The final hagiographer: Michael Psellus on Symeon Metaphrastes

Writing lives of the saints was something that everybody did in the Greek empire from 400 to about 1000.  After that people stopped writing new lives, or not in the same way.  But up to that point these lives were written by people of all stations.  The forms of Greek used reflect that ordinary people wrote them.  It was genuinely a popular form of fiction.

During the reign of Constantine VII Porpyrogenitus (d. 959), the emperor ordered the creation of all sorts of compilations.  Whether by coincidence or not, soon afterwards we find the creation of a compilation of earlier saints’ lives, revised and with the style made acceptable.  This compilation takes the form of a menologion (see my prior post for this), and it is ascribed in the manuscripts to a certain Symeon Metaphrastes, or Symeon the Compiler.

This compilation became the standard collection of the lives, and the form of each life that Metaphrastes gave it likewise becomes the basis for the future.  It’s like the King James Bible, or the Vulgate; it marks a conclusion and a break with the past.

Among the saints included was Nicholas of Myra, whose lives we have been translating for a while now.

It really is not that clear who Metaphrastes was, or exactly when he lived.  But around a century later Michael Psellus wrote an encomium on him.  This has recently been edited by Elizabeth A. Fisher in the Teubner series of Psellus in the Orationes Hagiographicae.  But I find that she has also made a translation into English of the Encomium for Symeon Metaphrastes, and that a version of it is even online here and more specifically here (although you may need to search; the links move around).  This is marvellous news!

Leaving aside the florid compliments, let’s extract what Psellus says about what Metaphrastes did, to produce the “final version” of the life of St Nicholas (and others).

3.5.   … Symeon possessed noble birth, had acquired a good name from his family, and reveled in extensive wealth and in the things because of which one might avoid learning. Nevertheless Symeon used the resources gained from worldly good fortune to study philosophy. …

3.6. Symeon … did not adopt a different style of dress, nor compromise in any way his truly noble spirit, nor embarrass his family with any sort of silly novelties, nor offer a model of political subjects only to remodel it, nor otherwise play the part of a disreputable sophist. Instead he employed his hereditary affection for honorable conduct as most useful raw material for accomplishing what is good and straightaway took the excellence derived from his studies as the basis both for true nobility of spirit and for brilliance. For as a special favorite of the emperors he was entrusted with the most honored assignments of all; Symeon received a position close to the imperial throne because of his keen intelligence and, due to his natural aptitude, also held an administrative post in government supervising public affairs.

He initially (275) received an appointment to the imperial chancery, privy to confidential resolutions and working with imperial advisors. When his trustworthy character in these duties made him well known, he undertook responsibilities in external affairs in addition to his duties in the palace, with the result that it was he who conveyed to the emperor messages from outsiders and relayed imperial communications to outsiders as well. He was, so to speak, the administration’s precise communications link.

3.7. … Symeon was himself wholly attentive both to the emperor and to public affairs. … He was able to drive the barbarians farther from the territory belonging to the heirs of the Roman Empire, to prevail against them either through military expeditions or by means of artifice, to bring other countries into subjection, and to adopt a ready stance regarding requirements of the moment for the matter at hand.

… Although he was truly noble in dress, in demeanor, and even in the way he walked, he altered his behavior to fit the situation; because he was charming and agreeable, he immediately attracted everyone with his smile. His helping hand was generous because two attributes, his wealth and his inclination, extended it. His hand was always outstretched and open, and whoever wished drew liberally upon his wealth as if it flowed from a river. Such were the qualities of this great man, and he also took part in activities that typically assist our Christian faith, as was appropriate. …

3.8.  … However, until recently the way they lived on earth, or rather our recounting of their lives, was not recognized as brilliant, although accurate accounts of the [facts] of their martyrdom and of their ascetic practices are indeed preserved in the secret books that the angels will read out for the multitudes at the Restitution [of all things]. [21] Moreover, before [the time of] the remarkable man [Symeon] those who wrote of [the saints’] deeds here on earth by no means approximated their nobility of spirit. Instead, in some cases they gave erroneous reports of their [deeds], while in other cases, because they were incapable of an appropriate presentation, they described their virtue as rude and paltry by failing to demonstrate nobility of thought, [22] or to employ attractive adornments of diction, or to describe accurately either the ferocity of [the saints’] persecutors or their shrewdness in answering when they gave [Christian] witness. [These earlier writers] also presented an adulterated version of the ascetics’ practices by describing their earnest efforts without any artistry and seemingly with whatever [words] came to mind. (278)

3.9. …. some had no patience for reading the annals [of the martyrs] because they were so crudely written, while others considered the accounts objects of derision. Their awkward composition, incoherence of thought, and mediocre style were harsh to the ear and repulsed rather than attracted an audience. Because of the authors who wrote about them, we habitually satirized the marvelous struggles and monumental victories of the servants of Christ.

Although everyone complained loudly about the situation, those who had the ability to replace these writings with better ones lacked the will to do it, and those who had the will lacked the ability—some because of timidity of spirit, others because the enterprise was all engrossing, and one man’s lifetime would not be sufficient for it all.

The marvelous Symeon did not feel the same as those who were stricken by these difficulties. He joined them as far as finding fault with the accounts that were written, then went farther and had the confidence for a daring project—or, rather, he succeeded in an undertaking where no one else had. …

3.10. … the literary accounts which this noble man [Symeon] constructed for the martyrs and the ascetics demonstrate amplification appropriate to discourse and have a two-fold objective—both to inspire imitation of their skillful composition and to encourage imprinting of the self with saintly morality in the best way possible. I, however, might mention a third consideration, not inferior to these other two, but both more to the point and more elevating: namely, that the literary commemoration of the saints is the final chapter of the works that confirm the Gospel message. …

3.12. … He does not alter the facts for the sake of his art, but in each case he interprets the particularity of the facts as they happened (283) and the particularity of the individuals involved. He fixes his attention upon the older works as his models and does not deviate from them in order to avoid the appearance of creating something that is different from his original and to avoid violating it. He completely transforms the type of style without altering the substance of the original, but he corrects what was amiss in its forms of expression; he does not invent the contents but he alters the manner of diction.  …

3.14. People do indeed say that Symeon did not undertake the project as a hobby nor simply set it for himself, except to the extent that he was willing to do it. However, fervent appeals from the emperor moved him to undertake this project as well as appeals from those who valued intelligent discourse.

He had his preparations ready at hand and had a team of considerable size composed both of those who initially took down his dictation stenographically and of those who subsequently transcribed it in full; each group worked in support of the other, one producing an initial text, the other a second draft. After them, the final redactors went over the written texts to compare them against the content intended by Symeon and to correct whatever error might have escaped the notice of those who drafted the texts, because Symeon could not possibly review the same works repeatedly himself due to their great number.

We can draw a number of conclusions from this.

First, the lives of the saints were not considered particularly reputable by the highest literary circles.  The style was such as to provoke satire.  In fact even after Metaphrastes’ work, the lives were not on the same level as the Greek classics.  But at least they were not an embarassment.  The style was improved, the material paraphrased (or metaphrased) to produce something readable.

If I can get a translation made of Metaphrastes’ life of St Nicholas, it will be interesting to see how this reflects the earlier materials.

St Nicholas of Myra in the Greek Synaxarium – now online in English

Christmas is coming, and, as it happens, I have a new translation for you.  This is another piece of the medieval St Nicholas of Myra material, all edited by G. Anrich in Hagios Nikolaos back in 1902.

In the Greek orthodox church, various days are marked as saints’ days, and a short life of the saint is included in the church service for that day.  These materials for each saints’ day are included in a 12-volume collection known as the Menaion, or the Synaxarium.

There are two versions of the Life of St Nicholas in the manuscripts, a longer one and a shorter one (itself in two versions).  Anrich printed them all as section VIII of his book.  These are translated below.

These were translated by Fr Albert Iustinos.  This is the pen-name of a monk on Mount Athos.  I think that he has done a splendid job, and I am looking forward to a translation of the Vita Compilata (Anrich section IX) in due course.  Thank you very much!

As ever, these are public domain.  Do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.

The tomb of St Nicholas of Myra?

Turkish archaeologists have used ground-penetrating equipment and discovered the shrine of St Nicholas of Myra underneath the church of St Nicholas in Demre, ancient Myra, according to the Daily Telegraph.  The report seems rather sketchy, and the claims likewise.  They are also claiming that the bones of St Nicholas, supposed now to be in Bari, have in fact remained in Demre/Myra, although it is hard to see how any electronic equipment could tell that.  But of course the Turks are hoping for a boost to the tourist trade, and understandably so.

Let us wish them good luck in their excavations!

Church of St Nicholas of Myra in modern Demre, ancient Myra, in Turkey.

Proclus of Constantinople, “Encomium on St Nicholas of Myra”, now online in English

I have another piece for you of the ancient literature about St Nicholas of Myra.  This is an encomium which is found in the manuscripts among the sermons of Proclus, the 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople.  Although it has acquired his name, it is really anonymous.  Bryson Sewell completed a draft of the translation, and Andrew Eastbourne revised it and completed it.  Here it is:

As usual I make these public domain – use them for any purpose, personal, educational or commercial.

It’s translated from the Greek text published by G. Anrich.  Apparently there are quite a number of late encomia which merely retread the earlier material, and this is mostly one of them.  Still useful to have, tho!

UPDATE: Dr. E. has drawn my attention to an editorial error with note 14.  I’ve uploaded new versions of the files.

Where St Nicholas lived (if he did) – a paper on the city of Myra

A correspondent draws my attention to a paper by Dr Engin Akyürek, Myra: the city of St. Nicholas, which is online at Academia.edu here.  Those who have followed the posts about Nicholas of Myra may find it interesting and useful, as the author discusses the physical layout of the ancient city.  That is something known to few of us, so useful.

Nicholas of Myra – the story of the generals, and of the three innocents – now online

David Miller has kindly made us a translation of another of the legends of St Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus.  This one is the Praxis de stratelatis, which recounts how Nicholas dealt with three generals and also how the governor tried to execute three innocent men.  The narrative displays considerable knowledge of events of people of the reign of Constantine, so must be late antique.

Here’s the translation:

As ever this is public domain – do whatever you like with it!

Notes on the Life of Nicholas of Myra by John the Deacon

Frequently listed among the important sources for the legends of St Nicholas of Myra is the Life written in Latin by John the Deacon.  This is not printed in Anrich’s collection of Greek sources, which is a nuisance.  Various versions of John’s text were created in the Middle Ages, and there is a translation of something into English online here.  But where to find John’s text?

Today I happened on some useful information.  The old Catholic Encyclopedia article on John the Deacon tells us:

(2) John, deacon of Naples, d. after 910. This deacon, or head of a diaconia at the church of St. Januarius of Naples, flourished towards the end of the ninth and the beginning of the tenth century, …. A biography of St. Nicholas of Mira (ed. Cardinal Mai in “Spicilegium Romanum”, IV, 323 sqq.) is not by this John but by another author of the same name.

The volume of Spicilegium Romanum is here, in a poor-quality scan.  This is indeed a different text to that translated above.  It is on p.323-339.  But surely so widely known a text as John the Deacon has been printed before this?

This leads me, of course, to a text that I have never consulted before: the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina, whose volumes are online here: Vol. 1. A – I and Vol. 2. K – Z, although not to non-US readers because of the greed of German publishers. Thankfully a V1 is here and V2 can be found here.  On p.890 (=p.203 of the PDF), we find an entry for Nicholas of Myra.

In the BHL we find the Life of John the Deacon in first place (BHL 6104-9), and printed by Falconius in Sancti confessoris pontificis … Nicolai acta primigenia (Neapoli, 1751), 112-22, containing chapters 1-13, and also on p.126.  Falconius is here, and the text starts here.

After John’s work there follows in the BHL a mass of other Latin versions of the Life, too many to be of any interest.  But it might be interesting to translate John’s Life of Nicholas into English.

Nicholas of Myra in the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca

The Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (3rd ed) gives a list of hagiographical texts about St Nicholas of Myra, the origin of our Santa Claus.

As I am commissioning translations, I thought that I would run through this, in an abbreviated way, and see just what there is listed.  Nothing like typing it out, to get a feel for the material!  But of course it may be rather boring to read!

  • BHG 1347. Vita. Printed in G. Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos I (Leipzig, 1913), 3-55; cf. 56-59. Also in N.C. Falconius, Sancti Nicolai … acta primigenia (Neapoli, 1751), 1-29. (Falconius is online here). But … this work is actually the Vita of Nicholas of Sion, not of Nicholas of Myra.
  • 1348. Vita by Michael the Archimandrite. Anrich I, 113-139.
  • 1348b. Vita praemetaphrastica. Inc. aceph. Anrich I, 268-275, but omitting most of a speech. Cf. Anrich II, 127-128.
  • 1348c. “Vita compilata”. Anrich I, 211-233, but with significant omissions.
  • 1348d. Miraculum de tribus filiabus. Chapters 25-28 of the “Vita compilata”.
  • 1348e. Miraculum. De muliere sanata. Chapter 47 of the “Vita compilata”.
  • 1348f. Nativitas. Chapters 1-13 of the “Vita compilata”.
  • 1349. Vita by Simeon Metaphrastes. Anrich I, 235-267; Falconius t. c. 86-108; PG 116, 317-356.
  • 1349a. Vita “Lycio-Alexandrina”. Anrich I, 301-311.
  • 1349b. Vita. Mentioned in Anrich II, 566; not printed but a manuscript given.
  • 1349c. Vita or Periodoi. Anrich I, 312-332.
  • 1349d. A related text, somehow printed in the same place in Anrich.
  • 1349e. Vita, like c and d. Not printed.
  • 1349k. Vita, inc. aceph. Not printed.
  • 1349s. Synaxarium et miracula. Anrich I, 205-209.
  • 1349t. Synaxarium brevius. Anrich II, 300, ann. 1.
  • 1349u. Epitome. Anrich I, 277-288.
  • 1349z. Acta seu Praxis de stratelatis. Anrich I, 67-77.
  • 1350. Second version of the same. Anrich I, 77-83; Falconius t.c. 30-34.
  • 1350a. Another version again. Anrich I, 83-91.
  • 1350b-k. The same story in various other forms, none available in printed form, and so of no immediate interest here.
  • 1351. Praxis de tributo. Anrich I, 98-102; Falconius 34-38.
  • 1351a. Second version of same. Anrich I, 102-110.
  • 1351s. Unpublished version of same.
  • 1352. Miraculum de imagine. Anrich I, 339-342; Falconius 82-86.
  • 1352a. Miracula sex. Anrich I, 168-197.
  • 1352b. Miracula duo. Anrich I, 361-363.
  • 1352c. Miraculum de navibus frumentariis. Anrich I, 288-299.
  • 1352d. Miraculum de arbore. Anrich I, 333-330.
  • 1352e. Miraculum de presbytero Siculo. Anrich I, 343.
  • 1352f. Another version. Anrich I, 344-345.
  • 1352g. Miraculum Catanense. Anrich I, 345-347.
  • 1352h. Same again. Anrich I, 347-349.
  • 1352i. Miraculum de Nicolao claudo. Anrich I, 349-352 ; cf. II, 567.
  • 1352j. Miraculum de Leone paralytico. Anrich I, 353.
  • 1352k. Miraculum Euripense. Anrich I, 354-357.
  • 1352m. Miraculum de pastore fure. Inc. aceph. Anrich I, 359-361, omissa clausula; cf. II, 133, 145.
  • 1352n. Miraculum de thesauro imperatorio. Anrich I, 365-368.
  • 1352p. Miraculum de colybis. Anrich I, 368-371.
  • 1352q. Miraculum de tribus pueris Cretensibus. Anrich II, 557-563, omisso prologo.
  • 1352r. Miraculum de Arnabandensibus. Anrich I, 59-61.
  • 1352s. Miraculum de Nicolao Presbeiensi. Anrich I, 61-62.
  • 1352t-x. Various excerpts and unpublished items.
  • 1352y. Vita a. Methodio (postea patr. CP.). Inc. prol. ad Theodorum. Anrich I, 140-150 ; iterum II, 546-556. — Emend. A. Brinkmann in Rheinisches Museum 69 (1914), 424-426.
  • 1352z. Laudatio a. Methodio patr. CP. (vel Basileo ep. Lacedaem.). Anrich I, 153-182. Insunt miracula tria illa de tribus filiabus, de navibus frumentariis et de stratelatis, deinde miracula tria post mortem patrata (= 1357-1360).
  • 1353-6. Thaumata tria, including prologue. Falconius t. c. 56-66; Anrich I, 185-197.
  • 1356y-z. Miracula tria post mortem patrata a. Methodio patr. CP. B. 7 (b) (vel Basileo ep. Lacedaem.). Anrich I, 167-168. Cf. II, 87-88.
  • 1357-60. I. De Ioanne auctoris patre. II. De sacerdote. III. De Petro scholario. Epilogus. Falconius t. c. 66-74; Anrich I, 169-182 (altera pars laudationis 6z = 1352z).
  • 1360a. Miracula VII. Not printed. See Anrich II, 91.
  • 1360b. Miracula VII post mortem patrata. Excerpts in Anrich I, 357-358 (de Antonio monacho naufrago). — Cf. Anrich II, 94-95.
  • 1360c,de, f. g. k and m. More unpublished miracles.
  • 1361. Miracula metrica a. Nicephoro Callisto. Inc. prol. Papadopoulos-Kerameus, Analecta Hieros. stachy. IV, 357-366. — Excerpts in Anrich I, 352-353, 363-364, 456-457.
  • 1361b. Translatio Barim sub Alexio Comneno. Anrich I, 435-449.  English translation here.[1]
  • 1361z. Prologus metricus in sequentem orationem a. Manuele Phila. E. Miller, Manuelis Philae carmina II (Parisiis, 1857), 337-339.
  • 1362. Laudatio a. Andrea Cretensi. Combefis, S. Andreae Cret. orationes 188-196; Falconius t. c. 75-81 (ubi Leoni VI imp. adscribitur); P.G. 97, 1192-1205 ; Anrich I, 419-428.
  • 1362b-c. Two more unpublished versions of the Laudatio of Andrew of Crete.
  • 1362z. Prologus metricus in sequentem orationem (a. Manuele Phila). Unprinted.
  • 1363. Laudatio a. Leone VI imp. P. Possinus, Leonis Augusti oratio in laudem S. Nicolai (Tolosae, 1644), 7-40; P.G. 107, 203-228 ; Akakios 145-159. — an except in Anrich II, 165-166.
  • 1364. Laudatio a. Neophyto incluso. Anrich I, 392-417, omissa maiore perorationis parte.
  • 1364a. Oratio a. « Theophane Cerameo». Scorsi 347-353; Palamas 218-222; P.G. 132, 905-917.
  • 1364b. Laudatio a. Georgio chartophylace. Excerpts: Anrich I,92-96.
  • 1364c. Laudatio a. Proclo ep. CP. Anrich I, 429-433.
  • 1364d. Laudatio a. Niceta Paphlagone. Unpublished. See Anrich II, 163-165.
  • 1364e. Laudatio. Unpublished. See Anrich II, 166-167, 568.
  • 1364f. Laudatio. Anrich II, 167-168.
  • 1364g. Laudatio a. Nicolao Cabasila. Unpublished. See Anrich II, 168-169.
  • 1364h. Laudatio. Anrich II, 568.
  • 1364i, k, and m. Various Laudationes. Unpublished. See Anrich II, 169, 568.
  • 1364n. Homilia. Unpublished.

There’s quite a lot there, but probably much of it is the same stuff again and again.  Good to see the full extent of it, tho.

  1. [1]“An anonymous Greek account of the transfer of the Body of Saint Nicholas from Myra in Lycia to Bari in Italy.” Translated by J. McGinley and H. Mursurillo in: Bolletino di S, Nicola, N. 10, Studi e testi, Bari: October 1980), 3-17

Legends of St Nicholas of Myra: the miracle of the tax (Praxis de tributo, recension 1) now online in English

Considering how important Santa Claus is to our culture, it has always seemed remarkable to me that the medieval sources for whatever stories we tell about him – or rather St Nicholas of Myra, his prototype – remained untranslated.  I’ve had a few translations made, and here is another.  This is a short medieval story about how St Nicholas got an unfair tax remitted.  David J. D. Miller kindly did the translation for us all.  This exists in four manuscripts, in two different versions.  This is the shorter first recension.

  • Nicholas_of_Myra_Praxis_De_Tributo_rec1_2015 (PDF)
  • Nicholas_of_Myra_Praxis_De_Tributo_rec1_2015 (Word .doc file)

As usual this translation is public domain – do whatever you like with it.

I have commissions out for two other short texts at the moment, so there will be more of these.

UPDATE (10 Feb 2016): updated version with numbering.