On the Late Massacre in Piedmont
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Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold,
Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshiped stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O'er all th' Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
History and background
In 1487, shortly after the Crusades in Southern France, Pope Innocent VIII turned his focus to the Waldensians in Northern Italy. The group was excommunicated from the church after refusing to conform to Catholicism. A series of attacks were made on the group before Charles I, Duke of Savoy intervened to bring peace to his lands.
In 1655 Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy renewed the persecution. He gave them twenty days to sell their lands and leave the town or to attend Catholic mass. When he found out that many of the townspeople had fled, he created a false uprising to send in troops. As part of the ordinance he required the townspeople to shelter the troops in their homes. The quartering order was not required, but was a way to get the troops close to the people without raising suspicion.
On April 24, 1655 there was an order given to begin the attack on the people. It is said that the Catholic forces went beyond reason of attacking the Waldensians. They are reported to have unleashed an unprovoked campaign of looting, rape, torture, and murder. The estimated number of people killed was around 2,000 people killed and another 2,000 were forcibly converted to the Catholic faith. Word of the killings spread quickly throughout Europe and great efforts were made to remove any survivors from the area and bring them to safety. The events of this massacre are what led to the inspiration and writing of John Milton’s sonnet “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont.”
Form and style
Milton’s Sonnet 18 is written in iambic pentameter, with ten syllables per line, and consists of the customary 14 lines. Milton's sonnets do not follow the English (Shakespearean) sonnet form, however, but the original Italian (Petrarchan) form, as did other English poets before him (e.g. Wyatt) and after him (e.g. Elizabeth Browning). This sonnet follows the ABBA, ABBA, CDCDCD rhyme scheme. In the third quatrain this changes and the poem reveals who is behind the massacre: the "Triple Tyrant," a reference to the pope with his triple crown.
Themes and motifs
The largest theme of the sonnet is religion, though calling on religion to enact justice. The other theme is the movement from Old Testament to the New Testament. The poem compares the theme of vengeance from the Old Testament to the theme of regeneration in the New Testament. The clear example of vengeance in the poem is the first line of “Avenge, O Lord,” which could be a reference to Luke 18:7, a bible verse that speaks about vengeance. An example of regeneration is the lines “grow/ A hundredfold” and “Mother with Infant.”
An alternate and perhaps more relevant appraisal of the above poem's motif and theme, for the murders of Evangelical Christians (carried out through orders of the Roman Catholic Church and under the grace of Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy) is rather less canonized, confused or watery than expressed above and is as follows.
In the poem, there is a clear call from the pen man to have the Lord take vengeance upon the "triple tyrant" and equally those who participated (“bloody Piedmontese”) in the slaying which occurred upon the mount. The poem refers to both mother and infant (who erroneously would have been protected by men of valor) being equal targets of vicious murder as males in the group, as it clearly states (“that rolled Mother with infant down the rocks”), or in plain speak, that mother and child were intentionally pushed or thrown off a cliff quite obviously to their death, or left to die of their injuries sustained. As echoing does in the mountains, their dying groans have echoed throughout the hills and then as the life force had left the mother and infants bodies, carried further up to Heaven (“Their moans The vales redoubled to the hills, and they ((mother and children)) To Heaven.”). In addition,the pen man's call to God, requests that the burnt remains of the murdered Evangelical Christian families, (not having been tainted by the Papal Harlot), and whose bodies after having been slain were burnt and trodden into the earth by their attackers (sown into the earth), as life springs forth from the ground, 100 times more evangelical believers may grow from the bones and ashes, (“Their martyred blood and ashes sow O'er all th' Italian fields”….. “that from these may grow A hundredfold, who having learnt thy way Early may fly the Babylonian woe”), Babylonian referring to the Roman Catholic church murderers.
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