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  • Barbecuing Friars in Late Medieval Florence April 7, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback


    Beachcombing promised just the other day that he would leave blood alone for at least a month. He wants then to be very clear that this post will not involve bloodshed. It will describe though one of the last ordeals by fire of the Middle Ages, an attempt to use flames to judge a human argument. What is even more interesting is that it takes place, 7 April 1498, in, of all, places, ‘rational’ Renaissance Florence.

    The combatants are two friars. First, there is Domenico da Pescia, representing the Dominicans of San Marco. Second, there is Giuliano Rondinelli a Franciscan from Santa Croce. The Franciscans have offended the honour of that extraordinary late Florentine figure, Savonarola and have asked for the ordeal by fire to see whether God favours Savonarola or not. Domenico has taken up the challenge on behalf of his master.

    The city government seeks legal advice and establishes that it need have nothing to do with these priestly shenanigans. But the Florentines are always ready for a spectacle of any sort and so the Signory lend out Piazza della Signoria for the occasion.

    Our best source for the preparations, done with typical Florentine thoroughness, is the Florentine diarist Landucci (a Savonarolan): Lauro Martines while not giving a direct translation offers a useful summary.

    Made of wooden beams and planks, [the place of the ordeal] was nearly thirty metres long, just over six metres wide, and reached a height of more than two metres. The four sides were enclosed by a low lying wall of green or unbaked brick, not more than a foot high. Logs were stacked along each side, rising to just under a metre in height and running to a length of about twenty-five metres; and the planks between the two stacks of logs were thickly covered with earthy, bricks and rubble to keep the fire away from the beams underneath. Having then put masses of brushwood, cut branches, and bundles of twigs all around the logs, the workers soaked all the wood with oil, pitch and resin, adding gunpowder as well, for a fire that would burn all the more fiercely.

    Down the middle of this construction was a passage two feet wide (!) through which the friars would have to pass. Beachcombing has only a GCSE in integrated science and has never been caught in a real fire, bar one very uncomfortable occasion in the Tanzanian bush, but he is guessing that no one would come out of this death trap alive.

    What follows is not, however, so much a human barbecue as a comedy of errors – there is not just a lack of blood but also, thankfully, a lack of pain.

    For one, the Franciscan, Giuliano, sensibly doesn’t turn up.

    Second the Dominican, Domenico is accused of various stratagems for trying to avoid the heat. So he is made to remove a wonderful red cape he is wearing as the Francescans suggest that it is bewitched. They also insist on inspecting his underpants and even his genitals (!!) presumably for further witchery.

    Then if this is not enough the Friars indulge in a fabulous argument over whether Domenico should be allowed to carry the sacrament into the fiery passage. The Francescans claim that the Dominicans want to burn Christ. The Dominicans on the other hand believe that though the bread might burn Christ’s essence would remain.

    Then it starts to rain… And even the Dominicans with their bewitched cloaks and fire-proof sacraments retreat from the place of battle to jeers from the public and lightning bolts from the heavens.

    One of the last ordeals by fire in history never, in fact, takes place.

    Beachcombing is tempted to say that the participants were just too sensible to go through with it. But given the genital inspection and the arguments over Christ in the bread he is not sure that this would stand up.

    Beachcombing is building up his very thin folder of European ordeals by fire at or after the end of the Middle Ages. Any contributions would be gratefully received. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com