Gregory the Great was elected pope of the Roman church in 590, at a time of calamity and chaos. Just before his ascension, the city of Rome was dealt a devastating one-two punch by merciless mother nature. First, the waters of the Tiber flooded, causing damage and destruction in the holy city. After this initial watery disaster began to subside, a new catastrophe steadily engulfed the city of Rome. This second disaster was a plague, which quickly spread in the city, even reaching Pope Gregory’s predecessor, Pelagius II (r. 579-590), who died of the illness. Present to witness these events was a certain deacon named Agiulf, who had been sent by Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) to Rome to obtain saint relics. Agilulf’s first-hand account of the flood and plague was recorded by Bishop Gregory in his Ten Books of Histories, also commonly known as the History of the Franks:
“On his return from the city of Rome with the relics of the Saints, my deacon (Agiulf) told me that the previous year, in the month of November, the River Tiber had covered Rome with such flood-water that a number of ancient churches had collapsed and the papal granaries had been destroyed, with the loss of several thousands of bushels of wheat…As a result there followed an epidemic, which caused swellings in the groin. This started in January. The very first to catch it was Pope Pelagius…Once Pelagius was dead a great number of other folk perished from this disease. The people then unanimously chose as Pope the deacon Gregory” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.1).
Although the papal leader changed, the deadly course of the plague did not. By April, the epidemic in Rome had become much worse, driving the newly empowered Pope Gregory to desperate action. Naturally, he thought that the best way for him to cure his city was through religion, not medicine. In particular, Pope Gregory thought that the plague would lessen or disappear if the people of Rome made a grandiose display of penitence. With this in mind, the pope organized a three-day event that culminated in congregations from seven churches in the city all launching simultaneous processions, their separate routes ultimately combining together at the Basilica of Saint Mary. Hopeful victims who were already afflicted with plague evidently joined these processions, yearning for a miracle. This led to morbid sights of ill people collapsing to the ground in the middle of the parades. The aforementioned Deacon Agiulf witnessed the grand finale of the odd three-day event, and, once again, his report was recorded for posterity by the bishop of Tours:
“When he had finished speaking, Gregory assembled the different groups of churchmen, and ordered them to sing psalms for three days and to pray to our Lord for forgiveness. At three o’clock all the choirs singing psalms came into the church, chanting the Kyrie eleison as they passed through the city streets. My deacon, who was present, said that while the people were making their supplication to the Lord, eighty individuals fell dead to the ground. The Pope never once stopped preaching to the people, nor did the people pause in their prayers” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, X.1).
Despite the eighty or more people dying during the procession, and the unknown further numbers who contracted the illness during the multi-day event, these parades orchestrated by Gregory the Great were considered a success by 6th-century contemporaries. In fact, a legend soon emerged that the Archangel Michael appeared before the marching congregations (or at least to Pope Gregory) and rid the city of the plague—this tale led to the naming of the Castel Sant’Angelo (formerly Hadrian’s Mausoleum), which was where the archangel was allegedly sighted. Nevertheless, no serious modern medical experts would be likely to encourage a seven-fold public procession in the middle of a pandemic or epidemic.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Section from The Climbing of the Capitol with the Grey Horse of the Newly Elected Pope, painted by Johannes Lingelbach (c. 1622-1674), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.