The peasant said he did not have any, but the pilgrim asked him to check his bag, and inside there were three loaves. The pilgrim then asked the peasant to go throw the loaves into a nearby spring, but when he got there a weeping woman all dressed in white was there, and she pleaded with him not to do it. The peasant did know what to do – he went back and forth between the pilgrim and the woman trying to get an explanation. Finally he threw one of the loaves into the spring, and the woman cried out for him to stop. She then revealed who she was – the Virgin Mary – and that the pilgrim was her son Jesus. She explained that Jesus had become infuriated with the sinfulness of the world and had decided to destroy it. By throwing that one piece of bread into the spring, the peasant had already doomed one-third of the world, and if he had thrown the other two pieces in the rest of the world would be destroyed too.
The peasant fell to his knees and begged the Virgin Mary for her help. She replied by telling him to go from town to town and preach, and get all the people to do the same. She explained that:
All Christendom must do this for nine days and nights, and I likewise will plead with Him day and night; and perhaps Christ my son, who is full of mercy and grace, will revoke this sentence – at least for those who do all this. Go and proclaim this through all the land and do what I have told you. Do it with good heart and good conscience, lamenting and crying day and night through every city, town, and village, with all of Christendom as I told you, and repent and forgive each other and make peace and concord.
She then touched his face, leaving her mark on the peasant as a way to prove his story was true. None of the people who recorded this story ever met this peasant, but it seems that many believed it. These people – who are referred to as the Bianchi – would dress in white robes marked with a red crucifix. They would go out for nine days, travelling from city to city, preaching their message of peace.
In his book The Bianchi of 1399: Popular Devotion in Late Medieval Italy, Daniel Bornstein writes that this movement “concentrated on a program of pacification. They insisted that everyone forgive their enemies and make peace with them before joining the processions. And they tried to convince individuals in the cities they visited to lay down their weapons and make peace, while urging the governments to repatriate exiles and release prisoners.”
While priests and bishops were part of the Bianchi, they did not organize it – rather it could be called a grassroots movement, which changed as new people entered the pilgrimages while others finished it. During the summer the movement spread, and large groups could be found throughout central and northern Italy. Some would be hundreds large, others numbered in thousands. When the people in the cities saw them arrived they sometimes found this group strange or amusing, but soon the entire urban populace seemed to join them. Large masses were being carried out, and there were reports of miracles happening. The efforts at promoting peace between people were having success too: when the movement came to the town of Prato “they arranged so many peace compacts that the weapons they were given – a sword here, a knife and helmet there – could not have been carried by two mules.” Meanwhile, the Florentine businessman Buonaccorso Pitti, writing his diary explained “the pilgrims brought out many reconciliations between citizens. Our family, the Pitti, made peace with Antonio and Geri di Giovanni Corbizi, the nephews of Matteo del Ricco whom I had killed in Pisa, and with Matteo di Paolo Corbizi. The compact was notarized by Antonio di Ser Chello.”
I, Francesco di Marco, though the inspiration of God and His Mother, Our Lady, resolved to go on a pilgrimage, clothed entirely in white linen and barefoot, as was the custom then for many people of the city and territory of Florence, and also of surrounding region. For at that time all men, or at least the greater number of Christians, were moved to go on pilgrimage throughout the world, for love of God, clothed from head to foot in white linen…
After going to some of the main churches within Florence, a group of 30 000 left the city and headed into the countryside.
And there we said a Mass for the Bishop of Fiesole, who our father and guide and chief leader. And when the Mass was said, we all scattered in the road or the fields, to eat bread and cheese and fruit, and such-like things. For during the nine days that the pilgrimage lasted, none of us might eat any meat, nor take off his white clothes, nor lie in a bed.
And that we might have what was needful, I took with us two of my horses and the mule; and on these we placed two small saddle-chests, containing boxes of all kinds of comfits, and a great many torches and candles, and cheeses of all kinds, and fresh bread and biscuits, and round cakes, sweet and unsweetened, and other things besides that appertain to a man’s life; so that the two horses were fully laden with our victuals; and beside these, I took a great sack of warm raiment, to have at hand by day and night. And the mule I took in cases one of us, through sickness or any other cause, could not walk; so that, whether on foot or on horseback, any man who met with an accident should yet, with God’s help, be able to complete the holy journey, with a good and devout heart.
The pilgrims spent their nine days walking from place to place, going as far as Arezzo before turning back to Florence. Datini finishes his account:
Then, in God’s name, we returned in the evening to Florence, and each of us to his own house; but not to bed nor doffed our white garments until the Crucifix arrived in Fiesole, and a solemn Mass was said in the square by the Bishop of Fiesole, and he preached to us, and blessed us all. And then each man returned to his own house, and the journey and pilgrimage were ended. God make it profitable to our souls, if it be His will. Amen.
As the autumn began the movement and pilgrimages came to a gradual end. Historians have noted that the Bianchi did not have a long lasting impact – wars were soon being fought again, and people returned to having disputes and violence with their neighbours. On the other hand, the events of 1399 were remembered quite fondly by the chroniclers and writers of this period. Francesco di Montemarte, writing in his chronicle, sums it up this way:
Many people said that many miracles were seen, though God knows if that were true. I myself saw nothing which seemed miraculous, other than seeing all Italy stirred up in one movement, so that there was hardly anyone of any condition, great or small, men or women, who did not dress in that fashion and perform the aforesaid things and confess and receive communion with great devotion and make peace and forgive any person for any injury, even a mortal one, however great the injury had been. And this truly seemed and seems to me something miraculous, for no lord however great, neither pope nor emperor nor king, could ever have so stirred people, if not for the will of God.