George Harley McKnight.

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a feature doubtless in the estimation of the boys
not less important than the procession, namely a
supper provided by one of the church dignitaries.
On Innocents' day all the services, including the
Mass, were performed by the boys with their
"Bishop," also in many places the "Bishop"
preached a sermon. Nor were the honor and
dignity of the Boy Bishop confined to the cere-
monies within the church. In mounted proces-
sion, with attendant boy prebends, he visited other
religious houses and houses of neighboring people
of prominence, singing songs and imparting bless-
ings in the expectation of festal entertainment and
of money gifts as well. In the year 1555 the ' ' chylde
byshope" of St. Paul's with his company visited
Queen Mary at St. James's and sang a song be-
fore her both on St. Nicholas' day (Dec. 6th) and
on Innocents' day (Dec. 28th). The amounts
collected on these occasions were considerable.
Robert de Holme, 5 who was "Bishop" at York,
received from the choirmaster, who served as
treasurer, in 1369, the sum of 3 153. \% d. But
this was only a part of the receipts, for at in-
tervals during the fortnight following Christmas,

The Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop 73

the "Bishop" with his troupe made trips in the
neighborhood which netted handsome profit, the
countess of Northumberland alone contributing
twenty shillings and a gold ring. 6 In Aberdeen
the master of the grammar school was paid by a
collection taken when he went the rounds with the
"Bishop." That this source of revenue was not a
matter of trivial importance may be inferred from
the interesting statement in the municipal registers
that "he hes na uder fee to leif on."

Some interesting details regarding French ob-
servance of the Boy Bishop custom have been
garnered by Mr. Chambers from the records for
Toul. At that place

the expenses of the feast, with the exception of the
dinner on the day after Innocents' day, which came
out of the disciplinary fines, are assigned by the
statutes to the canons in the order of their appoint-
ment. The responsible canon must give a supper on
Innocents' day, and on the following day a dessert
out of what is over. He must also provide the
"Bishop" with a horse, gloves, and a biretta when he
rides abroad. At the supper a curious ceremony took
place. The canon returned thanks to the "Bishop,"
apologized for any shortcomings in the preparations,
and finally handed the "Bishop" a cap of rosemary
or other flowers, which was then conferred upon the
canon to whose lot it would fall to provide the feast
for the next anniversary. Should the canon disregard

74 St. Nicholas

his duties the boys and sub-deacons were entitled to
hang up a black cope on a candlestick in the middle
of the choir in illius vituperium for as long as they
might choose.

The elaborateness, too, of the manner of cele-
bration, as well as the constant association with
St. Nicholas, may be inferred from the following
Northumberland inventory of robes and ornaments
belonging to one of these Boy Bishops: 7


Imprimis, i. myter, well garnished with perle and
precious stones, with nowches of silver and gilt before
and behind. Item, iiii. rynges of silver and gilt,
with four ridde precious stones in them. Item, i.
pontifical with silver and gilt, with a blue stone in
hytt. Item, i. owche, broken, silver and gilt, with
iiii. precious stones, and a perle in the mydds. Item,
a croose, with a staff of coper and gilt, with the ymage
of St. Nicolas in the mydds. Item, i. vestment,
redde, with lyons, with silver, with brydds of gold in
the orferes of the same. Item, i. albe to the same, with
starres in the paro. Item, i. white cope, stayned
with tristells and orferes, redde sylke, with does of
gold, and whytt napkins about the necks. Item,
iiii. copes, blew sylk with red orferes, trayled, with
whitt braunchis and flowers. Item, i. steyned cloth
of the ymage of St. Nicholas. Item, i. taberd of
skarlet, and a hodde thereto lyned with whitt sylk.
Item, a hode of skarlett, lyned with blue sylk.

The earliest known reference to the Boy Bishop

The Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop 75

custom is from St. Gall in the year 911. King
Conrad I. was visiting Bishop Solomon of Con-
stance and heard so much of the Vespers proces-
sion at St. Gall that he determined to visit the
monastery at the time of the revels. He found it
"all very amusing and especially the procession
of children, so grave and sedate that even when
Conrad bade his train roll apples along the aisle,
they did not budge." 8 In later years the custom
lost much of its early sobriety, although doubtless
a great deal of dignity, real or assumed, persisted
in the church procession. The custom pervaded
most of the countries of Europe in the following

In France it was not abolished until 1721. At
Mainz, in Germany, it was not wholly extinct in
I779- 9 In Belgium in the nineteenth century
there survived a number of popular customs show-
ing for the celebration of Innocents' day of the
present the same kind of inversion of authority
that characterized the Boy Bishop customs of
earlier times. Innocents' day is in Belgium more
than in other countries a popular festival, making
up somewhat for the fact that in Belgium, Christ-
mas is less of a children's celebration than in other
Teutonic countries, or perhaps owing to the greater
importance of St. Nicholas customs in the Nether-

76 St. Nicholas

lands than in other countries. In any event, in
Belgium, Innocents' day is a real children's festi-
val: children are masters in the house, and par-
ents must obey them. At Antwerp, in Brabant,
and in some parts of the county of Limbourg,
little boys and girls dress up for the day as papas
and mammas. Usually the youngest of the family
receives the key to the pantry and orders in the
kitchen the meals for the day. '

In England the Boy Bishop custom, which
came to an end in the sixteenth century under
Reformation influence, once prevailed throughout
the length and breadth of the land at first in
cathedrals, collegiate churches, and schools, later
"in every parish church where there was a suffi-
cient band of choristers to furnish forth the
Boy Bishop ceremonial, or sufficiently well-to-
do parishioners to be worth laying under con-
tribution." 11

The relation of the Boy Bishop to St. Nicholas
customs offers a number of difficulties to explain.
Mr. Chambers leans to the view that the custom
was originally associated with St. Nicholas' day,
an opinion supported by the fact that the ' ' Bishop "
was elected on the eve of St. Nicholas. But. he
believes that, like other St. Nicholas customs,
the Santa Claus custom for instance, it was later

The Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop 77

transferred to the Christmas season. Something,
however, may be said for a contrary explanation.
It is an established fact that medieval schools
and universities had their origin in the song schools
of the Church; consequently in schools and uni-
versities there survived customs originally appro-
priate only to choir boys. In this way might be
transferred a custom observed by choir boys on
the festival at Holy Innocents' day (Dec. 28th),
to St. Nicholas' day (Dec. 6th), the festival day of
schoolboys, and the Boy Bishop of Innocents' day
get the name of Episcopus Nicholatensis, "Nicho-
las Bishop," or by an admirable Latin pun at Eton,
"Episcopus Nihilensis," '' Bishop of Nothing."
There is evident relationship between the custom
of the Boy Bishop and the story of St. Nicholas
elected bishop when a boy. Did the custom grow
out of the story, or as is so often the case, did the
story originate as an explanation of an established
custom ?

Oliver Wendell Holmes, on the occasion of a
visit paid, late in life, to Westminster Abbey,
singles out from "amidst all the imposing recol-
lections of the ancient edifice," one that impressed
him "in the inverse ratio of its importance, . . .
the little holes in the stones, in one place, where
the boys of the choir used to play marbles." In a

78 St. Nicholas

similar way it may be remarked that among all
the magnificent ceremonies in the history of the
Church, few are more impressive than those asso-
ciated with the Boy Bishop, or Nicholas Bishop.
The choir boy, exercising his rule over his fellow
boys, riding with them in parade about the city
or surrounding country, or for the nonce lording
it over his pompous superiors and indulging in
playful parody of the ceremonies in which through-
out the year he has taken a not always too patient
part, all this affords us a glimpse at natural
boy nature centuries ago.



TT will have been noted that St. Nicholas is not
only the patron saint of youths, but is himself
a youthful saint. His most distinctive deeds, at
least the deeds about the memory of which have
most been interwoven popular customs, are deeds
performed by him as a young man. The distinc-
tive feature about his election as bishop was that
he was elected when a mere youth. But before
his election as bishop he had already distinguished
himself by his act of generosity in saving the three
daughters of the impoverished nobleman. Also,
according to the account of his life in the Roman
Breviary, the act upon which is based his reputa-
tion as protector of seamen was accomplished by
him as a young man when on a pious pilgrimage,
on the return from which he was miraculously
directed to Myra, there to be chosen bishop. In
a way, then, the election as bishop forms a kind of
climax to a series of youthful accomplishments.


8o St. Nicholas

But the life story of St. Nicholas differs from
the typical saint's legend in that it is not the record
of one single achievement that absorbed all the
energies of the story's hero and whose accomplish-
ment formed a dramatic close. On the contrary,
as already remarked, his legend is made up of a
series of beneficent acts, in part accomplished by
the living saint, in part accomplished by him
after death serving as a protecting spirit. Be-
sides the youthful deeds already discussed, there
remain to be recorded a number of others, some
of them hardly less well known than the ones
already considered, others not so wiclely known but
of interest, not only in themselves, but as revealing
the varied aspects of the kindness of St. Nicholas
and showing the enduring character of his fame.

First there remain in the Golden Legend two
well known stories that deserve to be included
here. One of these, in which St. Nicholas ac-
complished an ultra-modern function, that of
" Food Comptroller, " will make clear why he was
popular as the patron saint of cities. The story

It was so on a time that all the province of S. Nico-
las suffered great famine, in such wise that victual
failed. And then this holy man heard say that
certain ships laden with wheat were arrived in the


A. Lorenzetti. St. Nicholas Saving a City in Time of Famine.

Varied Beneficent Activity 81

haven. And anon he went thither and prayed the
mariners that they would succor the perished at
least with an hundred muyes of wheat of every ship.
And they said: Father, we dare not, for, it is meted and
measured, and we must give reckoning thereof in
the garners of the emperor in Alexandria. And the
holy man said to them : Do this that I have said to
you, and I promise, in the truth of God, that it shall
not be lessened or minished when ye shall come to
the garners. And when they had delivered so much
out of every ship, they came into Alexandria and
delivered the measure that they had received. And
then they recounted the miracle to the ministers of
the emperor, and worshiped and praised strongly
God and his servant Nicholas. Then the holy man
distributed the wheat to every man after that he had
need, in such wise that it sufficed for two years, not
only for to sell, but also to sow.

The art of the early Italian painters in handling
narrative subjects is once more admirably illus-
trated in the animated presentation of this story
in the paintings by Lorenzetti and by Fra Angelico.

In another of the stories included in the Golden
Legend, St. Nicholas twice appears in his favorite
role as the protector *of human life. The story,
with double catastrophe, goes as follows:

And in this time certain men rebelled against the
emperor; and the emperor sent against them three
princes, Nepotian, Ursyn, and Apollyn. And they
came into the port Adriatic for the wind, which was


82 St. Nicholas

contrary to them ; and the blessed Nicholas commanded
them to dine with him, for he would keep his people
from the ravin that they made. And whilst they
were at dinner, the consul, corrupt by money, had
commanded three innocent knights to be beheaded.
And when the blessed Nicholas knew this, he prayed
these three princes that they would much hastily go
with him. And when they were come where they
should be beheaded, he found them on their knees,
and blindfold, and the righter brandished his sword
over their heads. Then S. Nicholas, embraced with the
love of God, set him hardily against the righter, and
took the sword out of his hand, and threw it from him,
and unbound the innocents, and led them with him
all safe. And anon he went to the judgment to the
consul, and found the gates closed, which anon he
opened by force. And the consul came anon and
saluted him: and this holy man having this saluta-
tion in despite, said to him: Thou enemy of God,
corrupter of the law, wherefore hast thou consented
to so great evil and felony, how darest thou look on
us? And when he had sore chidden and reproved
him, he repented, and at the prayer of the three princes
he received him to penance. After, when the mes-
sengers of the emperor had received his benediction,
they made their gear ready and departed, and sub-
dued their enemies to the empire without shedding
blood, and sith returned to the emperor, and were
worshipfully received. And after this it happed
that some other in the emperor's house had envy on
the weal of these three princes, and accused them to
the emperor of high treason, and did so much by
prayer and by gifts that they caused the emperor
to be so full of ire that he commanded them to prison,

Varied Beneficent Activity 83

and without other demand, he commanded that they
should be slain that same night. And when they
knew it by their keeper, they rent their clothes and
wept bitterly; and then Nepotian remembered him
how S. Nicholas had delivered the three innocents,
and admonested the others that they should require
his aid and help. And thus as they prayed S. Nicholas
appeared to them and after appeared to Constantine,
the emperor, and said to him: Wherefore hast thou
taken these three princes with so great wrong, and
hast judged them to death without trespass? Arise
up hastily, and command that they be not executed,
or I shall pray to God that he move battle against
thee, in which thou shalt be overthrown, and shalt
be made meat to beasts. And the emperor demanded :
What art thou that art entered by night into my
palace and durst say to me such words? And he
said to him: I am Nicholas, bishop of Mirea. And
in like wise he appeared to the provost, and feared
him, saying with a fearful voice : Thou that hast lost
mind and wit, wherefore hast thou consented to the
death of innocents? Go forth anon and do thy part
to deliver them, or else thy body shall rot, and be
eaten with worms, and thy meiny shall be destroyed.
And he asked him: Who art thou that so menacest
me ? And he answered : Know thou that I am Nicho-
las, the bishop of the city of Mirea. Then that one
awoke that other, and each told to other their
dreams, and anon sent for them that were in prison, to
whom the emperor said : What art magic or sorcery
can ye, that ye have this night by illusion caused us
to have such dreams ? And they said that they were
none enchanters ne knew no witchcraft, and also that
they had not deserved the sentence of death. Then

84 St. Nicholas

the emperor said to them : Know ye well a man named
Nicholas? And when they heard speak of the name
of the holy saint, they held up their hands toward
heaven, and prayed our Lord that by the merits of
S. Nicholas they might be delivered of this present
peril. And when the emperor had heard of them
the life and miracles of S. Nicholas, he said to them :
Go ye forth, and yield ye thankings to God, which
hath delivered you by the prayer of this holy man,
and worship ye him ; and bear ye to him of your jewels,
and pray ye him that he threaten me no more, but
that he pray for me and for my realm unto our Lord.
And a while after, the said princes went unto the holy
man, and fell down on their knees humbly at his
feet, saying: Verily thou art the sergeant of God,
and the very worshipper and lover of Jesu Christ. And
when they had all told this said thing by order, he
lift up his hands to heaven and gave thankings and
praisings to God, and sent again the princes, well
informed, into their countries.

This story, although, so far as known, it does
not form the subject of any of the St. Nicholas
plays presented by medieval schoolboys, certainly
possesses dramatic quality. The first interven-
tion by the protecting saint provides suspense like
that before the arrival of a reprieve on the stroke
of twelve in a modern melodrama. The scene
is strikingly presented in one of the Santa Croce
frescoes. One of the young men is represented
kneeling blindfolded awaiting the death stroke.





























Varied Beneficent Activity 85

The executioner holds his sword lifted, while St.
Nicholas from behind grasps it by the point.

Also both this scene and the second scene in the
story are represented in the celebrated Giottesque
frescoes at Assisi. In the second scene there is
represented a hall with straight ceiling supported
by slender columns. In this hall the Emperor
Constantine is lying asleep. Nicholas with
uplifted hands approaches and commands him
to free the three imprisoned princes. The latter,
one sees below, behind a barred window, before
which stands a great wooden cage. r

The twelfth- century life of St. Nicholas by
Wace, written, as the reader is told in the opening
lines, for the sake of the unlettered, to explain to
them the purpose of the St. Nicholas festival newly
instituted in the West, contains a number of
episodes not included in the more or less official
account in the Golden Legend. There is one
story which seems like a variant version of that
of the three murdered schoolboys, which itself is
also included by Wace. 2 A merchant is on his
way to visit the saint. On the journey he takes
lodgings at an inn and in the night is murdered
by the treacherous landlord. His body is cut to
pieces and packed in a cask and salted like edible
flesh. In the night St. Nicholas restores the

86 St. Nicholas

merchant to life with his body entirely sound.
In the morning the merchant appears, naturally
to the astonishment of the landlord, who confesses
and worships St. Nicholas.

Wace also includes a short story of how St.
Nicholas freed a child possessed by the devil, 3
and still another incident, one more than usually
filled with human interest, recorded in connec-
tion with the election of St. Nicholas as bishop.
The story goes that the hostess at an inn where
the youthful bishop-elect had stayed, was so
overjoyed at the election, that she left her baby in
a bath pan by the fire. In her absence the water
boiled. The mother returned in fright but found
her child safe and happy.

St. Nicholas in origin was an Oriental saint.
In the Eastern Church at the present day his
worship is more active than in western Europe.
In countries like Greece of to-day there sur-
vive the conditions amid which St. Nicholas
worship had its origin and amid which legen-
dary stories of him were propagated. His
ability to work miracles is still believed in by
many a Greek peasant. The following re-
markably circumstantial account of an incident
supposed to have taken place on May 25, 1909,
will illustrate the faith in the goodness and


























Varied Beneficent Activity 87

power of St. Nicholas still alive in certain parts
of Greece. 4

In a romantic situation, one quarter of an hour
from the village of Sparta in Elis, stands a fine monas-
tery dedicated to St. Nicholas. Every year on the
loth of May the anniversary of the finding of the
saint's ikon there come to the monastery thousands
of worshipers from all parts of the Peloponnese, who
bring various offerings to the saint and remain several
days in the romantic monastery, worshiping the
wonder-working ikon and celebrating the annual

Amongst this year's worshipers was a peasant,
John Doulos, from the village of Bezaite", who invoked
the help of the saint on behalf of Kyriakula, his young
daughter, who was blind. He brought her to wor-
ship at the shrine. The unfortunate girl had lost
her sight on Easter day, when she thought she saw a
great fire before her eyes and fell to the ground. From
that moment she could see nothing. All medical
skill was of no avail, and the despairing Doulos de-
termined to take his daughter to the saint. They
arrived at the monastery on the Wednesday before
the festival. Thursday and Friday, days and nights,
they spent inside the church kneeling before the ikon
in prayer and supplication. Suddenly about dawn
on the Saturday, when the worshipers in the church
were numerous, Kyriakula arose, and crossing herself,
cried :

"Father, father, I see! There are the saint's
candles! There is the ikon !"

A thrill of emotion ran through those present, and

88 St. Nicholas

all joined with the girl, whose sight had been restored,
in worshiping the ikon of the wonder-working saint.
After remaining many hours to bless the name of the
saint, the healed girl left the church with her father
and joined in the festival. Then she returned to her
village, and her restored eyesight told better than
words the saint's miracle.



TN our time the celebration of St. Nicholas' day
has lost much of the ceremony that was once
associated with it. Even in countries like Bel-
gium and Holland, where the day is a great folk
festival, there is little to connect the day with the
story of the beloved bishop-saint. "Sinterklaes"
is better known than St. Nicholas. In early days
the case was different. Particularly in the cen-
turies immediately following the transfer of the
St. Nicholas relics to Italy, the time when the
vogue of the eastern saint reached its height in
the countries of western Europe, in many ways
his story was kept fresh in the popular memory.
Not only did the Boy Bishop custom commemorate,
in somewhat extravagant fashion to be sure, the
elevation of the boy Nicholas to the rank of bishop,
but stories of the life of the saint formed an impor-
tant part of the lectiones, or "readings," for the
day in the church; and more important still, some


90 St. Nicholas

of the principal episodes in his life formed the
subject, in church schools, for hymns which later
developed into little plays. 1 In the election of
the Boy Bishop was reenacted with a great deal
of adventitious detail one of these episodes. In
more strictly dramatic fashion were reenacted
the four episodes: (i) of the maidens saved from
a life of shame; (2) the three murdered schoolboys
restored to life; (3) the kidnapped boy restored to
his parents; and (4) the Jew that put his treasures
in charge of the image of St. Nicholas.

These little St. Nicholas plays have genuine
significance in the early history of the modern
drama. At a time when the classical drama was
dead, when the works of Plautus and Terence
were valued as repositories of sententious expres-
sions and their dramatic character apparently
not suspected, when the names tragedy and com-
edy were almost entirely dissociated from drama-
tic meaning, by one of the strange ironies of life,
under the auspices of the Church, which had been
hostile in its attitude toward earlier drama, there
was created, seemingly without being realized, the
germ from which developed the modern drama.
The St. Nicholas plays go back to an early stage

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Online LibraryGeorge Harley McKnightSt. Nicholas : his legend a → online text (page 5 of 9)