Thursday, December 8, 2011

Easter? Really? - A Puzzle, Part 2

In my last post, I briefly described the events surrounding the murder/assassination/honor killing of messer Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti in Florence in 1216, citing the reports of near-contemporary and later chroniclers. The earliest reports stated that the killing occurred on Easter, which makes for a dramatic story indeed, but something about it gave me pause.

Death of Buondelmonte

Would Buondelmonte's opponents really have enacted their vendetta on Easter, of all days? The Easter message stressed in those days was one of peace and forgiveness, so much so that I thought it unlikely that such a gesture would have gone down well with the Florentine people. Much less would it have resonated with the bishop, one Giovanni da Velletri, who was no slouch at controlling heretics, consolidating church property, and wrestling with Florence's powerful Calimala (cloth-merchants' guild) for tithe money, when the latter wanted the revenue from Florence's churches to go toward the maintenance of the cathedral, which the guild oversaw. I found it hard to believe that this redoubtable man, friend of popes and emperors, would have tolerated armed knights killing other knights in his city on the holiest day of the Christian year.
Sarcophagus of Giovanni da Velletri
Baptistery, Florence
Photo by Sailko

(And speaking of popes and emperors, here are the ones the bishop was dealing with at around that time: Otto IV and Pope Innocent III, shaking hands. By 1216, Otto was more or less on the way out, but Frederick II, his successor, had not yet been crowned in that year. Given the rather turbulent history of these two, which included things like excommunication, handshakes probably didn't happen too often, so think of it as a rare painting-op.)

Otto IV and Pope Innocent III

Bishop Giovanni also had the responsibility for enforcing the dictates of the recent Fourth Lateran Council, which reiterated that Christians must make their confession at least once a year. And Easter was the time to do it. Augustine Thompson, O.P., writes that "failure to confess at Easter brought automatic excommunication."

Fourth Lateran Council

Further, Easter was the time for pardoning prisoners, who would then walk in penitential processions, wearing special hats and carrying candles, to the Baptistery to rejoin the congregation in time for the Easter rites. Priests were enjoined to prevent usurers, withholders of tithes, criminals, known trouble-makers, and those who held hatred in their hearts from taking communion unless and until they confessed, did penance, and harmony had been restored.

Holy Week and the days leading up to it and following it were all-consuming in Florence. With vigils, processions, reenactments of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, mystery plays, special music, pardons, confessions, communion, veneration of the cross, the annual baptism of infants, sermons, blessing the lambs, the passage through the streets of the cart of holy fire, the silencing of the bells and later their triumphant pealing, fasts and then feasts, all the Christians in Florence took part in the celebration.

This processional banner, by Spinello Aretino from around 1395-1400, was commissioned by the Confraternity of Saint Mary Magdalene in Borgo San Sepolcro, and is an example of the elaborate preparations medieval Italians made for the major religious festivals.

With all of this emphasis on peacemaking, confession, and reconciliation, I couldn't convince myself that the chroniclers were right about the killing taking place on Easter day, or even in the days just before or after. It is true that "pasqua" could refer to any religious feast, not just Easter, at that time, but certain of the chronicles gave specific dates suggesting that the incident did indeed occur in the early spring.

However, when they spoke of Christmas, the early chroniclers were referring to an entire season, not to a single day. Could the same not be true of Easter? And if it was, how soon before or after Easter would the assailants have been willing and able to carry out their vendetta? And would the many public rituals in the city perhaps have even given them their opportunity? I thought it possible, and I could see how chroniclers could have legitimately described such an attack as occurring "on Easter."

Come back for Part 3 to answer the question, "Did Buondelmonte really marry the Donati girl on Easter?"

Images are all US-PD (public domain because copyright has expired), with the exception of the photo of Bishop Giovanni's tomb, which is by Sailko and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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