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Historical News and Anecdotes from San Pietro Avellana - Chapter 2

Founding of the Monastery and the Castle of S. Pietro Avellana

Translated by Lorry Labate.

Historical Developments from 1026 to 1456

Lost and dispersed, the Sanniti, their city razed to the ground, wandered for centuries on the country roads of Sannio in the silence of abandonment and destruction.

As the terrain grew more hilly for certain it was inhabited also by Romans in the republican and imperial epochs, as we have already seen, but except for that which we can summarily deduce in reason from the ancient vestige that have since come to light, nothing else of value can be known accurately.

The darkness is more complete in the centuries prior to 1026, the time of the founding of the monastery of S. Pietro Avellana.

On said foundation and on the life of the monastery, which was one of the most important of the diocese, large and important documented history is preserved in the archives of Naples and Monte Cassino.

From these documents, we learn that the surrounding areas of the Sangro were the dominions of the family of the Counts Borrelli in the 10th and 11th century, who according to Sigonio, descended originally from the Counts of Marsi.

The Borrelli counts were so very powerful that they were not entirely subjected by Ruggiero (Roger) the Norman, when after the Norman Conquests, the Borrelli preserved absolute and uncontested dominion over much land the many castles.

Among the holding there was one name "Spring of Avellana" situated in the actual highland region extended five miles according to the measurement of the time, and in which we know that in 995 existed already a church dedicated to the apostle S. Pietro. We learn also, from existing documents in Monte Cassino, that in the areas adjacent to that in the said  "Spring of Avellana", existed various villages equally subject to the Borrelli counts, and predating therefore the founding of the monastery. However, no accurate information can be had on the origin of these villages and of which we shall assess more fully later.

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Now in 1026, Odorisio Borrelli the Elder, feeling himself close to death, called before him a certain venerable Pietro, priest of his times, and asked him: "qualiter innumerabila peccata sua redimere potuisset et iram Aeterni Judicis et poena perpetua evadere" (Asked if he could redeem himself from his innumerable sins and if he could avoid the ire of the Eternal Judge and everlasting punishment.) He received in answer that the most effective redemption could not happen without the founding of a monastery. With instructions of September 5 of the same year, 1026, he donated to the said Pietro and to his successors in perpetuity the said area "Spring of Avellana" with the obligation to found a monastery.

Of the original deed of grant, existent in the care of the archives of Monte Cassino, a copy was drafted under the care of Don Erasmo di Gaeta, prior and archivist, and the document thus disposes: "In eam videlicet ratione concessimus praedicti Petri Praesbiteri et Monacus et ejusq. Successoribus ipsum iam dictum venerabilem locum, et praedictae rebus ut habeat et possideat et fruat iure quieto et pacifco ad hodierna die in antea qui sunt, quam illi qui venturi sunt famuli Christi absq. ulla contrarietate vel minoratione nostra, vel heredes nostra, seu genu heredumque nostrorum in sempiternum." (For that reason we concede the aforementioned Pietro Presbitero, Monaco, and to his successors, the aforementioned holy place and the aforementioned things, so that the possessions in use and the management calmly and peacefully from this day forward, and thus whatever wants will happen in centuries to come, without adversity or reduction on our part, or of our heirs, or of the heirs of our heirs, and thus for eternity.).

With the legacy in effect, Count Odorisio Borrelli himself entrusted the construction of the monastery to S. Domenico Abbot of Sora, who with the help of the natives of the place, erected the edifice that at the beginning was called also "Monastery of the Sangro".

By order of the same Count Borrelli, the monastery had complete and absolute autonomy, therefore not subject to anyone.

The monastery, whose first abbot was the venerable Pietro, rose quickly because of the great reverence enjoyed by such institutions at that time, and because of the special prerogative of the monastery itself, which offered greater possibilities of a better standard of living, many inhabitants of villages built monastery grounds, constructed their houses in the immediate vicinity of the church of the monastery.

Thus came to be formed a small village which by hand to hand was extended and augmented by population, and which took the same name as the monastery, that is: S. Pietro Avellana.

Then about 1038, the monastery, in order to remove itself for certain from the dominance of the local barons, and this Count Odorisio Borrelli, who "forgot" the terms of the original donation and the proposition which had been agreed upon, and was the cause of trouble to the monastery and the nearby villages, and to safeguard itself from bandit assaults and Norman incursions, on the advice of Riccherio, the Abbot of Monte Cassino, transformed itself into a turreted Castle.

Included in was the part of the building which ultimately became known as "terra vecchia" (the old ground) and appropriately the alleys, formerly Palata, Fontanella, Fantona Grande, Terra Vecchia and Dietro la torre. The building of the walls was square, and the entrance was through a gate between the actual Salvatore house and that called "Sabella" which still presents the remains of a fortress, the main tower was constructed where the palace D'Alena actually rises and it was the defense of the monastery and the church.

It appears that the large stones which until 1903 formed the wall enclosing the "rifolta" originated precisely from the ruins of the old castle, from which the rest of the wall came to light several years ago during some road construction undertaken in front of the Capone house. It seems that ancient fortified walls were part of the remains of walls of remarkable thickness, discovered during excavation along Via Fontanella.

The transformation of the monastery into a castle greatly influenced the ultimate development of S. Pietro Avellana.

Indeed in the epoch in the social organization of the times, based on the tree classes of clergy, of nobility and of the common people, the only true law prevailing was that of force. The clergy maintained itself with the higher power of religion, the nobility maintained itself with the force of arms. Against the powerful there were no sanctions for their criminal management or excepting and if, for example, a baron moved by cupidity, rancor or anything else, assulted the prosperity of a neighbor to take it over or massacre the population of another, had nothing to fear if not the eventual retaliation or an equal fate at the hand of another more powerful or violent.

We can easily understand therefore the poor villagers, sacrificing perhaps their very liberty, often ran to place themselves under the protection of monasteries and baronial castles, to avoid in some manner more violence. In fact, it was in the interest of the powerful to protect their own vassals, because a property was much more appreciated and cared for, however more vast and populated, that from vassals, they actually the men for their armies and the workers for the fields.

Many towns grew thus in the shadow of churches and castles and the same is true also for S. Pietro Avellana.

The monastery transformed into a fortress and as a result offering greater guarantees of safety, soon saw an increase in prestige, for the most part commanded respect for its fortified walls; and its population grew affluent with people from nearby castles and villages.

With this increased prestige came also various concessions and donations which subsequently were given to the monastery by the nobles of the time; thus the original patrimony of the institutions, already prominent of itself, was greatly increased and enriched.

Of these increases in real estate of the monastery, the learned monk and archivist received many bulletins. D. Ottavio Fraia Frangipane and the priest Frazzini in his “Life of S. Amico”, reporting to Frangipane, thus declares in this determination.

The Monastery of S. Pietro Avellana had, in times past, large funds in Rocca Pizzi, Rivo Petri, S. Cristoforo and in Vicende di Campo; it owned the castle of S. Comizio, two hundred acres of land the half of a mill from the donations of Count Ottone in 1053; and from another donation by the husband and wife Baron Nebulone and Mobilia, made in 1145, it came to own the pastures of Matese.

Ebbe da Gualtieri, son of Count Borrelli, came all the territory of S. Nicola, Valle Sarda with its church and a hermitage dedicated to S. Giovanni Battista and the church of S. Biagio near Agnone. And from other donations, it obtained the church of S. Manno and a farm of twenty acres near Marsi, so also the church of S. Benedetto with a small monastery and fifty acres of ground in the vicinity of Roaacsicura. From another compensation made by Gentile Gradinato in 1382, it came to possess the church of S. Lucia, the castle Moro and the church of S. Angelo in Francolisi.

What an imposing patrimony, what a good justification of the fame authority enjoyed by the Monastery in our district and also in other nearby regions.

Over the monastery and all its inhabitants, the “preposito” had absolute authority; he was elected by the monks gathered in the Capitol and he carried the title of Abbot.

He also was called “father” or “sire” because of the temporal authority invested in him and because the inhabitants of S. Pietro were vassals of the monastery.

The abbot administered the vast patrimony of the institution in council on important negotiations with the monks and in urgent cases with his superiors, and every year on the occasion of the anniversary of the dedication of the monastery itself, he had to journey to Monte Cassino to render an accounting of this administration.

Furthermore, he was responsible for the maintenance of the church and of the houses that belonged to the monastery, but he could not in any circumstances make over the good of the monastery itself under penalty of excommunication and expulsion from the order.

His person was sacred and inviolable, and if some “suadente diabulo et repletu spirtu nequissiomo ” had raised himself to give offense, he would have incurred perpetual damnation for himself and all his progeny, loss of this own properties and never he regain the graces of Pietro.

Furthermore, the prelate watched over the observation of rules that were to support the monks and the monastery, and that were in substance the orders from the Benedictines.

So rules were imposed fro dress; a tunic with hood, tied with a rope about the hips, and also imposed work in the fields alternated with rest and the practice of religious rites.

In early morning, the monks gathered in the fields for farm work, and at evening, recited the usual Psalms, retired to their cells, but even during the night some would rise to go to church to pray.

None owned anything personally but all shared in common.

Some were famed for rigorous observation of religious rules, and some for wisdom and good works.

Among those religious, the monk S. Amico remains famous having lived about 1100 and made the countryside about S. Pietro famous with many miracles and good works. D. Sabatino Frazzini, a brother priest, has written an accurate biography of S. Amico and from this biography we can read brief notes on the life of the saint that present a good deal of interesting references to the social happenings of the time, so that the life of S. Amico greatly resembles that of S. Francis of Assisi in many episodes of his life and in the spirit that molded him.

Amico was born about the middle of the Tenth Century in Castello di Marte in the vicinity of Camerino of a noble family of Ramibone or Arabone. He grew up with a lively intellect, a sweet disposition and a great love for his fellow man. While still very young, Amico wanted to give himself to the austere life of a priest, and ordained a priest, and after having distributed to the poor all his worldly goods, he retreated to a cave in a wilderness area and there he stayed for several years totally dedicated to prayer.

Soon, however, the fame spread of this devoted and pious man who did not preach anything but peace and love for mankind, and many began to come to the cave to know him, ask his advice and even to reconcile themselves to God. Many, attracted by his example, abandoned without hesitation life in the world and made themselves followers of Amico. He then left his refuge and with his followers went to Ascolano, and from there, after having accomplished prodigious miracles, including the miracle of having made an enormous mass fall over the entrance to this cave through the strength of this prayers and orations, he entered the monastery of Monte Cassino where he was the favorite of S. Benedetto (Saint Benedict), who wished to enroll him in the monastery of S. Pietro Avellana in order to complete his mission of faith and love.

Taking himself to S. Pietro Avellana, Amico soon acquired great fame for the sanctity of his generosities.

Among these, according to the legend or history whichever it maybe, is the account that during the night of the Christmas Vigil of 1039, Amico had a vision of the death of Ugone, Abbot of Farfa, from which he predicted the moment of death, which actually happened on the day and at the hour indicated by Amico.

Another miracle still remembered in the area is the miracle of the wolf of Gubbio.

One day Amico found himself in a forest with a mule ladened with wood when an enormous wolf attacked the mule and tore it to pieces. Amico, after intense prayers, addressed such bitter reproaches to the wild beast that the wolf was reduced to such tameness as to be commanded to take a packsaddle upon its back, transporting to the monastery all the wood that would have been carried by the mule.

Talking with this brothers at the monastery one day, Amico predicted that seven months from that day, he would pass on to a better life, and precisely seven months later on the day indicated, 3 Nov 1045, Amico died serenely at the age of 120 years.

Before his death, Amico told those attending him that he wished to be buried “in a ditch, there outside the basilica, as is fitting. Tie a rope around my legs and with it, drag me out of the church and leave me also unburied.”

Such a wish was naturally granted and the body of the Saint was buried in the Apse of the Church, and later, in 1456, a chapel was erected and dedicated to him, and the holy remains were buried in a marble casket under the altar of the chapel.

On the left side of the altar may be read the following inscription “R. P. D. Bernardinus de Soavedra Abbas Cass. altare hoc lapide variato ante arcam lapideam, in qua corpus S. Amici asservatur, faciendum curavit anno Dom. MDCXXIII die XXII spet”.

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