Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Bossi’s Lega Nord – history and myth

What do the contemporary sources for the league tell us about it?

There is abundance of contemporary sources for the medieval league. Its activities are described in many chronicles, both favourable and unfavourable to its position. The league itself produced numerous documents, in particular relating to the terms of membership of the various cities that adhered to it. The great peace treaty agreed between Frederick I Barbarossa and the league at Constance in 1183 survives in several versions.

These sources show us that the league was a fairly loose federation of cities. It had common funds and a common army; each city elected representatives who consulted with the other members at regular meetings. Beginning in 1167 with five founder members – Milan, Cremona, Bergamo, Brescia and Mantua – by 1183 its adherents numbered seventeen. But it was always a shifting and fluid alliance. Cities were constantly joining and leaving; some cities never joined at all. Similarly it would be an over-simplification to characterise it as simply 'anti-imperial'. In fact, the terms and conditions of most of the pacts associating cities with the League envisage them giving aid against mutual enemies who, when identified, are not the emperor but other cities. The conflict of c.1158-76 was thus as much about local politics and war in northern Italy as about Frederick's attempts to impose imperial rule there. The Peace of Constance was certainly a victory for the league, but its terms too show clearly that the communes were not campaigning to set up a separate Lombard state. On the contrary they sought, and ultimately obtained through the Treaty of Constance, recognition of what they called their 'liberties'- by which they meant local privileges and customs – within the pre-existing constitutional framework of the Italian kingdom, ruled by the German emperors.

Why is the myth of the league so powerful? How much of the myth is based on fact ?

Virtually all of the symbols used by the modern league are of doubtful historical veracity. For example, there is no contemporary proof of the existence of Alberto da Giussano, the figure on the party badge. He is first mentioned by the Milanese chronicler Galvano Fiamma (1283-1344) who wrote well over a century after the time of the Lombard League. Fiamma is also the first to associate Alberto's with the famed 'Company of Death'. The swearing of oaths and the so-called Congress of Pontida in 1167, which later historiography saw as a crucial moment in the formation of the League, is similarly difficult to authenticate: though it is not an implausible event, the earliest unequivocal reference to it is contained in a work written even later than Fiamma's chronicle – a history of Milan by Bernadino Corio (1459-1513/19). The carroccio, on the other hand, is frequently attested in sources written during the period of the wars between the League and Frederick I Barbarossa. However, it was essentially a civic symbol: each city possessed its own carroccio. There is no evidence that it was ever elevated to the status of a symbol of north Italian particularism or independence in the Middle Ages in the way it is presented today by the League. Indeed as the army of Lombard league consisted of contingents from many cities, it is unlikely that it had a single carroccio at Legnano, despite the fact that nineteenth century paintings and prints of the battle often depict one centre-stage.

How plausible then are the links between the Lega Nord and the Lombard League?

The downplaying of such links in recent times by the League itself, and the search for other reference points, may be taken as an admission of their lack of plausibility. In the first place, as was said, the original Lombard League, unlike the modern League, did not seek independence for northern Italy. There is wide agreement amongst medievalists that the concerns of its member cities were first and foremost local rights and privileges. That is to say they had little or no concept of a Lombard 'nation' in the political sense, even if 'Lombard' was used as a cultural label for inhabitants of the north of Italy both in the Italian peninsula and in northern Europe. Forged under the pressure of war, the League did not hold together in peacetime: in fact it disintegrated shortly after a settlement was reached with Frederick Barbarossa at Constance in 1183. The cities then returned to fighting each other which was a much more normal state of affairs throughout the Middle Ages.

Furthermore there is no doubt that the greatest enemy of the modern league is Rome, capital of the Italian state and seat of the government. This too is rather inconvenient for the historical parallel as Rome, in the form of the Papacy, was the staunchest ally of the medieval league. The bond between the two was so strong that when the League founded a strategic fortress-town to guard the route across the Appennines between Milan and Genoa it was named Alessandria, after Frederick Barbarossa's implacable enemy Pope Alexander III (1159-81).

We can say therefore that the position of the modern League with regard to the nature of the medieval League contains misconceptions, and is seriously out of step with the interpretations of modern professional historians.

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