The history of the heretical religious community of the Giovannali (1) is remarkable on more than one account.
A very evocative portrait of this cult is outlined in the lecture “I GHJUANNALI” (“The Giovannali”) given in 1999 by Guy Pacini, a member of the Accademia Corsa (Corsican Academy) (2):
“The spoken dialect of Southern Corsica has only retained one term, “A GHJUANNARA” in order to remind of, or rather to characterise the evil-doings, rather than the influence, of this religious community.
Popular tradition, still nowadays, only ever uses it as synonymous with orgies and unspeakable nightly practices.”
Until now, there is nothing particularly strange, at least relating to cultists in rupture with Christianity and stemming from Bulgarian migrations.
Except maybe, their very origins, and it is Guy Pacini again who is providing us with this crucial precision:
Plague Infested Europe, 1348
One can see in light of these few elements that the Giovannali, as much for their mortification practices as because of the circumstances of their apparition, were in every aspect similar to the penitents who will be named, exactly one century afterwards, “Battitu” (“the Battered or Beaten Ones”) in Corsica. There is nothing coincidental about it, all the less so, since these “Battitu” will be also started off in Corsica by Franciscans, and since their rise to greater power took place precisely on the occasion of the resurgence of black plague epidemics all over Europe during the years around 1450... Their very name cannot help but evoke the BATTUTI (“the Battered or Beaten Ones” in Italian), also called the Disciplinati, who were the first Flagellants designated as such, who appeared in Italy in Perugia, in 1260, and there again, under the influence of Franciscans!
As Alexandre Grassi lets us know, Filippini adds that the first true political leaders of the Giovannali were “Polo and Arrigo, two bastards, illegitimate brothers of Guglielminuccio, Lord of Attallà, […] (who) put themselves at the helm of the Giovannali […] in the goal of increasing their inheritance and their influence.”
These two characters, seeing a unique occasion there to quench their thirst for power, were, as one can suspect, easily won over to penitence by the inflamed sermons of the Franciscan Giovanni Martini, the founder of the brotherhood.
Grassi, still following Filippini, adds that under the auspices of these two characters, “The cult grew rapidly, it soon came to include the entire population of the pieve (note: ecclesiastical district placed under the authority of a “pievan”, a kind of ecclesiastical prefect. Carbini was the chief town of a pieve). It became powerful enough to inspire fear to the Lords of Carbini.”
And not without some reason: the lords did attempt to reduce the cultists by force of arms, but too late. They were indeed defeated in battle by the troops gathered by Polo and Arrigo of Attalà. Having become the sole masters in Carbini, the Giovannali then appointed as Pievan of the region Fra Ristoro, a Franciscan, who was actually the co-founder, along with Giovanni Martini, of the confraternity of tertiary penitents which gave rise to the Giovannali cult...
Old Franciscan Monastery, Corsica
Now, Pacini very rightly points out that the latter remark, once placed back into the context of that era (the crusade against the Albigensians of France was still alive in people's memories), especially from a Bishop, obviously indicates “that the Pievan was a "clothed" or "perfect" Cathar, the only one able to administer the "Consolamentum".”
Thus adds Grassi that it is clear, based on the studies of the correspondence exchanged between the Bishops of Corsica and the Holy See, which were done by Abbé Casanova (6), that “the Giovannali were Fraticelli, that is to say spiritual Franciscans who condemned […] the Church.”
Precisely, it turns out that the Fraticelli have always been fighting against the Church and on the side of the Cathars, and as such, it is interesting to notice, following Grassi, that Abbé Casanova “reveals [...] the presence of the Cathars in Corsica during the first half of the XIVth century.”
And we find ourselves forced to admit that, if the same Grassi did not deem necessary to precise his sources regarding this matter, it is because positive testimonies abound on this subject.
Such was the strength of the heresy that Gregory XI struck again, on 14th May 1372, by appointing the Carmelite Mgr. Pierre Raymond, Bishop of Mariana, as an inquisitor, and this time for a period of five years, as he writes, for the heretics “were using "deceptive, false and clever" arguments. As a consequence, he canonically established the tribunal of the Inquisition in Corsica [...] Gregory wanted, in so doing, to utterly "extirpate" the heresies which, he said, "were swarming the place”. He takes care of specifying the positions of the people against whom the judiciary trials shall be brought: those are “heretics, believers, inciters, as well as their defenders and receivers”, all terms typically used in inquisitorial practice in order to designate the Cathars and their hierarchy.” (Register of the Vatican no. 283, fol. 248).” This fact is brought to our attention by Mgr. Mollat. (7)
But the Catharo-Franciscan penitents were hard to kill. In 1377, the heresy still hasn't been removed and an infuriated Gregory XI, incensed, is obliged to call upon the General of the Franciscans in order to, says Antoine-Dominique Monti, “ask him to appoint within his Order an inquisitor for Corsica AND Sardinia. The Pope deplores the resurgence of the heretic movement which has spread to Sardinia (According to Abbé Casanova, I, 77, and Mgr. Mollat).”
The case of the Giovannali will continue along these lines until the very end of the XIVth century, as evidenced by the letter in which Pope Boniface IX, on 3rd August 1395, mandates a new inquisitor for Corsica and Sardinia, whilst adjuring the local authorities to favour his action. This time it shall be François Bonacorsi, Bishop of Gravina, an Apostolic Nuncio (i.e. the Pope's ambassador) and administrator of the church of Accia (Register of the Vatican no. 314, fol. 376r).
However, if chroniclers Giovanni della Grossa and Montegiani are to be believed, the Giovannali were no longer there to be heard from at the end of the crusade. And yet Alexandre Grassi, in 1865, during a visit to the secluded hamlet of Arone, not far from Carbini, noticed that it was deprived of any church, and that its inhabitants all wore the same family name, Cucchi ("Barn Owls"), and formed a clan which did not tolerate any strangers in their midst, but above all else, that they all had the custom of practicing the swapping of wives, “for one must say mating, and not marriage: out of 23 or 24 unions, barely four or five can be counted as legitimate. [...] When you have seen these men, when their name has awoken within you the awful memories it reminisces, when their morals, their lifestyle, are revealed to you, you exclaim: these are the descendants of the Giovannali.”
We shall leave the final word to the same Alexandre Grassi, for who else could better conclude this study, than the very discoverer of the Giovannali's survival in the XIXth century? No one, in our opinion.
“By connecting our Giovannali to the Frères Bougres Jean (i.e. Bulgarian Johannite Brothers) [highlighted] by Ducange, and to the Joviniani [signaled] by Mathieu Paris (8), i.e. to the Albigensians of France, [...] we can affirm that they did practice the deeper Cathar doctrine: dualism, the distinction between the genie of good and the genie of evil, the belief in equal power for both principles. The accusations of Filippini against the cult are proof of this, since giving oneself over, in deep darkness, in blind obscurity, [...] to unspeakable orgies, making such practices into a dogma (9), means paying tribute to the devil, it means sacrificing to the evil spirit, it means acting in conformity with its commands, it means thus, acknowledging its power.”
Modern day celebration by Corsican Penitents
(1) The name of “Giovannali” is the Italian translation, passed over into French, of the Corsican word “Ghjuannali”, more rarely written “Ghjuvannali”.
(2) The Accademia Corsa is an association for the defense of the Corsican language, heritage and traditions, which is based in Nice. It was founded in 1964.
(3) These three coastal localities delimitate a triangle-shaped area, which very precisely corresponds to the southernmost tip of Corsica.
(4) « Les Cathares Corses » (“The Corsican Cathars”), a lecture made by Alexandre Grassi in 1866, published by the ADECEC association, with a bibliography by the lecturer, and notes by Antoine-Dominique Monti, in Cervioni, 1996 (3rd edition). Refer also to the original edition of 1972. As Mr. Grassi himself explains, this lecture was originally realised on the basis of the archives of the Giacobbi family, from Cervioni.
The ADECEC (« Association pour le Développement des Etudes archéologiques, historiques, linguistiques et culturelles du Centre-Est de la Corse » - “Association for the Development of archeological, historical, linguistic and cultural Studies of the Center-East of Corsica”) is an association for the safeguarding of Corsican culture, based in Cervioni. It was founded by Antoine-Dominique Monti in 1970.
(5) Archdeacon Anton-Pietro FILIPPINI, “Historia di Corsica nella quale si narrano tutte le cose seguite da che si comincio habitare, insino all'anno 1594” (“History of Corsica, wherein are related all of the things which followed, from the moment when it began to be inhabited, until the year 1594”), a book published in Tournon, France, in 1594.
(6) Abbé Casanova, “Histoire de l’Eglise Corse” (“History of the Corsican Church”), Ajaccio, 1931.
(7) « Les Cathares en Corse » (“The Cathars in Corsica”): a communication made in April 1956 to the Académie des Inscriptions des Belles-Lettres, by one of its members, Mgr. Guillaume Mollat, and published by Antoine-Dominique Monti, the founder of the ADECEC association, as an appendix to the transcript of Alexandre Grassi's 1866 lecture on the same subject.
(8) On this matter, refer to the “Historia Major” (“A Greater History”) (1238) by Mathieu Pâris, which is one of the Middle-Ages' most precious sources of information: “Ipsos autem nomine vulgari, Buragos appellavit sive ossent Patarini, sive Joviniani, vel Albigienses”, “These very same [people], he called them by the common name of Bulgars (note: Bulgarians), whether they be Patarini, Joviniani or Albigensians.”
In addition, Alexandre Grassi also remarks that “This name of Giovannali was the name of an entire and considerable branch of the Cathars, obviously with the differences in denomination entailed by each country's language. And that branch held its name from a reformer born inside of this very cult, Doctor Giovanni de Lugio (note: i.e. Jean de Lyon in French, John of Lyons in English), a subtle and speculative mind [...] at the beginning of the XIIIth century [...]. A large number of Cathars from Italy and France embraced the doctrine of Jean de Lugio. Thus we see from the XIII th century onwards, in the lawsuits brought against the heretics, amongst other denominations, that of “Frères Jean” (note: “Brothers John”, i.e. Johannite Brothers), and, particularly, that of “Frères Bougres” (note: Bulgar Brothers, i.e. Bulgarian Brothers). Frà Raniero Sacconi (note : in his “Summa De Catharis” - “Sum About the Cathars”, in 1250), whom Bossuet himself quoted several times whilst speaking about Jean de Lyon (note : i.e. Doctor Giovanni de Lugio / John of Lyons), calls him one of the leaders of the New Manicheans.”
(9) Let us not forget that the Giovannali, as Mr. Grassi precises, steadfastly condemned marriage, which, might we add, endows them with a rather extraordinary resemblance to the Patarini...
So efficient indeed were the aura and the impulsion given to the Giovannali by these two cunning leaders, that these had succeeded, within the course of barely two years, as Guy Pacini says, to swarm “all over Corsica, and notably in Alesani and Ghisoni”, two localities on the eastern coast of the island, where they had implanted themselves shortly after their victory at Carbini.
Besides, Filippini illustrates this apex period of the cult, with the fact that the Giovannali had erected in Alesani, what he calls a “gagliardo presidio”, i.e. a fortress shaped like a tower, with thick high walls.
Out of a simple Franciscan confraternity, the cult had thusly become, and with disconcerting ease, a powerful political movement, akin to Communism, or to National Socialism (Nazism), since it was “in a revolt on account of the demand for a distribution of lands and a sharing of wealth”, as attested by Guy Pacini.
These collectivistic claims will notably drive the Giovannali to refusing to pay the tax to the bishop of Aleria through the intermediary of their Pievan, thereby directly defying the authority of the Church.
By the way, this is what explains, according to Pacini, “the excommunication pronounced as early as 1353 against RISTORO, Pievan of CARBINI, and the congregation. He is recognised by the Bishop [Mgr. Raymond of Aleria] as “a corruptor of the people, responsible for superstitious and horrendous gatherings, and cloistered in multiple errors.”
But Ristoro of Carbini, who was a skilful negotiator with a devious mind, hastens to appeal to the Archbishop of Pisa, i.e. Mgr. Raymond's superior, and obtains in 1354 a dismissal of the excommunication sentence, as well as a lifting of the ban pronounced by the Bishop against the local members of the Giovannali cult.
Yet, as Alexandre Grassi lets us know, this is when the prelate of Aleria bravely chooses to ignore the injunctions of his superior, and decides to send without delay a plea letter to the Holy See, which at the time was located in France, in the city of Avignon.
“Does it not look heretical”, he writes at this occasion, “that a man who has not yet been ordained as a priest, pretends to absolve people of their sins as if he was one?”
“An organisation founded in 1352 in CARBINI, a small village in the Alta Rocca mountains, in the region comprised between Porto-Vecchio, Bonifacio and Sartene (3) […] the fraternity of the “GHJUANNALI” […] was founded by a Franciscan tertiary from Marseille […], the Brother Johanne Martini, [who was] the Vicar of the Most Reverend Father Minister General of the Third Order of Saint Francis in the island of Corsica.”
What does this mean? The Giovannali, about whom Alexandre Grassi, moreover, in his lecture « Les Cathares Corses » (“The Corsican Cathars”) of 1866 (4) used to say: “this germ deposited in the southern part of Corsica, the Cathars are the ones who brought it there”, may they be, beyond Albigensian heretics, also Franciscan penitents?
Certainly, because Guy Pacini reports to us in addition that “the chronicler Giovanni della Grossa establishes in 1464 that “they would impose upon themselves certain penitences of their own invention, they would gather in churches at night to make sacrifices and, there, certain superstitious practices, after a few vain ceremonies, they would extinguish the torches, and...”
Numerous sources, adds Guy Pacini, affirm that they would indulge themselves thereafter “in collective orgies inside the sanctuaries [...]”
The archdeacon and historian Anton-Pietro FILIPPINI, in his “Historia di Corsica” - (“History of Corsica”) (5), gives us further confirmation of the extreme perversity of their nocturnal behaviour, through describing them in veiled terms as partner swappers, but also as fanatical paedophiles:
“To crown the woes suffered by the island, a cult arose during these very times, to which was given the name of Giovannali [...]. The cult settled [...] in the country of the Carbini: it included men and women, and amongst those who composed it, every thing had to be shared in common, not only goods of every kind, but also the women and the children […]”
Regarding the type of penitences which the Giovannali were accustomed to inflicting upon themselves, Guy Pacini usefully precises his train of thought by adding that “An accent can be put […] on their practice of asceticism and flagellations, which needs to be placed back into the larger context of the era of the great plague.” He also says that “The birth of the movement of the GHJUANNALI takes place at the time of the great plague, and of the countless illnesses affecting the population.”
And although Alexandre Grassi's account leaves utterly unsaid the penitential nature of the Giovannali, he cannot evade the fact that, in his own words, “the black plague of 1348, which annihilated half, maybe two-thirds of the populations [...] had innumerable consequences. In Corsica, it set the stage for a popular revolution and a heresy.”
Indeed, “A History of the Inquisition of the Middle-Ages” by Henri-Charles Lea (Volume II, p. 255, published in 1901 by Harper & Brothers, New York), which detects the presence of Cathars in Corsica as early as 1340, as well as « La vie quotidienne des Cathares du Languedoc au XIII ème siècle » (“The daily life of the Cathars of the Languedoc region during the XIIIth century”) by René Nelli, which teaches us that “after the fall of Montségur (1244) and in the last years of the XIIIth century, many people who were not safe in their homeland anymore, took refuge in Catalonia, in Sicily, in Ragusa, in Dalmatia, in CORSICA, and especially in Italy”, these two books are in complete agreement on this point. The same is true of the Communication made at the Académie des Inscriptions des Belles-Lettres, in April 1956, by Mgr. Guillaume Mollat, a member of the Académie, concerning the “Cathars in Corsica”.
And obviously, the understanding of the Pope at that time went along the very same lines as Pacini and Grassi's reasoning.
Thus indeed, on 16th June 1354, Pope Innocent VI officially declares the Giovannali heretical, and excommunicates the confraternity as a whole. Unfortunately, as could be expected, this measure remained unheeded, since these fanatical penitents utterly didn't care about his authority.
Urban V, the Pope of Avignon, then decides to react, and entrusts a commissary, in 1362, with the task of raising some troops in order to give an ultimatum to the Giovannali, in the hope of resolving the crisis. This first attempt ended in failure, the troops being too few and insufficiently organised.
Faced with the cultists' stubbornness, Pope Innocent VI then finds himself forced, in 1363, to officially decree a crusade in order to extract the heresy from Corsica. According to a phrase by Alexandre Grassi, “the clergy called upon the lay powers, the abbey shook hands with the castle”, and a total military war against these schismatic penitents could then begin. In Carbini, the cradle of the Giovannali, the churches San Quilicu and San Ghjuvanni Battista, which were both their places for penitence and for debauchery, were razed to the ground by the pontifical armies.
Elsewhere, all across Corsica, hundreds of Giovannali were slaughtered in combat, or atoned for their depravations in the flames of the stake.
Hunted down from every side, these Franciscan cultists then took refuge, quite logically, in the pieve of Alesani in Castagniccia, safe inside of their “gagliardo presidio”, the stronghold which they had erected there.
Innocent VI had a commanding assault launched against the fortress, and in 1364, his troops managed to rout the bulk of the Giovannali.
Yet, these efforts still were not enough to completely eradicate the cult. The surviving Giovannali had taken refuge at the heart of the dense forests and mountain ranges of the center of Corsica. And there, out of the reach of the Pope's soldiers, they were patiently reconstituting their forces... We know indeed, thanks to Abbé Casanova in his “Histoire de l’Eglise de Corse” (“History of the Church of Corsica”), Tome I, p. 77, that five years later, in 1369, Gregory XI, the Pope of Avignon, had to send a contingent of inquisitors to carry on the fight. The difficult mission of leading it was entrusted to the Brother Mondino of Bologna.