Burying the Dead

I have just been reading a fascinating book by Yuval Noah Harari (who has now turned his attentions to all human history) in which he argues that for early modern soldier-memoirists and artists war was not a ‘revelatory experience’, and that there was little or no reflection on the inner experience of war of the type which is more common today. The reason ‘war revealed nothing’ was, he argues, due to the emphasis placed on the formulation in the mind of military ideals, including that of honour, and the inferior role assigned to the body in realizing these ideals. The deeds of war related in military memoirs constituted the honourable name of the author, more than any reflections on the inner experience of war. These memoirs could also serve as a record of ‘services rendered’ and might also enumerate material gains.[1] Intriguingly he contrasts a ‘war culture’ with a ‘general culture’ in terms of attitudes towards the body and as evidence he cites differing burial practices, with soldiers who fell in battle ‘not given much thought.’[2]

As I wrote back in August one of the aspects of mass murder which I hoped to illuminate in the course of my research was burial practice. I turned first of all to the evidence of mass graves of soldiers and found that these could be treated without much evidence of care, and even with calculated insult. The archaeologists who excavated the mass grave associated with the English Battle of Towton (1461) found at least sixty-one individual males aged between sixteen and fifty years. They postulated that the men were either brought down by mounted troops in a rout as they ran from the battlefield discarding their sallets (helmets), or were deliberately disfigured and massacred after they sought safety or medical aid at nearby Towton Hall.

The evidence is open to different interpretations, of course. Some of the bodies were buried in prone or reversed orientation as a possible mark of shame.[3] The pit was dug in unconsecrated ground near the battlefield where they fell and ‘was almost certainly filled in immediately after the bodies had been placed in [sic] … with little opportunity for the accumulation of contemporary objects.’ There were few objects found in association with the bodies themselves, perhaps indicating that they were stripped before burial.[4] There was evidence of many blade wounds to the front and back of heads, some blunt force injuries to the face, and a few projectile injuries, which was judged consistent with battlefield injuries rather than executions.[5]

Some idea of the rough treatment that even soldiers might be given by their own side during the Italian Wars is suggested by a few of my Italian sources. A number of Italian chroniclers who described the aftermath of the Battle of Fornovo (1495), for example, alleged that the French killed their own wounded soldiers. The physician Alessandro Benedetti described the French in retreat from this defeat burning tents, burying artillery and military objects, and slaying horses wounded in battle, added circumspectly: ‘The report is that they killed with barbarous cruelty some wounded and sick men who could not follow the lines.’[6] He went on: ‘Those of the French who were wounded or worn out from the journey and who had died were buried along the road, as the many graves show. On this flight the brother of the prince of Tours died and was committed to the earth without funeral services.’[7] Leone Cobelli, the chronicler at Forlì, described men who could not walk being rounded up with injured horses, and corralled into a house that was set on fire.[8] More moderately, one chronicler in Pistoia suggested that due to the difficulties of burying the dead the bodies scattered for miles along the riverbank were burned.[9] Francesco Matarazzo in Perugia suggested that Italian soldiers in the pay of the French king killed and robbed any French soldiers they came across after Fornovo, disregarding the fact that they had the same master; indeed, they treated them worse than their enemy.[10] In sum, the picture is of a hurried and confused French retreat in which the injured and the prisoners were merely a logistical problem.

But what happened to the bodies of civilians killed en masse? Once again, it seems as if treatment probably varied according to status, the immediacy of the military threat, and the determination (or resources) of the dead person’s family. In June 1497 a skirmish outside Montelione left a number of Orvietans dead, including five young men who were buried in a single grave outside the town close to a very small church. However, within two days the corpse of one of the dead, a Lactantio de Lactantio Pellegrino de Lorenzo de Birichocho, was dug up and transported in a pitch-covered box (‘una cassa impeciata’) to Orvieto where it was met at the gate by the clergy of the town and accompanied to the church of San Francesco along with mourning women, including the deceased’s wife, sister, and other relations. Touchingly, the body was taken past his former home so that his mother, who was ill and waiting outside, could see it.[11]

On 13 January 1500 Cesare Borgia ordered that those killed in taking the citadel at Forlì be buried, as described by the local chronicler Andrea Bernardi.[12] Bernardi wrote of how the bodies were taken out of the citadel and placed on the banks of the ditches, and he wrote that this presented a spectacle of cruelty the like of which the world had never before seen (although he immediately invoked the precedent of the Massacre of the Innocents):

Because it truly seemed to me, as Holy Scripture tells, like the children who died for the true redeemer, as they were injured in various ways, some beheaded, others injured in their little bodies, in the arms or legs according to the care of their mothers who held them in their arms. And there was a great number one on top of the other with the intention of flattening them.[13]

These corpses were given the ‘nomice’ (i.e. the Trinitarian formula ‘In nomine …’?) where they were discovered. In a cavern in the citadel were found ten or twelve bodies one on top of the other, people who had been robbed and mortally injured and then abandoned. These, and others who died of their wounds, were taken away very quickly by the members of the lay confraternity of the battuti otherwise the bodies would be thrown into lime (malta). Truly, Bernardi wrote, the men of this army were without mercy and some of the victims, seeing such cruelty, had preferred to kill themselves in the ditch rather than be taken. Outside the citadel carts were ordered to take the bodies to the churches for burial. First, a ditch of great size (‘de gram stature’) was dug by the duomo in the cemetery towards Ravenna, between the campanile and its gate, and about 10 ‘varghie’ from the wall of the church. Into this ditch were placed around 280 corpses feet first (‘tute cave pedi’), many on top of each other. In Bernardi’s judgment it took the cart twenty-four trips, conveying nine, ten, or twelve bodies at a time, to complete this job. He estimated that around eighty bodies were taken to the church of the Servites, twenty were taken to San Mercuriale, the church of the Carmine, Sant’Antonio, and other churches, to a total number of 450. Bernardi took some care to mention the names of some of the more prominent among the dead, including the French and he notes that Cesare Borgia placed his arms throughout the duomo.[14]

Much of what Harari says about military memoirs and their priorities is persuasive (and I will write about this in due course) but I think the differentiation of civilian and combatant burial practices is far less obvious than he suggests. I hope to build up a fuller picture of burial practices after such mass murder events when I go to the Italian archives, notably those containing the records of those Mendicant orders (who were usually present at funerals) and the confraternities like the battuti who had the job of collecting and preparing the dead for burial.

Of course, the comments of hostile chroniclers about the practices of the enemy cannot be fully trusted, but they do offer some insight into concerns about the burial of dead and at least indicate what was considered to be shameful. The bodies of both civilians and soldiers could be treated with all due care, when circumstances permitted, but at other times they were clearly an inconvenient problem (and a possible source of disease) that meant that they had to be thrown into mass graves with little ceremony or apparent care.

[1] Harari, Ultimate Experience, 35-112 (quoting title of ch. 3 at 95).

[2] Ibid., 101. See also idem, Renaissance Military Memoirs.

[3] Fiorato, Boylston, and Knüssel, Blood Red Roses, 147, 185-6.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Ibid., 99, 100-01.

[6] Benedetti, Diaria, 117.

[7] Ibid., 121.

[8] Cobelli, Cronache, 372. This is also alleged in De’ Bianchi, Cronaca, 135; Sanudo, Spedizione, 488-9; and Priuli, Diarii, 1: 28. In a letter to the duke of Urbino dated at Florence on 14 July 1495 Piero Vettori also relays this allegation, although with some hesitancy: ‘e’ Francesi, si dice (questo non vi dò per cosa certa), che missero tutti li loro morti in tre case, cacciaronvi fuoco e arsenle. Confessaronsi e communicaronsi. Ammazzarono tutti li loro prigioni, e tutti li feriti che non gli potevano seguitare; e andarono via due ore innanzi dì’. Canestrini and Desjardins, Négociations, 1: 625.

[9] Ricciardi, Ricordi, 59.

[10] Matarazzo, ‘Cronaca’, 68.

[11] Tommaso di Silvestro, Diario, 77.

[12] Bernardi, Cronache, 1.2: 279-82.

[13] ‘Per che veramente a mi parea, seconde che nara la sacra Scritura, tale cosa fuse simile a quile fanculine che fune morte per al nostre vere Redemptore, per essere lore state ferite in devarie mode; chi tagliata la testa, chi ferite nel so corpezine, chi braze, chi gambe, seconde la comudità de dite sove madre che li avea nele lore braze, che era gram numare l’une sopra l’altre per volerie tutavia apaiatarie.’ Ibid., 279.

[14] Compare the account given by a chronicler in Cesena: ‘E forono lì morti in ditta rocha 800 homini, de li quali ne fo sbarati asai per trarli li ducati inghiotitossi del corpo. Et per 3 giorni forono più volte amassati e smasati; et finalmente forono portati a sepellire con le cara, che forono 80 carra a 10 per carra, a Santa Croce, dove già per la guera delli Ordelaffi ne fo strati asai[i]ssimi. Cosa horenda e crudele, però che li denno la fede e fe.lli dessarmare e senza fare diffesa alcuna s’arenderno e subitto tutti furono amazati e spoiati nudi e sbarati e assasinati, che erano tutti valenti homini ‘taliani.’ Fantaguzzi, Caos, 196.



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Il fatto d’arme del Tarro fra i principi italiani, et Carlo ottavo re di Francia, insieme con l’assedio di Novara. Trans. Lodovico Domenichi. Venice: Gabriele Giolito de Ferrari, 1549

Canestrini, Giuseppe, and Abel Desjardins (ed.) Négociations diplomatiques de la Frances avec la Toscane. 6 vols. Paris: Imprimerie Impériale,1859-86

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De’ Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, Jacopino. Cronaca Modenese. Parma: Pietro Fiaccadori, 1861

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Matarazzo, Francesco. ‘Cronaca della Città di Perugia dal 1492 al 1503’. Archivio Storico Italiano, ser. 1, 16.2 (1851): 1-243

Priuli, Girolamo. I diarii di Girolamo Priuli [AA. 1499-1512], ed. Arturo Segrè (vol. 1) and Roberto Cessi (vols. 2 and 4), Rerum Italicarum Scriptores. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1933-41

Ricciardi, Francesco. Ricordi Storici. Ed. Alfredo Chiti. Pistoia: Alberto Pacinotti, 1934

Sanudo, Marin. La spedizione di Carlo VIII in Italia, ed. R. Fulin. Venice: M. Visentini, 1873

Tommaso di Silvestro. Diario. Ed. Luigi Fumi. In Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, vol. 15, part 5. Bologna: Nicola Zanichelli, 1922


Harari, Yuval Noah. Renaissance Military Memoirs: War, History, and Identity, 1450-1600. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004

The Ultimate Experience: Battlefield Revelations and the Making of Modern War Culture, 1450-2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

Fiorato, Veronica, and Anthea Boylston and Christopher Knüsel (eds). Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461. Revised edn. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007