The story of the Revolt of Masaniello in 17th century Naples blurs the line between a religious revolt and a revolt based on grievances. The people of Naples were ruled by a Spanish viceroy who levied high taxes on the population, especially on foodstuffs causing mass discontent. The poor people of the city who participated in the revolt were sparked by an increase in the fruit tax, which caused a riot among local merchants and vendors.


The revolt was led by Masaniello, a fisherman who was participating in the Feast of the Virgin Mary on the public square. He is the tragic hero of his own revolt, since he led it unwittingly. The revolt started during a mock battle staged by the residence of the Naples on the feast. Masaniello was in charge of one of the stage armies, but as soon as he and the public heard about the rise in food prices and the dispute over the tax spilled out into the streets, the threat of the stage army became a physical mob. The crowd of people marched on the palace, destroying property and stealing from stores and the houses of wealthy Neapolitans.


What is most interesting about this rebellion was the use of religion by both the rioters and the authorities. Masaniello, who had attempted to stop the rampant looting and destruction of the riot, had become “a man sent from God” and the rioters shouted the name of the Virgin Mary as they raided the city. The authorities however, also invoked the religious imagery by carrying crucifixes and praying. The authorities were literally trying to exercise the demons out of the rioters, because it seemed like the crowd had been possessed by the devil himself.


Earlier in the semester, I brought up a war of greed versus a war of grievance. This is a good example of how a war (or 10 day rebellion) was fought over greed, but was attempted to be turned into a religious crusade, a war on grievance. This heightened religious imagery no doubt contributed to the madness of the crowd, so it makes sense that Masaniello finally went mad after being compared to a divine prophet.