From the account by his deacon, Agiulf, who was there
Pope Pelagius died of the plague in February, 590 A.D. His reluctant successor, then only a deacon, who was to be known as St Gregory the Great, ordered penances and processions – the normal recourse for many centuries – to plead for its end. Anyone who knows Rome, or has seen processions in cities such as Seville, will be able to imagine them vividly.
The Emperor, who loved the deacon dearly, gave thanks to God that he could now promote Gregory to such a place of honour [the Papacy]. He issued a diploma ordering Gregory to be enthroned. While preparations were still in train for his enthronement, this epidemic came to devastate the city. Whereupon Gregory exhorted his flock do penance in the following words:
“Dearly beloved brethren, those scourges of God which we fear when they are still far off must terrify us all the more when they are come among us and we have already had our taste of them. Our present trial must open our way for our conversion. The afflictions which we suffer must soften the hardness of our hearts, as was foretold by the prophet: “The sword reacheth unto the soul.” Indeed, I see my entire flock being struck down by the sword of the wrath of God, as one after another they are visited by sudden destruction. Their death is preceded by no lingering illness, for, as you know, they die before they even have time to feel ill…..Our fellow citizens are not, indeed, taken from us one at a time, for they are being bustled off in droves. Homes are left empty, parents are forced to attend the funerals of their children, their heirs march before them to the grave….
[He exhorts repentance for all the various sins of greed, lack of charity, impiety, etc..]
Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, with contrite hearts and all our affairs in order, let us come together to concentrate our minds upon our troubles, in the order which I will explain in a minute, as day dawns on the Wednesday of this week.
Let the clergy go in procession from the church of the holy martyrs, Cosmas and Damian, with the priests of the sixth region. Let all the Abbots with their monks walk from the church of the holy martyrs, Protasius and Gervasius, with the priests of the fourth region. Let all the Abbesses and their nuns go from the church of the holy martyrs, Marcellinus and Peter, with the priests of the first region. Let all the children go from the church of the holy martyrs, John and Paul, with the priests of the second region. Let all the widows go from the church of St Euphemia, with the priests of the fifth region. Let all the married women go from the church of the holy martyr Clement with the priests of the third region. Let us all process with prayers and lamentation from each of the churches thus appointed, to meet together at the Basilica of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, so that there we may at length make our supplication to the Lord with tears and groans, and so be held worthy to win pardon for our sins.”
When he had finished speaking, Gregory assembled the different groups of churchmen and ordered them to sing psalms for three days and pray to Our Lord for forgiveness. At three o’clock, all the choirs singing psalms came in to the church [Santa Maria Maggiore], chanting the Kyrie eleison as they passed through the city streets. My deacon, who was present, said that while the people were making their supplication to the Lord, eighty individuals fell dead to the ground. The Pope never once stopped preaching to the people, nor did the people pause in their prayers. It was from Gregory himself, while he was a deacon, that, as I have told you, my own deacon received the relics of the saints. Just as he was preparing to go into hiding, he was seized, carried along, brought to the Basilica of Saint Peter and then given back to the city as Pope. My deacon could not resist turning back to the Portus, for he wanted to see with his own eyes how the ceremony was carried out.”
According to tradition, as the great procession reached the Aelian Bridge over the Tiber, the Archangel Michael appeared on Hadrian’s mausoleum and was seen to sheath his sword, as a sign that their prayers had been heard and the plague was at an end. The mausoleum was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo and the bridge is now known as Ponte Sant’Angelo.
St Gregory of Tours’ “History of the Franks” was written in the years before 594 A.D., the year of his death. He writes of a number of plagues, this being the most famous. The complete history is available on-line in Earnest Brehaut’s translation (1916). This extract is taken from Lewis Thorpe’s version, Penguin, 1974, pp.543-6.
N.B. In case I have infringed copyright on any occasion, please notify me and I will immediately delete the post.