In my search for something unusual and exciting for my readership to enjoy in the second half of December, I came across a most remarkable cycle of poems celebrating St. Nicholas of Myra, now more commonly known and worshipped in the Anglophone world and beyond as Santa Claus.
Transmitted in the Ms. Cotton Tiberius B. V, the poems would appear to date to the 10th-12th centuries (or perhaps, in some of their substance, even earlier).
Amounting to some 350 lines in total, the poems do not seem to have attracted much scholarly attention – or, in fact, ever been translated into English (or any other language, for that matter).
Without any desire to proselytise, or to upset anyone through the provision of a document and a frame of mind that is representative of a long bygone era, I herewith publish what I believe to be the first ever complete translation of this composition.
The Latin version is provided in the form of scans taken from Thomas Wright – James Orchard Halliwell’s Reliquiae Antiquae. Scraps from Ancient Manuscripts, Illustrating Chiefly Early English Literature and the English Language (London 1841, vol. I, 199 ff.). It will allow the attentive reader to discover the intricacies of this peculiar composition even further, noting, for example, the internal rhyme scheme of each line.
Encounter a medieval mode of story-telling, presenting us with an idea of a man readily given to threats and physical violence in his pursuit of good causes and of justice – a man whose actions and whose entire demeanour could not be much further from the grandfatherly, jovial, slightly bumbling, and somewhat grumpy Santa Claus figure of our own time. (That being said, he is, of course, equally creepy in his ability to appear unexpectedly as well as in his profound knowledge of people’s wicked deeds.)
Discover poeticising, glorifying stories, over one-thousand years old, of miraculous and fantastic interventions, of faith and spiritual encounters, of bravery and blackmail, of unfailing support for the poor, the wrongly accused, and the persecuted, and, most of all, of the fundamental belief that justice must prevail.
Be amazed at the truly bewildering justification provided for the violation and destruction of Saint Nicholas’ tomb and the pilfering of the his remains.
But, most of all, have a happy, peaceful holiday, everyone!
In the province of Lycia, there lived a Christian,
After the demise of the most holy bishop Nicholas;
He had fallen back to poverty from his many riches,
And pressed by his poverty, he approached a Jew,
Asking if he would lend him, poor man, some money,
So that he might acquire a livelihood without shame.
The Jew gives the Christian the following response, placidly,
‘Whatever you ask from me, you may have in an instant;
If you wish to obtain money, provide a guarantor,
Or a surety of the kind that matches the value of the debt.’
‘I do not have anyone close to me’, says he, ‘who would concern themselves with me,
But I promise on the altar of the bishop, in lieu of an actual deposit,
That, should I be ungrateful and not return your property,
he, who appears to everyone, may seek revenge against me.’
The Jew says to the trickster: ‘I will not reject Nicholas,
For in his presence there is no hidden fallacy.’
And thus the cunning Catholic receives the money,
Who then within only a very short amount of time became tremendously rich.
Eventually, the lender reminds the borrower
Not to delay any further his paying back of what he had received.
To this he responds, ‘What I had, I have long given back,
You have it, and now you ask back as if you had not received anything.’
The Jew was appalled and, in utter disbelief he groaned,
Invoking Nicholas, lest he let him get away without punishment:
“If you took an oath over the altar of a bishop,
whatever I’m compelled to exact (from you) I am happy to do without.’
The Christian considers how he might deceive him:
He hides the gold he owes in a hollow staff.
He then hands this staff with the gold to the Jew, unsuspecting such fraud,
To carry it, and thus to be misled, as he misleads.
Relying on such trickery, he is positive not to commit perjury,
So he appears to be innocent and to say the truth.
With no regard to the good deed he received, he swears that he had handed back the gold;
He rejoices as though he had won, and he wishes to go home.
But as he reaches a crossroads, he is overcome by great tiredness,
So that he could not proceed any further, so that he had to lie down right there.
Along the same way people led a carriage,
They shout, ask him to move, lest he died in his sleep.
But he, in his guilt, lies there, immobile, like a rock,
until the spinning wheel with its wood tears apart his stomach.
Then became clear the deceit that had been hiding in wood,
And the sudden death of the fool matches his perjury.
Rumour flies out, reaching the Jew’s ears,
Announcing what had happened, regarding that horrendous death.
‘Oh Nicholas, pride of bishops and everyone’s honour,
I have long understood that you are the Lord’s servant;
Your eminent goodness and strong sense of justice,
Urged me to relinquish my Jewish superstition.
Henceforth, I shall now be a Christian, thanks to your merits,
So that I may enjoy, together with you, the joys of eternal life;
This I ask you: that him who made the transition from this world
You restore to life, lest he rots in hell.’
Nicholas, the admirable, becomes open to persuasion by such a cause,
He brings the dead man back to life, so that may soon return the money.
May the whole world hear this and love Nicholas,
Who, holding on to the right rule, loves no fallacy.
A father of a family, in possession of many riches,
Used to travel to the threshold of his church –
In this church lies the body of a most holy bishop –
And to pay his debt in annual contributions.
He promised to make a precious little vessel,
In honour of the most holy bishop Nicholas.
Finally, he seeks out a goldsmith, versed in such work,
Who knows how to produce fine sculptures, to insert gemstones into gold,
To create a blend of jasper and Arabian gold:
There is hardly a work of its like from the time of Solomon!
A golden vessel was created, a match for any king,
With stones surrounding it, an amazing creation.
But the beauty of the vessel entices the eyes of the giver,
Dragging him towards greed, through the demon’s envy.
What he had vowed of his own volition he does not hesitate to withhold,
He maintains ownership, redesignating it for his own personal use.
Again he seeks out the goldsmith, whom he gives gold
And orders to recreate a vessel that is similar to the previous one.
He hands it over, the man receives it, pressing on with the work he begun
He does not cease to work, and yet he achieves nothing.
The tools are failing, nature spoils the refined gold,
Like highly fragile glass the gemstones fall off the work,
And as the master understands that his own craftsmanship is powerless,
He collects everything and returns the gold and the gemstones.
As it is nearly the time of the annual feast for Nicholas,
The knight plans to sail with everyone else,
With his wife and his son, he takes as many slaves as possible,
So that they pay him the necessary respect.
But as he gets on the open sea, the father orders the son
To take the aforementioned vessel and give him a drink.
The boy, rushing as quickly as he can, readily takes the goblet,
Which he desired to cool down a bit, before mixing wine in it.
As it moistens in the water, it slips from his hands,
But as he desires to retrieve it, he too slips into the sea.
The father shouts for the boy, shedding tears over his face,
‘I alone am to blame for the young man’s demise!
I beseech you, Nicholas, have mercy with me, wretched,
and don’t pay back in equal measure for the huge crime, as I would deserve.
When I lied to you, I was not pressed by any hardship,
Nor was there any necessity or barrenness upon me.’
As the pitiful knight reaches the land,
He returns to the well-known threshold of bishop Nicholas.
There is no such eloquence that could tell,
Just how much he blamed himself, or how bitterly he cried.
Finally, after many a tear, he offers the unwelcome gifts,
Which the goldsmith had returned and which were never to please the Saint.
But the glorious bishop, offended by such a gift,
Soon pushed off his altar whatever the knight had placed on it.
Then the matter became exceedingly clear, why the boy had died,
Who could not hold on to the goblet that the father had vowed.
And while the people celebrate the holiday in sacred ceremonies,
And the father of the family mourns his misfortune,
Behold!, In comes the boy, carrying the goblet in his hands,
Quickly bringing the hearts of the onlookers to rejoice.
The father comes running, breathless, flinging his arms around the son’s neck,
Besides himself with joy, he barely manages to speak to the boy.
Finally, after deserved kisses, the father asks his son,
How he had been, since he had fallen into the waves.
He says: ‘When I fell, I saw an old man,
In the venerable appearance of angelic graciousness,
Whom his most pious mother held in her arms.
He gave me the goblet and said: Fear not!
How he led me out of such mighty danger,
I do not know. I am still astonished in my amazement.
The one thing I do remember, however, when I had escaped the sea,
There was a guide who showed me the way to this church.
Immediately he then takes the goblet from the hand of his son,
And offers it, glad in his heart, with all the people watching.
To everyone faring the sea Nicholas is well known,
And the gifts that have been promised to him in vows are presented deservedly.
When the Vandals’ army, from Africa
Coming to Calabrian lands to maraud,
loots men and lifestock alive, moving across the entire country,
And everyone snatches the best things he is capable to snatch,
One of them discovers an image of Saint Nicholas,
Which he hides in his fold, lest his companions see it,
And, as it was beautifully and decently crafted,
He looks at it frequently, wondering whose it was.
Looking at the amazing image of this Christian man,
They tell him that this is a most famous icon of Nicholas.
If he, whoever owns it, believed in God,
He could rest assured that everything would turn out well for him.
The man we are talking about was a publican,
With an abundance of wealth, but not yet a Catholic;
As he sat down in his own home, having returned,
He put his clothes and whatever else he had on display.
High up on the wall Nicholas was hung,
And he ordered him to safeguard everything with diligence;
He gives his orders to the image just like one would to a living being;
Hence he tends to other business, with peace of mind.
During the night, thieves come, who steal everything,
Taking all the fixings, except for that very image.
As the man returns first thing in the morning and, distraught, could not find the things
That he had left behind, he grabs the image
Saying: ‘Nicholas, your protection I have experienced in a bad way,
Because I have deemed you trustworthy, I have lost everything.
I make the gods my witnesses and all those idols that I worship,
If you do not restore my property, you will be subjected to the fire.’
Saying such things, he thrashes the statue savagely from every side,
And as though it could feel it, it sustained wounds.
After he had inflicted punishment, which it took without so much as a whisper,
He places it on the wall, hanging it where it had been before.
Hence Saint Nicholas, around the evening, calling to mind
What ignomy his statue had to suffer,
Rushes to the lodgings where the bandits met
To distribute among themselves the loot that they had accumulated.
‘You rogues,’ said he ‘what is it that you are dividing up here?
For your thefts I have sustained these injuries;
What I see here is not of your inheritance,
For these objects were left in my custody.
Lest you be in danger, through my reporting you,
And I make you publicly known to everyone, return this posthaste.’
Thus he spoke and disappeared; the bandits were terrified.
Soon they restore everything, lest they be in danger.
In the morning, as the publican got out of his bed,
He revisits the place where he had lost his possessions.
But when he enters the room, finding what was his –
No one can describe how cheerful he became!
He dances full of joy, renouncing all idols;
He becomes Christian, which is the most salubrious thing there is.
For the saint, through whose merit this miracle had happened,
He built a church, beautifully constructed.
Ever since that time, the people of Africa worshipped
Nicholas, more than any other province, with wondrous love.
There is not a Christian region in this world
Where there are not any churches dedicated to his name;
His name thus conquers all land and sea;
Let his intervention deliver us from crime.
May the orders of heaven rejoice, earth be happy alike and join the cheer,
For the most pious memory of Saint Nicholas,
Who at a tender age, when he still clung to his mother’s breast,
Gave a memorable example of self-restraint.
When he had been breast-fed on the fourth Friday,
Having received milk from the breast once, he refused to touch it again.
After the death of his father, he as the son had remained the sole heir,
Who put his inheritance to good use for the poor.
To him came a neighbour, who had three daughters,
Whom he offered for fornication, though he had been a noble.
Such lack of bread had pushed the poor man,
That he, once poor, wanted to live in such disgrace.
But tempered with the spirit of charity, Nicholas, a young man still,
Put an end to a sin whose number resembled that of the trinity.
Not yet made a bishop, he gave the young girls money,
He dispelled the father’s infamy and the daughters’ ignomy.
With such benefactions of a great character the young man
Had divinely deserved to become a powerful bishop.
Since then he appears to sailors who are shipwrecked in adverse wind
And call on him, as they speak to him:
‘Nicholas, if it is true what many say about you,
Help us quickly, lest we drown in these floods.’
He has appeared to those who shout in fear of such a threat,
He shows himself to those who invoke him, calls himself Nicholas,
And after the sea has crashed onto the masts and the ropes
And the rigging, he calms the heaving sea.
The ship-masters of Alexandria were thoroughly astounded
When they saw the copious abundance of grain.
Rationing it, they return the entire load in measure,
Despite what Nicholas had kept, as he had requested (of them).
As he reveals it, the terrible deceit is laid bare,
Which Diana had sent as a treacherous gift.
As they carry away and throw into the sea this superstition,
It heats up like a furnace and burns whatever it reaches.
Three innocent young men were doomed to be killed,
Whom he set free, unbound by powerful might.
Not much later, Constantine held others captive;
But I shall explain how it happened that he snatched them away from death.
An arrogant family from Phrygia denied the ruler what was due,
In response to which he, deservedly, ordered to press on to restrain them.
But when his men return as desired, having overcome the enemy by force,
Certain people, due to their envy, made up a lie;
They falsely claimed that their partners, Arpileon and the others,
Desired to be rulers, having stolen Caesar’s reign.
The governor was headed such malice, corrupted by a bribe,
And as a result of their fraudulent acts the men were thrown into jail.
After that, the ruler ordered the governor to have the innocent men killed,
Lest anyone else commits such an act in similar arrogance.
The jail’s guard became aware of the fraud;
At night, they accomplish everything the way the judge had ordered;
Having heard of the deadly plan, the guard comes to those just men, locked up in prison,
But he cannot hide it from them, as tears are running down his cheeks.
As they see the guard, more pale than usual,
they ask him, astonished, if he had heard news about them.
‘Silent’, he said, ‘young men, you are altogether done for,
For the end of your lives is fast approaching.
A judge gave a cunning verdict about your death,
Rushing to have you executed before the day will break;
For laments and tears will not be able to save you,
Highest virtue will come to your support this night.’
Who would be able to express just how immense the sadness was
That dwells deep down in their hearts.
But as no mortal can bring help
And there is no hiding place to escape the danger,
Back to their mind came that, when they had travelled across the sea,
They had seen Nicholas, to whom they had entrusted themselves.
That is why they ask him more than all others in their prayers
That he who sets free others, may not forget his own servants.
In the same hour, hastening, minding his servants, the bringer of help
asks Constantine whether he was asleep or awake;
As he asks ‘Who are you, who thus came to me?’,
The saint responds: ‘I am Nicholas, the bishop of Lycia,
I came here out of compassion, lest your soldiers die
Whom I advise you not to touch, lest you wish to die this instant;
Know that a king mightier than you will raise war against you,
Whose strong victory you will not be able to resist;
If you choose to go to battle, and you will take him on,
You will be overpowered and die for the fact that you are a non-believer.
Having terrified the ruler, he rushes there quicker than the wind itself,
And terrifies even more those who had made the accusations against the men.
‘Impious, bandit, traitor, deserving of a wretched demise,
You will be punished for your greed.
You will be eaten by the worms, like a filthy dog,
Everyone will give your festering body a wide berth.
But I will mercifully show lenience in the face of your crimes under the following
condition: if you come clear, with regret, about what you wickedly have done.
Having heard this, the governor is shaken off his bed,
Fearful through the night he comes to the imperial palace.
Before the governor arrived, the emperor had got up,
And furiously he hurled many a threat towards him.
He in turn attempted to appease the ruler with words of peace,
Apologising himself for the crime, ordering for the captives to be brought in.
They were immediately handed over to the ruler, fearfully they expected their demise,
They sigh, they sweat of fear, they have no hope for their lives.
The ruler asks the soldiers, ‘Where is that man, Nicholas,
Who, for better or worse, for his clemence, sets you free?’
To the sound of the well-known name of the bishop, they shout, shedding tears,
Raising their hands to the star, praising God’s glorious works,
Answering that in Lycia there is that city of the Myrians
In which the bishop lives, whom God gives glory,
Of whose prudence and brave patience
We have never seen another man, a man so good and yet so humble.
More than any other virtue, whose number in him is unrestricted,
Charity glows in him, which is the biggest one of them all;
We did entrust us to his prayers,
When we were on naval warfare against the barbarians;
There we were faithful to you,
For we conquered many an enemy with only a small number of soldiers.
The rebels that existed, and they could barely act as such,
We rendered your subjects – and tamer than lambs.
For such services we were sentenced to death,
Unless God sets us free through the merits of Nicholas.’
Who could have a chest so iron-hard, a heart so hard as stone,
That piety would not soften, for the sake of humanity?
Those who stood there in attendance could not contain themselves,
The soldiers’ eloquence elicited the tears of many.
Then finally the appeased ruler orders for the young men to be dressed properly,
Restoring the friendship they originally had.
Then he says, ‘Bring many a gift from me
To the saint bishop, about whom you have talked so much.
From his words I have learnt that you were not perfidious,
But in his testimony faithful in your service.
Nicholas, the bishop, indeed is most close to God,
Through whom we experience such miracles in our world.
That you live and understand, that you have been set free,
All that achieved his goodness and his mercy.
Bring him gifts, cloth and candles,
Which to receive he shall not reject in my memory.
I and my sons will be his servants,
For whom he may pray to God; may he no longer haunt me.’
Thus they quickly rush to board their vessels quickly with the present,
They bestow countless gifts upon Nicholas in Lycia.
On land and sea we know that Nicholas in particular
Quickly comes to the rescue of everyone who invokes him.
While we are in this world, let us ask from our Lord
That we may be mentioned in the heavenly prayers of this saint.
Let us praise God by whose providence
Nicholas becomes even closer to us than he was to begin with.
Whence the people of Greece and their Asian neighbours mourn him,
Myra in particular, now lacking this outstanding friend:
Their insulting him resulted in the fact that nowhere near to them
There is now a patron of such grace, of such excellence.
He was a lover of peace, while he flourished in this world,
After his demise he forever loves peaceful people,
He flees the Turks and the Pechenegs, wretched people indeed,
Who do not bestow what is due onto the creator of the universe.
The city of Bari, much beloved by God, well deserved
With great joy to receive Nicholas and to provide a resting place.
The Baresi and Venetians with their most powerful ships
Often cross the seas for the purpose of trade.
Just in our times they reached, with ships full of grain,
Antioch, further away still than the province of Myra.
After they had sold their grain there, following divine admonition,
They were exposed to the plan, at God’s behest,
To break open, upon their return, the saint’s marble tomb,
With iron tools, prepared for this task.
By the Lord’s will and with the bishop’s help
They entered the church and carried out what they had been told.
There were four guards in the atrium
Who, in their usual custom, soak up the holy water with their brushes;
They are in the belief that these people wanted to bring the usual offerings,
So they do not hesitate to show whatever they desired to see.
Then one of the Baresi, daring and physically strong,
Brings an iron hammer, with which he smashes the tomb,
Under whose blow the inscription is demolished into many pieces.
Forth bursts an enticing fragrance
As though they were removed into the Lord’s paradise:
They had little hope of finding glory greater still afterwards.
From here they carry away the treasure, exceeding everything in value,
Push their vessels onto the sea, set sails into the wind immediately,
A prosperous journey brings home those cheerful fellows,
Who deliver the body of the venerable bishop.
A timid seaman was admonished in his dream;
To him he said: ‘Fear not to navigate strenuously,
The twentieth day will bring an end to your journey,
And meanwhile there will not be any trouble ahead on the sea.’
As it was announced, thus it happened, the saint disembarks by the riverbank,
And all Apulia, rejoicing, comes running to encounter him.
The sheer mass of miracles worked through his merits
Sets people across the globe in motion voluntarily.
Rich and poor, they come running, to see the place
Where the limping are healed when touched by a drop of oil.
Earls and bishops, abbots and priests,
And all humankind, they come to the saint’s tomb.
Summer, winter, and the sea – they do not stall the journey
Of the pilgrims that come to him.
Graceful worship of the remaining faithful ensues
In Christ, who made him his servant and companion.
We beseech you, Nicholas, as we cannot go ourselves,
That we may be part of all the good people who go. (Amen)