I’ve created an electronic Latin text of the De solstitia et aequinoctia from the 1530 Froben edition. This probably has some OCR errors in it, as I have already spotted one. I’m waiting for a more modern edition to appear by inter-library loan. I understand that the modern edition s not a critical edition: it was just printed as an appendix to a book on something else, and based on three older manuscripts. But I will know more when I have seen it. Of course the 1530 edition was probably printed from a random late manuscript that Froben happened to have on hand.
I’ve looked a little at some of the online manuscripts, and already observed an interesting difference to the 1530 text. This reads at one point:
cum praecepta eius servaverimus
But I find that the Laud misc. 452, f.79, and the St Gall 103, both 9th century, read instead:
cum praecepta eius observaverimus
which is much more comprehensible. It will be most interesting to see the modern edition.
I did start to think about translating De solstitia et aequinoctia, but I realised that I already have two Latin translations in flight – an early Life of St George, and the short Life of St Cuthman. I decided to leave De solstitia for now. I will upload the electronic text when I am ready anyway.
In the meantime I have returned to St Cuthman. I’m working on it, while adding extra information to my QuickLatin Latin parser. I added some material explaining the Supine, for instance. I’m also finding errors. I discovered today a problem with pronoun handling, which will have to be fixed. So the translation and the Latin coding are moving forward together, albeit both slowly. At some point I must package up the new version of QuickLatin and release it. There is so much to do.
I also want to get back to work once my illness has completely faded away; that is, if my client still wants my services. I suspect that I’ll be ready in about three weeks, and there is some six weeks of paid work there. It will be good to finish that up. Meanwhile I can get back into working, if only at my home computer!
Long term readers will remember that I commissioned two texts and translations in printed form: Eusebius, Gospel Problems and Solutions (2011), and Origen’s Homilies on Ezekiel (2014). The first is the only version of this text; the second is the best version of the work. Both contain catena fragments, the original text, and a facing translation. The hardbacks are very splendid; and the paperback is a solid item too.
But all good things must come to an end, and these will go out of print in the next month or two. So … if you or your library want copies, order them now from Amazon!
A correspondent has asked me to enable a facility to subscribe to this blog by email. I’ve added a widget for it to the sidebar on the right! (I think the facility existed, but this makes it more obvious).
There are very few sources for a Roman festival of the sun on 25th December. The main one is the entry in the Chronography of 354, in the Philocalian Calendar, labelling the day as “Natalis Invicti”, the birthday of Sol Invictus, the state sun-god. Next to it is a 13th century scholiast on Dionysius bar-Salibi. But the third is an obscure homily generally referred to as De solstitiis et aequinoctiis, (or De solstitia et aequinoctia) which contains, towards the end, the following aside:
Sed et dominus noster nascitur mense decembris . . . VIII Kal. Ian. . . . Sed et invicti natalem apellant. Quis utique tam invictus nisi dominus noster qui mortem subactam devicit? Vel quod dicant solis esse natalem, ipse est sol iustitiae de quo malachias propheta dixit: “orietur vobis timentibus nomen ipsius sol iustitiae et sanitas est in pennis eius.”
But Our Lord, too, is born in the month of December . . . the eighth before the calends of January [25 December] . . . But they also call it the “Birthday of the invincible one” (Invictus). But who then is as invincible as our lord who defeated the death he suffered? Or if they say that this is the birthday of the sun, well He Himself is the Sun of Justice of whom the prophet Malachi said (4:2), “But for you who fear my name, the Sun of justice shall arise, and health is in his wings.”
The implication of this is that Christ as Sol Justitiae is a deliberate replacement for the pagan Sol Invictus. It is a key piece of evidence in the “Calculation” theory of the origins of Dec. 25 as Christmas.
So it’s an interesting passage. Yet there is a remarkable vagueness in most articles which reference this text, as to what it is and where it may be found.
In the article quoted above, the author tells us that the full title of the work is De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis Domini Nostri Iesu Christi et Iohannis Baptistae (“On the solstice and equinox of the conception and birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ and John the Baptist”).
The work is in fact listed in the Clavis Patrum Latinorum as CPL 2277. The date of composition is uncertain. The bible citations suggest an African origin, but there are also two terms which are Syriac.
It is actually part of a collection of 38 sermons in Latin, all attributed to John Chrysostom, whose existence was documented for the first time by Dom André Wilmart in 1918. It is the 17th item in that collection. Wilmart gives the following details:
Title: Iterum de natiuitate domini et Iohannis Baptistae et conceptionis de solistitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et natiuitatis domini nostri Iesu Christi et Johannis Baptistae.
Opening words: Nescio an quisquam ausus sit arcanum, fratres, ante Christi natiuitatem intellegere uel terminasse cursum horarum dierum ac noctium per quos solistitia et aequinoctia cognoscere possit.
Closing words: ….Migrauerat enim gratia et ueritas a Iudaeis quia “lex per Moysen data est, nam gratia et ueritas per Iesum Christum facta est”. In Christo Iesu domino nostro qui uiuit et regnat cum patre et spiritu sancto per immortalia saecula saeculorum amen
Wilmart (p.306) gives a list of 25 copies of this collection of homilies, all with the same content in the same order, beginning in the 9th century. Among the 9th century copies is Saint-Gall 103, which is online here. Our text is pp. 176-191. It begins on p. 176:
Note how the title is singular, but has been corrected to plural by another hand. Our passage is on page 190, and the work ends on page 191:
There are still other copies in existence. One of these, transmitted independently, attributes the work to an otherwise unknown author – Pontius Maximus. This is given in a 12th century manuscript, today Troyes 523, fol.205v-210v, originally from Clairvaux as the colophon on fol. 210v makes clear. It is online here. The text is the last work in the manuscript, which also contains 15 treatises in Latin by Eusebius of Emesa , followed by 5 by Tertullian.
The red text tells us that, after the explicit for Tertullian, de paenitentia, the author is Pontius Maximus, and the title is de solstitiis et aequinoctiis…, i.e. plural. I have also found an article that claims the work is “sometimes attributed to one Pontius Maximus or Pontius Maximianus, conjectured to be an African, but thought by others to be of anonymous Syrian origin.”
There are only two editions of the text.
It was first printed in Divi Ioannis Chrysostomi Archiepiscopi Constantinopolitani opera, quae hactenus versa sunt, omnia, ed. Desiderius Erasmus (Vol. 2). Basel: Frobenius (1530), p. 336-342. (Online at Google Books). No doubt this was printed from whatever manuscript happened to come to hand. There are reprints of this, including a 1547 (col. 1285-1294) and a 1588 edition. I’m not sure how late this was reprinted.
The only other edition is B. Botte, Les origines de la noël et de l’épiphanie (Series: Textes et études liturgiques 1). Louvain: Abbaye du Mont César (1932) who appended a version of the text on p. 93-105. Hijmans states that this is not a critical edition, but is based on a collation of a few manuscripts – somewhere I read that this was just three of the oldest. The Botte edition text was also reprinted in the Patrologiae Latinae Supplementum vol. 1 (1959), pp.557-567.
I’ve tried to OCR the 1530 text, but it involves correcting every word! So I’ve placed an interlibrary loan for the 1932 book, and I hope that we can at least get the Latin text online.
This is the sort of exercise that reminds us how much there is to do!
The 9th century Oxford Laud Misc. 452, originally at Lorsch, is also online here. Our text is on f.77r-83r.
The 9-10th century Paris BNF lat. 12140 is online here, although in monochrome. Our homily is on f.87v-98r.
Natalis may also mean the date of the founding of a temple, and other deities than Sol Invictus were called “invictus”, but this probably does refer to Sol Invictus.↩
Steven Hijmans, “Sol Invictus, the winter solstice, and the origins of Christmas,” in: Mouseion III.3 (2003), 377-398, esp. 379-80; also the Catholic Encyclopedia version.↩
See S. K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas, p.97.↩
S. K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas, p.97. “The text is generally thought to date from after the earliest notation of Christmas on the calendar, but before a feast was widely celebrated on that date, probably the early fourth century. The Latin text betrays certain African turns of phrase, but also two specifically Syriac terms.” and “173. Botte, Origines, 91, and Engberding, “Der 25. Dezember,” 36, both explore these in some detail.” – H. Engberding, “Der 25. Dezember als Tag der Feier der Geburt des Herrn,” Archiv fur Liturgiewissenschaft 2 (1952), 25-43. Unfortunately neither is accessible to me.↩
A. Wilmart, “La collection des 38 homélies latines de saint Jean Chrysostome,” in: Journal of Theological Studies 19 (1918), 305-327. There is also a study that I have not seen in German: W. Wenk, Zur Sammlung der 38 Homilien des Chrysostomus Latinus (mit Edition der Nr. 6, 8, 27, 32 und 33), Wiener Studien Beiheft 10, Wien 1988.↩
R. Love, “Bede and John Chrysostom”, Journal of Medieval Latin 17 (2007) 72-87, p.77, identifying a quote from our work in Bede.↩
Most of us are aware that the 25th December is labelled as the “Natalis [solis] Invicti” in the Chronography of 354; specifically in the 6th part, which contains the so-called “Calendar of Philocalus” (online here), listing the state holidays. Sol Invictus was introduced into Rome by Aurelian in 274 AD as a state cult, and it seems reasonable to suppose that this state holiday was introduced at the same time. The Chronography also lists the saints’ days, in another calendar dating from 336 (online here), including Christmas on 25 December. It is often supposed, therefore, that the date of Christmas was selected precisely to coincide with this solar holiday. This theory was advanced by H. Usener in his book Das Weihnachstfest (1889, rep. 1911) with a follow-up in his posthumous article on Sol Invictus in 1905.
However I have lately seen claims that, far from Christmas being located on the date of a pagan holiday, the truth is that Julian the Apostate (or someone) established a solar festival on the pre-existing date of Christmas! These claims seem to derive from an interesting article by Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas”. Hijman is a revisionist, so it is necessary to be wary, but I thought that it might be useful to review some of the evidence.
In the Chronography of 354, in the “Filocalian calendar”, some holidays – all associated with emperors or gods – are marked by chariot races (circenses missus). These are also in multiples of 12 races, with one exception. The sole exception is the entry for 25 December:
Which is the natalis of Invictus (rather than Sol) and 30 races, rather than a multiple of 12. It is, therefore, an anomalous entry.
Hijmans makes some very interesting points about this.
Firstly, he argues that celebrating festivals with chariot races rather than sacrifices was an innovation of Constantine, introduced after Constantine defeated Licinius in 324. It’s not an ancient thing. So all these chariot races were introduced then.
Secondly, since all the ancient festivals were multiples of 12, it is clear that no festival of Sol existed on 25 December at that time. If it had, it too would be a multiple of 12. Therefore it is a later addition; as the irregular naming also indicates.
Thirdly he speculates that this entry may not even have been present in the original copy made in 354, but added later.
This leaves the first definite mention of a solar festival on this date to Julian the Apostate’s Hymn to King Helios, in December 362.
This is an interesting argument indeed. What do we make of it?
Hijmans does not detail his first point, merely referring to M. Wallraff, Christus Verus Sol (2001), p.132, “citing Eusebius”. Unfortunately the Wallraff volume is inaccessible to me. So we have to leave this point unchecked.
The second point relies on the accurate transmission of numerals in copies of the Chronography. I am not clear whether this is actually reliable, or whether the text printed by Mommsen – which is the basis for the online version – is a critical text or not. The Dec. 25 date could really have read “XXXVI” for all we know.
Obviously speculation, as in the third point, is not evidence. I would suggest that we should not infer interpolation without need.
All the same this is a very interesting point. Is it really possible that this was the case?
H. Usener, “Sol Invictus”, RhM 60 (1905) pp. 465-491.↩
Steven Hijmans, “Usener’s Christmas: A contribution to the modern construct of late antique solar syncretism”, in: M. Espagne & P. Rabault-Feuerhahn (edd.), Hermann Usener und die Metamorphosen der Philologie. Wiesbaden, Harrassowitz, 2011. 139-152. Online here, although the online version appears to be a draft. However Hijmans’ full thesis, with extensive plates, is online here.↩
The first mention of “Yule” is to be found in a palimpsest manuscript, perhaps of the the 6th century AD. A number of Gothic bibles were reused for their parchment at the northern Italian monastery of Bobbio, and one of these contains a fragment of a Gothic calendar of saints’ days as the last but one leaf. Curiously the literature seems to refer to this as the Codex Ambrosianus A, without ever specifying the shelf-mark at the Ambrosian Library in Milan more precisely.
The calendar was first printed, with Latin translation, by the inevitable Angelo Mai, then prefect of the Ambrosian Library.
The actual meaning of these ancient words in a little known language is much debated even today, but for our purposes a quick-and-dirty version of Angelo Mai’s Latin will help us get an idea of what we are looking at.
23. The sufferings of the martyrs and Fritharic among the Gothic people.
29. The commemoration of the martyrs who, with Werekan the presbyter and Batwin the minister of the Catholic church were burned among the Gothic people.
… beginning of July .30.
3. Of King Constantine.
6. Of Bishop Dorotheus.
15. Of Philip the Apostle of Hierapolis.
19. Of the venerable nuns of Beroea, 40 in all.
But Ebbinghaus rendered the second entry as perhaps, “The memory of the martyrs who were with Wereka the priest and Batwins—all that is left of a church full of people—burnt in Gothia”.
Likewise “July” is not what subsequent readers have understood. The “Naubaimbar” or “November” above wasn’t even visible to Mai. Recently David Laudau has restudied images of the palimpsest and has shown that the word is not there.
I’ve been trying to find out more details, but it is remarkably hard to find your way into the literature. I can’t find the shelfmarks for the manuscripts. The key article on the calendar appears to be E. A. Ebbinghaus, “The Gothic Calendar”, General Linguistics 15 (1975); but I can find no evidence of the journal.
David Landau seems to have done a lot of work on this, and especially on the word “jiuleis”. His home page is here, and includes many PDFs of his articles. In “The Source of the Gothic Month Name jiuleis and its Cognates”,Namenkundliche Informationen 95-6 (2009), pp. 239-248, he argues that it cannot mean “Jul” or “Yule”, because no such pre-Christian feast existed. His source for this is given as Gustav Bilfinger, Untersuchungen iiber die Zeitrechnung der alten Germanen. Vol.2: Das Germanische Julfest, Stuttgart 1901. The value of this statement is not known to me. Instead he argues that it derives from “jubilee”.
It would be interesting to know more about this obscure text in an obscure language.
I’ve been updating the Mithras site with images that people have sent me over the last year. These go into the catalogue of monuments and inscriptions that I maintain, as and when I feel like it. I’ve added an entry for the “new” Mithraeum at Ostia, which has been dubbed the “Mithraeum of the coloured marbles.” I think that I have dealt with the backlog.
The actual publications about the new Mithraeum are thankfully online at Academia.edu. While going through the Academia page, I noticed increased signs that the owners intend to monetise the site – containing content, remember, that they did not create. I fear that the greed of the Academia.edu owners will kill the site. But I imagine that people will just migrate to another.
I must now try to return to adding syntactical information to QuickLatin.
I came across this (rather useless) page, which contained the curious claim:
In 389AD, St Gregory Nazianzen, one of the four fathers of the Greek Church criticized customs of ‘feasting in excess” and “dancing” at Christmas. This criticism arose because these festive excesses were hangovers from the pagan midwinter festivals like Saturnalia when celebrants suspended normal life and pleasure ruled.
The second sentence is the opinion of the writer, who is trying to tie Christmas to paganism somehow. But what is the reference to Gregory?
If we search for ‘”feasting in excess” “dancing” Gregory Nazianzus’ in Google we get a longer phrase, “feasting to excess, dancing, and crowning the doors” – note the change from “in” to “to” – from the Daily Telegraph and the Times Literary Supplement in 2016. The latter is reviewing (mainly) Mark Forsyth, A Christmas cornucopia : the hidden stories behind our Yuletide traditions, also 2016, and quoting from it. This in turn seems to derive from Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 2001, which uses the exact same words, and gives a reference to “Golby and Purdue, Modern Christmas“. But we can jump back to 1902, with W.F.Dawson, Christmas: Its Origin and Associations, whose quote is longer still:
against feasting to excess, dancing, and crowning the doors (practices derived from the heathens); urging the celebration of the festival after an heavenly and not an earthly manner.
In turn we find William Sandys in 1833 (Christmas Carols, ancient & modern, p.xiii) exactly the same words, but not in quotes, but as Sandys’ own words. It is delightful to find, popping up here, the practice of turning indirect speech into direct speech, so common in bogus quotations.
Further back yet, in 1808, we find a quotation at some length in the works of Bishop Hall, although not containing the “excess” bit:
Amongst the rest, that of Gregory Nazianzen is so remarkable, that I may not omit it; as that, which sets forth the excess of joyful respect, wherewith the Ancient Christians were wont to keep this day. “ Let us,” saith he *, “ celebrate this Feast; not in a panegyrical but divine, not in a worldly but supersecular manner: not regarding so much ourselves or ours, as the worship of Christ, &c. And how shall we effect this ? Not by crowning our doors with garlands, nor by leading of dances, nor adorning our streets; not by feeding our eyes; not by delighting our ears with songs; not by effeminating our smell with perfumes; not with humouring our taste with dainties; not with pleasing our touch; not with silken and costly clothes, &c. not with the sparkling of jewels; not with the lustre of gold; not with the artifice of counterfeit colours, &c. let us leave these things to Pagans for their pomps, &c. But we, who adore the Word of the Father, if we think fit to affect delicacies, let us feed ourselves with the dainties of the Law of God; and with those discourses especially, which are fitting for this present Festival.” So that learned and eloquent Father, to his auditors of Constantinople.
The reference is to the “Oration upon the Day of the Nativity of Christ”. But this itself is a reprint as there is an edition from 1738.
Earlier yet, in 1725, we find in Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares, p.154:
Gregory Nazianzen, in that excellent Oration of his upon Christmas-Day, says, Let us not celebrate the Feast after an Earthly, but an Heavenly Manner; let not our Doors be crown’d; let not Dancing be encourag’d; let not the Cross-paths be adorned, the Eyes fed, nor the Ears delighted, &c. Let us not Feast to excess, nor be Drunk with Wine, &c.
And we can go still further, with the same quotation in the sermons of Hugh Latimer (d. 1555), the protestant Bishop of London burned by Bloody Mary, here in a 1758 reprint, on p.782.
I would guess, therefore, that we are looking at a passage of the sermon of Hugh Latimer, which has been transmitted to us, through a side-channel of quotations and re-quotations for nearly 500 years. It has not been transmitted unaltered, but somehow it has come through.
By contract we can find the NPNF translation of Gregory’s Oration 38: On the Nativity,here. It seems to have influenced these popular works not at all.
Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.
V. And how shall this be? Let us not adorn our porches, nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin; let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold or the tricks of colour, belying the beauty of nature, and invented to do despite unto the image of God; Not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled, I know well, chambering and wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil; or rather the harvests of worthless seeds are worthless. Let us not set up high beds of leaves, making tabernacles for the belly of what belongs to debauchery. Let us not appraise the bouquet of wines, the kickshaws of cooks, the great expense of unguents. Let not sea and land bring us as a gift their precious dung, for it is thus that I have learnt to estimate luxury; and let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance (for to my mind every superfluity is intemperance, and all which is beyond absolute need), – and this while others are hungry and in want, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner.
VI. Let us leave all these to the Greeks and to the pomps and festivals of the Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the reek of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly; evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons. But we, the Object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories; especially such as are the origin of this Feast; that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Who hath called us together.
There is probably a more modern translation, but these too have most likely stood forth in a void.
It is interesting to see this alternative form of transmission. Probably the same process is the origin of many a “fragment” in late authors.
Here are a couple of things that I noticed recently, and might be useful to others.
Following an enquiry, I find that there is a translation of Theophylact on Matthew online here. This is certainly better than the $70 needed to obtain the 1992 translation of the same work, at Amazon.com here.
Next, the physical remains of ancient Rome are always interesting. Piranesi printed a drawing of the rear of the Pantheon, with what he claims are the remains of the Baths of Agrippa, completed before 12 BC and therefore one of the original public baths of thermae:
I was able to find online some photos of the same area, here.
Much of the baths still stood in the 17th century, despite use as a quarry for building materials. It would be interesting to track down the older sketches that apparently exist.
Finally I saw something about the Ethiopian canon of the bible. It is a common atheist jeer online is that the Ethiopian canon of the bible is larger than the normal, insinuating – the argument is rarely made explicit – that this proves that the bible does not exist, or is not by God, or something of the kind. I’ve never worried about the odd additions to the Ethiopian canon, since Ethiopia was not converted to Christianity until the canon was pretty much set, and the isolation of that community, the little that we know about it, and its unusual circumstances could result in any amount of oddity. One Ethiopian emperor used to eat pages of the bible when he was feeling ill, for instance. This is not a very educated world.
But I spent a little time looking into this. The Wikipedia article contains very poor sources. The only one of any value seemed to be by G.-A. Mikre-Sellassie, This says on p.119:
It is rather difficult to determine what exactly the official Canon of Scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is. As R.W Cowley has rightly observed, one of the problems in this study is that in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church “the concept of canonicity is regarded more loosely than it is among most other churches”. Apparently, the two terms, protocanonical and deuterocanonical, employed among many churches nowadays, are not known within the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
46. R.W. Cowley, “The Biblical Canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church Today” in Ostikirchliche Studien, 23 (1974), 318-323. In this short article the author has attempted a careful study of the Canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
This is not encouraging. In fact the article did not give any kind of history of how the canon came to be – a common problem. In general one gained the idea that in Ethiopian history the church was rather more important than the scriptures were, and the apocrypha might have a near-canonical status, or not, as times demanded. Perhaps our own view on canon is shaped by the Reformers here, and is more precise than might have been the case either than in antiquity or the middle ages? If so, the Ethiopians are merely continuing a late-antique vagueness, albeit shaped by their own unusual world.
One of the key sources is apparently E. Ullendorf, Ethiopia and the Bible: the Schweich Lectures 1967, OUP (1968). This I could not access, but a Google Books preview gave me p.31 f., which gives an account about the translation of the Old and New Testaments into Ge`ez:
I don’t think that we need to rely on this very much. Ullendorf also discusses the equally traditional idea that the bible in Ethiopian was translated by Arabic; and it seems to be a fact that many Ethiopian versions of ancient texts derive from an Arabic translation. However I quickly drowned in the number of books and articles that I would have to read to know more!
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:
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”.
McKnight in his useful 1919 book on St Nicholas 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. 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. 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”. 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.
Let’s finish with a couple of images of the story, from English churches.
I also found an 11th c. manuscript, Paris, BNF lat. 18303, online here containing the life and miracles of St Nicholas.
George H. McKnight, St. Nicholas: His Legend and His Role in the Christmas Celebration and Other Popular Customs, Putnam (1919). Online at Archive.org, and also at Project Gutenberg.↩
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. Also see Le Saux, A companion to Wace, 2005, p.51 f for an extended discussion of the St Nicholas piece.↩
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).↩
J. Fredell, “The Three Clerks and St. Nicholas in Medieval England”, Studies in Philology 92, 181-202. JSTOR.↩