Post-classical history

Peter Morrone … we will see, perhaps, at last achieved

What in the cell of your heart you truly believed.

And if all the world was being deceived,

Many a curse will follow after you.

“Epistle to Pope Celestine V”



As with many of the saints, we know very little about the early years of Peter Morrone. What we do know comes from a number of texts that, for better or worse, are considered by modern readers as hagiography. In other words, these sources have devotional value, offering insight into the contemporary or near-contemporary perspective of Peter’s personality and influence, but they add little to what we know for certain about the man’s life. One of these is an Autobiography, supposedly written by Peter himself, though strangely it fluctuates back and forth from third-person narrative (“He often saw these and other good things in visions”) to first-person (“I will first say something about my parents”). This suggests that it was written by many people, and not necessarily even by Peter. Still, tradition holds that this is Peter’s story of his life. Intriguingly, the earliest extant manuscript of the Autobiography resides in the Vatican Archives and dates to about a generation after Peter’s death. An anonymous archivist long ago marked on the outside of the text that it was written in Peter’s own hand.1

There is also the Opus Metricum of James Stefaneschi, one of the men who visited Peter on Mount Morrone. The Opus is a biographical poem written in dactylic hexameter (an homage to Homer and Virgil), the first part of which was composed in 1296, the year of Peter’s death, and the third and final part was finished in 1319. Stefaneschi, who was held in high regard by Peter while he was pope, and who was made a cardinal-deacon by the next pope, sent the work to the monks of Santo Spirito near Sulmona, the motherhouse of Peter’s religious order. The work describes the coronation of Celestine V, his abdication, his canonization, and the miracles that occurred on the way to his canonization. One of Peter’s monastic disciples, Thomas of Sulmona, also wrote a short Life of him relatively soon after his death, sometime between 1300 and 1305. Both the 1319 version of Stefaneschi’s poem and the Life penned by Thomas make reference to some autobiographical writings of Peter that as of today have never been found.

All of these texts fit the definition of medieval hagiography in almost every way. They consist of narrative or verse without reference to historical evidence. But there’s an old Italian saying that goes, Una bugia ben detta val più di un fatto stupido, or “A lie well told is worth more than a stupid fact.”2 In the Middle Ages these narratives were the essence of good storytelling, and the approximation to fact was rarely of much concern to those who either told the tales or listened to them. Still, these spiritual portraits serve an important purpose even today, because they etch into history the lives of great men and women and honor their earthly existence, proclaiming their role as agents in salvation history. While the facts may sometimes be in question, hagiography serves to create a truth that transcends specific day-to-day actions and occurrences—that truth being that all Christians are called to sainthood, even reluctant ones like Peter Morrone.

Peter begins the story of his life in his Autobiography, as any good son would, by mentioning his parents: “My father was named Angelerio, a God-fearing, humble man. My mother was Maria, a saint in my life. Together they had twelve sons, but mother raised me almost entirely on her own, since my father died when I was just a boy.”3

Peter was born in Molise in 1209, the same year that Francis of Assisi was gathering his first followers in nearby Umbria. It was on April 16 of that year that Saint Francis, Bernard of Quintavalle, and Peter Catani opened the Scriptures together at the home of their local bishop and found the words in the Gospels that would inspire the creation of the Franciscan order. Less than a year later, the first twelve Franciscans would walk to Rome to visit Pope Innocent III. Also in the spring of 1209, that same pope recruited more than 10,000 men to raid the mountainous regions of southern France to root out the Cathar heretics in what became known as the Albigensian Crusade. That October, he crowned the Bavarian Otto IV as Holy Roman Emperor (“Roman Catholic King”) in Rome. Halfway around the world, 1209 was also the year in which Beijing was being marauded by the Mongol leader Genghis Khan. This was the year when Peter was born.

There was little guarantee that Peter, one of twelve children—all of them boys—would survive past infancy. At this time throughout Europe only half of all children survived to the age of five. Only one in four people saw the age of forty. There were no vaccines or antibiotics, let alone an understanding of how to kill ordinary contagions. In the minds of medieval people, death was determined wholly by God, not by disease.

Peter’s father’s name, Angelerio, or “little angel,” was once a common name in Italy but is no longer. “When my father died of old age, I was but five or six. My mother still had seven sons,” Peter tells us. Five of the twelve had died. His mother was named Maria, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. Yet the hagiographers don’t draw direct comparisons to Christ, the Lord of angels, in the earliest biographies of Peter. Instead, they turn to the Old Testament story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, and establish parallels that might help explain how an ordinary boy could grow up to become pope.

Peter was the favorite of his parents (or at least of his mother) and was looked on with suspicion by his brothers. Although his siblings rejected the idea of dedicating one’s life to God, Peter from a very early age embraced it. When his mother sent Peter off to study—presumably, as was the custom, promising him to the monastery while he was still a boy—the Autobiography says that the other brothers were tempted by the devil to do what they could to prevent Peter from focusing on his studies. Later Maria sold some of the family property in order to pay a teacher for Peter’s instruction, and it’s said that this was done contrary to the desires of his brothers, as well. When Peter begins to see visions, he tells only his mother about them. She instructs him to keep the information to himself, but the devil tempts Peter and he blurts out his experiences while playing with his siblings. The other children threaten to hit him, but, the text says, angels protect him.

Mother and child are described as having much in common, including vivid nighttime dreams, which they share with each other in the mornings. One evening Maria dreamed that Peter was a shepherd of sheep, and according to the Autobiography, this saddens her. Presumably, the vision of her son engaged in an ordinary occupation is dissatisfying to her. The next day, while standing with Peter, who is twelve, Maria says to him, “Last night I dreamed about a man of God,” and Peter quickly responds as if to interpret her vision, “He will be a shepherd of souls.” “It is you!” she tells him, with joy.

San Angelo Limosano

Peter grew up in the small village of San Angelo Limosano in the most remote part of Italy, a region Peter knew as Abruzzi e Molise, home to the highest peaks of the Apennines and populated by some of the most fiercely independent Italians.4 His village, located in the diocese of Sulmona, is about 115 miles east of Rome. To the immediate east of San Angelo Limosano, the Abruzzi town of Isernia is the site of what is perhaps the oldest-known human settlement on the European continent. Scientists date it to sometime around 700,000 B.C.E. Around 295 B.C.E., Isernia and all of Molise fell into the hands of the Romans. All of what we call “Italy” today came under nominal Roman control at about that time.

The Romans finally subdued the people of Molise in the Social War of 91–88 B.C.E., bringing them under the control of the empire so they could tax the people and enlist the men in the Roman army. But it was a notoriously bitter struggle and the people of these rugged areas remained only begrudgingly Roman for centuries. The German king Frederick II Hohenstaufen (r. 1220–50) was the first ruler to unite these lands since the fall of the Roman Empire, only to then see the territory fall into disarray with the advent of Charles I and Charles II.

Molise, then as today, is a mostly rural, undistinguished area with little of interest. The terrain is rough with craggy mountains, the cities and towns full of dark streets. For millennia it has been home to both solitaries and outlaws.

The areas of Molise and Abruzzo are prone to tremors and earthquakes. The region of Peter’s birth has almost literally been held together by scaffolding, since long ago; towns have sprung up from where mountains and valleys came together along fault lines. The first recorded earthquake happened there in 1315, but the fault lines are ancient. For years and years, nuns and monks have recited daily prayers for the safety of town and citizenry, particularly in the month of January, since the saying goes, “When the cold is at its greatest, the earthquake is at its strongest.”5 It is recorded that a quake in 1349 left more than 800 people dead. In the last century alone, a 1915 earthquake killed more than 30,000. A tremor in 1980 nearly leveled San Angelo Limosano, and there are hundreds of people who still live in temporary shelters that were erected in desperation in the aftermath of that event. Similarly, long-lasting effects will surely be felt after the quake that struck L’Aquila, the capital city of Abruzzo just to the north of San Angelo Limosano, in 2009, killing several hundred and leaving approximately 65,000 homeless.6

Peter knew warmth and cold, hot sunshine and bitter winter winds, since he lived in one of a few places in temperate Italy that consistently sees snowfall. In the valleys surrounded by mountains, it’s not uncommon for snow to fall for days and weeks on end.

In Peter’s era people understood the world around them through allegory, symbolism, and parallels that might seem far-fetched to us today. Medieval people were continually seeking lines of connection between the natural and the divine. The outward appearances of things were believed to cloak deeper, spiritual realities. This was even true of the topography of a place. The hills that separate the Molise and Abruzzo from the plains and the cities of Rome and Naples, the Abruzzi mountains to the east that slope down toward the lonely shores of the Adriatic Sea—these geographical features establish the region’s sense of independence from Rome.

The twentieth-century Italian novelist Ignazio Silone, who grew up in the Abruzzi, offers some descriptions of life in a remote village that give us an idea of what Peter’s experience might have been like. Same as Peter, Silone lost four siblings and his father to illness before he turned thirteen. In Fontamara (1930) Silone describes “an old and obscure village of poor farmers … in a valley halfway between the hills and the mountains.

“Most of the doors and windows of the houses are clearly visible from the plain: a hundred little huts almost all on the same level—irregular, unformed, blackened by time and worn down by wind, rain and fire.” A church sits at the center of all things: “The upper part of Fontamara is dominated by the church with its tower and the terraced square, reached by a steep road that goes through the entire village and is the only one over which carts can pass.… To an observer … the village looks like a herd of dark sheep, and the church tower like a shepherd. It is, in short, a village like so many others, but the universe to those who grow up there.”7

At the center of life, especially during Peter’s days, was church. Public ritual was central to the life of the people and bound the village together. Processions and parades, marked by candle lighting, bell ringing, the wafting of incense, and the sprinkling of holy water, occurred during every calendar month and usually began at the church. Among the most important celebrations were the Annunciation (March 25), the birth of John the Baptist (June 24), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15), and the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist (December 27). These rituals of Italian village life formed Peter as a man of God.

At minimum, he and his family would have received Holy Communion at the parish church on the three traditional days of the year: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They would have gone to confession more frequently according to the stirrings of their consciences—at least once a year, as mandated by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), but it was also common for the most sincere penitents to confess to their priests once a month or, occasionally, weekly. Confession was penance but it was also the only time in a Christian’s life when he would be able to obtain spiritual counsel from someone with recognized spiritual wisdom and religious authority, although some local priests, then as now, found their parishioners’ enthusiasm for confession disturbing to their other duties and leisure.8

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the confessional box, containing a partition separating priest and penitent, was created. In the thirteenth century, a sinner confessed to his priest face-to-face.9 The earnest faithful of this era asked much of their priests, as do their counterparts today, and their priests often rebuffed or avoided them. If Peter was one of these earnest penitents while young, in later life he would experience the phenomenon from the other side.

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