As told by the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), his Lombard ancestors had a funerary custom in which they set up post beams, topped with wooden dove figurines, at burial grounds that housed the bodies of Lombard dead. Although the dove-topped poles sound like potential grave markers, there may not have been any bodies buried in the specific plots on which the beams were planted. Paul the Deacon’s description seems to infer that the dove-topped posts were family memorials set up for loved ones whose bodies could not be brought back to the family burial grounds. The doves on top of the memorial poles reportedly pointed in the direction of the place where the absent loved one had died and was buried. If, for example, a Lombard from Trento in northern Italy had been killed and buried while fighting foes in southern Italy, then the dead warrior’s family in Trento would allegedly put up a memorial beam over an empty grave in their family or community graveyard and on the beam would be a wooden dove with its beak pointed in the direction of the battlefield where the warrior was buried. Commenting on one such graveyard filled with dove-topped beams, Paul the Deacon stated:
“[P]oles, that is beams, had stood there upright which were wont to be planted according to the custom of the Langobards [or Lombards] for the following reason: if any one were killed in any place either in war or in any other way, his relatives fixed a pole within their burial ground upon the top of which they placed a dove made of wood that was turned in that direction where their beloved had expired so that it might be known in what place he who had died was sleeping” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, V.34).
The Lombards evidently brought this custom with them when they invaded Italy during the reign of King Alboin (r. 560s-572). Reverence and respect for the custom, however, had begun to dwindle by the reign of King Perctarit of the Lombards (r. 671-688). During his reign, Perctarit’s wife, Rodelinda, reportedly built a church—the church of the Holy Mother of God—on top of a burial site that had many such dove-topped poles. Despite the church having a formal name, its was said to have been pointedly nicknamed “the Church At the Poles.”
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Section of an ancient Etruscan pin with a dove finial, dated c. 6th century BCE, [Public Domain / Open Access] via Creative Commons and the Getty Museum.jpg).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.