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!

A depiction of the three schoolboys in the cask at Barefreston Church in Kent.

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.

From Oakley in Suffolk
From Horstead in Norfolk.
Historiated initial ‘D'(e) depicting St Nicholas resurrecting three murdered children from a pickling vat at the beginning of the reading for 6 December. Stowe 12; ‘The Stowe Breviary’; England, E. (Norwich); between 1322 & 1325; f.225r . Via Twitter
Full page from Stowe Breviary.

I also found an 11th c. manuscript, Paris, BNF lat. 18303, online here containing the life and miracles of St 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 Archive.org, 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.  Also see Le Saux, A companion to Wace, 2005, p.51 f for an extended discussion of the St Nicholas piece.
  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.

“John the deacon” – just who was he?

There are several Italian authors of the Dark Ages known loosely as John the Deacon, and a google search will quickly find evidence that people get confused.  The text that I am working on, BHL 6104, is a Life of St Nicholas of Myra, in Latin, translated by “John the Deacon”.  I struggled with this, so I thought that these notes might help someone!

The first place to look is the Clavis Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Aevi Italiae (700-1000), or SCLMAI, edited by B. Valtorta and published by Sismel in Florence in 2006 in one volume.  This lists most of the following figures, all of whom left literary works, under the name of “John” or “Giovani”, some of whom are relevant, and I’ve added some notes under each.

  • Iohannes Aretinus, episcopus = Bishop John of Arezzo.

Bishop of Arezzo in the second half of the 9th century.  In 875 at the request of Pope John VIII he was part of a mission of Charles the Bald to invite him to Rome for consecration.  In July 877 he participated in a council in Ravenna called by the same pope.  He died in the summer of 900.  Author of a Latin translation of a Greek text on the ascension of Mary.

  • Iohannes Canaparius, monachus.

A monk in the monastery of Sts Boniface and Alexius on the Aventine in Rome and author of the Miracula s. Alexii.  Became abbot in 1002, and probably knew St Adalbert of Prague during his stay in Rome.  Died 1004.  Author of the Passio S. Adaberti martyris Christi.

  • Iohannes Casinensis, monachus = John of Montecassino = John the Monk (of Montecassino).  9th century.

The CSLMAI says that nothing is known of him, except that he lived at the end of the 10th c., and wrote a Passio S. Iohannis martyris.

Articles at Treccani say: John the Deacon (or John of Montecassino, or Giovanni Imonide, latin Iohannes Hymonides). – Monk of Montecassino, historian (b. ca. 852 – d. before 882). Influential at the curia of John VIII, friend of Anastasius Bibliothecarius, he composed from archival material one of the best lives of Gregory the Great. It is very likely that he was involved with the Liber pontificalis; more questionable is the attribution to him of other works, among which the so-called Cena Cypriani.  (This short note from Treccani; a much longer article with bibliography by Paolo Chiesa is here).

  • Iohannes Cluniacensis, monachus (Salernitanus) = John of Cluny, or John of Salerno = John the Monk (of Cluny / Salerno).  Also Iohannes Romanus; Iohannes Italus (!)

Born in Italy, probably in Rome, he met Odo of Cluny in 938 and became a monk.  Two years later he accompanied Odo to Rome, where he was later appointed prior of the monastery of St. Paul.  In 943 he moved to Salerno where he composed the Life of Odo, who had died in Nov. 18, 942.  Author of Sententiae Morales super Iob, and Vita S. Odonis Abbatis.

  • Iohannes Hymmonides Romanus, diaconus = John Hymmonides, or John Romanus = John the Deacon (of Rome).

The SCLMAI : Born around 825, a deacon of the church of Rome.  After the death of Pope Nicholas I (Nov. 867) he was exiled by the emperor Ludovicus II.  He became part of the entourage of Pope John VIII, and was connected to Anastasius Bibliothecarius and Gauderico di Velletri.  He planned (in vain) to continue the Historia Tripartita of Cassiodorus, and Anastasius Bibliothecarius trabslated a Greek Chronographia Tripartita to assist him.  He died around 880, certainly before 882.  He might be the author of the life of Pope Hadrian II contained in the Liber Pontificalis.  Author of the Cena Cypriani; Vita S. Clementis; Vita S. Gregorii Magni.

The confusion between this man and John of Montecassino is obvious.

  • Iohannes Mediolanensis, presbyter = John of Milan = John the Priest.

8-9th century, hagiographer.  Author of a single work on the Passio of the Virgin Mary.

  • Iohannes Neapolitanus, diaconus (and see also Guarimpotus Neapolitanus) = John of Naples = John the Deacon (of Naples).  9-10th century.  This is undoubtedly our author.

Hagiographer and translator, deacon on the church of S. Gennaro ad Diaconiam (=St Januarius) at Naples.  He was a pupil of the priest Auxilius, active in Naples ca. 896.  In 902 he took part in the translation of the relics of St Severinus to Naples, and in 906 in that of the relics of the martyr Sosius to the monastery of St Severinus of Naples.  His works are characterised in the Neapolitan school of translation from Greek by their extreme freedom and formal elegance.  He may be the same as Guarimpotus Neapolitanus, in which case Guarimpoto would have been his name before ordination.  The date of his death is unknown.  Author of: Acta XL Martyrum Sebastenorum; Acta S. Sosii; Gesta Episcoporum Neapolitanorum; Passio S. Maximi Cumanae; Translatio S. Severini Neapolim; Vita S. Euthymii Abbatis; Vita S. Nicolai.  The Life of St Nicholas was made at the age of 20 or 25 at the exhortation of the monk Athanasius, who may perhaps be identified with the Athanasiuis sent to Misenum with John to look for the relics of St. Sosius.  BHL 611-7 are epitomes of the work.  (SCLMAI; Long article with bibliography by Luigi Andrea Berto at Trecani here)

  • Iohannes Ravennas, archiepiscopus = Archbishop John of Ravenna. died. 929.  Author of 7 works.
  • Iohannes Venetus, diaconus = John the Deacon (of Venice). b. ca.940-945, d. after 1018.  Not in the SCLMAI.

Author of the Chronicon Venetum, the oldest Venetian history.  (Wikipedia article here).

We must also mention one further figure:

  • Guarimpotus Neapolitanus = Guarimpoto of Naples.  9-10th century.

Translator and hagiographer.  It is unclear whether he can be identified with “Guarimpotus Grammaticus”, author of the translation of the sermon of Cosmas Vestitor on the translation of relics of John Chrysostom; likewise with John the deacon of Naples, with whose works the author of the Passio Eustratii has strong stylistic affinities.  The name of Guarimpotus appears only in the prologue of the Passio Eustratii, so all his works are uncertain to some degree.  Author of: a lost Passio S. Blasii (possible remains in BHL 1380-1379, which may instead be by Bonitus Neapolitanus Subdiaconus); Passio S. Eustratii et IV sociorum in Armenia, BHG 646-646a, PG 116, 468-515, made at the request of Athanasius II, bishop of Naples in 875-898; Passio S. Febroniae; Passio S. Petri Alexandrini, BHL 6692-3; Vita S. Athanasii ep. Neapolitani; Translatio S. Athanasii ep. Neapolitani.

Out of these, three figures actually appear as “John the Deacon”; John Hymmonides, John of Naples, and in fact also John of Montecassino.  Following the links reveals that our boy is in fact John of Naples, translator of more than one hagiographical work from Greek.

I also found that searching for “Giovanni Diacono” produced a lot of information and some excellent bibliography.

What I had not realised was that Naples, in the 6th-9th century, was actually part of the Byzantine Empire, as the Duchy of Naples.  Its ruler held the titles of dux and magister militum.  Originally dependent on the exarchate of Ravenna, it transferred to the supervision of the Byzantine governor of Sicily after the fall of Ravenna.  But in practice it was rare for a Byzantine army to appear in Sicily, and Naples therefore remained largely independent.  It was vexed by constant Lombard raids, which devastated the countryside.  At other periods the Byzantine government sent Greek settlers to reinforce the Greek population.  The majority of the people were Latin speaking.  By around 840 the Byzantine rule had dissipated to nothing, and the Duchy ceased to feature the Byzantine emperor on its coins.  All the same, this was a bilingual environment, and there was a school of translations into Latin; including the text that we are concerned with here, the Life of St Nicholas.

Free! Database of manuscripts containing Latin Saint’s Lives – at the Bollandists

I’ve been looking for manuscripts of the “Life” of St Nicholas by John the Deacon.  In the process I have just come across something very useful.

This is the “Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina Online” (although it doesn’t contain the BHL info) or Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina manuscripta (BHLms) database.  And … it is free!  You have to enter your name and email address,but then you can do what you want.

It’s hosted at the Société des Bollandistes.  Look under “online resources“.  The direct URL is here.  Click on Recherche, enter your name and email address (why?) and then you are in.

I clicked on “Trouver un texte hagiographique d’après son numéro BHL“, and entered 6104, which is the BHL number for the first part of John the Deacon’s Life.  This led to a page on the text, and then

Liste des manuscrits transmettant ce texte, décrits dans les catalogues des Bollandistes: par fonds ou par siècle.

Clicking on “fonds” – i.e. the libraries that hold the manuscripts – gave me a list ordered by library.  “siècle” gave me an even more useful list, in date order, thereby allowing me to concentrate on the earliest mss.  What I got was this:

Screen grab of the oldest manuscripts of John the deacon’s “Life of St Nicholas”

Note the statement at the top: 121 manuscripts counted in the catalogues published by the Bollandists.  That too is useful information.

The links do not lead to online manuscripts.  So it’s Google time.

Googling for “Chartres manuscrits” led me to a web page.  From this I learned that the Americans bombed Chartres in the war and destroyed half of its manuscripts, and cooked the rest.  But some survive.  A full list is here.  It turned out that the Bollandist “Ms. 68” now has the shelfmark ms.27, and … appears in the list of destroyed manuscripts.  So no luck, then.  The link to the catalogue info for it is here.

Googling for “Orleans manuscrits”, the next item, brought up a website alright: the “Aurelia – Bibliotheque numerique d’Orleans“.  I entered “342” in the search, and, among other cruft, got a picture of a manuscript cover and “Views de saints et Sermons”, 342, Xe, XIe, et XII siecles”.  That looked OK, so I clicked on it and got … catalogue stuff.  A bit more experimenting and I found you have to click on the *image* itself.  There are facilities to download the manuscript, but unfortunately someone – a paperpusher, one fears – has limited it to 4 pages at a time.

The Life is supposedly at the start, but the very first page that one sees is damaged.  There are several references to St Nicholas tho.  It looks as if the cover was removed at some point, and the parchment is worn by being coverless for some period.  Turning the page reveals pen trials; turning again reveals a modern list of contents, and then the first page of the text (click to enlarge):

Orleans – manuscript 342, folio 6r. Life of St Nicholas by John the Deacon (BHL 6104)

The note at the top of the page – “Monasterii sancti Benedicti Floriacensi” – tells us that prior to the French revolution the ms. belonged to the Benedictine abbey of Fleury.  So here is yet another manuscript online, although it took a fair bit of clicking to get it.

The Bollandist list of mnuscripts is inevitably incomplete.  I know of other manuscripts of this particular Latin text, thanks to the entry in the Clavis Scriptorum Latinorum Medii Aevi: Italiae volume, which has an entry for John the Deacon / John of Naples, and which was the source that led me to the BHL Online.  But it’s still an invaluable resource.

Recommended.

More on Mombritius, and John the Deacon’s “Life of St Nicholas”

The first collection to be printed of the lives of the saints was issued in Milan in 1477 by Mombritius in two large folio volumes.  These featured forms of the text which differed from subsequent collectors such as Lipomani, Surius and of course the Bollandists.  But the volumes became so rare that two monks of the Solesmenses monastery in 1910 found it worthwhile to produce a fresh edition of it.[1]

In fact the original volumes are now online, here (vol.1) and here (vol.2) thanks to the Bavarian State Library (=Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, BSB).  The latter resource is becoming really invaluable for high-quality PDFs of early books and manuscripts.

Over the last couple of days I have been OCRing the text of the life of St Nicholas found in the 1910 reprint, which I obtained from Archive.org a few days ago.  This I finished this afternoon.  It was interesting to look through it, word by word.  The monks reproduced even the printer’s mistakes – “qni” for “qui”! – although they did mark these with a little superscript “+”.  Likewise they indicated the end of the column and end of the page with “|” and “||” respectively.  I was obliged to read the Latin introduction with some care to determine the meaning of both these codes.

Once I had produced a Word document, I was distracted.  Word complained about the number of spelling errors, and this led me to wonder if there was a Latin language spell-checker for Word.  Indeed there is!   It’s called COL, and may be downloaded for free from here.  It’s not perfect, but it does catch a lot.

But the longer I looked at the Mombritius text, the less I liked it.  The punctuation is weird, the spelling is eccentric, and so forth.  So it looks as if I shall be using  the Falconius edition of 1751 instead, as the base for my translation, but consulting Mombritius.

This is a familar feeling.  We had this with the Life of St Valentine of Terni.  It’s not just a matter of translating a text.  First find your text; and then you find that you must actually make your text yourself, from such pre-critical texts as are around.  For St Valentine I felt obliged to include the text that I had made in order to translate it.  It looks as if I shall be obliged to do the same here for John the Deacon.

This is annoying.  I do not want or need to start editing texts.  That is a quite separate enterprise.  So my texts are not critical texts.  They are simply what I could find, edited to remove annoying errors of spelling and punctuation, to produce a readable Latin text.

At this point I found myself wondering just why the texts of such major saints are not available in modern critical editions.  The St Valentine was only available in the Bollandist edition of 1658 (!) and in a modern critical edition with very odd spelling.

For John the Deacon we are less lucky, as the Bollandists have not managed to produce an edition of his work, despite four centuries of work.  But then four centuries pass easily if you don’t do much in them.  The Bollandists last printed a volume of the Acta Sanctorum in 1940.  That is nearly 80 years ago.  Since then they have only produced a couple of ancillary volumes.  Producing critical texts of the Lives of the Saints is what the Bollandists exist to do.  So what the heck are they doing with their time?  It seems to me that they need a kick up the backside.

  1. [1]These details I owe to a brief review by H. Omont, found in Persee.fr here.

St Nicholas and the “Life” by John the Deacon

The Acta Sanctorum is of no use for the Saints’ Life of St Nicholas of Myra, as his feast day falls in December, a month that the Acta Sanctorum has yet to reach.  However there is a Latin Life that I want to translate.  It is that of John the Deacon.

The text of John the Deacon was edited by N. Falconius in 1751 in Nicolai:… Acta Primigenia.  But this is an awful edition to work with, because of the 18th century typeface.  Worse still, Falconius seems to have got confused in his texts.  He gives the text on pp.113-126, in 23 chapters.  But if you pay attention to the footnotes, something funny happens after chapter 13!

The Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina states plainly that the remainder of the text is to be found, not in the body of the edition, but on p.126.  There, in a footnote, we read “Tertia decima lectio, sic clauditur in membranaceis Codd.Vaticanis, num. 1194. & 5696. pag.109.” – “Chapter 13 is completed thus in the parchment manuscripts Vatican lat. 1194 and 5696, p.109.”  And so the rest of the chapter is given, and a different pair of chapters 14 and 15 also.  How very odd.

I prepared an electronic text from this, but then I became aware of an oddity.

An early printed collection of Saints’ Lives was made by Boninus Mombritius, probably before 1480, “from many manuscripts”.  I had occasion to mention this when dealing with St Valentine.  But I was not aware that it was reprinted in two volumes in modern typeface in 1910 (on archive.org here and here).  It includes the Life of John the Deacon!

One would like to think that the Falconius edition, which at least names manuscripts, was a better text.  But quite frankly it seems possible that it is not!!  I shall have to see.

One red herring that has bothered me is at last cleared up.  Angelo Mai also printed a Life of St Nicholas  by a “John the Deacon” in Spicilegium Romanum vol. 4.  The author is another John, it seems, also a deacon, but of a later date.

The real work is translated in part from the Encomium of Methodius, that inscrutable, hardly translatable Greek text that has defeated all my translators.  But the John the Deacon version in Latin is probably the source of a great deal of western St Nicholas legend.

Nicholas of Myra, “Vita Compilata”, now available in English

Another of the medieval “saints’ lives” of St Nicholas of Myra, the basis for our Santa Claus, is now accessible in English.  This is the so-called Vita Compilata, or “Compiled life”, put together from earlier hagiographical sources.

A kind gentleman writing as Fr. Alban Justinus has translated it for us, from the Greek edition of G. Anrich.  Many thanks!

Here it is:

As ever, these are made public domain.  Do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.

The final hagiographer: Michael Psellus on Symeon Metaphrastes

Writing lives of the saints was something that everybody did in the Greek empire from 400 to about 1000.  After that people stopped writing new lives, or not in the same way.  But up to that point these lives were written by people of all stations.  The forms of Greek used reflect that ordinary people wrote them.  It was genuinely a popular form of fiction.

During the reign of Constantine VII Porpyrogenitus (d. 959), the emperor ordered the creation of all sorts of compilations.  Whether by coincidence or not, soon afterwards we find the creation of a compilation of earlier saints’ lives, revised and with the style made acceptable.  This compilation takes the form of a menologion (see my prior post for this), and it is ascribed in the manuscripts to a certain Symeon Metaphrastes, or Symeon the Compiler.

This compilation became the standard collection of the lives, and the form of each life that Metaphrastes gave it likewise becomes the basis for the future.  It’s like the King James Bible, or the Vulgate; it marks a conclusion and a break with the past.

Among the saints included was Nicholas of Myra, whose lives we have been translating for a while now.

It really is not that clear who Metaphrastes was, or exactly when he lived.  But around a century later Michael Psellus wrote an encomium on him.  This has recently been edited by Elizabeth A. Fisher in the Teubner series of Psellus in the Orationes Hagiographicae.  But I find that she has also made a translation into English of the Encomium for Symeon Metaphrastes, and that a version of it is even online here and more specifically here (although you may need to search; the links move around).  This is marvellous news!

Leaving aside the florid compliments, let’s extract what Psellus says about what Metaphrastes did, to produce the “final version” of the life of St Nicholas (and others).

3.5.   … Symeon possessed noble birth, had acquired a good name from his family, and reveled in extensive wealth and in the things because of which one might avoid learning. Nevertheless Symeon used the resources gained from worldly good fortune to study philosophy. …

3.6. Symeon … did not adopt a different style of dress, nor compromise in any way his truly noble spirit, nor embarrass his family with any sort of silly novelties, nor offer a model of political subjects only to remodel it, nor otherwise play the part of a disreputable sophist. Instead he employed his hereditary affection for honorable conduct as most useful raw material for accomplishing what is good and straightaway took the excellence derived from his studies as the basis both for true nobility of spirit and for brilliance. For as a special favorite of the emperors he was entrusted with the most honored assignments of all; Symeon received a position close to the imperial throne because of his keen intelligence and, due to his natural aptitude, also held an administrative post in government supervising public affairs.

He initially (275) received an appointment to the imperial chancery, privy to confidential resolutions and working with imperial advisors. When his trustworthy character in these duties made him well known, he undertook responsibilities in external affairs in addition to his duties in the palace, with the result that it was he who conveyed to the emperor messages from outsiders and relayed imperial communications to outsiders as well. He was, so to speak, the administration’s precise communications link.

3.7. … Symeon was himself wholly attentive both to the emperor and to public affairs. … He was able to drive the barbarians farther from the territory belonging to the heirs of the Roman Empire, to prevail against them either through military expeditions or by means of artifice, to bring other countries into subjection, and to adopt a ready stance regarding requirements of the moment for the matter at hand.

… Although he was truly noble in dress, in demeanor, and even in the way he walked, he altered his behavior to fit the situation; because he was charming and agreeable, he immediately attracted everyone with his smile. His helping hand was generous because two attributes, his wealth and his inclination, extended it. His hand was always outstretched and open, and whoever wished drew liberally upon his wealth as if it flowed from a river. Such were the qualities of this great man, and he also took part in activities that typically assist our Christian faith, as was appropriate. …

3.8.  … However, until recently the way they lived on earth, or rather our recounting of their lives, was not recognized as brilliant, although accurate accounts of the [facts] of their martyrdom and of their ascetic practices are indeed preserved in the secret books that the angels will read out for the multitudes at the Restitution [of all things]. [21] Moreover, before [the time of] the remarkable man [Symeon] those who wrote of [the saints’] deeds here on earth by no means approximated their nobility of spirit. Instead, in some cases they gave erroneous reports of their [deeds], while in other cases, because they were incapable of an appropriate presentation, they described their virtue as rude and paltry by failing to demonstrate nobility of thought, [22] or to employ attractive adornments of diction, or to describe accurately either the ferocity of [the saints’] persecutors or their shrewdness in answering when they gave [Christian] witness. [These earlier writers] also presented an adulterated version of the ascetics’ practices by describing their earnest efforts without any artistry and seemingly with whatever [words] came to mind. (278)

3.9. …. some had no patience for reading the annals [of the martyrs] because they were so crudely written, while others considered the accounts objects of derision. Their awkward composition, incoherence of thought, and mediocre style were harsh to the ear and repulsed rather than attracted an audience. Because of the authors who wrote about them, we habitually satirized the marvelous struggles and monumental victories of the servants of Christ.

Although everyone complained loudly about the situation, those who had the ability to replace these writings with better ones lacked the will to do it, and those who had the will lacked the ability—some because of timidity of spirit, others because the enterprise was all engrossing, and one man’s lifetime would not be sufficient for it all.

The marvelous Symeon did not feel the same as those who were stricken by these difficulties. He joined them as far as finding fault with the accounts that were written, then went farther and had the confidence for a daring project—or, rather, he succeeded in an undertaking where no one else had. …

3.10. … the literary accounts which this noble man [Symeon] constructed for the martyrs and the ascetics demonstrate amplification appropriate to discourse and have a two-fold objective—both to inspire imitation of their skillful composition and to encourage imprinting of the self with saintly morality in the best way possible. I, however, might mention a third consideration, not inferior to these other two, but both more to the point and more elevating: namely, that the literary commemoration of the saints is the final chapter of the works that confirm the Gospel message. …

3.12. … He does not alter the facts for the sake of his art, but in each case he interprets the particularity of the facts as they happened (283) and the particularity of the individuals involved. He fixes his attention upon the older works as his models and does not deviate from them in order to avoid the appearance of creating something that is different from his original and to avoid violating it. He completely transforms the type of style without altering the substance of the original, but he corrects what was amiss in its forms of expression; he does not invent the contents but he alters the manner of diction.  …

3.14. People do indeed say that Symeon did not undertake the project as a hobby nor simply set it for himself, except to the extent that he was willing to do it. However, fervent appeals from the emperor moved him to undertake this project as well as appeals from those who valued intelligent discourse.

He had his preparations ready at hand and had a team of considerable size composed both of those who initially took down his dictation stenographically and of those who subsequently transcribed it in full; each group worked in support of the other, one producing an initial text, the other a second draft. After them, the final redactors went over the written texts to compare them against the content intended by Symeon and to correct whatever error might have escaped the notice of those who drafted the texts, because Symeon could not possibly review the same works repeatedly himself due to their great number.

We can draw a number of conclusions from this.

First, the lives of the saints were not considered particularly reputable by the highest literary circles.  The style was such as to provoke satire.  In fact even after Metaphrastes’ work, the lives were not on the same level as the Greek classics.  But at least they were not an embarassment.  The style was improved, the material paraphrased (or metaphrased) to produce something readable.

If I can get a translation made of Metaphrastes’ life of St Nicholas, it will be interesting to see how this reflects the earlier materials.

St Nicholas of Myra in the Greek Synaxarium – now online in English

Christmas is coming, and, as it happens, I have a new translation for you.  This is another piece of the medieval St Nicholas of Myra material, all edited by G. Anrich in Hagios Nikolaos back in 1902.

In the Greek orthodox church, various days are marked as saints’ days, and a short life of the saint is included in the church service for that day.  These materials for each saints’ day are included in a 12-volume collection known as the Menaion, or the Synaxarium.

There are two versions of the Life of St Nicholas in the manuscripts, a longer one and a shorter one (itself in two versions).  Anrich printed them all as section VIII of his book.  These are translated below.

These were translated by Fr Albert Iustinos.  This is the pen-name of a monk on Mount Athos.  I think that he has done a splendid job, and I am looking forward to a translation of the Vita Compilata (Anrich section IX) in due course.  Thank you very much!

As ever, these are public domain.  Do whatever you like with them, personal, educational or commercial.

The tomb of St Nicholas of Myra?

Turkish archaeologists have used ground-penetrating equipment and discovered the shrine of St Nicholas of Myra underneath the church of St Nicholas in Demre, ancient Myra, according to the Daily Telegraph.  The report seems rather sketchy, and the claims likewise.  They are also claiming that the bones of St Nicholas, supposed now to be in Bari, have in fact remained in Demre/Myra, although it is hard to see how any electronic equipment could tell that.  But of course the Turks are hoping for a boost to the tourist trade, and understandably so.

Let us wish them good luck in their excavations!

Church of St Nicholas of Myra in modern Demre, ancient Myra, in Turkey.

Proclus of Constantinople, “Encomium on St Nicholas of Myra”, now online in English

I have another piece for you of the ancient literature about St Nicholas of Myra.  This is an encomium which is found in the manuscripts among the sermons of Proclus, the 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople.  Although it has acquired his name, it is really anonymous.  Bryson Sewell completed a draft of the translation, and Andrew Eastbourne revised it and completed it.  Here it is:

As usual I make these public domain – use them for any purpose, personal, educational or commercial.

It’s translated from the Greek text published by G. Anrich.  Apparently there are quite a number of late encomia which merely retread the earlier material, and this is mostly one of them.  Still useful to have, tho!

UPDATE: Dr. E. has drawn my attention to an editorial error with note 14.  I’ve uploaded new versions of the files.