Read part one here - 881: a 19th century feudal calamity
I twirled the iron arrowhead in my hand and let John Moreland’s observation that we had found archaeological traces of the sack sink in. He was grinning. Sun-burnt pink, his hair matted with sweat, he realised the signal significance of this tiny ferrous object. John quickly described the discovery in his County Down brogue. Instantly captivated, we threaded through the vines towards his trench. Jumping down into it, John explained his reasoning. Now, the burnt walls and sooty layers assumed meaning. The workshop door had been locked. Fire arrows had incinerated it, causing it to collapse inwards, leaving a thick vein of charcoal and the tell-tale bolts from early versions of crossbows. In among the charcoal were broken pots and a soapstone jar. Suddenly the burnt refectory made sense. It too was a victim of San Vincenzo’s darkest hour. Too big to roof with tiles, its thatched covering – so vulnerable to fire – was its downfall.
Archaeology versus history
Decades on, these magical moments loom large in my memory. Back in 1982, when the arrowhead was found, only a fraction of the Dark Ages monastery had been excavated. Now, with almost half of it uncovered, the archaeology of the savage attack in AD 881 tells a different story to the chronicler’s lurid account from the 12th century.
Apart from the burnt levels, the tell-tale fossils of the assault are iron arrowheads. Three types have been identified: a lanceolate arrowhead, a bolt-like arrowhead, and a light dart. The lanceolate type tends to be 1.8-1.95mm long and weighs between 11.8 and 16.2 grams. The bolts are 1.49-1.83mm in length and vary in weight considerably, from 9.2 to 22.6 grams.
Sixteen of these bolt-like arrowheads (as well as two lanceolate arrowheads) were found in room B of the Collective Workshop where John was excavating. One further lanceolate arrowhead was discovered in the adjacent room A to the east. Room B within the complex was being used in AD 881 for making fine metalwork, while room A was employed by an enamel smith. Four bolts were found in the south-western side of room B; six on the eastern side; one in the burning overlying a hearth close to the well wall; and four in a burnt layer within the centre of the room. Further arrowheads were found close by: one was embedded in a rubbish midden behind room B and two were found further back in the area of the basilica’s great elevated atrium.
By contrast, only three arrowheads were found in the northern part of the monastery, which was occupied by the palace and a portion of the claustrum (cloister). A lanceolate arrowhead was found in the destruction level in the garden court of the palatial complex; another was found in the monastery’s monastic kitchen; and a third in the deposits in the river Volturno.
In addition, a socketed, winged spearhead was found in the river Volturno near the monastery. This is a typical Frankish weapon, well known from the Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon world. Possibly associated with the sack is the frame of a scabbard for a large knife or small sword found in the destruction levels at the north-east corner of the atrium of San Vincenzo Maggiore.
The impact of the attack can be readily pinpointed. Some areas were completely destroyed by fire; some parts were scorched; and, tellingly, some parts were untouched and evidently abandoned as though nothing had happened. Making sense of these three different circumstances helps us to reconstruct the nature of the attack and perhaps its real purposes.
Answers from the ashes
Three areas were badly burnt. The first of these were the kitchen, refectory and abbot’s house, roughly in an east-west line running from the river Volturno to the lower slope of Colle della Torre in the northern sector of the 9th-century monastery. The second was focused around the north porter’s lodge into the elevated eastwork of the great basilica San Vincenzo Maggiore’s atrium, and a dormitory immediately to the north. The narrow north doorway into San Vincenzo Maggiore was scorched on the outside. Traces of fire were also found in its crypt, although whether these belonged to the attack of 881 was not clear. The third area was the Collective Workshop on the south side of San Vincenzo Maggiore and especially room B. Let us look at each of these in more detail.
Fire ravaged the line of buildings standing between the river Volturno and the abbot’s house. The monks’ refectory and associated kitchen were comprehensively gutted by fire. Ashen cinders from the thatched roof of the refectory lay as light feathery dust across its tile floor. The intense heat blew the glazed windows of this large hall out into the adjacent palace garden. The lower thoroughfare and the adjoining assembly room and vestibule were badly damaged too, their wooden benches reduced to a thin film of charcoal. In the vestibule that connected the claustrum to the palace (South Church), however, a charcoal coating covered a layer of alluvium overlying the tile floor. Foot traffic between the claustrum and palace had evidently diminished significantly in the period leading up to the fire. The upper thoroughfare was similarly targeted. In particular, the abbot’s house was violently incinerated and then ransacked as though it was the subject of special attention.
Immediately north of the abbot’s house, a small hoard was found in a shallow hole beside the stairs leading from the vestibule to the grand passageway. The hoard included tiny fragments of thin silver sheet, a die for repoussé stamping, a possible fragment of a brooch, a hook that is probably part of a handle, three copper rods, a copper tack and a tack-head, little fragments of copper sheet, and a cut-down 8th-century nummus. These scraps of silver and copper alloy appear to have been the materials of a fine metalsmith, not unlike the small collection found in the north porter’s lodge in the eastwork of the atrium to San Vincenzo Maggiore. Is this evidence that a smith from the workshops had escaped the attack on the south side of the basilica and was seeking refuge near the abbot’s house, only to discover it too was under attack?
There were limited traces of the fire spreading southwards, possibly towards San Vincenzo Maggiore, though its traces diminished, as if the main objective had been the abbot’s house and the buildings directly in front of it: the assembly room and the monks’ refectory.
San Vincenzo Maggiore itself would appear largely to have been spared during the sack. Two of its entrances, however, were badly damaged. The worst affected was the north porter’s lodge, enclosing the staircase leading to the elevated eastwork and the atrium containing the monk’s cemetery. Here, fire caused the staircase to cascade downwards. The fire also left traces of scorching on the painted north wall of the lodge. In the debris was a small collection of copper-alloy materials similar to those found in workshop A (the enamel-worker’s shop) and a silver coin of Prince Guaimar of Salerno (880-901). Had the smith been escaping with these precious items or were they dropped by a raider?
The dormitory at the south end of the claustrum was burnt too. Immediately behind (west of) this room was a narrow service area. Finds in its destruction level included many shattered tableware pots, as though this was a pantry of some kind, as well as a rare silver denier issued by Emperor Louis II (855-875) with Adelchis, Prince of Benevento. This apparent ransacking may have occurred because the raiders, obstructed by the collapsed staircase in the north porter’s lodge, were seeking a way around the north side of San Vincenzo Maggiore and encountered this large room with a closed door blocking their path along the north side of the basilica.
Too little of the main door into the basilica survived to detect whether it had been incinerated, but traces of heavy burning were found on the wall either side of the narrow door in the north wall of the building, though only on its outer side. The scorching suggests this door may have been shut and that the attackers, approaching by way of the uppermost corridor from the north end of the monastery, responded by setting fire to it.
For the most part, the basilica’s annular crypt was not damaged, although at the base of the south stairs there was a small area of burning on the floor that possibly belongs to the attack, and the west wall of the stairway and entrance passage showed evidence of fire damage. Perhaps the cause of this burning was a wooden door from the top of the stairs that was thrown down during the attack. In any case, the relics, according to one later 10th-century source, were removed following the sack and taken to safety in Cortona in Tuscany.
The monk’s cemetery in the atrium was certainly targeted. Although the graves themselves showed little evidence of having been systematically disturbed and pillaged at this time. It is remarkable that of the several hundred inscribed grave-markers from the late 8th and 9th centuries recovered during the excavation, not one was found in situ and only one is complete and unbroken. Of the 67 epitaphs from the 8th and 9th centuries, seven show signs of fire damage and three were found in contexts involving burning directly associated with the sack. A feature of this burnt group is that (with one exception) the direct effects of fire are apparent on the fractured surfaces of the stones. As such, the grave-markers had been broken before they were scorched and blackened by fire. This raises the possibility that the raiders may have purposefully targeted the monks’ cemetery – perhaps in search of grave goods – and systematically tore up and smashed the carved epitaphs recording the monks’ names and lives. The broken and burnt tombstones may be witnesses to a damnatio memoriae: an attempt to break the community’s spirit by destroying their written memorials as they sought salvation in the afterlife.
Lastly, the workshops excavated by John, flanking the atrium of San Vincenzo Maggiore, were comprehensively sacked. Several arrowheads were found embedded in the charcoal remains of the south-facing door of room B, and the room itself was consumed by fire, its back timber wall being reduced to charcoal. The adjacent room C, the dwelling of the workshop’s chamberlain, was also comprehensively burnt, as were the other workshops. The scale of the burning and the numerous associated arrowheads showed that, like the refectory and abbot’s house, the workshops had taken the full force of the attackers’ wrath.
The damage to the monastery as a whole was far from comprehensive. Many parts of it were apparently neither sacked nor ransacked. The most striking of these buildings is the palace occupying the northern sector of the monastery. Excavation of the area, the so-called South Church, revealed a light film of charcoal in the south ground-floor corridor. This was thickest at the west end, where steps led up to the vestibule towards the claustral area. Similar traces of fire were found towards the south end of the cross-passage leading beneath the palace to the crypt church to the north. Evidence of intense burning was found on the south side of the palace garden, but this was due to the intense burning of the refectory that lay on its south side. The fragments of plaster from the painted walls of the first-floor apartments in the palace showed no traces of scorching, and the undercrofts below the palace were not in any way burnt. Further north, the crypt church that was almost certainly a chapel serving the palace, yet also important to the monastery, appears to have escaped unscathed. The palace, the archaeology shows, was not targeted by the raiders and was left essentially undamaged. This is the principal reason for the remarkable survival of the well-preserved crypt of Epyphanius in the little adjoining church.
Taken together, the archaeological evidence provides an intriguing picture of the sack on 10 October 881. The great basilica of San Vincenzo Maggiore, except for its entrances, was untouched, as was the palace at the north end of the monastery. Instead, the attackers directed their fury towards the workshops and, it would seem, the monuments in the monks’ cemetery in the atrium of the basilica, as well as the nucleus of the claustrum containing the abbot’s house. The concentrated fires and accompanying destruction evocatively suggest that these were the attackers’ objectives.
Indeed, the archaeological evidence suggests that the three principal aims of the sack were to eliminate the abbot, destroy the monastery’s workshops and ransack the monks’ cemetery. However, the heavy arrowheads were only used in the attack on the workshops. None were found in the northern part of the monastery, including the abbot’s house and refectory. Instead, the lighter lanceolate arrowheads were used against this part of the monastery. One possibility is that the assault was launched on the southern buildings, and only later, after encountering resistance in the form of a locked door, did the attackers resort to setting fire to the buildings in front of the abbot’s house to eliminate the monastery’s leader.
The warband’s nefarious intentions revealed?
The archaeology indicates that the warband knew where San Vincenzo’s moveable treasure was stored – in the workshops and in the abbot’s house. They also, it appears, hoped to find treasure buried with the monks, leading to the destruction of many tombstones. Intense burning of the abbot’s house suggests that Maio himself was a target, as in 1036/37 when Abbot Ilarius was abbot. On that occasion a local family, the Borrelli, burnt down his tower-house on the summit of Colle della Torre. Remove the abbot, so the attackers believed, and the community would fall apart. To a degree this was what happened in AD 881.
One thing the archaeology does not show is that the monastery was comprehensively sacked, as the 12th-century chronicler claims. On the contrary, the evidence indicates a surgical strike that left the palatial complex at the north of the monastery and San Vincenzo Maggiore largely unaffected by the attack.
The distribution of arrowheads indicates a small group attacked the workshops, and another group using different arrowheads targeted the kitchen, refectory, and abbot’s house. Fewer than 30 arrows were deployed against the largely undefended monastery. At face value this is not evidence of an army or dozens of attackers, but a small band determined to terrorize while robbing the monastery of its treasure and political leadership.
The scale of the attack, in other words, was notably different to the story described 250 years later by the chronicler. Quite how many perished in the calamity is not known. The absence of obvious graves would suggest the victims were few in number. Without doubt, this surgical strike was effective. It demoted San Vincenzo al Volturno as a monastery from a place of European standing to a second-rank regional Benedictine house, as the chronicler accurately recognised. Facing a target that was undefended and curiously unprepared for such an event, the small warband more than achieved the aims of Bishop Athanasius.
A few last thoughts. We still struggle in the shadow of Enlightenment historians like Edward Gibbon to make sense of the Dark Ages. It is still cast as a brutish, primitive age where violence confounded any rule of law. In fact, the archaeology shows that most monasteries and settlements of the era were undefended. The threat of attack was minimal. Only with the rise of feudal mores during the middle decades of the 9th century did it become an alarming new norm. With this norm, the Arabs in this story were outsiders employed to implement the will of an envious ecclesiastical peer. Their notoriety, like that of their contemporary peers the Vikings, is well and truly embedded in the European psyche, diverting attention from a moment in which the values of Latin Christendom were forever reframed. Digging at San Vincenzo, I witnessed the end of other seemingly timeless values. The contadini – peasants – working the fields around the site disappeared as our digital, globalised world enveloped this valley. How much oral history like Rosalinda Iannotta’s stories have we inadvertently lost in our epochal transformation? Certainly, we need all these sources about the past to make real sense of a long-lost dramatic age in European history.
Richard Hodges’ Goodbye to the Vikings: re-reading early medieval archaeology is published by Bloomsbury Academic and now available as an e-book.
ALL IMAGES: courtesy of Richard Hodges unless otherwise stated.