The fragrant underwear of St Nicholas

The medieval miracle stories of St Nicholas are unsophisticated.  One of these, BHL 6168, contains the following episode, which provoked a few unintentional chuckles.

…the blessed and chosen archbishop of our Lord Jesus Christ, Nicholas, when he was about to pass away from this light to the Lord in a wonderful way, and had completed a wonderful life, he gave back his soul to his most holy creator by an evident miracle. …. Then, having washed the most holy body of a holy man according to the custom, they [the clergy] strove reverently to preserve the linens [linteamina] which the living man had used, as being of use to many in posterity.

2.  Now there happened to be a certain man, Jethro by name, who had come from a far country to consult the holy and most wise man. Here, when he found deceased the man whom he had been looking for alive, he began with great sorrow to beg the same priests and clerics, that even something of the holy man’s clothes [vestimentis] might be given to him out of compassion. …

Then the priests and the clerics, considering these things, and valuing such a request and the longing of the man, gave him one of the linens of the most holy man. Then, when Jethro had received the garment of the blessed Nicholas, with great longing he put it back in a new bag, which had not previously been used by anyone for any actual purpose.

I recall that in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, he remarks Johnson admitted that he had “no passion” for clean linen; that is, clean underwear.    Just which “linen” did Jethro receive, one wonders?

It is worrying that there is no mention of washing the clothing.

And he went away happily saying: “I thank you, Lord, because I am carrying the relics of your most holy confessor.” I beseech you, Lord, to give me a son from my loins through these relics of the blessed Nicholas, for your honor and my joy, and public satisfaction.”

3.   Now when Jethro returned to his city, which is called Excoranda, …. he began to build a church, outside the gates of the city on the east side about two stadia away. As soon as this had been completed, Apollonius, the bishop of the same city, dedicated it in honour and memory of St. Nicholas, storing in it that clothing with solemn veneration.

That is, Jethro wisely placed the church, and the reliquary containing the holy underwear, a good couple of furlongs down wind.  For, as we read:

But when the relics of the holy man were placed in a suitable place, they began to emit such a smell [tantum odorem] from themselves that the fragrance [fragrantia] of such an over-strong smell [odoris nimii] extended for two full stadia.

Various miracles then took place at the church, restoring sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, etc.  One can only hope that nobody sought a cure for a loss of the sense of smell.  The odour of sanctity, it seems, is strong.  Possibly St Nicholas should have sponsored a soap powder?

To conclude on an even more frivolous note, readers in the United Kingdom may wonder just what brand of underwear was preferred by St Nicholas.  Perhaps he wore “Saint Michael” underwear?

Update (4 Feb 2023): For some real information about the Latin for underwear, rather than my persiflage, please see this excellent post by Michael Gilleland at his blog Laudator Temporum Acti here.


2 thoughts on “The fragrant underwear of St Nicholas

  1. Well, one of the signs of an odor of sanctity is that it’s a very pleasant odor. Sometimes it’s distinctly like roses, sometimes it’s like various spices, sometimes it’s a perfume that people can’t identify.

    The interesting bit is that sometimes it is a real material smell, but other times is something directly perceived by the brain. Very similar to internal locutions vs. actual auditory signs, or mentally seeing light vs. actual supernatural light that shows on camera.

    The freaky thing is that it happens a fair amount, with people who had no idea that supernatural smells are even a thing. I assume that God appeals to whatever perceptive sense is strongest for us, and it must be smells for some people.

    Also, if you have a saint that puts out myrrh from his corpse, a myrrh-like odor might have permeated his clothing even while alive, as a sign of his having “put on the new man” and become like Christ. (Or not. It could just be mystical happenings, too.)

    Songs goes into this a lot. “The odor of your perfume is pleasing, your Name is like perfume poured out.” (Songs 1:2/3)

    And then Songs 1:11/12-12/13. And then Songs 3:6. That’s all the Bridegroom.

    And then Songs 4:6 turns it around, and we hear about the Bride being scented with myrrh and frankincense too. (And Songs 4:10-11, 13-14, 16, and Songs 5:1, 5 rounds it out.)

    So then we go back to the Bridegroom with Songs 5:13, 16, and 6:2.

    Songs 7:8 goes back to the Bride, but it’s tree/fruit imagery instead. (Although I guess all the stuff about flowers is also about smell.) Songs 7:13 is a flower too.

    But Songs even ends at 8:14 with the smell of spices being associated with both the Bride and Groom, so….

    The other side of this is that a bishop would spend a lot of time around incense, because he’d be saying Mass a lot. I attend a Catholic university chapel that is currently letting a Byzantine Rite Catholic parish say Mass there on Saturday nights and at other times, while waiting for their new church building to get done.

    And if you go to 11 AM Mass on Sunday morning, you can still smell the beautiful incense from Saturday at 4-6 PM. It is real frankincense so it doesn’t make you cough, but it is all-permeating.

    So mystically, a bishop praying all the time would be full of prayers going up like incense, and his garments would also be full of actual incense (and I wouldn’t put it past going down to the underwear, because those Eastern services are long, and skirts of robes are open at the bottom).

    If God chose to magnify this little detail mystically, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch. (Just saying.)

    A lot of the healing saints in early Christianity seem to have had basilicas or shrines that were built outside the city, often at some distance, and which included stuff like hospitals, and xenodochia for travelers. Land being cheaper out in unclaimed areas might also have been a consideration.

    Rambly sort of reply! Almost like I need to write on my blog instead!

  2. This is not to say that Catholics of other Rites don’t use incense traditionally… but until modern times, it was often done sparingly in the West; whereas nuggets of frankincense are a lot cheaper historically, in eastern parts. So they just use more, as a rule.

    And the Myra/Myrrh thing seems to be a pun that happens, so there’s that.

    And this is a Turkish cruise destination, believe it or not:

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