On the Late Massacre in Piedmont by John Milton (Poetry Reading)

August 2, 2020


This sombre sonnet by John Milton is read by Duncan McGibbon, the Poetry Convenor for BRLSI. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, and Milton adopts the Petrarchian sonnet style rather than the Shakespearian. The subject of the verse is the slaughter of Waldensian “heretics” during Easter 1487 in Northern Italy after the group was excommunicated by Pope Innocent VIII. In January, 1655, the Waldenses, who then as now had diverged from Rome in their Christian beliefs since the 13th century, were bid to conform, go into exile, or face death, by the civil government of Turin. The Waldenses sent a humble protest to the Court of Turin. It was ignored, and on April 17, 1655, soldiers under Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, massacred them “with every circumstance of brutality”. Milton was commissioned to write state letters expressing England’s shock and its rhetorical disbelief that the French (Savoy) could be so brutal.* He wrote this sonnet around the same time. It was published in 1673, a year before his death. Milton’s allusion of the Pope as ‘the triple tyrant’ (referring to the triple-crown papal tiara) reflects issues surrounding the Reformation and shows how sympathy for the early reformers was growing in England long before the events of the break with Rome under Henry VIII. Recent Popes have formally apologised for the incident. *Letter by Milton on Cromwell’s behalf to “Lewis, King of France” – ie Louis 14th – on July 29, 1655 (in Letters of State [1694] 153-57).

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