Norman Douglas (1868-1952), Old Calabria
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915), pp. 26-28:
This pamphlet also contains a litany in which the titles of the archangel are enumerated. He is, among other things, Secretary of God, Liberator from Infernal Chains, Defender in the Hour of Death, Custodian of the Pope, Spirit of Light, Wisest of Magistrates, Terror of Demons, Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the Lord, Lash of Heresies, Adorer of the Word Incarnate, Guide of Pilgrims, Conductor of Mortals: Mars, Mercury, Hercules, Apollo, Mithra—what nobler ancestry can angel desire? And yet, as if these complicated and responsible functions did not suffice for his energies, he has twenty others, among them being that of "Custodian of the Holy Family"—who apparently need a protector, a Monsieur Paoli, like any mortal royalties.
"Blasphemous rubbish!" I can hear some Methodist exclaiming. And one may well be tempted to sneer at those pilgrims for the more enlightened of whom such literature is printed. For they are unquestionably a repulsive crowd: travel-stained old women, under-studies for the Witch of Endor; dishevelled, anaemic and dazed-looking girls; boys, too weak to handle a spade at home, pathetically uncouth, with mouths agape and eyes expressing every grade of uncontrolled emotion—from wildest joy to downright idiotcy. How one realizes, down in this cavern, the effect upon some cultured ancient like Rutilius Namatianus of the catacomb-worship among those early Christian converts, those men who shun the light, drawn as they were from the same social classes towards the same dark underground rites! One can neither love nor respect such people; and to affect pity for them would be more consonant with their religion than with my own.
But it is perfectly easy to understand them. For thirteen centuries this pilgrim-movement has been going on. Thirteen centuries? No. This site was an oracle in heathen days, and we know that such were frequented by men not a whit less barbarous and bigoted than their modern representatives—nothing is a greater mistake than to suppose that the crowds of old Rome and Athens were more refined than our own ("Demosthenes, sir, was talking to an assembly of brutes"). For thirty centuries then, let us say, a deity has attracted the faithful to his shrine—Sant'Angelo has become a vacuum, as it were, which must be periodically filled up from the surrounding country. These pilgrimages are in the blood of the people: infants, they are carried there; adults, they carry their own offspring; grey-beards, their tottering steps are still supported by kindly and sturdier fellow-wanderers.
Popes and emperors no longer scramble up these slopes; the spirit of piety has abated among the great ones of the earth; so much is certain. But the rays of light that strike the topmost branches have not yet penetrated to the rank and seething undergrowth. And then—what else can one offer to these Abruzzi mountain-folk? Their life is one of miserable, revolting destitution. They have no games or sports, no local racing, clubs, cattle-shows, fox-hunting, politics, rat-catching, or any of those other joys that diversify the lives of our peasantry. No touch of humanity reaches them, no kindly dames send them jellies or blankets, no cheery doctor enquires for their children; they read no newspapers or books, and lack even the mild excitements of church versus chapel, or the vicar's daughter's love-affair, or the squire's latest row with his lady—nothing! Their existence is almost bestial in its blankness. I know them—I have lived among them. For four months in the year they are cooped up in damp dens, not to be called chambers, where an Englishman would deem it infamous to keep a dog—cooped up amid squalor that must be seen to be believed; for the rest of the time they struggle, in the sweat of their brow, to wrest a few blades of corn from the ungrateful limestone. Their visits to the archangel—these vernal and autumnal picnics—are their sole form of amusement.
The movement is said to have diminished since the early nineties, when thirty thousand of them used to come here annually. It may well be the case; but I imagine that this is due not so much to increasing enlightenment as to the depopulation caused by America; many villages have recently been reduced to half their former number of inhabitants.
And here they kneel, candle in hand, on the wet flags of this foetid and malodorous cave, gazing in rapture upon the blandly beaming idol, their sensibilities tickled by resplendent priests reciting full-mouthed Latin phrases, while the organ overhead plays wheezy extracts from "La Forza del Destino" or the Waltz out of Boito's "Mefistofele "... for sure, it must be a foretaste of Heaven! And likely enough, these are "the poor in heart" for whom that kingdom is reserved.
One may call this a debased form of Christianity. Whether it would have been distasteful to the feelings of the founder of that cult is another question, and, debased or not, it is at least alive and palpitating, which is more than can be said of certain other varieties.
Hat tip: A friend who just visited the shrine and sends the following email:
It was a rather long journey for a day’s outing but curiosity got the better of me (as it invariably does) and we made our way up to Gargano peninsula yesterday to the shrine of St Michael at Monte Sant'Angelo that Norman Douglas is so entertainingly scathing about in the early chapters of Old Calabria. He witnessed a repulsive medley of "travel-stained old women, under-studies for the Witch of Endor; dishevelled anaemic, and dazed-looking girls; boys too weak to handle a spade at home, pathetically uncouth, with mouths agape and eyes expressing every grade of uncontrolled emotion – from wildest joy to downright idiocy". And how they all stank, he tells us forthrightly, more than once ("And here they kneel, candle in hand, on the wet flags of this foetid and malodorous cave, gazing in rapture upon the blandly beaming idol, their sensibilities tickled by resplendent priests reciting full-mouthed Latin phrases, while the organ overhead plays wheezy extracts from La Forza del Destino or the Waltz out of Boito's Mefistofele ... for sure, it must be a foretaste of heaven!")
All gone to their graves. There were one or two that from their pious demeanour you might be tempted to dub pilgrims but my impression was that the majority, and they were not many, were just glaikit tourists like ourselves and less than fervent in their devotions to the Archangel, whose shares have generally been trading low in the 21st century. No disrespect intended. Gabriel and Rafael must feel equally aggrieved at dwindling cult-status.
It's curious that you should post something about St Michael's footprints in Rome. Anyone who wishes to see the real thing should visit Monte Sant'Angelo, where an Archangelic foot was firmly imprinted into the rock and on display, plain for all to see and never to be confused with any earlier heathen grotto-dwelling deity. After all, Pan's feet were cloven.
On the way north, we stopped off at bilingual Canusium (Canosa) of the gritty bread, one of the oldest settlements in Puglia, as they say that it was founded by Diomedes after the Trojan War, and no sane Italophile should have any reason to doubt it. The Via Minucia followed by Horace & Vergil and their party crosses the river Ofanto just outside the town and the Roman bridge there is intact though much overlaid with mediaeval repair work. We crossed and recrosssed, peered and gazed, assuring ourselves that pace Heraclitus, it was the same river and grosso modo the very same bridge that they crossed.