Over at the Smithsonian, Natasha Geiling writes about Santa, who has as many hometowns as Christ has foreskins. Santa lives at the North Pole, or, rather, the “North Pole,” variously in New York, Alaska, and Finland. Saint Nicholas, we medievalists know, lived further South. Geiling writes:
The real Santa Claus—the historical figure upon which the legend is based—never lived anywhere near the North Pole. Saint Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century bishop who lived and died far from the Arctic Circle, in what is now Turkey. Born into a wealthy family, Nicholas is said to have loved giving gifts, once throwing three sacks of gold coins into the house of a poor family, thereby saving the home’s three daughters from a life of prostitution. Nicholas was also a favorite among sailors, who prayed to him during rough seas. The sailors spread Nicholas’ story around the world, turning him into one of the most popular saints in Christendom.
My favorite Saint Nicholas story, though, is the Miracle of Nicholas and the Three Clerks, an early version of the Sweeney Todd legend. I tell the story in my How to Make a Human (210-216), where it’s subjected to the kind of microscopic, psychoanalytic exegetics academic literary critics, and only us I think, delight in doing (“The furtiveness instead announces the presence of a secret; it gives up the secret, and what the secret wants to hide: the presence of narrative content too traumatic to relate directly” and so on; really very sorry).
From the twelfth century on, the story’s told often, in art, in poetry, and in song, beginning with a story about — yes — a travelling salesman. The one I like best is in one manuscript (Bodley 779) of the South English Legendary, a massive Middle English collection of saint’s lives.
It begins like so: “on a tyne thre clerkis com wandry in a street / of hongred and ful sore athirst” (once upon a time, three clerks were wandering in a street, suffering much from hunger and thirst). When the clerks plead with a butcher to board them (“her out that we ne sterue”), he refuses, often and rudely, until his wife suggests that they kill and rob the students in the night. After all, students are rich! (“of siluir habbeth gret plente. and ek [also]…gret…sacheles”). The students eat their fill, and then bed down, all the while invoking the name of Saint Nicholas. Soon after, the butcher has his wife fetch his ax, and he goes to work (“”for culle ich wole hem sone” [for I will slaughter/kill them [or sort them!] soon]).
Being students, they have nothing worth stealing but their bodies.
When the butcher panics, he blames his wife: you should never have called the clerks back! His wife patiently reminds him of his craft: they should make the corpses into “pastis and pyus . . . for pork hy cholleth ben solde” (pasties and pies . . . [to] be sold as pork). The next day, the butcher announces that he is selling three pennies’ worth of pies for the price of one (“for on peny ich wolde yeue, for hanseles sake, / that is worth to other thre, whoso hit wolde take”).
Quickly, maybe even before the butcher manages to unload any stock, Jolly Old Saint Nick arrives, with his entourage of ushers. Nicholas “axed of [the butcher] what he hadde, and what to sillin wolde” (asked [the butcher] what he had and what he would sell), who “answered baldeliche, pasties and pyes he hadde / and good chep” (boldly answered that he had pasties and pies, and that for cheap). The butcher intensifies his pitch, “and swythe loud he gradde / for a peny that is worth to. to the ich wele selle / lok nouthe wher hit be gret chep. by hem yif thou wille” (and he cried out very loudly, “I will sell two pennies’ worth to you for one. You can’t find it this cheap anywhere else. Buy them if you like!”). Nicholas’s response:
hastou any other flesch. telle swythe anon
for ich wold ther of bigge. wel swythe gret won
of bacon that were fair and clene. fain ich wolden habbe
sel me so wel as thou wost. and nought that thou ne gabbe
other flesch nab ich non. tha thou sext her to sille
yis for soth hastou. bakis thre ich wene
that liggeth isilt ther in thy fate . . .
do and bringe me ther to. yif hit thin wille be
for my wil is of hem to bigge.
Do you have any other flesh? Answer quickly, for I would buy from you a great deal of fair and clean bacon. I would gladly have this. Sell me as good meat as you know of. And don’t lie.” “I have no other flesh except for what you see here for sale.” “Yes, in truth, you do have it. I believe you have baked three that lay salted there in your vat . . . bring me there, if it is your will, for it is my will to buy them.
The butcher and his wife confess and cry for mercy, promise not to do this anymore (“”for neuer her after ne cholle we more”) — though it’s unclear whether they mean butchery or slaughtering students (in which case, how many times have they done this?) — and Nicholas resurrects the clerks. The end!
Or not! You’ll notice a continuity error: are the boys in the pies or not? Why does Nicholas keep insisting that he wants better meat than the meat that he’s being sold? Aren’t the boys right there on the counter already? There’s something a bit off here, as if the story’s too embarrassed to admit what it’s done: like all embarrassments, the story’s furtiveness instead announces the presence of a secret; it gives up the secret, and what the secret wants to hide: the presence of narrative content too traumatic to relate directly (ha! got it in). It’s that boys and pigs are pretty similar (the corpus/porcus joke is tediously common in medieval writing, and not just in medical texts); it’s that, as we know from Snowpiercer, babies taste best. It’s that Nicholas wants a bit of that Christmas pie, but he’s too ashamed to go at it directly.
Remember this miracle today by feeding a student. Tell them it’s Christmastime, and there’s no need to be afraid, because today’s a butchers holiday. And if you’re having ham (shame on you if you are), think on where it might have come from; if there’s a knock on the door, and you see a fourth-century bishop outside, you’ll know what you did.