St Nicholas and the story of the three schoolboys murdered by an inn-keeper and stashed in a pickling cask

Saints’ Lives are a form of folk story.  These circulated widely in the middle ages, sometimes as ballads or plays, and they gained additional material from the need to tell a good story.  Tracing these stories back to a literary source can be time-consuming.

Today is St Nicholas’ Day, so an investigation of this sort seems appropriate.  A correspondent wrote to me a couple of days ago as follows:

One legend that is popular in the [medieval stained-glass] windows and also illuminated manuscripts of the same period is the legend of the three children resurrected from the pickling vat. I gather that this is a much later version of a legend of three scholars drugged and murdered. I cannot find any real source or text for this legend in Latin or a European language…

This legend is in fact known as the “Miracle of the Three Clerics”, in the short titles given by Charles W. Jones to the legends in his Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, p.497-8.  But they are clearly youths, who have just received the tonsure, so we also have The Three Clerks, The Three Boys/Schoolboys, and so on.

Here is a 1390 illustration:

St Nicholas and the resurrection of the three murdered students. From the De Grey hours, via Wikipedia.

None of the early Greek legends contain this story, nor is it found in the Golden Legend, nor in the Roman breviary.  But it does appear in early French verse, and it is very popular indeed in artistic depictions, where it is the most popular of the miracles of St Nicholas.  By the 14th century in English wall paintings, St Nicholas almost always appears in the “Raising to Life of the Three Boys”.[1]

McKnight in his useful 1919 book on St Nicholas[2] gives this summary of the story:

Still another story in which St. Nicholas appears as the guardian angel of schoolboys, is the one dealing with the resuscitation of the three schoolboys murdered on their journey home. The story, which appears in a number of variant forms, relates how three boys, on their journey home from school, take lodging at an inn, or as some versions have it, farmhouse. In the night the treacherous host and hostess murder the boys, cut up their three bodies, and throw the pieces into casks used for salting meat. In the morning St. Nicholas appears and calls the guilty ones to task. They deny guilt, but are convicted when the saint causes the boys, sound of body and limb, to arise from the casks.

McKnight states in quotes that the story is “not known among the Greeks, who are so devoted to St. Nicholas”, and gives a reference for that quote to C. Cahier, Caractéristiques des saints dans l’art populaire, Paris, 1867, vol. i.  He adds that:

Its earliest record is said to be that in the French life of St. Nicholas by Wace. With the incident in the story, Wace connects the great honor paid to St. Nicholas by schoolboys. “Because,” says Wace, “he did such honor to schoolboys, they celebrate this day [Dec. 6] by reading and singing and reciting the miracles of St. Nicholas.”

Wace was a Norman poet, who wrote a Life of St Nicholas in French verse, drawing upon two versions of the Life by John the Deacon, and adding seven episodes which seem to come from popular legends of the time.  The story of the Three Boys appears as verses 213-226.  There is in fact an edition, study and translation of this text in English by Jean Blacker and friends, with a Google Books preview.[3]  I was only able to see the French text, which begins “Tres clercs alouent a escole.” (p.284)  Fredell (below) gives the text as follows:

Treis clercs alouent a escole.
– N’en ferai mie grant parole. –
Li ostes par nuit les occist,
Les cors mussat, I’aver en prist. (216)
Seint Nicholas par Deu le sout,
Sempres fu la si cum Deu plout.
Les clercs a l’oste demandat,
Nes pout celer si les mustrat.  (220)
Seint Nicholas par sa preere
Mist les almes le cors arere.
Pur ceo qu’as clercs fit cel honur
Funt li clers la fest a son jur  (224)
De ben lire et ben chanter
Et des miracles reciter.

Unfortunately the preview breaks off, and does not give the English on p.285.

From the prefatory material I learn that the miracle is not found in any of the early Latin prose texts either.  It does appear in Latin hymns dating from the eleventh century and from three extant rhymed versions of the legend that predate Wace.  It also appears in a Latin play preserved in the Fleury playbook.  These details the editors obtained from the most recent edition, that of Einar Ronsjö, pp.42-45, although this is inaccessible to me.[4]  There are 5 manuscripts, the earliest, A (Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal 3516, f. 69v-73v), dating to 1267 or 1268.

Wace states that his poem is an adaptation of one or more Latin texts.  The main source was the Life written by John the Deacon in Naples ca. 880, which exists in two different versions, the original and an interpolated version.  The first of these was that printed in 1479 by Boninus Mombritius in his Vitae sanctorum. This was Wace’s main source.  But he seems also to have known another version, interpolated with extra episodes, which was printed by Falconius in the S. Nicolai acta primigenia in 1751.  There is also a Latin version that fuses both, which appears in 11th century manuscript Paris, BNF, lat. 5607.

The most useful article that can be readily accessed is Joel Fredell’s account, “The Three Clerks and St. Nicholas in Medieval England”.[5]  Fredell tells us that “The Three Clerks”, a Latin drama from ca. 1100 found in British Library Additional 2241, apparently from Hildesheim in Germany.  He also summarises the various versions of the story:

In its simplest form, in Wace’s c. 1150 Life, three clerks on their way to school stop at an inn; they are murdered by the innkeeper for their traveling money. St. Nicholas then appears and resurrects the students. Wace’s version of the tale only briefly covers the murder, concentrating on the resurrection for much of its fourteen lines.

The roughly contemporary Fleury version adds a number of details not seen in Wace or any earlier extant sources. Here a scheming wife urges her husband to murder the clerks, and Nicholas pretends to be a customer demanding “fresh meat” – a strategy which leads to the discovery of the murder and the couple crying miserere to Nicholas. The revived clerks pray to St. Nicholas before singing a Te Deum to close.

This play in fact seems to conflate the Three Clerks murder/resurrection with another “apocryphal” episode in the life of Nicholas also known primarily from Wace: the Murdered Merchant. A merchant goes on pilgrimage, loaded with offerings, to a shrine to St. Nicholas. A wicked innkeeper murders the merchant for his wealth, cuts up the body, and salts it down in a pickling vat. St. Nicholas resurrects the merchant in the night, who greets the astonished innkeeper in the morning and convinces the latter to atone for his crime by coming along to the shrine of St. Nicholas and asking for mercy.

The Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 779 MS of the SEL [=Southern English Legendary] (before 1450) seems to contain the crowning development of the Clerk/Merchant fusion of meat, mercy, and meretricious wife found in the Fleury play-book. The Three Clerks here is a 99-line episode at the end of the life of Nicholas. The innkeeper has become a butcher who, in response to his wife’s suggestion that they can profit from the clerks as guests, offers lodging and then murders them. When the butcher discovers that the clerks are penniless, the wife suggests grinding and salting the bodies, using the meat for pies and pasties to sell in order to make something out of the murder. The butcher obligingly grinds up the students and salts them down in a pickling tub. Nicholas appears as the couple are hawking the pies and pasties, asks for “clean meat,” forces the couple to take him to the salting tub where they kneel and beg forgiveness, and raises up the reconstituted students from their pickle. The clerks close the episode with a prayer to St. Nicholas and a shortened vernacular Te Deum.

The slightly earlier version in Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Trinity College MS 605 (c. 1400) disposes of the episode in six lines, placing the students in a vat simmering under a brown sauce, from which St. Nicholas saves them with no dialogue, pleas, or prayers.9

This latter version is preceded by a longer episode also found in Wace and subsequently rare in the written canon of Nicholas’s life, but documented in stained glass and painting. When the boy Nicholas is to be ordained bishop of Myra, his landlady is so excited to view the ordination that she leaves her baby in bathwater over a fire. When she returns the baby is playing with the simmering bubbles, his “cors tendre et nu” miraculously unharmed; the grateful mother gives full credit to the saintly intervention of Nicholas

Fredell states that the miracle may have been “official” in France, but apocryphal in England!

From all this I think we may infer that the story arose in Normandy in the early 11th century, as a folk-story, and went on to massive artistic success.  Curiously there is even a retelling by Balzac, Les trois clercs de sainct Nicholas.

  1. [1]Fredell, p.181.
  2. [2]George H. McKnight, St. Nicholas: His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration and Other Popular Customs, Putnam (1919).  Online at, and also at Project Gutenberg.
  3. [3]Wace, The Hagiographical Works: The <i>Conception Nostre Dame</i> and the Lives of St Margaret and St Nicholas. Translated with introduction and notes by Jean Blacker, Glyn S. Burgess, Amy V. Ogden with the original texts included, Brill (2013).  Preview here.  Manuscripts p.237. Outline of the story episodes p.241. Notes on p.347.
  4. [4]Einar Ronsjö, La Vie de saint Nicolas, par Wace, poème religieux du XIIe siècle, publié d’après tous les manuscrits, Études Romanes de Lund, 5 (Lund: Gleerup; Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1942).
  5. [5]J. Fredell, “The Three Clerks and St. Nicholas in Medieval England”, Studies in Philology 92, 181-202. JSTOR.

Digging for gold: the archaeology of the internet and the “Electronic Journal of Mithraic Studies” (EJMS)

Back in the 1970s, following the international conferences on Mithraic studies, a rising young scholar named Richard L. Gordon created a journal specifically for Mithras studies.  He named it the Journal of Mithraic Studies, and got contributors, and supporters, and a publisher.  There was definitely a demand for such a journal, as somewhere to report the ever-increasing flow of archaeological discoveries.  The print was just typescript, but the scholarship was excellent, and the times were right for it.

But the journal failed.  Although the volume of Mithras material is great, I have read that the field proved too small to sustain a journal.

Twenty years later, the world-wide web came along, and Dr Gordon tried again.  He created a website, the Electronic Journal of Mithraic Studies, and uploaded to it material from the old journal, plus new reports.  I don’t know the original website address, but it ended up at  But this too failed.  Dr Gordon was ahead of his time, and the infrastructure and acceptance for such a venture did not exist.  So the site gradually died, and by 2016 it was gone.  The university deleted the site, and today it exists only in the Wayback When Machine archive at

This was a bona-fide academic site.  But it seems that there was no strategy to preserve it, and it was treated as ephemeral.

This evening I had occasion to consult a paper, on the Banjevic relief of Mithras, from volume 2 of the JMS.  Looking in the “Out-of-print” section of the archived website, I found the archaeological reports, and downloaded the right section.  The sections were all stored as zip files, containing jpgs.  Back  in 2000, the PDF format did not exist, or if it did, it was not widely used.

Next I got my 7Zip, and unpacked the zip file.  And … disaster! … the tool told me that some of the JPGs were corrupt!

Looking at the folder confirmed the problem:

The pages were partially readable; and when opened, they looked just like that – half blacked-out.  I needed pages 189-191, but 190 was one of the corrupt ones. takes snapshots at regular intervals.  So I hunted back, into the past, to try to find a non-corrupt version of the zip.  But it was in vain.  As soon as the files arrived on the website, they were already corrupt.  Clearly the site owners themselves had some form of problem, at that remote date, and had never checked that their files were OK.  I confess that I have never checked any file that I have uploaded, so I understand.

Resigned, I decided to OCR the pages anyway, and post online what I could read.  So I opened those files in Abbyy Finereader 14.  And then… I saw something unexpected:

The area that Windows 10 had considered corrupt, and displayed as plain white, was partially readable!  I quickly found that in fact nearly all the text could be worked out.  I have no idea what happened to produce this.  But … it was there.  In the end I only lost a couple of words of the article.

The lesson here is to use more than one tool in such a situation.

This process was really research itself.  No doubt the Journal articles might be found in some research library; but what if they had not?  What if this was an online-only journal?  Is this the future, for some of us?

From my diary

I’m still unwell, after an unbelievable 9 weeks of sitting around at home with a headache.  But finally I seem to be improving.  None of the pills and potions prescribed by my GP has had any effect, but time seems to be the cure.  I’m waiting for a scan, but the doctor thinks that it won’t show anything.

Meanwhile I’ve been rereading the epigrams of Martial, in the old Loeb edition with facing Latin.  I do prefer the stately translations of a century ago to modern attempts.

I notice that the eye is always drawn to the epigrams that are not translated, and instead given in some elderly Italian version which is hardly more comprehensible than Latin.  You inevitably find yourself attempting to understand the syntax.

The books could not present the obscene matter at that date, for that was illegal.  But was there a subtle ulterior motive here?  Print the Latin, and then rely on the frustration of teenage boys as a way to teach them Latin grammar and syntax?  For the best way to learn any language is always to have something in that language that you wish to read!

The earliest mention of Halloween? John Mirk’s “Festivall” or “Festial” or “Liber Festivalis

This evening I happened to come across Lisa Morton, The Halloween Encyclopedia (2011).  I can see some errors in it, but on the whole it is an admirable effort.  On p.148, under “Parties”, we find this statement:

One of the earliest written mentions of Halloween, from the 1493 Festivall, contains this description of what sounds like a contemporary Halloween party: “Good frendes suche a daye ye shall haue all halowen daye.”

Appendix I : Chronology of Halloween, (p.203), has the first mention of halloween as:

1493—Festivall mentions celebrating Halloween with “good frendes”

There is no reference, unfortunately.  What on earth is “Festivall”?

The old Bodleian “Catalogus Librorum Impressorum Bibliothecae Bodleianae” vol 2., p.40 (online here) tells us of a “Liber festivalis [anglice]” printed in Westmonesterio [by W. de Worde] in 1493 – this is perhaps the source of the date given above -, and below also of “The boke that is callid festivall” printed at Oxford by Theod. Rood and Th. Hunt in 1486.  None of this is easily accessible, and what is the book anyway?

Some intensive googling later, I discover that it is a book composed in the late 1380s by the Augustinian canon John Mirk, and one of the most commonly printed English books before 1500.  It is a sermon collection, organised by saint’s day, and written in English rather than Latin.  The sermons usually contain stories and anecdotes.  The book is today often referred to as “John Mirk’s Festial“.

The standard edition is Johannes Mirkus (John Mirk), Mirk’s Festial: A Collection of Homilies, ed. Theodor Erbe; series: Early English Text Society extra series XCVI, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. for the Early English Text Society, 1905.  This thankfully is online at here.  Unfortunately it is printed in Middle English, complete with weird letters.  The text is readable enough, with a bit of effort.  There is a glossary at  the back.

A new edition is in progress by Susan Powell, but this I was unable to access.

I have not been able to find the text given, not even by searching for “frend”.  Possibly Morton used the more up-to-date edition?  But on p.266, we find the start of the sermon for All Saints Day (click to enlarge):

It gives a history of the celebration of All Saint’s Day, referencing Pope Gregory (IV).

The text uses “halowen” to mean “hallow, keep holy”, rather than Halloween.  This is confirmed by the glossary at the end, on p.328:

This all rather suggests that Morton is in a mistake here – that this is not a reference to Halloween at all.

All the same, the Halloween Encyclopedia is both useful and interesting.  I sympathised entirely with the statement in the preface about “sources”:

Unfortunately, many of those source books are little more than collections of fairy tales. They often seem to have been poorly researched, and displayed prejudice or predilection on the part of their authors.

So it still is.

From my diary

Regular readers will have noticed the lack of blogging.

For more than seven weeks I have been unable to work.  The symptoms are general weakness and a constant headache, possibly sinus-related.  This came on following a three-day bout with the office cold.  I’m getting more rested, of course, but the problem is not really improving.  I do not feel very unwell, until I try to do anything that requires concentration.  That promptly puts me down again.  I’m seeing a doctor, and I’ve started to take some pills which I hope will help.

I don’t know whether my job will still be there when I get fit.  Fortunately I am not short of money.  But getting fit in order to work must take top priority. The last thing that I want to do at the moment is write blog posts, or reply to email.

My apologies for the silence.   Blogging will resume when I get fit.  I’ve been noting interesting items for my backlog folder, as I see them, but I can’t do much with them as yet.

A symposium on Ephrem Graecus next week at Marquette university in Milwaukee

Regular readers will remember “Ephrem Graecus” – the mass of works in Greek which are attributed to Ephraim the Syrian, but which are in fact mostly original compositions.  Little work has been done on this area, which makes it one of the uncharted frontiers of patristics.

Those in the Milwaukee area in the US might like to attend a one-day symposium on Ephrem Graecus next week, on Saturday 9th November.  It’s being run by Tikhon Alexander Pino, who runs the St Ephrem the Syrian website.  The program is here.

If you have any interest in the subject, I’d recommend going along.  It will be a rare opportunity to meet others interested in the subject, and find out what’s going on.  I’d go if I was anywhere nearby.

From my diary

Next Tuesday in Oxford there will be a study day, dedicated to the Codex Zacynthius of the bible.  Details may be found at the University of Birmingham website here.

Codex Zacynthius, the oldest copy of the New Testament to be accompanied by a commentary, was rubbed out and written over in the Byzantine period. Using new imaging techniques, it has been possible to restore much of the original content (part of Luke’s Gospel along with many excerpts from early Christian writers) in order to produce a complete electronic transcription which will be accompanied by studies of the manuscript.

In this seminar, kindly sponsored by the Centre for the Study of the Bible in the Humanities at Oxford and the AHRC, members of the project will report on the findings of the project so far and consult with a range of potential users regarding the features of the planned digital edition and the interpretation of the manuscript, along with its significance for biblical and early Christian studies.

You need to book in advance, but I expect that there are still places.  I had intended to go myself, in fact.  Unfortunately I have been unwell for the last six weeks with a minor but debilitating sinus problem of some kind.  I am slowly recovering naturally.  Better still, my current client is being very understanding.  But an eight-hour drive plus a day of lectures will be beyond me for a few weeks yet.

My thanks to all those who prayed about the storm of family-related problems that arrived on top of everything else about three weeks ago.  Everything is now going well, and I can only praise God.  Thank you.

At the moment I’m doing some more work on my Latin program.  I want to be able to add information for particular words, or phrases, so that it displays extra help about possible syntax when I find them.  This involves quite a bit of under-the-hood tinkering, in order to make this possible.

I will get back to blogging when I can.  At the moment I don’t feel any urge whatever!  My apologies.

I have been looking into the origins of halloween.  Interestingly it is only now being introduced to Australia, or so I gather from reading Twitter.

“Bread for slaves – 2” – An ancient shopping list from Pompeii

Two posts on twitter, here from @ahencyclopedia, and here, from the excellent Dr Sophie Hay, tell us of a list of provisions, bought or sold, over a number of days.  It lists three types of bread – “bread”, “coarse bread”, and “bread for a slave” (panem puero).

The text was scratched on a wall in Pompeii at a caupona, (plan and photos here). There is a photograph of it online which I give below.  The item is entered in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum as CIL IV 5380.  The list makes interesting reading.

CIL IV 5380, list of foodstuffs from Pompeii

The transcription:

And a translation:

Translation, from Alison E. Cooley, M.G.L. Cooley, “Pompeii: A Sourcebook”, chapter 8, “Commercial Life”, p.163. Extract here. Reprinted in their “Pompeii and Herculaneum” (2014) as H25, p.239. Online here.

Note that the typo: it is not “bread for slaves” but “bread for a slave”.  It looks very much as if someone is getting their daily groceries here!

The numbers are presumably in asses, although one case it is 1 denarius (=16 asses) and 8 asses for olives.[1]  The symbol for “denarius” appears against some items.

For those interested, there is a new reading of the text proposed in this item, Caruso, Paola & Solin, Heikki, “Memorandum sumptuarium pompeianum : per una nuova lettura del graffito CIL IV 5380”,  in: Vesuviana : an international journal of archaeological and historical studies on Pompeii and Herculaneum, 8, 2016, pp.105-127.  It’s in Italian, but not for ordinary mortals to read, as the publishers demand $40 for the privilege.  I thought that I should signal its existence, not least because the text of inscriptions is often less certain than it may appear when neatly printed in our journals and collected editions.

Juvenal (Satire 5) refers to the dinner guests given inferior bread to that placed before their host:

All your great houses are full of saucy slaves. See with what a grumble another of them has handed you a bit of hard bread that you can scarce break in two, or lumps of dough that have turned mouldy—-stuff that will exercise your grinders and into which no tooth can gain admittance.

For Virro himself a delicate loaf is reserved, white as snow, and kneaded of the finest flour. Be sure to keep your hands off it: take no liberties with the bread-basket!

If you are presumptuous enough to take a piece, there will be someone to bid you put it down: “What, Sir Impudence? Will you please fill yourself from your proper tray, and learn the colour of your own bread?”

“What?” you ask, “was it for this that I would so often leave my wife’s side on a spring morning and hurry up the chilly Esquiline when the spring skies were rattling down the pitiless hail, and the rain was pouring in streams off my cloak? “

These, of course, were free men, the clients of a patron.  Slave bread must have been even worse.

It’s an interesting light on ancient society.

  1. [1]Melissa Bailey, “Roman Money and Numerical Practice”, Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, 91, 2013, pp. 153-186. Online here.

All Saints Day: Alcuin in 800 AD exhorts his friend to celebrate it on 1st November

In Letter 193, to his friend Arno, Alcuin writes:[1]

Kalendis Novembris solemnitas omnium sanctorum. Ecce, venerande pater Arne, habes designatam solemnitatem omnium sanctorum, sicut diximus. Quam continue in mente retineas et semper anniversario tempore colere non desistas; adtendens illud et intente considerans, quoniam, si Helias, unus ex illis in vetere testamento, oratione sua, dum voluit, claudere caelum potuit praevaricatoribus et aperire conversis, quanto magis omnes sancti in novo testamento? ubi eis specialiter et patenter claves regni caelestis commissae sunt, et claudere caelum possunt incredulis et aperire credentibus, si intima dilectione honorificantur a fidelibus et coluntur glorificatione eis condigna. Quod ut fieri digne possit a nobis, lumen verum, quod inluminat omnem hominem, Christus Iesus inluminet corda nostra, et pax Dei, quae exsuperat omnem sensum, per intercessionem omnium sanctorum eius, custodiat ea usque in diem aeternitatis. Hanc solemnitatem sanctissimam tribus diebus ieiunando, orando, missas canendo, et elimosinas dando pro invicem sincera devotione precedamus.

On the kalends of November is the solemnity of all the saints.  See, venerable father Arno, you have marked the solemnity of all the saints, just as we said.  Keep that ever in mind and never cease to celebrate it on that annual date; attending to it and intently considering, seeing that, if Elijah, one of those in the Old Testament, with his prayer, as long as he wished, could shut the heavens to sinners, and open them to the converted, how much more can all the saints in the New Testament?  for to them specially and clearly the keys of the heavenly kingdom have been entrusted, and they can shut the heavens to the unbelievers and open them to believers, if they are honoured with inward devotion by the faithful and are worshipped with the glorification appropriate to them.  And, so that we may become worthy, In order that this may be done appropriately by us, may the true light, that illuminates every man, Christ Jesus, illuminate our hearts, and may the peace of God, which exceeds every sense, through the intercession of all his saints, guard them until the last day.  Let us precede this most holy solemnity by fasting for three days, praying, singing masses, and giving alms with sincere devotion for each other.

The letter is dated to 800, before March 19, in the MGH edition.  An older text is in the Patrologia Latina 100, col. 296.

I’m not absolutely sure that I have the meaning of the last two sentences quite right, by the way.  I am not clear what role in “Quod ut fieri digne possit a nobis” is played by Quod, except that clearly a comma is involved before ut; and indeed the clause seems rather odd to me.  Likewise “ea” later in the sentence must be the saints, and if so the prayer is for God’s saints who are still alive and on earth.

Update: many thanks indeed to Diego for correcting me!  In fact “ea” is neuter so must refer to “our hearts”.  The “Quod” references the last sentence and is the subject of “fieri possit”, and “fieri” needs to be “be done”, rather than “become” (both are possible).  Also added omitted clause.

  1. [1]P.321 of the MGH edition.  Online here.