The life and times of Saint Severinus
c. 450 to c. 482 CE
“At the time of the death of Attila, confusion reigned in the two Pannonias and the other borderlands of the Danube. Then Severinus, the most holy servant of God, came from the east to the marches of Noricum, and tarried in a little town which is called Asturis.”
My subject today wandered in the valleys of Austria and Bavaria beginning around 450, until his death in 483. His ministry bridged the death of Attila and the death of the western empire. He is not as popular or well known as Patrick, or a great theologian like Augustine, his life is not filled with derring-do like George’s, but his humble biography contains clues to daily life in the world of the fifth century, and the forces that were at work to create medieval Europe. The Life of Saint Severinus was written by a man named Eugippius, who knew him personally, as a disciple. His writing bears a verisimilitude that’s lacking from a lot of other saint’s lives. Instead, we can find some insight into the conditions and anxieties that were driving people in the west as the empire fell apart. This episode isn’t going to contain a lot of politics, but hopefully it will illuminate something about the lives that the politics touched.
By the time Severinus arrived, Riverside Noricum, or Noricum Ripensis, in Latin, was more or less on its own, as the powers in Italy were struggling to maintain their hold over Gaul or Africa, or bickering back and forth among themselves. The mountain country held valuable iron deposits, but in the grand scheme of things was relatively poor and out of the way
The town called Asturis, where Severinus first arrived, can’t be identified with 100% certainty, but the most likely candidate is the village of Zwentendorf, about 25 miles up the Danube from Vienna. Nowadays it’s home to a nuclear power station that was never brought online, in Severinus’ time it was a small walled town, one of many along the Roman shore of the Danube. Not large now and not large then. I have a link to a map of the area in the show notes – the article is in German, don’t let that put you off.
And where had this man Severinus come from? He was coy about it to those who asked, and joked about it once, “If you think me a runaway slave, prepare a ransom you can offer for me when i am claimed.” No one would have mistaken him for a man of slave birth, though. Eugippius tells us “His speech revealed a man of purest Latin stock”, which today is interpreted to mean that he originated from southern Italy, or maybe North Africa, of upper middle or even aristocratic birth. He had certainly had a religious education, “it is understood that he first departed into some desert place of the East because of his fervid desire for a more perfect life, and that thence, constrained by divine revelation, he later came to the towns of Riverside Noricum, near Upper Pannonia, … So he himself was wont to hint in obscure language as if speaking of another, naming some cities of the East, and indicating that he had passed by miracle through the dangers of an immense journey.”
This would make sense, as the eastern provinces were the center of Christian thought and theological development, and had been since the beginning. Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch were all centers of religious study. The east was also a center for early developments of christian asceticism, which Severinus practiced and encouraged in his disciples. Fasting and self-denial of varying degrees of severity were practiced by acolytes across Anatolia and the Syrian and Egyptian Wildernesses.
And I suppose now is as good a time as any to mention my own personal biases.
This is our first episode with religion at its center, and we’re going to be talking about religion a lot going forward with this podcast – it’s about the middle ages, after all. Both christianity and later Islam will be critical components. My basic stance on the subject of religion is that it’s generally not for me. It’s fascinating, but in an academic way. My general policy will be to reject the supernatural explanation of events in the historical narrative. I don’t think that’s a particularly unreasonable position, really, no matter what your personal relationship is with the divine.
While I reject the supernatural as a force in human history, I also reject the notion that religion is universally a Bad Thing – capital B capital T. I can understand the attractions of religion, and can appreciate the beauty of the Christian message, it just doesn’t ring anything in me personally. I have no problem with whatever you believe. When I sound like I am praising or criticizing any religious institution, understand that I am speaking of the institution as it existed in the time and place under discussion. I have my own opinions about all kinds of denominations and institutions today, and they will remain my own.
Some historical commentators have deeply cynical views of religion as it relates to political leaders. They will paint these ruling classes as conniving and without any real interest in faith except as a tool of control. I am very agreeable to the notion of a conniving ruling class, but I also am open to the possibility that leaders can sometimes be guided by genuine religious feeling, or some combination of genuine belief and craven self-interest.
There was probably a shorter way to say all of that, but there it is. Do with that information what you will.
Back to Severinus.
Severinus arrived at Asturis on the Danube, and began to preach. He warned that the town was in grave danger. That wasn’t hard to believe. In spite of images certain podcast hosts may have posted on Instagram, Asturis laid in the wide and open plain now known as the Vienna basin. It was a clearing house of barbarian bands moving between the Hungarian plains to the southeast, the Julian passes into Italy, and the German lands to the north of the river. Severinus advocated fasting and prayer as defenses against these roving dangers, but found little support among the population. Forewarned by divine revelation that the town was doomed, he abandoned Asturis to its fate, saying “I go in haste from a stubborn town that will swiftly perish.” He moved on to the next town downriver, called Comagenis.
We can identify Comagenis with the modern city of Tulln an der Donau. There Severinus found that the town had been occupied by barbarians, who “had entered into a league with the Romans within”, and who guarded the town closely. Severinus was able to enter without difficulty, though, and went straight to the church to begin preaching. The people of this town, it seems, were terrified by the presence of these barbarians, which suggests to me that this relationship was less of cooperation and more of extortion. Like if the grasshoppers in a Bug’s Life stuck around to “protect” the anthill. Or, less flippantly, like the protection rackets that hundreds of neighborhoods have been subjected to by criminal gangs over the years.
Severinus reassured the townspeople that all would be well, if they would trust in God’s protection. The people were just as disinclined to listen to the saint as were the people of Asturis. But then a man arrived from that town, bearing news that it had been sacked and destroyed by the barbarians, just as Severinus had foretold, even to the day.
So who are these barbarians that are running around Roman Noricum, taking control of towns or sacking them? Here, at the beginning of the story in 450, they were certainly under the auspices of Attila’s Huns, but ethnically, they could be any of a number of tribes. And soon the chessboard would be upended.
When Attila died in early 453, his sons fought amongst themselves to take his place, and the Goths and other Germanic peoples who had been his subjects saw an opportunity. Many of Attila’s lieutenants were Goths, Gepids, or even Romans, and the structure of the Hun’s empire meant that they all had their own followings. Under the leadership of a Gepid king called Ardaric, a coalition of Germanic tribes rebelled against the sons of Attila and defeated them at a place called Nedao, somewhere in the Carpathian Basin. Jordanes reported that “The bravest nations tore themselves to pieces” and that the army that defeated the Huns was composed of every Germanic tribe, with the Ostrogoths the largest group, having made the greatest sacrifice. Later scholars point out that Jordanes was writing for an Ostrogothic king, and so was motivated to amplify the Ostrogoths’ contribution, with Herwig Wolfram and a few others suggesting that the Ostrogoths may have sat out the conflict entirely. Later on there would be animosity between the Gepids and the Goths, which might be explained by the failure of the latter to contribute to the Germans’ liberation.
Regardless, throughout Severinus’ career ministering across Noricum, the former constituents of Atttia’s empire were ranging across the territory, seeking provisions and new bases of operations. I’ve seen them compared to motorcycle gangs, but I don’t think that’s right; to me they’re more like the Freikorps after world war one; military units that had become disconnected from their larger force, but weren’t ready to stop fighting yet, and so inflicted themselves on the civilian populations in their path. They weren’t motivated by ideology, like the Freikorps were, though. Survival and power were the names of this game. Tribes with familiar names (familiar to Roman history nerds, anyway) like the Alamanni, the Suevi, and the Ostrogoths, all make appearances in the story of Severinus, along with other more obscure peoples like the Sciri and the Rugii, who are coming to prominence for the first time.
We’re not told which of these tribes were in charge at Comagenis when Severinus arrived. They’re simply referred to as barbarians. Once the townsfolk heard of the destruction of Asturis, they became willing to listen to Severinus, maybe this man did indeed have a special relationship with the divine, since he seemed able to see the future. So he gathered the citizens to huddle in the church for a strategy meeting about removing these barbarian interlopers from their midst. For three days the townsfolk gathered in the church, praying, fasting, and asking forgiveness for their sins. On the third night an earthquake struck the region. I’m going to pause here and note that that isn’t actually that unusual or miraculous; Austria experiences an earthquake strong enough to do some building damage every two or three years. This one sent the barbarian occupiers into a panic. They mistook the disaster for an enemy attack, and compelled the citizens to open the gates and ran out into the dark, where, “their terror was augmented by divine influence, so that in the wanderings and confusion of the night, they slew one another with the sword. Thus utter destruction consumed the enemy, and the people, saved by divine aid, learned through the saint to fight with heavenly arms.”
This earthquake must not have been too terribly severe, since no mention is made of destruction in the town, but the interesting thing to me is the occupiers’ reaction to it. If they thought the town was coming under attack, then sure they must have believed there were forces out there with the motive and wherewithal to attack. Probably the same band of Huns that had attacked Asturis. My point is just to reiterate the chaos that was dominating the region at this moment in time. These war bands are not allied with each other, some may work together more or less closely, when convenient, but most are clearly rivals, like street gangs who fight over this or that block of a neighborhood, and the majority of the population is caught in the middle of these fights.
The most active gang in Severinus’ life were called the Rugii. They’re a little bit of a puzzle. They’re certainly Germans, mentioned in Tacitus’ first century work on the Germans, and occupied similar territories to the Goths in their early history, so they may have been a subset of the Goths who became more independent as time went on. The problem is we have no way, really, of knowing how the Rugii or any other tribe saw themselves in relation to the other Germanic tribes. To add to the confusion, from the sixth century onward the name was used to refer to various slavic peoples, including Russians. It’s probably best to say that in the late fifth century the Rugii spoke an east german language probably related to Gothic, and previously been ruled by the Huns, and leave it at that.
The king of the Rugii when they are first mentioned in the Vita of Severinus bears the remarkable name Flaccitheus, who came to Severinus to ask whether or not he would prevail over the Ostrogoths in these conflicts. Most of the armed conflict that’s mentioned in the story of Saint Severinus is conflict between barbarian groups. Only occasionally are Roman garrisons mentioned, and there is always a point made that their forces are at a disadvantage. The Roman military presence along the upper danube, and indeed just about everywhere, was in the process of evaporating to the point of non-existence.
I’m not going to go over every incident reported by Eugippius, obviously, there are almost fifty of them. Just a couple more, these first three are all contiguous, and then I’ll pick out one or two more that I think give a good idea of the world at the time, along with a celebrity cameo in one of them.
The city of Favianus heard of Severinus’ doings, and asked him to visit them. The city was in a state of famine, and believed that Severinus was the only one who could save them. Favianus is now Mautern, by the way, also in Austria. Further upriver, hillier country.
When he arrived, it was revealed to him that a rich woman named Procula was hoarding food. He called her to appear before the church congregation and said, “Daughter of most noble parents, why do you make yourself the handmaid of avarice and stand forth the slave of covetousness, which is idolotry? The lord in his compassion has regard for his servants, and you shall have no use for your ill-gotten wealth, except to cast it into the stream of the Danube, and so exhibit to fishes the humanity you have denied to men! So you aid yourself rather than the poor, while Christ hungers.” I’m paraphrasing a little, since the translation I’m working from is from 1914 and has a very KJV quality to it, but there it is. Shortly after that encounter, trade boats from up river in Raetia brought supplies that had been held up by ice. Raetia being essentially Switzerland and far south Bavaria.
So here we have another great anxiety of the time – and really of almost all time – hunger. Or as the wonks like to call it now, Food Security. In the height of the empire, if famine became an issue in some part of a province, a good governor would make arrangements for relief, often out of his own pocket. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of bad or indifferent governors, or that there were never any sustained shortages under Roman rule, but there was an infrastructure in place that made it at least possible to make those kinds of arrangements. Not so now. Roads have to be constantly maintained, as any resident of New Jersey will tell you, and organizing that maintenance over a large area requires significant manpower, especially in the absence of earth moving machinery. Previously that work might be done by the army, or again organized by local elites. Now, in the story of Procula, we have a local elite hoarding food and refusing to take a role in the welfare of the community. This was part of a wider trend across the empire. As barbarian raids took more and more territory out of productive use, the tax revenue they produced was lost. This is at a time when the need to pay an army was greater than ever. So, predictably, the central government sought to make up the difference in revenue by raising taxes in the remaining unspoiled territories. In towns where the local elites had once competed with one another by funding greater and grander public works projects, they were now tasked with the deeply unpleasant responsibility of tax collection. And if they failed to produce the revenue required by Ravenna in their remit, they had to make up the difference out of their own pockets. A position on the town council, once a badge of honor, was now drudgery, and a potentially ruinous burden.
The result is called “The Flight of the Curiales” curiales being the local municipal councils on which these people sat. The flight took the form of either seeking jobs with the imperial government, which conferred tax exemptions, service in the army, which conferred tax exemptions, or purchasing titles and honors that conferred tax exemptions.
Urban life became less and less attractive, as the curiales became less and less interested in maintaining the empire’s towns and cities. The general population certainly noticed that the higher-ups were withdrawing from their responsibilities, and the New Testament certainly has some choice words for the miserly. “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal … for where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) So it’s not surprising to find a story like this here in Severinus’ story. And whether the story of Procula is true or not, it certainly points to a tension between the people and their nominal leadership classes.
It’s also worth noting the extremely local nature of this reported famine, no other town is mentioned as suffering so, and relief does not come by road from one of Favianus’ immediate neighbors, but by river from up in the mountains. (Which seems odd to me, maybe the ships were carrying cheese?) The road network, as I’ve already noted, was not in the best shape it had ever been in, and water transport was far more cost-effective than overland. That was true, really, all the way up until the industrial revolution and the arrival of railways.
There are many many more miracles and teachings of Saint Severinus described by Eugippius, including the driving away of locusts, forbidding the river to flood above a certain spot, and the brief resurrection of a dead man. Who objects to being so rudely awakened and is immediately returned to rest, which I find amusing. His fame spread around the district, as he traveled up and down the Danube and its tributaries, setting up communities of ascetics who followed his example of prayer and self-denial. The largest of these was the monastery he built near Favianus, where he spent as much time as he could. There, he could both promote the true faith and teach others to spread his message.
It was here that he received visitors, who came as they were passing to or from Italy, including some barbarians. Most of these were Arian Christians, remember, and the resolutely catholic Eugippius almost uses barbarian and heretic interchangeably, but Severinus’ piety had become famous enough to impress even them. One of these was “a tall youth, meanly clad. While he stood, stooping that his head might not touch the roof of the lowly cell, he learned from the man of god that he was to win renown … ‘Go forth!’ said Severinus, ‘Go forth to Italy! Now clad in wretched hides, you shall soon distribute rich gifts to many.’” The youth’s name was Odoacer, a chief of the Sciri, who – spoiler alert – will soon depose the Western Emperor and name himself King of Italy.
After many years ministering to the towns of Noricum, Saint Severinus called his followers to him in his cell. He had been troubled by pains in his sides for three days, and knew that his time was near. He gave instructions as to the treatment of his body, instructed them to remember their vows and live without sin, and forbid that any should weep for him. He predicted that they should not become too attached to their home, as it was destined to be destroyed sooner rather than later. On the 8th of January, 482 Saint Severinus died. Eugippius says that he spent his last hours singing Psalms, and died after pronouncing Psalm 150, the last one. “Praise him with clanging cymbals, praise him with loud crashing cymbals. Let everything that breathes praise the lord!”
He was placed in a light wooden coffin, in anticipation of the predicted move. And sure enough, six years later a prince of the Rugii crossed the river to attack and loot the monastery, taking everything that wasn’t nailed down. He was killed by a kinsman shortly thereafter. The inhabitants of Noricum evacuated south into Italy, which was by that time the kingdom of Odoacer, as Severinus had predicted. The monks bore the Saint’s body with them on their journey, and we are told that it performed miracles along the way. Finally Eugippius and the other brethren settled at Naples, and founded a new monastery on an island in the harbor. Supposedly they repurposed a villa that had been the place of exile for the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus. The relics of Saint Severinus still reside in Naples, at the church of Santi Severino e Sossio.
Some years later, around 511, Eugippius sat down to write an outline of his mentor’s life and deeds, which he sent to another scholar of his acquaintance, by name of Paschasius, to put into a more formal and “correct” form. But Paschasius refused, on the grounds that Eugippius’ account couldn’t be improved upon. Just for fun and flavor, and in a bid for sympathy, let me read you a bit of the letter that Eugippius included at the end of the vita. This is from the reply from Paschasius: “Dearest brother in Christ, you measure me by the measure of your skill, eloquence, and happy leisure, and disdain to consider my vexatious employments and manifold imperfections. Yet through the contemplation of your love I sustain the injury to my modesty.” This is what I’m dealing with, people. It’s also very similar in form to the letter that opens Jordanes’ History of the Goths, so, you can see there was a high degree of formalization in this kind of writing at the time. So that is what has come down to us. What are we to make of it?
Saints’ biographies were already a popular literary and didactic form by the time Eugippius put pen to paper. They’re usually called vitae, which is just latin for lives, and were a popular literary subject throughout late antiquity and the middle ages. They’re also called hagiographies, and that word has come to have some negative connotations, meaning uncritical praise of an impossibly perfect figure. That is almost certainly justified, as most vitae are not intended as journalism, but as religious instruction. Saints were examples to follow and could act as intermediaries between Christians and God.
The biography of Saint Severinus is a bit more believable in its broad outlines than some others, because it was written closer to the events it relates, makes no really outrageous claims for its subject – basically I mean there are no dragons and Severinus’ miracles are fairly small-scale, it makes them kind of endearing to my mind. Eugippius, if we take him at face value, knew Severinus personally later in the saint’s life, and so the vita carries a particular verisimilitude. On the other hand, we have to bear in mind that by the time of the Vita’s writing, Eugippius was in charge of a monastery, in possession of relics. Relics which could be an attraction to pilgrims, and their donations. So, as with all sources, caution has to be exercised.
Could Severinus see the future? I’m going to say probably not. Could he command the Danube not to flood? Certainly not. Did he live a life of profound piety and charity in a time of confusion and danger? I have no reason to doubt it, such people still exist today. Did he found monasteries and teach? Probably yes. Is it possible that he didn’t exist at all and was just an invention of Eugippius to sell tickets to the relic show? Yes it’s possible, but I’m not really sure what there is to be gained by that level of cynicism.
Severinus was not alone in his efforts to bring charity and the Gospel to the wilds at the fringes of the dying empire. Saints will be a major population bloc in the character list of this podcast going forward, as the church becomes the new unifying force in the western world. Christianity, only out of the shadows for a century and a half, is quickly becoming the strongest thread in the social fabric. The middle ages are being born, with men and women like Severinus and Eugippius as their midwives.
Next time, we need to catch up with events to the South. We left the Vandals just as they set up their new independent kingdom in North Africa, and we should check in on them. King Gaiseric had some very specific ideas about how his kingdom should be organized, and how it should relate to the flailing empire. We’ll have reason to talk about religion some more too.
Until then, thank you for listening. I have a new podcast achievement unlocked: shout outs for reviews. They go to @notimeforminis on instagram, a belated shoutout to chamberlain on Apple Podcasts and one to llukeberry on the Podbean app, thank you Luke, I will do my best to live up to that. Reviews and ratings of any kind are always appreciated, on whatever platform you use, as well as feedback on the website www.darkagespod.com. If you don’t use one of the big podcatcher apps and review the show, shoot me an email and let me know where I should go to read it. That will also add to my list of platforms To keep an eye on. Twitter and instagram are also options, @darkages pod in both cases.
As always, thank you so much for listening, until next time, take care.
Article on the Noricum Limes – with Map
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
“The Britons” by Kevin MacLeod at Free Music Archive
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0