Saint John of Bergamo was consecrated as leader of the Bergamascan or Bergamasque bishopric in 656, and he would continue serving as the Bishop of Bergamo for more than three decades. Bishop John’s reign as the religious leader in the Lombard dukedom of Bergamo coincided with the heydays of several colorful Lombard kings, including King Aripert I (r. 653-661), King Grimoald (r. 662-671), King Perctarit (r. 671-688), and King Cunincpert (r. 688-700). Although the aging bishop of Bergamo did not last long into King Cunincpert’s reign (he may have only lived two years into the king’s sovereignty), the two were said to have crossed paths and caused enough drama in their limited time together for folktales and legends to be born.
Saintly Bishop John of Bergamo, so the story goes, was an opinionated and outspoken man, especially when it came to matters of faith and character. Perhaps, this pointedly talkative characteristic became more pronounced when Bishop John was feeling merry and emboldened at a banquet. Such a possibility was primed to occur when Bishop John and King Cunincpert happened to attend the same feast sometime between 688 and 690.
As was the case of many medieval monarchs, King Cunincpert was a man of noticeable flaws and shortcomings. Bishop John of Bergamo, being naturally inclined to critique impious and immoral behavior, might have used the banquet as an opportune teaching moment, perhaps taking the time to launch verbal jabs at King Cunincpert’s unacceptable past behavior, and suggesting better methods of action in the future. Whatever the case, old Bishop John of Bergamo said something that infuriated the thin-skinned king, and Cunincpert began plotting for revenge. With an aim of pranking, injuring or worse, King Cunincpert allegedly arranged for the bishop to be secretly given an unmanageable horse as a mount. A Lombard historian named Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799) narrated this odd tale:
“Since he [Bishop John] had offended king Cunincpert while they were conversing at a banquet, the king commanded to be prepared for him when he was returning to his inn a fierce and untamed horse who was accustomed to dash to the earth with a great snorting those who sat upon him. But when the bishop mounted him he was so gentle that he carried him at an easy gait to his own house. The king, hearing this, cherished the bishop from that day with due honor and bestowed upon him in gift that very horse…” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 6.8).
Maybe it was a miracle; or perhaps, Bishop John was simply a talented horseman. Whatever the case, the tale left an impression on the medieval Italians and no doubt contributed to Bishop John of Bergamo’s reputation as a saint. Although no precise date of death is certain, Bishop John is thought to have died around the year 690, whereas his newfound admirer, King Cunincpert, continued to reign over the Lombards until the year 700.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Theodore on a donkey surrounded by bishops and monks, by Reinier Vinkeles I (c. 19th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum.jpg).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.