881: a 9th-century feudal calamity

In the first of a two-part piece, Richard Hodges explores the story of San Vincenzo al Volturno.


I’ve never really believed in the mayhem caused by the Vikings and their southern counterparts, the Saracens. Much of their violent history, I’ve proclaimed more times than I should have, is down to crabby contemporary monkish authors. These writers were palpably prejudiced historians. They despised these new-age entrepreneurial types who not only took to the embryonic feudal mores of the era, but also eschewed Christianity. Be it Lindisfarne or San Vincenzo al Volturno, 9th-century clerical rhetoric was pretty much the same. These pagans violated the sacred monasteries and created havoc. The archaeology doesn’t exactly bear out this history. Instead, it shows that the agrarian economies of Latin Christendom, despite the Saracens and Vikings, grew and grew successfully. This last uncomfortable fact, it still amazes me, seems to be lost in the afterglow of various streaming TV series by many professional archaeologists and historians. But then, as it happened, I was granted special insight into the mayhem caused by the Saracens at the site of my excavations at San Vincenzo al Volturno.

Just how much damage did the Saracens do to San Vincenzo al Volturno in AD 881? Excavations undertaken in the 1980s and ’90s presented an opportunity to test the apocalyptic scenes of the sack set down by historians. Here we see the remains of the crypt belonging to the great monastic basilica, the San Vincenzo Maggiore (‘N’ on the plan on p.47).

Damascene moments

From the start of the excavations in 1980 at the Benedictine monastery at San Vincenzo al Volturno, in the lea of the Mainarde mountains at the source of the Volturno river, there was one constant – a regular afternoon visitor. An obese balding man, looking for all the world like a caricature of a minor bank executive, would arrive in a spotlessly clean Fiat, and head determinedly for me. My fellow excavators would smirk and then turn away. They knew what was coming. This enthusiast had read the 12th-century account of the early monastery’s history, the Chronicon Vulturnense, and wanted me to know about it. Always the same story: he boomed on about the sack of the great monastery on 10 October 881. The Saracens had slaughtered the defenders after the monastic servants changed sides and joined the warband. At that point, so the 12th-century chronicler stated, and my visitor breathlessly advocated, Abbot Maio fled with his surviving monks to safety at Capua. Only in AD 916, under a new abbot, was the community to return. The Saracens, my visitor bellowed without taking a pause, violated the monastery. All its riches were stolen. It was a calamity.

A plan showing San Vincenzo al Volturno as it appeared c.800.

Now to be fair, my visitor had a point. The 12th-century Chronicon Vulturnense includes a passage of Beneventan polyphonic music to dramatise the savagery of the sack. The chronicler felt the need to emphasise the disaster that befell San Vincenzo because, by his time, the monastery was a mere shadow of its former 9th-century glory. What caused my fellow archaeologists to smirk cynically was that this amateur historian had breath that bowled one backwards. Soon, to everyone’s merriment, I hid on seeing him punctiliously park his car by the River Volturno. From the fragrant depths of the vineyards that existed around the site at this time, I would watch him declaiming to the poor excavators, whose Italian was limited to ordering a birra grande (per favore).

San Vincenzo al Volturno as seen from the air today. To the centre left is the great monastic basilica, with a cover building over its crypt.

These visits simply reinforced my prejudice towards a history constructed of excessive violations against the Church. Then I had two unforgettable Damascene experiences. One day a friend from the local village asked if I might show his aunt around the excavations. Not really sure what to expect, I was to swoon to this old lady’s grace and, more to the point, her story.

Rosalinda Iannotta, an 80-year-old blind woman, arrived with her nephew, the gracious moustached Roberto. She listened intently as I showed her our trenches. Then she indicated we must thread our way through the olives to a special spot. Roberto was her eyes as she led us to an elevated spot in a well-tended grove. She paused and there recounted the horror of AD 881, and claimed that the great church where the fiercest battle occurred lay beneath our feet. ‘Ecch ce sctèven ‘gl ‘riesct’ de na grossa città, e sct posct seva la parte chiù importante,’ she said in a mellifluous Molisano dialect. (‘Here the ruins of a great city once stood, and here was its most important part.’)

I listened as though she actually remembered – that she was a thousand years old, not 80. Roberto, a lawyer exiled to Bologna, smiled fondly, not knowing whether she was infected with zeal or wasting my time. Her forensic words lingered long in my mind like a warm wind. Subsequently – 13 years later – we uncovered the great basilica at precisely this point. Where her feet had stood, we found the painted crypt that was dedicated in about AD 820 with the bones of St Vincent (allegedly plundered by three Beneventans from their original resting place in Saragossa). On that day of discovery, 10 August 1994, we graced it with nuns singing a motet above the crypt in the presence of the Abbot of Monte Cassino.

Abbot Joshua (792-817), as shown in a fresco discovered within the crypt of San Vincenzo Maggiore.

Back in 1982, Rosalinda moved deftly onwards. She led us up the valley and pointed to the spot where the monks had perished in the battle in AD 881, known to her generation as the Valley of the Martyrs. Finally, wearily on her part, she took us around the foot of the wooded hill covered by 9th-century vestiges of the monastery, to a place known locally as the Piazza delle Gentile. Here, she informed us as though it had happened in 1944 not 881, the surviving monks gathered before fleeing down the Volturno valley to find safety at Capua.

Rosalinda’s words had a poignancy as well as a certainty that came from an oral tradition. Her visit was what passed through my mind as I stared at John Moreland (now Professor at Sheffield University) racing towards me the following season. Plainly excited, I could see he was clasping some treasure to make my day. This was my second Damascene moment. It opened my eyes to a larger history.

San Vincenzo al Volturno

A reconstruction by Sheila Gibson of the Beneventan palace and refectory that was established on the site of the old monastery as part of Abbot Joshua’s grand vision for the site.

This majestic place has roots in a Samnite (Iron Age) settlement that in time became a Roman Republican small town, then an Imperial Roman villa rustica. Its last ancient iteration was a Roman villa on the west side of the River Volturno. Dating from the 5th to early 7th centuries, this comprised a residential tower and below it a church and associated funerary church, tightly packed with tile-lined tombs. This may have been the home of a rural bishop. Certainly, in AD 703 its ruins drew the monastery’s founding fathers – Paldo, Tato, and Taso – who in a makeshift way repurposed the Late Roman complex. The tower accommodated the community, while the funerary church became the first abbey-church, San Vincenzo Minore.

The monastery grew steadily in parallel with its near neighbour, Monte Cassino. Then in AD 782/783 there was a point of inflection. The monks rebelled against Abbot Poto, arguing the monastery should adopt the new Carolingian version of the Benedictine Rule. Poto refused. Charlemagne in Aachen heard of this and had Pope Hadrian summon the community to Rome. There, Abbot Poto denounced his avant-garde accuser, Rodicausus, as a philanderer not to be trusted, as he had had sex in San Vincenzo Minore. Evidently appalled, Hadrian had the 42 members of the community sign an accord and promptly despatched them back to San Vincenzo. Did Poto make it back? Very soon, the drama forgotten, the monks elected Paul as a new abbot, a man with strong Frankish affinities. Paul quickly began new building works. These were to be dwarfed by the grandiloquent vision of his successor Joshua (792-817) for a huge new abbey-church and cloister that included a palace for the abbot.

A plan of the refectory c.820, based on the excavation evidence and compared to the famous schematic plan of St Gall, drawn up in c.820. Today, the remains of the refectory are protected by a cover building (BELOW). The monks dined there as usual on 9 October 881, with the fishbones discarded during their meal still lodged in the drains over a thousand years later.

Joshua’s monastery effectively created three elements in a plan covering 10ha. The old monastery became a palace for San Vincenzo’s Beneventan royal donors; the cloister was designed for more than a hundred monks; and the new basilica was constructed with a massive, elevated atrium that was designed to contain the monks’ cemetery. Joshua died in AD 817 and was interred in a grave in front of the door to the basilica. His successor, Talaricus, was no less ambitious. Perhaps prompted by the acquisition from Spain of the bones of St Vincent, he inserted an annular crypt into the basilica and extended the atrium with a grand eastwork. The palace too was enlarged to be worthy of any European duke. Talaricus died in October AD 823 and was interred in a painted tomb, which we discovered beside the door to the basilica. His aura, however, lived on. His successor, Abbot Epiphanius, added still more new works and continued to accumulate land for the monastery from secular donors. A portrait of sorts of this potentate survives in the crypt of the so-called Crypt Church, by now a chapel serving the Beneventan dukes.

With Epiphanius’s death in AD 842, the monastery’s star began to wane. In June 847, the monastery was hit by an earthquake. Many buildings were damaged and repaired expediently. Plainly the monastery’s apogee was at an end. In AD 861, an Arab warband exacted a ransom from the monastery instead of plundering it. On 9 October 881, the monks dined in their great thatched refectory as usual and enjoyed a variety of marine fish from the monastery’s estates on the Adriatic Sea coast, as well as freshwater fish from the River Volturno. Fish-bones clogged the drains that were to be sealed the following day by the arrival of a warband that wreaked destruction. As we shall see, this was a surgical operation against a vulnerable, unfortified community that could only defend itself by locking the abbot’s inner chamber, the cupboard in the refectory, and the main door to the workshops on the south side of the atrium of San Vincenzo Maggiore. Plainly, despite the political growing pains of the later 9th century, the monastery was unaware of the menace at large.

The sack on 10 October 881

A year before the 847 earthquake, a deadlier menace entered first the minds and then the lives of the monks. In August 846, an Arab army invested Rome and devastated the basilica of St Peter. These Mediterranean Vikings made a base at Bari on the Adriatic coast of Apulia and, later on, the elevated Gargano peninsula 100km to the south. Systematically, the marauders tormented the Principality of Benevento. Soon they were drawn to the great centres in the region. Monte Cassino’s 9th-century chronicler, Erchempertus, records that the warband occupied the ancient town of Venafro in AD 861. Their leader was Sawdan, allegedly an emir, who ‘with the speed of a rapacious bird’ arrived at San Vincenzo a dozen miles to the north. The Arab chief demanded a ransom or else he would demolish the monastery. Left with no choice, Abbot John II, to spare his monastery, handed over 3,000 pieces of gold.

The ransom simply bought time. Two decades to be exact. On 10 October 881, so San Vincenzo’s chronicler, Giovanni, tells us in incomparable detail, Sawdan’s warband returned. This time the monastery’s fate was sealed. The chronicle is very explicit about the calamity. ‘They… suddenly attacked the sacred monastery in a frontal assault, and surrounding it on all sides they set it on fire…’.

A reconstruction of the Abbot’s House by Simona Carrocilla. The inner chamber was locked and may have served as the monastery’s treasury.

Abbot Maio and his monks, according to Giovanni, put up a brave resistance against his aged nemesis. We are told the monks defended the marble bridge over the Volturno, but were eventually overwhelmed. As the chronicler tells it, hundreds perished. In the face of imminent disaster, the monastery’s servants treacherously changed sides and, with this, Maio and the surviving monks fled to Capua. There, thanks to the generosity of its citizens, San Vincenzo built a new monastery. Meanwhile, according to Giovanni, the victorious warband desecrated the abbey, fired the scriptorium, and tossed the monastery’s stores into the Volturno. Revelling continued for days. It is then that the Chronicon Vulturnense deploys an elegiac planctus written for polyphonic chant to capture the lurid calamity. Giovanni, who was writing in the 12th century, knew that the sack ended San Vincenzo’s standing as a great European centre of culture. Two years later, in 883, the Arabs sacked Monte Cassino, and in 898 the abbey at Farfa in the Sabine Hills shared the same pitiless fate.

Closer study of the contemporary and later written sources punctures many elements of Giovanni’s retrospective story. The main thrust of the story featuring the dastardly Arabs was expedient with an uncomfortable truth. Indeed, some of it was surely fiction – or, at best, retrospective special pleading.

A model of San Vincenzo Maggiore on display in Venafro Museum. The area where the crypt lay can be seen in the cutaway to the left.

The key to understanding the sack was San Vincenzo’s heady ascendency as the Principality of Benevento descended into civil war. The monastery had become a statelet thanks to its many donations of lands, and its leader – the abbot – a potentate. Abbot Maio somehow had made a determined enemy of Athanasius, Bishop-Duke of Naples. Piety and charity were not characteristics to be associated with Athanasius’s 20-year reign. Cast by Monte Cassino’s historian, Erchempertus, as a sneering joker, the Bishop immediately altered the balance of power in the region. By a series of sinister manoeuvres, he gained hegemonic control over the area. Ultimately, he imposed his will on Naples’s neighbours, the Amalfitans, Beneventans, Capuans, and Gaetans, often deploying Arab mercenaries to do his bidding. At this point the unctuous Athanasius cast his net wider. Using Arabs, he targeted San Vincenzo or, as we shall see, its leader. Having reduced San Vincenzo, Athanasius bargained with Maio and the survivors, providing refuge in his patrimony at Capua. The evil Bishop’s price, apart from the obliteration of the monastery, was transparent. By these violent means an accommodation was reached and San Vincenzo ceded lands and trading opportunities in the Bay of Naples to Athanasius.

Monte Cassino was targeted only two years after the sack of San Vincenzo in 881. Here, I am conferring with Don Angelo Pantoni in 1986.

Two hundred and fifty years later, Giovanni chose not to recount the story as Erchempertus did. If, as is likely, he was familiar with the story, its import was too disturbing. He sought instead a deus ex machina in the community’s version of their inheritance, in the form of the Arabs not Athanasius. Giving it added value, the pious brave monks perished as martyrs. This story possessed a simplicity to it, as all the peasants at San Vincenzo well knew which way was up. Erchempertus’s version, it has to be said, runs closer to the ingrained ethos of patrician politicians in the Mezzogiorno today and quite possibly then. What weighed on the later chronicler’s mind was that the community returned, but never redeemed the grandiloquence of the earlier monastery. A vicious and sacrilegious stroke had robbed San Vincenzo of its international glory.

In AD 916, Abbot Godelpert reoccupied the ruins. Thirty-five years had passed since the calamity. According to the chronicler, they put out an appeal for help and received none. Time had dealt San Vincenzo a cruel blow. There were no patrons to help them restore their fortunes. Instead, over the next 80 years, they embarked on helping themselves.

Work under way in 1981 recording frescoes adorning the benches in the Assembly Room.

Seeking the archaeological story

The differing reports of the chroniclers raise the question of whether archaeology could add to the story of what unfolded in October 881. Any hope of that, though, depended on finding a layer associated with the attack. I remember the bright, airy morning in 1982 when John Moreland, with his distinctive red barnet, came haring from the trial trench in the fields beyond the notional basilica identified by Rosalinda Iannotta. I was standing in a trench revealing the burnt refectory that had just come to light. Fine ash covered its tile pavement. John was breathless and joyous. In his hand was a rusty arrowhead. It was embedded in the layer of charcoal he had found covering the remains of a workshop.

‘We have the sack!’, he declaimed with fierce conviction. ‘We have it.’

ALL IMAGES: courtesy of Richard Hodges.