Supplementary Appendix 119.1

Beggar Labre [*]


The famous Benedict Joseph Labré died a few weeks before my arrival in Rome, the man whom at the time people generally referred to simply as il Santo (the Saint). I myself witnessed the emotional stirrings among the people after his death, also hearing firsthand accounts of the countless miracle stories, since my landlord, a German himself, was a great admirer of the saint. Indeed, he included himself among those specially blessed by him insofar as Beggar Labré, while still alive, had received a pot full of rice each week from him.

This new saint, however, was the most repulsive beggar to be found in Rome’s alleys. He could be observed the entire day kneeling in the deepest dung on the street, with his long beard and bristly hair, torn clothing, and all the attributes of the most repugnant poverty. There he would lie, even during the rainy season, in the posture of one possessed, unmoving, arms outstretched, murmuring prayers and prophecies out into empty space — himself the object of disgust and revulsion for any passerby!

The parts of his body uncovered by his torn rags exhibited signs of leprosy and boils, and he carefully picked up the vermin that fell off his body that they might yet partake of the nourishment offered by his putrefying body members. It was in this condition that he was found dying in the street. A tradesman took the dying man in so that his own hut might receive the accompanying salutary benefits.


And indeed, the first miracle of the deceased but grateful saint was effected on the man’s sick and now suddenly healed child. The pope had the bed in which he died brought to the Vatican, that he himself might sleep in it. — A few days after his death, Labré was still walking about among his estranged brothers in France in order to reestablish their domestic peace. Such was announced by Cardinal Bernis — who had to carry on a correspondence with France concerning the veracity of this particular miracle.

The church Madonna de’ Monti, where the corpse was buried, was surrounded by a strong guard detail to control the raging crowds of countless people now pushing forward to worship their new saint. Anyone trying to enter the church ran the risk of being crushed by the throng. — His widespread reputation as a miracle worker notwithstanding — concerning which entertaining any doubt was a crime — one particular incident was already being secretly recounted that cast a not inconsiderable shadow over the saintly radiance of this new miracle worker. Today the complete collapse of his fame, even in Rome, is no longer a secret.

The real reason was allegedly that the contribution for paying off the expensive beatification was not forthcoming from France, with which country Labré was connected by birth. The particular incident that damaged the new saint’s reputation soon after his death and raised suspicions even among the people concerning the authenticity of his miraculous powers was allegedly the following.

A man who had been lame for several years was dragged to Labré’s grave by his relatives to be healed. He had already been entreating healing from the miracle worker for several days in vain, all the while also bringing such to the attention of the priests and people. The former, fearing their own profitable plans might be thwarted, would like to have had the man simply removed; the people, however, insisted that one last attempt be made to invoke the saint by true faith. They convinced the sick man to raise himself upright on his crutches and to entreat the infallible miracle once more. He did so, — cast away his crutches as proof of his belief after a final, long invocation of the saint, and — fell helpless to the ground.

The priests, well prepared precisely for this outcome, rushed at the unfortunate man, scolded his unbelief, calling him a secret enemy and despiser of the saint, and presented him to the people as proof of how the saint would punish unbelievers. But then a genuine miracle did occur — albeit of the negative sort: — the poor man, injured by the fall, was not stoned for his unbelief by the people who had been incited by the priests, and thus escaped the latter’s rage.

Twelve thousand copies of the badly etched image of the new saint were sold in two months for a half paoli (ca. 1 Groschen 6 Pfennig), not counting the superior, and thus more expensive copies embossed in plaster and wax. The sale and free distribution of these images among the poor were tied to indulgences; scraps of the saint’s ragged clothes were also dispensed as relics.

“Direct your attention” — an enlightened prelate in a high position at a German court directed these peculiar lines to me just before I departed for Italy — “direct your attention especially to Rome, but refrain, that you might avoid giving offence, from paying too close attention to the behavior of the priests, behavior which in our days differs very, very little from their behavior during the days of your great religious teacher Luther.” — Often enough, though especially during the scenes occasioned by Labré, I found this peculiar remark — which a prelate of the Roman Church itself had written to a Protestant — confirmed in Rome.


[*] Friedrich Johann Lorenz Meyer, Darstellungen aus Italien (Berlin [Potsdam] 1792), 215–21. Portrait: frontispiece to G. L. Marconi, The Life of the Venerable Benedict Joseph Labre, trans. J. Barnard] (Wigan 1786). Second illustration (Labre on his deathbed): Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki, Labre, der neueste Heilige der katholischen Kirche (1788); Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum; Museums./Signatur DChodowiecki AB 3.788; originally published in J. E. Biester, “Labre, der neueste Heilige der katholischen Kirche,” Berlinische Monatsschrift (1785) 1 (January–March), 277–88, here 281. Back.

Translation © 2018 Doug Stott

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott