In the middle of the 7th century, a plot was hatched by Frankish religious figures that would ignite a rivalry lasting well over a thousand years (and counting). This story centers around the body of Saint Benedict—developer of the Benedictine Rule and founder of the Monte Cassino (or Montecassino) abbey—who died around the year 547. About twenty years following Benedict’s death, the Italian political landscape was greatly changed by the arrival of the Lombards, who invaded Italy in 568 and seized a large portion of the Italian peninsula from the Empire of Constantinople. During, or just before, the reign of the Lombard King Authari (r. 584-590), Monte Cassino was attacked by Lombards. The common date given for the assault is 589. On this attack, Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), a clergyman who lived at the restored Monte Cassino, wrote, “the monastery of the blessed father Benedict which was situated in the stronghold of Casinum (Monte Cassino) was attacked by the Langobards [aka Lombards], and although they plundered everything, they could not get hold of one of the monks” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, IV.17). Although the monks were allegedly unharmed, the sacking of the monastery evidently put the site temporarily out of use. By the time Paul the Deacon was flourishing in the 8th century, Monte Cassino was once again an active monastic site, but during the preceding period of abandonment, a controversial incident occurred.
During the 7th century, Frankish religious figures learned that the site of Monte Cassino was in disrepair, and they took the opportunity to plot some holy tomb robbing. A curious pro-Frankish account was discovered by the French Benedictine monk, Jean Mabillon (c. 1632-1707), who unearthed a manuscript that was allegedly contemporaneous with Paul the Deacon’s lifetime or older. The manuscript read:
“[A] learned Priest who set about to journey towards Italy, that he might discover where were the bones of our father St Benedict, no longer worshipped by men. At length he came into a desert country some 70 or 80 miles from Rome, where St Benedict of old had built a cell whose indwellers had been bound together in perfect charity. Yet, even then, this Priest and his companions were disquieted by-the uncertainties of the place, since they could find neither vestiges of the monastery nor any burial-place, until at last a swineherd showed them, or hire, exactly where the monastery had stood… Then, searching the spot with greater diligence, they found a marble slab which they had to cut through. At last, having broken through the slab, they found the bones of St Benedict, and his sister’s bones beneath, with another marble slab between; since (as we believe) the almighty and merciful God would that those should be united in their sepulcher who, in life, had been joined together in brotherly and sisterly love, and in Christian charity. Having collected and washed these bones they laid them upon fine clean linen, each by itself, to be carried home to their own country. They gave no sign to the Romans lest, if these had learnt the truth, they would doubtless never have suffered such holy relics to be withdrawn from their country without conflict…” (Mabillon, Vetera Analecta, vol. IV, 1685, pp.451-453).
Whatever the Franks dug up that day was brought back to France and was eventually enshrined at the Benedictine Abbey of Fleury at Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire. Although, as Mabillon’s manuscript relayed, the Franks were secretive about their expedition to obtain Saint Benedict’s remains, the Italians did indeed find out. The aforementioned Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) wrote an accusatory account of the incident in his history; and, for context, it should be remembered that he lived and wrote at Monte Cassino. On the Frankish expedition to find Benedictine relics, Paul the Deacon’s account stated:
“[W]hile they pretended to keep a vigil by the venerable body they bore away the bones of the reverend father and also of the reverend Scolastica his sister, and carried them to their own country…But it is certain that the venerable mouth, sweeter than all nectar, and the eyes beholding ever heavenly things, and the other members too have remained to us, although decayed” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, VI.2).
As a result of this medieval incident, reportedly dated to the year 672, two monasteries now claim to have the remains of Saint Benedict. The Abbey of Fleury in Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire maintains that the abandoned remains of Saint Benedict were successfully transported to their cloister. Monte Cassino, however, since the time of Paul the Deacon, has counter-claimed that most, if not all, of Saint Benedict’s remains never left Italy. As told by Monte Cassino’s spokespeople, the remains of Benedict and Scholastica were held in an alabaster urn, which was protected by a lead container. On these remains, Monte Cassino’s official website states, “experts conducted a thoroughly documented study at Montecassino and agreed on the authenticity of the remains, reaffirming like others have in the past, that they indeed belong to St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica” (www.abbaziamontecassino.org). As with most religious questions, it could be said that the decision of which religious institution holds the right set of 6th-century Italian bones is a matter of faith.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped scene of The Translation of Josaphat’s Relics to a Church By a King and Procession, by the workshop of Diebold Lauber (c. 1427 – 1467), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Getty Museum).
- 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.