During the relatively quiet reign of King Perctarit of the Lombards (r. 671-688), the Lombard capital of Ticinum (later Pavia) and several other cities in Italy were reportedly ravaged by an unidentified pestilence—presumably plague. The incident was said to have taken place around 680, ominously taking hold of the region not long after lunar and solar portents had supposedly been seen in Italy. Whatever the timeline, Lombard tradition held that Ticinum was struck by a disease that had the potential to eradicate whole households. Facing this pestilential onslaught, many people evidently flocked to the countryside to escape the horrors of the city. Yet, waiting out the disease might have taken the medieval Lombards longer that they had planned, as the peak period of the pestilence reportedly lasted for about three months. A vivid description of the deadliness and the length of the outbreak was recorded by the Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), in his History of the Lombards:
“[T]here followed a very severe pestilence for three months, that is, in July, August, and September, and so great was the multitude of those dying that even parents with their children and brothers with their sisters were placed on biers two by two and conducted to their tombs at the city of Rome. And in like manner too this pestilence also depopulated Ticinum so that all citizens fled to the mountain ranges and to other places and grass and bushes grew in the marketplace and throughout the streets of the city” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, VI.5).
While the citizenry of Ticinum were fleeing to the countryside for salvation from the disease, the local clergy had their own plan for aid—saint’s relics. As the city writhed, a shrine was built for Saint Sebastian (d. 288), a patron saint of plague victims. Along with the construction of the special shrine, which was placed in Ticinum’s church of Saint Peter, Bishop Damianus of Ticinum (aka Damian of Pavia) began negotiations with the pope in Rome for the acquisition of relics of Saint Sebastian that could be displayed at the shrine. While this period of brainstorming, building and relic negotiation had been ongoing, the outbreak of disease was naturally beginning to peter out. Therefore, when a relic of Saint Sebastian finally arrived in Ticinum, the ravages of disease were largely over. This correlation caused the church to proclaim that the arrival of Sebastian’s relics in Ticinum had saved the city from the pestilence.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Saint Sebastian Interceding For The Plague Stricken by Josse Lieferinxe (c. 1493-1505), [Public Domain, CCO] via Creative Commons and the Walters Art Museum).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.