The Odd Tale of the Boxing Spirit Of St. John

King Rothari was ruler of the Lombards from 636 until his death in 652. Highlights from his career included the production of a law code and the continued Lombard policy of military expansion into the territory held by the Empire of Constantinople in Italy. Although the Lombard kingdom fared well under Rothari’s rule, he was apparently an unpopular king. This unpopularity and unrest, unfortunately, seemed to be inherited by King Rothari’s heir, Rodoald, who was assassinated around 653 and replaced by King Aripert (r. 653-661). When Aripert brought a new branch of the Lombard royal family to power, respect for the late King Rothari and his memory continued to dwindle. This descent of reverence for deceased King Rothari reached an inverted peak when his tomb was ultimately robbed. As told by the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), “When he had been buried near the church of St. John the Baptist, after some time, a certain man inflamed by wicked cupidity opened his sepulcher at night and took away whatever he found among the ornaments of his body” (History of the Lombards, 4.47). The thief was successful in his scheme to steal treasures from the tomb, but the looted riches came at a price.

According to Lombard folklore and legend, the thief was haunted by visions of the tomb’s spiritual patron, St. John. From terrifying nightmares, to sightings in broad daylight, the ghost of St. John allegedly hounded the tomb-robber relentlessly as punishment for the sacrilegious plundering of the grave. Yet, in addition to the haunting, the spirit of St. John also was said to have banished the thief from ever again entering the sanctuary of the local church. St. John’s ghost was quite serious about this last rule, and the spirit supposedly stood guard at the door, prepared to physically assault the thief if he dared to attempt an entrance into the church. Paul the Deacon continued the peculiar legend:

“And so it occurred; for as often soever as he [the thief] wished to enter the sanctuary of St. John, straightaway his throat would be hit as if by a very powerful boxer and thus stricken, he suddenly fell down backwards. I speak the truth in Christ; he who saw this with his own eyes that very thing done related this to me” (History of the Lombards, 4.47).

Unfortunately, the identity of the haunted thief was not recorded. Nevertheless, the alleged experiences of the mysterious individual became a local legend. Whether it was from supernatural causes, psychological feelings of guilt, or some other reason, the enigmatic tomb-robber was conspicuously never able to bring himself to re-enter the church from which he had stolen.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (cropped Iron salt photograph negatives of boxers, by Eadweard J. Muybridge (c. 1830 – 1904), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Getty Museum).



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