The Betrothed

The one book you need to read during the lockdown – The Betrothed by Manzoni.

If there is one book you should read during the present lockdown, it is Manzoni’s The Betrothed.

Not only is it one of the most fascinating and beautiful novels I’ve ever read, but it contains much we can learn about how to deal with an epidemic. One of the most famous portions of the book revolves around the city of Milan’s wrestling with the Great Plague of 1630, and the heroic role played by the Church. 

It is extraordinary just how closely the plague chapters echo our own experience of the Coronavirus: political uncertainty about the science of disease spread; questions concerning the hoarding and supply of food; riots and protests in the streets; and politicians in chaos and accused of acting too slowly. Indeed, one of the most amusing parallels with our present situation is an episode involving door knob hysteria. A superstitious rumour grows in Milan that the plague is being spread seditiously by foreign agents who anoint door knobs and lintels with strange pastes, cursed oils, and noisome, infected unguents. Richard Bastable has pointed out in a previous article on this blog that a neurotic and almost farcical obsession with death-dealing door knobs has been a phenomenon not entirely absent from the Church of England’s response to COVID-19 (https://allthingslawfulandhonest.wordpress.com/2020/06/05/death-by-door-handle).

I want to argue that we see in The Betrothed a wonderful image of the difference sacrificial ministry and inspired Christian leadership can make in a time of epidemic. Manzoni’s beautiful portrayal of a courageous and inspiring Church represents a complete contrast to the stumbling, hesitant, chaotic response of the House of Bishops in our own day. In too many people’s eyes it has led the Church of England into a retreat away from the places and roles where it is most needed, to the safety and irrelevance of domestic refuge.

What’s The Betrothed about?

It is impossible not to adore this novel: bucolic descriptions of rural Lombardy; a romantic love story; frequent tat scenes; escapes to isolated monasteries and mountaintop castles; vast historical sweep; excellent Bond-calibre villains; international power play in the struggle for the Duchy of Mantua; and that rare treat – a thoroughly satisfying dénouement which sees the triumph of virtue, goodness, and order.

The Betrothed was written by Italian politician, writer, and poet Alessandro Manzoni in the 1820s. The plot takes place in early seventeenth century Lombardy and revolves around a betrothed couple called Renzo and Lucia. The lovers are prevented from marrying by their dastardly Spanish squire, Don Rodrigo, who himself has a crush on Lucia and wishes to have his wicked way with her. This injustice prompts Renzo and Lucia to flee their village in order to seek a place of safety where they can marry. 

The swashbuckling tale which follows takes us through the Lombard countryside, introduces us to seventeenth century Milan, sees war, kidnap, famine, and pestilence, and eventually returns to the lovers’ village where they are reunited and can finally be married and live in peace.

There are so many ideas and narrative twists in this complex novel that one could not do justice to its full literary achievement in one blog entry. However, I want simply to focus on the role that faith and the institution of the Church plays in it, especially in the face of epidemic.

The role of faith and the Church in The Betrothed

One of the key questions that surfaces frequently in The Betrothed is the worth and value of faith, and specifically the role of the Church. Manzoni presents us with a world in which the structures and mechanisms that hold society together – family, law, wealth, feudal loyalties – are fallible and all too frequently incapable of ensuring the peace, equity, and prosperity that a just society needs. 

Though this story is set in the seventeenth century, many of the yearnings of the Risorgimento can clearly be felt – the dream of an Italian state freed from foreign occupation and founded on the rule of law, representative government, and greater economic prosperity. However, Manzoni’s portrayal of the Church, whilst not without criticism, is in many respects quite a positive, even idealised, one.

The Church is not immune from criticism. The cause of Renzo and Lucia’s troubles is their spineless parish priest Don Abbondio. He refuses to marry them for fear of being roughed up by heavies sent by Don Rodrigo to intimidate him. Don Abbondio spends the entire novel proving himself to be more and more useless as time goes on. Readers will find themselves entirely in sympathy with his long-suffering and loquacious housekeeper Perpetua and the increasingly frequent tongue lashings she delivers in response to his cowardice and incompetence. 

There are also the famous Nun of Monza chapters. This shadowy, duplicitous figure is based on a real nun, Marianna de Leyva y Marino. She had a fellow sister in her order murdered, as part of a dark intrigue designed to cover up an affair she was having with Count Giovanni Paolo Osio, by whom she had had two children whilst in the convent.

Even though Manzoni presents us with the fallible side of some of the Church’s individual members, the Church really comes into its own in the passages describing the Milanese Great Plague of 1630, a catastrophe in which nearly a million people died. We are given a wonderful portrayal of heroic sacrificial ministry in the work of the Capuchins, who ran Milan’s Lazzaretto hospital, and the inspiring leadership of Archbishop Federigo Borromeo (cousin of St Charles). 

The Milan Lazzaretto

The Lazzaretto was a huge sanitorium constructed outside Milan, as a way of isolating those who had contracted the plague. It didn’t take long for this to become an overcrowded place of misery, despair, and death. The only flicker of hope in the Lazzaretto is the extraordinary ministry offered there by the Capuchins, who volunteer to enter it and work lovingly with the dying. The Capuchins themselves, of course, frequently succumb to the pestilence and pay the ultimate sacrifice for succouring plague victims.

Archbishop Federigo Borromeo

The portrayal of the wonderful Archbishop Federigo Borromeo is also one of the most persuasive elements of Manzoni’s apologetic for the Church. As the plague worsens, the secular rulers of Milan reveal themselves to be little more than ill-organised, self-interested incompetents. In the vacuum left by their inadequacy and flight from the city, Archbishop Borromeo steps in and offers an impressive model of leadership. He is clearly a patrician, yet is adored by the people. His intense solidarity with them is shown not by holding services in his kitchen but by his refusal to leave the city, and his extraordinary personal generosity, giving from his own resources to relieve their poverty and hunger during the periods of plague and famine.

He is held out to us too as an example of Christian leadership informed by logic, reason, and science. He refuses, for example, to acquiesce in the superstitious rumours that anointers are spreading disease through cursed door knobs. Borromeo also resists calls to hold a religious procession through the streets of Milan asking for God’s protection. In his view, such a thing is simply more likely to spread the plague. When, after much pressure, he eventually agrees to it, he is proved correct as spikes in the disease are noted days later in areas the procession passed through. 

Borromeo is the embodiment of the Counter-Reformation ideal of a just, saintly bishop – generous, personally holy, impervious to political pressure, and scrupulously free of corruption.  Indeed, it is precisely his noble status that gives him the capacity to ignore the local vested interests of the city’s magistracy and back the needs and interests of the common people. He “sets an example” for those under his care not by banning priests from entering their churches, but by wise political judgement, astute attentiveness to logic and science, and generous response to acute need.

The Church: the crucial heartbeat of a just, functioning society

Manzoni reveals the Church to be the only institution that, imperfect though its individual members might be, is capable of helping people to face a trauma of the proportions that a plague represents. Not only is the Christian Gospel presented as a philosophically coherent answer to the big questions of life and death, but it is only the Church which can offer the sort of sacrificial ministry shown by the Capuchins in the Lazzaretto.  All other secular sources of security – family, wealth, renown, armed power – crumble or fail in the face of the plague and are shown to be inadequate. 

I know of few other portrayals of the redemptive power of sacrificial ministry and the virtue of self-giving solidarity with those in need which are as compellingly attractive as this. Manzoni describes a situation in which secular power retreats into a place of shielded self-interest and is found to be incapable of protecting the poor and vulnerable. In the face of adversity, it is the Church which suddenly comes to the fore and provides a combination of heroic leadership and exemplary service in the space vacated by secular power. 

I worry that we have witnessed a very humiliating reversal of that dynamic over the past few months in England. In the face of the COVID pandemic, it is the Church of England which is perceived to have retreated from the public sphere and fled into domestic obscurity. By contrast, it is the secular world that has provided the heroic service and leadership needed to navigate this crisis. The Capuchins of our time are the nurses and doctors of the NHS, rightly lauded for their amazing work, whilst the clergy of the Established Church were forbidden by their own bishops from undertaking even that most basic of their duties – prayer in their churches for those in need.

Of course, The Betrothed is set in a very different era from our own. Our knowledge of science has exponentially improved and we have a professionally staffed and publicly funded health service. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t have followed the government’s entirely reasonable lockdown and it is unquestionably the duty of all Christians to prevent the spread of this virus. 

However, what I find most refreshing and inspiring in Manzoni’s novel is the vison he presents of a Church that uncomplicatedly knows its Gospel and its ministry to be needful and transformative, and capable of contributing to the common good.  As we navigate our way out of the current crisis, I hope the Church of England can recapture some of that resolute and joyful confidence in the worth of its ministry, the need for sacrificial service, the transforming comfort of its presence, the value of its worship, and the saving power of its proclamation of Jesus Christ.

The Rev’d Dr Peter Anthony

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