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Bill Thayer

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Book VII
Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a section of
Italy and Her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Book VII
Chapter 7

Vol. VI
Note B

The Story of St. Barbatus

The life of St. Barbatus, the most eminent apostle of Catholic Christianity in Southern Italy, has an important bearing on the history of the duke of Benevento in the seventh century, and especially on the invasion of Constans; but hagiology has a character of its own, and refuses to be wrought in harmoniously with secular history, even in that picturesque and saga-like form which that history assumes in the pages of Paulus. I have decided therefore to relegate to a note the condensed narrative of the saint's life and works.

This narrative is derived from two documents published in the great Bollandist collection of the Acta Sanctorum under the date 19th of February. One of these lives, we are told, is extracted from an ancient codex written in Lombard characters belonging to the Benedictine monastery of St. John at Capua. The other, an expanded and paraphrastic copy of the first, comes from the archives of the church at Benevento. Waitz, who has edited the life of the saint in Scriptores Rerum Langobardicarum (M. G. H.), mentions eleven MSS., most of which he has consulted, and three of which are 'litteris Beneventanis exarati.' He considers that even the earlier form of the history cannot have been written before the ninth century, and follows Bethmann in rejecting as valueless the later and paraphrastic form which he attributes to the tenth or eleventh century. From some slight indications (chiefly the description of the invading Emperor as 'Constantinus qui et Constans appellatur'), I should be disposed to believe that there is a foundation of contemporary tradition for the earlier document. The following is a greatly condensed translation of the Life: —

'Barbatus (who was born in the year 602) became famous when Grimwald held the reins of the Lombard kingdom, and his son Romwald ruled the Samnites.

p294 'The Lombards, though baptized, worshipped the image of a viper; and moreover, they devoutly paid homage in most absurd fashion to a certain "sacrilegious" tree far from the walls of their city. From the branches of this tree was hung a piece of leather; and all those who were to take part in the ceremony, turning their backs to the tree, rode away from it at a gallop, urging on their horses with bloody spurs. Then suddenly turning round, they hurled their lances at the leather, which quivered under their strokes; and each one cut out a little piece thereof, and ate it in a superstitious manner for the good of his soul.​1 And as they paid their vows at this place, they gave it the name Votum, which [says the scribe] it still bears.

'All these superstitious practices greatly distressed the soul of Barbatus, who told the people that it was vain for them thus to try to serve two masters. But they, in their blind and beast-like madness, refused to abandon this equestrian form of worship, saying that it was an excellent custom, and had been handed down to them by their ancestors, whom they mentioned by name, and declared to have been the bravest warriors upon earth.

'However, by his miracles, Barbatus began to soften the hearts of the rude people, who even by drinking the water in which he had washed his hands after celebration of the Mass, found themselves healed of their diseases.

'Then "Constantius, who is also called Constans," desiring to restore the kingdom of Italy to his obedience, collected an innumerable multitude of ships, arrived at Tarentum, and ravaged nearly all the cities of Apulia. He took the very wealthy city of Luceria after severe fighting, and by the labour of his robber-bands levelled it to the earth. Then he went on to Beneventum, where Romwald abode, having a few very brave Lombards with him, and the holy father Barbatus remained there with them. Terrible was the attack of Constans, who harassed the defenders with ever-fresh bands of assailants. This lasted long, but Romwald, magnanimous and unterrified, made a brave resistance,  p295 now fighting from the walls, now making a sudden sally and hasty return into the city, for he was not strong enough to fight in the open plain. Still, though he had slain many of the assailants, his own ranks were thinned, and the inhabitants began to weep and wail, thinking that they would soon be destroyed by the robber-bands of Constans. As for Romwald, he, growing weary of fighting, gave a counsel of despair to his soldiers:​2 — "It is better for us to die in battle than to fall alive into the hands of the Greeks, and so perish ignominiously. Let us open the gates of the city, and give them the hardest battle that we can." Perceiving this discussion, St. Barbatus said, "Never let so many brave young men be given over to destruction, lest they perish everlastingly. Good were the boldness of your hearts, if your minds were not so empty, and your souls so week." Said Romwald, "What dost thou mean by emptiness of mind and weakness of soul? Prithee, tell us." Thereupon Barbatus, promising them the palm of victory, if they would follow his counsels, preached a long sermon against idolatry, and exhorted his hearers to the steady and serious worship of Christ.​3

'Hereupon Romwald said, "Only let us be delivered from our foes, and we will do all that thou biddest us, will make thee bishop of this place, and in all the cities under our rule will enrich thee with farms and 'colonies.' "

'Barbatus answered, "Know for certain that Christ, to whom ye have now turned in penitence, will set you free, and the assaults of Caesar and his people shall not penetrate the streets of Beneventum, but with changed purpose they shall return to their own borders. And that thou mayest know that I am telling thee the very truth, which shall shortly come to pass, let us come together under the wall. There will I show thee the Virgin Mary, the most pious Mother of God, who has offered up her health-giving prayers to God for you, and now, having been heard, comes to your deliverance."

'After public prayers and solemn litanies, and after earnest private prayer offered up by Barbatus in the church of the Virgin, the people, with Romwald at their head, assembled at the gate  p296 which is still called Summa. Then Barbatus desired them all to bow down to the dust, for God loveth a contrite heart, and went, in conversation with Romwald, close under the wall. Then suddenly appeared the Mother of God, at sight of whom the Prince fell to the earth and lay like one dead, till the holy man lifted him from the ground and spoke words of comfort to him who had been permitted to see so great a mystery.​4

'On the following day the besieger, who had refused to be turned from his hostile purpose by an immense weight of pearls and precious stones, now, receiving only the sister of Romwald, turned his back on Beneventum and entered the city of Neapolis. The blessed Barbatus at once took a hatchet, and going forth to Votum, with his own hands hewed down that unutterable tree in which for so long the Lombards had wrought their deadly sacrilege: he tore up its roots and piled earth over it, so that no one thereafter should be able to say where it had stood.

'And now was Barbatus solemnly chosen bishop of Beneventum. Of all the farms and "coloniae" wherewith Prince and people offered to endow him, he would receive nothing, but he consented to have the house of the Archangel Michael on Mount Garganus, and all the district that had been under the rule of the bishop of Sipontum transferred to the See of the Mother of God over which he presided.​5

'Still Romwald and his henchmen, though in public they appeared to worship God in accordance with the teaching of Barbatus, in the secret recesses of the palace adored the image of the Viper to their souls' destruction; wherefore the man of God, with prayers and tears, besought that they might be turned from the error of their way.

 p297  'Meanwhile Romwald's wife, Theuderada, had forsaken the way of error, and was worshipping Christ according to the holy canons. Often when Romwald went forth to hunt, Barbatus would come to visit her, and discourse with her concerning her husband's wickedness. In one of these interviews she, heaving a deep sigh, said, "Oh! that thou wouldest pray for him to Almighty God. I know that it is only by thine intercession that he can be brought to walk in the path of virtue."

'Barbatus. — "If thou hast, as I believe, true faith in the Lord, hand over to me the Viper's image, that thy husband may be saved."

'Theuderada. — "If I should do this, I know of a surety that I should die."

'Barbatus. — "Remember the rewards of eternal life. Such death would not be death, but a great gain. For the faith of Christ thou shalt be withdrawn from this unstable world, and shalt attain unto that world where Christ reigneth with His saints, where shall be neither frost nor parching heat, not poverty nor sadness, nor weariness nor envy, but all shall be joy and glory without end."

'Moved by such promises she speedily brought him the image of the Viper. Having received it, the bishop at once melted it in the fire, and by the help of many goldsmiths made of it during the prince's absence a paten and chalice of great size and beauty, for the offering up of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

'When all was prepared, on the sacred day of the Resurrection, Romwald, returning from hunting, was about to enter Beneventum, but Barbatus met him, and persuaded him first to come and assist in celebration of the Mass in the church of the Mother of God. This he did, receiving the communion in the golden vessels made, though he knew it not, from the image of the Viper. When all was done, the man of God approached the prince, and rebuked him sharply for tempting God by keeping the Viper's image in his palace. Should the terrible day of the Divine vengeance come, in vain would he flee to that idol for protection. Hearing these words, Romwald humbly confessed his sin, and promised to give up the image into the bishop's hands. "That thou needest not do," said the saint, "since it has already been changed into the vessels from which thou hast received the body and blood of the Lord. Thus what the Devil  p298 had prepared for thy destruction is now the instrument through which God works thy salvation."

'Romwald. — "Prithee tell me, dearest father, by whose orders the idol was brought to thee.'

'Barbatus. — "I confess that I, speaking in much sorrow to thy wife concerning thy spiritual death, asked her for the image, and received it at her hands."

'Thereat one of the bystanders burst in, saying, "If my wife had done such a thing as that, I would without a moment's delay cut off her head." But Barbatus turned to him and said, "Since thou longest to help the Devil, thou shalt be the Devil's slave." Thereupon the man was at once seized by the Devil and began to be grievously tormented by him. And that this might be a token and a warning to the Lombard nation in after times, the saint predicted that for so many generations [the biographer is not certain of the exact number] there should always be one of his descendants possessed by the Devil, a prophecy which, down to the date of the composition of the biography, had been exactly fulfilled.

'Struck with terror, all the other Beneventans abandoned their superstitious practices, and were fully instructed by the man of God in the Catholic faith, which they still keep by God's favour.

'Barbatus spent eighteen years and eleven months in his bishopric, and died on the eleventh day before the Kalends of March (19th of February), 682, in the eightieth year of his age.'

This curious narrative, however little worthy of credence as a statement of facts, is a valuable piece of evidence as to the spiritual condition of the Lombards of South Italy in the seventh century. We may safely infer from it that conversion to Christianity was a much more gradual process in the south than in the north of Italy. Lupus of Friuli is neither saint nor hero in the pages of Paulus, but his daughter Theuderada is like another Clotilda or Theudelinda to the barbarous, half-heathen rulers of Benevento.

In another Life, contained in the 'Acta Sanctorum,' that of St. Sabinus (ix Februarii), we have a slight notice of Theuderada as a widow. After the death of her husband she ruled 'the Samnites' in the name of her young son [Grimwald II], and  p299 during her regency a certain Spaniard named Gregory came to Spoleto in order to find the tomb of St. Sabinus, who had died more than a century before (in 566). Not finding the sepulchre there, he persuaded the Princess Theuderada to go and seek for it at Canusium. She found the tomb, and on opening it perceived that pleasant odour which often pervaded the sepulchres of the saints. She also found in it a considerable weight of gold, which the biographer thinks had been stored there in anticipation of that invasion of the barbarians which St. Sabinus had foretold. Unmindful of the commission which Gregory had given her to build a church over the saint's tomb, she carried off the gold and returned in haste to Benevento. But when she arrived at Trajan's Bridge over the Aufidus, by the judgment of God her horse slipped and fell. She was raised from the ground by her attendants, but recognised in the accident the vengeance of the saint for her forgetfulness. She hastened back to the holy man's sepulchre, built a church with all speed, reared over his body a beautiful marble altar, and made chalice and paten out of the gold found in the tomb. To the end of his life Gregory the Spaniard ministered in the church of St. Sabinus.

The Author's Notes:

1 The second scribe amplifies the simple corium (leather) of the first into putredo corii, and ignominiam corii, and makes the trite reflection, 'Nam quid despicabilius credendum est quam ex mortuis animalibus non carnem sed corium accipere ad esum comestionis ut pravo errori subjecti Longobardi fecerunt?'

2 I take some sentences here from the later MS.

3 So far the later MS.

4 It is interesting to observe how the story grows in minuteness as time goes on. In the earlier MS. the words are simply —

'pariterque subeuntes murum visâ Dei genitrice in faciem decidit Princeps, nimioque pavore perterritus et paene exanimis solo consternatus jacebat.'

In the later MS. this becomes —

'Barbatus . . . cum Romualt subiit civitatis murum, et ecce apparuit subito candidae nubis fusio praecipuo plena splendore quae confixa per gyrum turris obumbrabat cacumen, quod eminebat super ipsam portam praefatam, et in medio nubis, delectabilis visio perfuso lumine rutilabat Virginis puerperae vultu et coelorum Reginae perennis.'

5 Sipontum had probably lain desolate since its ravage by the Sclavonians in 642.

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