An odd adverb in a miracle story of St Nicholas

Any fool can publish a Latin text without a translation.  Few people will want to go through it, looking for problems.  But if you have to translate the text, that forces you to examine every word.  This in turn brings you immediately into contact with any problems in the text.

One of the miracle stories of St Nicholas is the “Golden Vessel”.  It exists in two versions, BHL 6172, and an epitome, BHL 6173.  I’ve already retrieved the text and translation of the latter, as it is extracted from Honorius Augustodunensis.  The story is as follows:

A powerful man living overseas makes a pilgrimage every year to Myra to the tomb of St Nicholas.  One year he commissions a well-known goldsmith to create a golden vessel, set with precious stones, as an offering to St Nicholas.  The result is a success!  In fact it’s so nice that the man feels that he’d like one too.  The goldsmith makes another, but it’s just not the same, so he hands back the raw materials to the man.  By this point the man has really become attached to the vessel, so he decides instead just to give the raw materials at the shrine.

When the time comes for his annual pilgrimage, he sets off in his ship.  But on the way he gets his son to bring him a drink in the vessel, just as the wind is getting up.  The son drops it, and it rolls overboard!  Grabbing at it in vain, the son tumbles after it.  The wind blows the ship away.  Disaster!  Rather depressed, the man rolls up at Myra, and makes his offering anyway, only for the altar to throw it back in his face!  St Nicholas isn’t amused.  So the man grovels, explains, and promises to give a much larger sum.  Then – ta-da! – the son rushes in, carrying the vessel.  St Nicholas grabbed him as he was drowning, and set him down outside Myra.  The man hands over the vessel, and “they all returned home rejoicing”, to face the credit card bill.

All this from the epitome, BHL 6173.  The story seems rather too like a cynical clerical invention, designed to extort money from the faithful, but no doubt God has already handed out spankings in and on the right quarters.

While working away on BHL 6172, however, I found myself wondering if I was doing the translation correctly.

Ille autem hoc audiens et in sua cupiditate permanens, decrevit illud aurum et gemmas pariter sancto Nicolao devehendum.

But he, on hearing this, and remaining in his cupidity, decreed that the gold and gems equally should be carried over to St. Nicholas.

The sense requires “instead”; but the word is literally “as well” or “also”.  Possibly one could wrestle it around to “in the same way”; and I do find this in the Oxford Latin Dictionary.

But I wondered whether it was simply an error in the manuscript.  The text was printed from a Namur manuscript by the Bollandists a century ago, as part of a catalogue – what excelllent chaps they were! – and has no critical value.

A quick look at the BHLms site showed 48 witnesses to this amusing story!  Many of them were manuscripts already known to me from my work on John the Deacon’s Life of St Nicholas.  Of course this is why I was working with these stories in the first place; to get a reference file together of this material, so that when using the manuscripts, I would know what I was looking at.

The oldest manuscript listed – that I have access to – was BNF lat. 5607, of the 11th century.  And on folio 83r, there’s the text, “Igitur operae pretium remur, ut ea quae nostris temporibus per eius gloriosa…”, although I see immediately that this reads “ut” where the Namur ms reads “si”.

Over the page, we find our sentence.


Ille autem hoc audiens, et in sua cupiditate permanens, decrevit illud aurum et gemmas pariter sancto Nicholao deferendas.

The last word is a different verb, but of very much the same sense – presented.  But “pariter” is still is.

I’m not going to trudge through any more mss, but it was worth a quick check.  So… I’ll just accept that “pariter” here means effectively “instead”.


7 thoughts on “An odd adverb in a miracle story of St Nicholas

  1. Here’s a guess: pariter is used in the sense “in equal quantity, measure or degree” (2a in OLD); that is, “decreed that gold and gems to the same amount (as used in making the vessel) should be” etc. Note that “equal, matching” is the etymological meaning of par, whereas pariter “at the same time” is derivative.
    Going a bit further: St. Nicholas could be punishing the pettiness of the man’s calculation “the saint won’t mind my giving him gold and gems worth just as much as the vessel.” Hence his giving a much larger sum is the proper reparation.

  2. It is sort of an Ananias and Sapphira story, isn’t it?

    “You can do whatever you want, but no takebacks once you make a promise.”

    And of course it is sort of an insult to the goldsmith, if he was told that this was going to be for church use, and he designed it that way. Especially since that might mean he put prayer and extra care into it, and that would have made the vessel so attractive.

  3. What it immediately reminded me of was that scene in The Apartment where Fred McMurray gives his lover (Shirley MacLaine) $100 for her birthday, because he didn’t know what to get her, and it’s also “kind of awkward for me shopping”, without even realizing how insulting that must be to her. She murders him with a look (wasted on him), and eventually sends the money back.
    The main worth of the gift/offering lies not in its intrinsic value but in how much it is worth to you. MacMurray’s character couldn’t sacrifice his time and pride to get her a proper gift. Once the man in the story became attached to the vessel, that was the more reason to offer it to the saint. So the gold and gems were just as disgusting to St. Nicholas as the $100 to the girl.
    The poor widow’s mite is another example that comes to mind.

  4. Par-iter is literally like-wise or same-way. Maybe more context is necessary, but I do not see why the adverb is strange here. Syntactically speaking the dative S. Nicholao not expressing agency with a future passive participle is strange. Classical usage (which this is not) would demand the translation “by” S. Nicholas, which is apparently not the intended meaning.

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