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.


An anecdote on the perils of being “learned” in public; and some others

Another anecdote from the collection of E.H. Barker:[1]

7. Professor Porson.

We have seldom read a better story, to say the least of it, than the following. As to the facts of it, we can only say that the statement rests on the authority of the author of Lacon, whence it is extracted.

Porson was once travelling in a stagecoach, when a young Oxonian, fresh from College, was amusing the ladies with a variety of talk, and amongst other things, with a quotation, as he said, from Sophocles. A Greek quotation, and in a coach too, roused our slumbering Professor from a kind of dog-sleep, in a snug corner of the vehicle. Shaking his ears, and rubbing his eyes, ‘I think, young gentleman,’ said he, ‘you favored us just now with a quotation from Sophocles; I do not happen to recollect it there. ‘ ‘Oh, Sir/ replied our tyro, ‘the quotation is word for word as I have repeated it, and in Sophocles too; but T suspect, Sir, that it is some time since you were at College. ‘ The Professor applying his hand to his great-coat, and taking out a small pocket-edition of Sophocles, quietly asked him if he would be kind enough to shew him the passage in question in that little book. After rummaging the leaves for some time, he replied, ‘On second thoughts, I now recollect that the passage is in Euripides.’ ‘Then perhaps, Sir,’ said the Professor, putting his hand again into his pocket, and handing him a similar edition of Euripides, ‘You will be so good as to find it for me in that little book. ‘ The young Oxonian returned to his task, but with no better success. The tittering of the ladies informed him that he had got into a hobble. At last, ‘Bless me, Sir,’ said he ‘how dull I am! I recollect now, yes, I perfectly remember that the passage is in Aeschylus.’ The inexorable Professor returned again to his inexhaustible pocket, and was in the act of handing him an Aeschylus, when our astonished freshman vociferated,— ‘Stop the coach, holloah, coachman, let me out I say, instantly — let me out! there’s a fellow here, has got the whole Bodleian Library in his pocket.’

I’m not quite sure where our sympathies should lie, mind you.  Do we sympathise more with the old scholar who finds himself rudely insulted by the impudence of a young snot who presumes everyone else is as ignorant as himself; or with the young man who was trying to impress the young ladies, and then was suddenly attacked for no good reason by a stranger?

The second volume of Barker’s Anecdotes is mainly devoted to rather dull stories about Porson, and so is of little interest.  I found only one other anecdote that is worth repeating:

22. Roman inscription.

In the ruins of a Roman building near the Baiae in Italy, the following Inscription was found on a large piece of marble, which has probably been the portal of a bath, or some apartment of pleasure:

    Balnea, vina, Venus, corrumpunt corpora nostras;
Sed vitam faciunt balnea, vina, Venus:

    Baths, women, wine, our health destroy,
And cut life’s scanty line;
But what has life or health of joy,
Without baths, women, wine?”

Proofs of the Enquiry into Homer’s Life and Writings, translated into English, London, 1748, 8vo. p. 41. Refer to the Enquiry itself, p. 109 or 110.[2]

If the inscription is genuine, it shows the limitations of pagan society.  For if wine, women and (Roman) baths are all that there is to life, then we are little better off than animals.

  1. [1]E.H. Barker, Literary reminiscences, vol. 2, 1852, p.4.
  2. [2]P.15.

An anecdote from 1827

XXXIX. The Negro and the Fish.

“A negro about to purchase a fish visited a shop, where several were exposed for sale; but suspecting that one, which he intended to buy, was not altogether as fresh as he could wish, he presumed either to dissipate or confirm his suspicions by applying it to his nose. The fishmonger, conscious that it would not bear much examination, and fearing that other customers might catch the scent, exclaimed in a surly tone.—‘How dare you to smell my fish?’ ‘Me no smell, me only talking to him, massa.’  ‘And what were you talking to him about?’ ‘ Me ask him, massa, what the best news at sea?’ ’ ‘And what reply did he make you?’ ‘ Oh, massa, he say he know no news, as he have not been there these 3 week.” — St. James Chronicle, Dec. 13, 1827.

I found this in the Literary Reminiscences of E.H. Barker, vol. 1.  The preface outlines the sad life of this classical scholar.  His scholarly efforts were wrecked by a malicious review, itself caused by his own imprudent avowal of liberal politics before his reputation was established.  He was then ruined by a lawsuit over an inheritance and sank into debt and misery.  The account is very sad, but worth reading.  I found it interesting, as someone prone to spend money on literary projects, to see that he did likewise; and was not prudent enough to make sure that he could afford them!


The encouragement of learning

Edward Gibbon, the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was a notoriously vain little man.  In the Walpoliana of Horace Walpole, a collection of anecdotes, I find this story:[1]

I was told a droll story concerning Mr. Gibbon, t’other day.  One of those booksellers in Paternoster Row, who publish things in numbers, went to Gibbon’s lodgings in St. James Street, sent up his name, and was admitted.  “Sir,” said he, “I am now publishing a history of England, done by several good hands.  I understand you have a knack at them there things, and should be glad to give you every reasonable encouragment.”

As soon as Gibbon recovered the use of his legs and tongue, which were petrified with surprise, he ran to the bell, and desired his servant to show this encourager of learning down-stairs.

  1. [1]1800, p.198.

Sometimes it can be a long day at the monastery

David Wilmshurst has sent me an amusing GIF of the (amicable) 13th century debate on christology between Latin and Syrian monks…

‘And how many natures, persons, hypostases, wills, energies and activities do you ascribe precisely to the Incarnate Christ? Think carefully before you answer …’

Click to enlarge.

 ‘And how many natures, persons, hypostases, wills, energies and activities do you ascribe precisely to the Incarnate Christ?  Think carefully before you answer …’
‘And how many natures, persons, hypostases, wills, energies and activities do you ascribe precisely to the Incarnate Christ? Think carefully before you answer …’



Freaky Fables: The Career of Richard the Lionheart – according to Handelsman!

Those of a bookish disposition have a tendency, in middle age, to go in search of the books that they read in their formative years.  I will not disclaim any such tendency.  Rather, I have just come across an item that I read when I was very much younger, which I thought that I might share with you.

By some process unknown to me – for I do not think my parents were subscribers – I often saw copies of Punch magazine in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  This often contained a full-page cartoon by “Handelsman”, headed “Freaky Fables”.  The cartoon retold some fairy-tale, or traditional or biblical story, much in the manner that we find in 1066 and all that; and none the worse for it.  Many of these have remained in my mind, and probably informed me subtly in various ways.

One of these was a cartoon on the career of Richard the Lionheart (do modern schoolboys even know who he was?).  It was memorable for Handelsman’s version of the song of Blondel:

Paul the apostle
Possessed an epistle
So very colossal
It made the girls whistle.

(I imagine that a few people remember this, which is why I give it where Google can find it!)

Of course there was a certain coarseness to much of the material in Punch – sometimes it could be dreadfully louche.  Another problem is that humour is one of the things that dates most quickly; and what was sharp in 1980 often seems flabby in 2015.

J.B. Handelsman did publish a couple of collections of this well-remembered material, and a copy of one of them came into my hands last week.[1]  To my delight it contained the Richard the Lionheart cartoon.  I post it here for your amusement (or not!).  (Click to get a larger version, and save locally if using IE which doesn’t display mono .png’s very well)

Freaky Fables: Richard the Lionheart. By "Handelsman".
Freaky Fables: Richard the Lionheart. By “Handelsman”.
  1. [1]J.B. Handelsman, Freaky Fables, Methuen, 1984. ISBN 0-413-55980-7.  Foreword by John Cleese. 64p.

Medieval poison ring found – get one now!

NEW!  For the Borgia in YOUR church … a poison ring!

SMILE … as your opponents die writhing on the floor while you preach a sermon about peace and unity!

END … those interminable conferences by poisoning your enemies during the communion service!

INVITE … your foes round for dinner: “The drinks are on me!” you will say!

Now that theological persecutions and seizures of property have made a surprise return to modern society, with The Episcopal Church of the USA in first place, but with a strong showing from Glasgow Presbytery — sending in bailiffs to rip the hymnbooks out of the hands of worshippers, even though you have piles of them going unused, was especially noteworthy — perhaps other quaint customs of the past might make a return too?

All of which feeble attempts at humour were provoked by the discovery of a genuine medieval poison ring in Bulgaria.  It’s an ornamented ring with a reservoir and a hole on one side, allowing the wearer to poison food or a drink simply by rotating your wrist.  Apparently it belongs to the 14th century, so is a bit outside our period.  But no doubt earlier models also existed, especially in Byzantium.

I wonder what poisons they used?


Life at the court of Lysimachus

Athenaeus has preserved a jest from the court of Lysimachus, one of Alexander’s generals:

King Lysimachus, who was somewhat stingy, once put a wooden scorpion into the dress of a parasite, for the purpose of frightening him. “I will frighten you, sir,” he said; “give me … two hundred pounds!”

— Athenaeus, book vi. p. 246. E.

The rewards of the flatterer may be considerable, but the service is grim all the same.


The man who gave a few pence to the emperor Augustus

The story is in Macrobius, Saturnalia, book 2, chapter 4:

[31] As he went down from his residence on the Palatine, a seedy-looking Greek used to offer him a complimentary epigram.  This the man did on many occasions without success, and Augustus, seeing him about to do it again, wrote a short epigram in Greek with his own hand and sent it to the fellow as he drew near. The Greek read it and praised it, expressing admiration both in words and by his looks. Then, coming up to the imperial chair, he put his hand in a shabby purse and drew out a few pence, to give them to the emperor, saying as he did so: “I swear by thy Good Fortune, Augustus, if I had more, I should give you more.” There was laughter all round, and Augustus, summoning his steward, ordered him to payout a hundred thousand sesterces to the Greek.