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From the Porous to the Buffered: Milton’s “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont”

John Milton (1608-74)“Way leads on to way,” as Frost tells us, and my recent reading in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has me looking into various unfamiliar ways. Specifically, I’ve been intrigued by Taylor’s references to the Waldensians, a religious movement that ran afoul of Catholic orthodoxy before Luther came on the scene. I had heard of this group before, but I knew only that they were a group deemed heretical. As it turns out, they stand as poster children for Taylor’s complicating account of the move from what he terms a “porous” age, when lives were seen as intertwined with each other and a world seen and unseen, and a “buffered” age, when the only things that matter are within individual minds.
Peter Waldo, the leader of the Waldensians, led his group from the late 12th century into the early 13th, placing him more than 300 years before Luther. Some 450 years had passed by the time of the 1655 massacre memorialized by Milton in this sonnet:
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter’d saints, whose bones
       Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,
       Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old,
       When all our fathers worshipp’d stocks and stones;
Forget not: in thy book record their groans
       Who were thy sheep and in their ancient fold
       Slain by the bloody Piemontese that roll’d
       Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubl’d to the hills, and they
       To Heav’n. Their martyr’d blood and ashes sow
       O’er all th’ Italian fields where still doth sway
The triple tyrant; that from these may grow
       A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way
Early may fly the Babylonian woe.
What I find somewhat remarkable about the historical background to this poem is that 450-year span. Looking back on the “bad old days” of the Reformation and just before, we are allowed to believe that all dissent was quickly and cruelly stamped out by the Inquisition and other jack-booted assets of the Roman Church. Somehow, though, the Waldensians managed to hang onto their lives and their faith for centuries, predating Luther by a long span and surviving through the most active years of Counter-Reformation adversity.
Looking back on this event from our buffered world, we find conclusions easy to draw. The poor Waldensians simply wanted to worship in their own chosen manner. When they refused to conform to the authorized religion, they were set upon by soldiers. Of course, Charles Emmanuel II, the Duke of Savoy who ordered the attack, would have seen it differently. In his eyes, living within the porous mindset, he could not simply tolerate these people. To allow them to exist outside the control of the church would be like tolerating a carrier of the bubonic plague working in a restaurant. In a day before germ theory, those living in the porous world saw religious dissent as a contagion, a dangerous element that could not be ignored.
Notice that for all his modern aspects, Milton has not moved fully into the buffered mindset of the Renaissance and beyond. He does not say, “Why couldn’t the Pope just leave the poor Waldensians alone?” Instead, he simply inverts the players. In his mind, the Waldensians are those “who kept thy truth so pure of old,” while the Catholic forces are condemned as the “Babylonian woe.” It is virtually impossible for anyone, religious or not, living in the buffered age,  to fully understand the porous mindset. Milton’s sonnet, hardly the finest work he ever produced, provides some small glimpse into it, yet leaves most modern readers a bit uneasy, rather like the closing lines of Psalm 137, which Milton fairly clearly means to evoke:
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Somehow, very little church music sets those words, and especially that last sentence, and offers them for Sunday worship.

Posted in English Literature, Neo-Classicism.

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