It must have been dramatic in the past finding yourself trapped in a city besieged by an enemy army, camped out of the walls waiting for it to surrender. The conquest would have, almost certainly, terminated with a raid involving rapes, death and devastation. It would have attempted on the historical memory of the city, its cultural heritage, its values.
That’s why resisting was the only available option
Below: the Malta siege, 1565
The duration of the siege could differ; basically, if the city was not conquered by force or if none of the allies was going to intervene, the besieged population was forced to surrender for starvation. Isolated from their countryside and all the sources of sustenance, with the increasing risk of running out of stock and not being able to feed its warriors, the cities were often forced to take desperate measures. One of them was the self-defensive tactic known as “useless mouths”: the people in charge would expel from the city walls all those people who were not bringing any help to the defence of the village.
Antonio Cornazzano, on the book “De re militari” (concerning Military Matters) 1476, described the useless mouths as
“when the harvest was not enough, all those people of an useless age to be able to do anything and others such as females, elderly, blind and crazy people should be kicked out of the walls, in my opinion”
Women, children, elderly and disabled people, poors, foreigners, farmers, refugees and prostitutes were fragile categories. For their incapability to fight, they would result as unworthy to be fed, and this way, by cutting out some mouths, a longer resistance to the village was possible. Cases of expulsions were not at all rare and there are many historical reports of useless expulsions from cities such as the one from Pavia in 1359, Novara in 1495, Siena in 1554, Malta in 1565.
Below: the book “De Re Militari” by Cornazano
Particularly dramatic was the case which took place at the decline of the Republic of Siena, between 1553 and 1555, when the city was defeated by the Imperial Army of Charles V and the Florentine one of Cosimo dei Medici and subsequently incorporated within the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
To better understand what the amount of the useless people was, we can have a look at the list made in 1554 in the city of Siena, besieged by the Spanish-Medicean army, from which it results that there was a total of 4,400 individuals, corresponding to the 15-20% of the whole population before the attacks.
The Sienese troops were guided by Piero Strozzi, warrior whose family was a historical rival of the Medicean one. As for the opposing army, the Spanish- Medicean one, it was led by the soldier of fortune Gian Giacomo Medici. After the battle of Scannagallo in 1554 which saw a crushing victory from the Florentine army, the siege to Siena city was tightened even further. Until then the offensive had actually not been very heavy: it was a common procedure to leave some parts unsupervised throughout the course of the sieges due to a lack of besiegers, thing which would allow the city to resist longer.
Below: Gian Giacomo Medici called “Medeghino” in the sculpture for his funerary monument. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The Sienese relied on the defence of a French captain, Blaise de Lasseran‑Massencôme, seigneur de Montluc, who obtained special powers and that, along with the “Otto di Reggimento sopra la Guerra” (literally “Eight of Regiment over the war”) personified in those hectic days the maximum political authority for the city of the Palio. In order to face the emergency due to the lack of food inside the city walls, a sort of a subcommittee called “I quattro cittadini per distribuzione di Monte, per cavare dalla Città tutte le bocche disutili” (literally “the four citizens for the Monte distribution, to remove the useless mouths from the city”) wrote down a list of approximately 2000 unfortunate people. Those people were doomed to be kicked out of Siena, some of whom were the poor hosted in the city hospital Santa Maria della Scala.
Below: Blaise de Montluc
The selected victims were taken by force and locked inside the Duomo, but many Sienese citizens rebelled against the operation and rose up in their defence, forcing open the door of the cathedral and freeing the prisoners. The rebellion had a huge popular support as the governors wrote to Sir Strozzi, declaring they did not want to avail themselves of his authority any longer “deciding to not punish the transgressors in the respect of the times”.
Below: episode taken from the conquest of Pavia of the 1359 painted by Federico Faruffini
On the 22nd September though, the useless mouths were not as lucky anymore. As Blaise de Montluc wrote in his diary
“I gave my guidelines to a knight of Malta, accompanied by 25 to 30 soldiers to bring them out, thing that happened 3 days after I set my order. The total amount of useless mouths exiled was 4,400 or more”
Below: painting made by Giorgio Vasari representing the siege of Siena
The majority of that long row of desperates, trembling heading towards an uncertain future, fell for the enemy’s attack yet many children and women were seized by the soldiers for sexual assaults and others died for lack of food, after having fed off of berries and herbs.
However the actual siege of the innocents occurred in the 5th October 1554, when 250 orphans between 6 and 10 years old coming from the city hospital, which was involved in acts of assistance to the needy people, were pushed away by force through Porta Fontebranda, one of the gates of the enclosed city.
Below: Porta Fontebranda today. Picture byMongolo84 shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Touched and horrified, Scipione di Mariano Venturi, dean of the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital commented
“It was the biggest pain seeing those children removed of their belongings, wounded and left on the ground that would have moved Nerone himself. I would have paid 25 scudi (ecus) if I could have spared myself from attending that scene. For three days I neither ate nor drank for what happened..”
By the end of October other 200 children between 10 and 15 years old were expelled by Siena as unwanted. It is pointless to mention that they all ended up like the ones before them. A sacrifice of a few lives which either way did not suffice to save the ancient Republic of Siena which on the 21st of April 1555 succumbed after 4 centuries of history.