...though [Joshua Gianavel] possessed the courage of a lion, he was as humble as a lamb, always giving to God the glory of his victories; well versed in Scripture, and understanding controversy, and of great natural talent.
Rora (2001) is a fictionalized account by James Byron Huggins of the remarkable true story of Joshua Gianavel (Giosuè Gianavello), a farmer-warrior who led the resistance to the famous 1655 Waldensian Massacre in the Valley of Piedmont at a little place called Rorà, Italy. I have enjoyed reading it and commend it highly.
Gianavel, whose story is told in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, first spied soldiers attempting to attack his valley of Rorà as the Massacre was underway. Charles Emmanuel II, Duke of Savoy, had given the order for a general massacre of Waldensians to begin at 4:00 am, April 24, 1655. It was an unprovoked attack, the culmination of centuries of hostilities by French Catholics against peaceful Waldensians.
The Waldensians had borne witness to the true gospel for hundreds of years, and when the Reformation began, they sent emissaries to meet with German Reformers in 1526 and 1530. On behalf of the Swiss and German Reformed Churches, William Farel attended the Waldensian Synod of Chanforan in 1532, at which time the Waldensians officially joined the Reformation. That same year, John Calvin's cousin, Pierre Robert Olivétan, was charged with writing a translating of the Bible to be used by the Waldensians, which was published in 1535 as the French Olivétan Bible. King Francis I soon exterminated the Waldensians of France in 1545, but in 1561, the Treaty of Cavour permitted religious liberty to the Waldensians of Piedmont.
A century later, as hatred of the Waldensian "heretics" mounted amongst the Catholics who surrounded their homeland in the Alps, the Duke of Savoy launched his attack on the Valley, intending to wipe them out once and for all. When Gianavel spied the soldiers coming towards his village, he gathered together six other men, and successfully employed guerrilla warfare tactics to repel the invaders. Increasing waves of soldiers attacked the vastly outnumbered men of Rora but were consistently thwarted in their efforts to subdue the inhabitants, often returning to their base with many casualties of their own and no dead Waldensians to show for it. Thousands of Waldensians were slaughtered in other parts of the Valley, to be sure, men, women and children, but Rora was defended by a militia captain who trusted not in weapons or numbers, but in the Lord God. After each victorious skirmish, Gianavel and his men would kneel and worship God, returning thanks to him in prayer and often singing the eleventh Psalm.
The general commanding the Duke's forces, the Marquis de Pianessa, was enraged that his tactics were being thwarted by a handful of farmer peasants.
Foxe's Book of Martyrs 6.3-4:
The marquis of Pianessa was greatly enraged at being so much baffled by the few inhabitants of Roras: he, therefore, determined to attempt their expulsion in such a manner as could hardly fail of success.
With this view he ordered all the Roman, catholic militia of Piedmont to be raised and disciplined. When these orders were completed, he joined to the militia eight thousand regular troops, and dividing the whole into three distinct bodies, he designed that three formidable attacks should be made at the same time, unless the people of Roras, to whom he sent an account of his great preparations, would comply with the following conditions:
1. To ask pardon for taking up arms. 2. To pay the expenses of all the expeditions sent against them. 3. To acknowledge the infallibility of the pope. 4. To go to mass. 5. To pray to the saints. 6. To wear beards. 7. To deliver up their ministers. 8. To deliver up their schoolmasters. 9. To go to confession. 10. To pay loans for the delivery of souls from purgatory. 11. To give up captain Gianavel at discretion. 12. To give up the elders of their church at discretion.
The inhabitants of Roras, on being acquainted with these conditions, were filled with aa honest indignation; and, in answer, sent word to the marquis, that sooner than comply with them they would suffer three things, which, of all others, were the most obnoxious to mankind, viz,
1. Their estates to be seized. 2. Their houses to be burnt.— 3. Themselves to be murdered.
Exasperated at this message, the marquis sent them this laconic epistle.
To the obstinate Heretics inhabiting Roras. You shall have your request, for the troops sent against you have strict injunctions to plunder, burn, and kill.
The three armies were then put in motion, and the attacks ordered to be made thus: the first by the rocks of Vilaro; the second by the pass of Bagnol; and the third by the defile of Lucerne.
The troops forced their way by the superiority of numbers, and having gained the rocks, pass, and defile, began to make the most horrid depredations and exercise the greatest cruelties. Men they hanged, burnt, racked to death. or cut to pieces; women they ripped open, crucified, drowned, or threw from the precipices; and children they tossed upon spears, minced, cut their throats, or dashed out their brains. One hundred and twenty-six suffered in this manner, on the first day of their gaining the town.
Agreeable to the marquis of Pianessa's orders, they likewise plundered the estates, and burnt the houses of the people. Several protestants, however, made their escape, under the conduct of Captain Gianavel, whose wife and children were unfortunately made prisoners, and sent under a strong guard to Turin.
The marquis of Pianessa wrote a letter to captain Gianavel, and released a protestant prisoner that he might carry it him. The contents were, that if the captain would embrace the Roman catholic religion, he should be indemnified for all his losses since the commencement of the war; his wife and children should be immediately released, and himself honourably promoted in the duke of Savoy's army; but if he refused to accede to the proposals made him, his wife and children should be to put death; and so large a reward should be given to take him, dead or alive, that even some of his own confidential friends should be tempted to betray him, from the greatness of the sum.
To this epistle, the brave Gianavel sent the following answer.
My Lord Marquis,
There is no torment so great or death so cruel, but what I would prefer to the abjuration of my religion: so that promises lose their effects, and menaces only strengthen me in my faith.
With respect to my wife and children, my lord, nothing can be more afflicting to me than the thoughts of their confinement, or more dreadful to my imagination, that their suffering a violent and cruel death. I keenly feel all the tender sensations of husband and parent; my heart is replete with every sentiment of humanity; I would suffer any torment to rescue them from danger; I would die to preserve them.
But having said thus much, my lord, I assure you that the purchase of their lives must not be the price of my salvation. You have them in your power it is true; but my consolation is, that your power is only a temporary authority over their bodies: you may destroy the mortal part, but their immortal souls are out of your reach, and will live hereafter to bear testimony against you for your cruelties. I therefore recommend them and myself to God, and pray for a reformation in your heart. Joshua Gianavel.
Gianavel was able to save his young son from the ruins of his village, and brought him north to be cared for by relatives, but in fact, his wife and three daughters were burned alive.
Oliver Cromwell and his diplomats, including John Milton, as well as other Protestant nations, pressured the French and Savoy governments to cease persecution of the Waldensians, but the war continued until relative peace was achieved by the Patente de Turin of 1664, which, however, excluded Gianavel from the terms of amnesty. He retired to Geneva, where he served the Waldensian cause in other indirect ways. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy was pressured into violating the peace terms and renewing the effort to exterminate the Waldensians of the Valley. When Waldensian refugees entered Geneva in 1686, the aged militia captain was there to greet them in a memorable, emotional embrace.
One of Milton's most famous sonnets was written in 1655 in response to the Massacre.
John Milton, Sonnet XVIII: On the Late Massacre in Piedmont:
Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughter'd saints, whose bonesLie 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 groansWho were thy sheep and in their ancient foldSlain by the bloody Piemontese that roll'dMother with infant down the rocks. Their moansThe vales redoubl'd to the hills, and theyTo Heav'n. Their martyr'd blood and ashes sowO'er all th' Italian fields where still doth swayThe triple tyrant; that from these may growA hundred-fold, who having learnt thy wayEarly may fly the Babylonian woe.