If a Westerner gets the impression that it is only “foreign” religions that are capable of barbarism and savagery in the name of their deity, he or she might like to bear the date of 3rd February 1377 in mind. This was the day on which a cardinal of the church, and a future pope, unleashed a terrifying slaughter on the citizens of Cesena, an Italian city which had dared to exhibit an independent streak.
An angry pope
The papacy had been moved from Rome to Avignon in France to 1308 by a French pope (Clement V), and one effect of this had been to weaken papal control over the territories that the papacy ruled in Italy in both political and spiritual terms. In Florence, the Guelph faction led a revolt that threatened to destabilise much of northern Italy.
In 1377 Pope Gregory XI (see picture) decided to do something to impose his will on the wavering Italian city-states and he commissioned one of his cardinals, Robert of Geneva, to be his “attack dog” in this matter.
Robert hired a band of mercenaries led by an English adventurer named Sir John Hawkwood who was notorious for switching sides to whoever would pay him the most. Their efforts at attacking city-states were unsuccessful until they reached the city of Cesena which is close to the Adriatic coast near Rimini.
A massacre at Cesena
Cardinal Robert promised, by swearing a binding oath, to be lenient to the people of Cesena if they would open their gates, which they duly did. However, once inside the city he broke his oath and ordered his mercenaries to kill as many people as possible. An orgy of rape and slaughter began on 3rd February and lasted for three days and nights. Many of the 5,000 deaths were caused by people drowning in the city moat as they tried to escape.
The following year Cardinal Robert was rewarded for his services by being elected as Pope Clement VII – a bizarre and frankly revolting name to assume given the man’s total lack of clemency towards his victims at Cesena.
Popes and anti-popes
However, the people and clergy of Rome had demanded that the next pope after Gregory, who was French, should be an Italian and should be based in Rome. They therefore elected Urban VI as pope, which meant that Clement VII (see picture) would rule from Avignon as the first of a string of “antipopes” – a situation that would split the church for the next 71 years.
Something to bear in mind?
It has often struck me that some Christians tend to get “high and mighty” when they criticise Islam, or certain sections of it, for encouraging barbaric behaviour. However, perhaps it should be remembered that Islam is a religion that that was founded in about the year 600, which means that it is now around 1,350 years old. It might be worth bearing in mind that Christianity, when roughly the same age, was behaving in ways that were no better – indeed, often considerably worse – than are complained by those critical Christians on the part of today’s more extreme Muslims.