Chaos theory applied to abbeys.

Sometimes you don’t make it, sometimes you break it. Ian Malcom explained it in Jurassic Park, circa 1993. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine. 
A single valley, two abbeys, the same Medieval overlords. One – Sant’Antimo – is still busy, its nave echoing with recorded Gregorian chants, its Benedictine monks officiating mass at least twice a day, a shop selling honey and beer and olive oil. The other, San Galgano, is a different matter.

We are alone in the car park. We hardly met anyone on the road either, heavy downpours our only companions. The hills stop the radio reception and, after a few minutes of static, we’ve turned it off. My mind plays a song telling the story of Sarajevo’s library fire. Apt.

Galgano Guidotti, to quote from the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, was a man before he was a saint, and a had a lot to answer to the Almighty by the time their meeting would’ve been due. Death, murder, rape and pillage to be precise, part and parcel of the job description of a medieval knight. Mindful of that, one fine day in the mid-to-late XII century Galgano sunk his sword in a stone, where it still stands, and became a hermit. Cistercian monks followed suit.

We are the first in the Abbey. Birds echo through the open windows and doors of the chapter house. A busload of pensioners from Ferrara was inbound, but still they linger outside, their driver being reprimanded by the ticket staff for having parked his behemoth too close. A diesel engine starts, the bus driving away.

San Galgano Abbey quickly made a name for itself. It became the largest landholder in the area, giving work to hundreds of monks and families. It appeared in Siena’s records; initially sporadically, then frequently as the spiritual power of the abbey grew increasingly political.

A cobbled path led away from the chapter house into the church. A side door opened in the flank of the giant building.


A hundred meters long, San Galgano’s abbey church stands empty, its roof the frowning Tuscan sky. Pebbles creak below us, pigeons flutter from one window to the other, wind drafts dance from mullions to trifore whence stained glass had broken away centuries before us.

It’d happened quickly. In 1328 a famine hit the abbey, then twenty years later came plague. The Black Death didn’t decimate the population; it cut it by four-fifths.  Those who survived then had to deal with marauding armies of mercenaries. At the turn of the century only eight monks remained. Less than two centuries later, San Galgano was abandoned.
What could possibly explain the demise of San Galgano and not of the other tens of abbeys, nunneries and monasteries dotting the hills of Siena province? Surely there were political, economic, sociologic reasons behind the abbey’s death. Wrong choices, scarce resilience, perhaps its fame accelerated its demise. Or, perhaps, it was as simple as a butterfly flapping its wings in Peking.

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14 Responses to Chaos theory applied to abbeys.

  1. Excellent, you were there! In just the weather for you. The photo of the trees through the arched windows reminded me of one of mine. I had a look right now. Yours is better. 🙂 And you told the tale that I didn’t know, but I had a strong reaction to the place. Highly mythical, and I never use this word. Did you go up to the church on the hill to look at the sword? I think they had to put protective glass over it because people kept pulling it out of the stone. 😀 And please, which song talks about Sarajevo’s library fire?

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Manja, San Galgano was my objective, and we got the ‘right’ day of the week to see it… I remember it since I was a wee lad and RAI Cultura did a classical concert there on TV. At night, with snow on the ground and the church empty but for the musicians… Yeah we did go to the Rotonda and saw the sword, but the lady of the church was prepping it up for a wedding so we left the field early to let her do her thing…
      As for the song, it’s the CSI’s “Cupe Vampe”. The whole Linea Gotica album is a masterpiece.

  2. J.D. Riso says:

    It’s so magical having these places to oneself. Love the austere photos. The spaces are abandoned, yet somehow full of spirit. Black Death…I’ve heard that another epidemic has started.

  3. Dave Ply says:

    It appears the monks of San Galgano were not unflappable. (More likely, if they became political, they became a target.)

  4. lexklein says:

    I was waiting for an answer! And then, boom, you were done, and I have to live with the Chinese wing-flapping butterfly explanation. But I like it – after all, how can we ever really know what tiny decisions or happenings changed the course of every little piece of history? I rather prefer a little mystery. Speaking of mystery, that abbey is a font of it, and your photos capture it so beautifully.

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi! Sorry, as I was saying to Dave I’ll now have to investigate. Why did San Galgano succumb and Sant’Antimo flourish? Jared Diamond might do a weapons, steel and germs: abbeys special very soon!

  5. A very Arthurian legend for San Galgano….while touring the Sienese portion of Italy I was told by a guide that many of the decommissioned abbeys were a result of poor management and underhanded dealings. Apparently some of the administration of these establishments sold off or allowed the plunder of valuable religious items for personal profit. It will be interesting to learn what you discover in your research of the two places.

    • awtytravels says:

      It’s true! Sant’Antimo – the one which survived – lost most of its land due to mismanagement, or the abbot siding with the wrong side in the semi-permanent warfare that was typical of Medieval Italy… As for San Galgano, I read all sorts of theories linking him with Arthur, despite the tiny 400 years or so of difference between one and the other (but what’s 4 centuries when you’re famous?!)

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