06 December 2009

A Punch in the Jaw from Jolly Old St. Nick

Tara: There’s a Santa Claus?
Anya: Mm-hmm. Been around since, like, the 1500s. But he wasn’t always called Santa. But with, you know, Christmas night, flying reindeer, coming down the chimney, all true.
Dawn: All true?
Anya: Well, he doesn’t traditionally bring presents so much as, you know, disembowel children. But otherwise…
Tara: The reindeer part was nice.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “The Body”

Today is St. Nicholas Day, the official start of the holiday marathon that constitutes Yuletide.  This is the day little children in Teutonic countries who put out a shoe filled with hay the night before wake up to find the hay replaced by candy.  The hay is for St. Nicholas’ horse, and the candy is a reward for decent behavior from the kids.  Sometimes stockings are put out instead of shoes, and the St. often comes into the house through the chimney.  St. Nicholas, by the way, has a variously-named helper who not only carries the bag of rewards, but also helpfully carries a rod for corporal punishment of bad kids.  In Switzerland, Austria, and some parts of Germany he’s an unkempt horned demon named Krampus, or Klaubauf; in other parts of Germany he’s a uncouth knight called Ruprecht; and in the Netherlands he’s a nasty-looking guy known as Black Peter (Zwarte Piet), not to be confused with the old whaler whose death Sherlock Holmes once investigated.

Like so many of the older saints and martyrs, the historic Nicholas of Myra is a slippery fellow.  He scuttles about in the shadows, leaving little for a researcher to work with. What small record about him we do have to go on is legend, and only the existence of those legends gives us any reason to believe that the guy was important in his own time, and apparently much loved.  Historically all we can say is that a cult of St. Nicholas was already prominent in the sixth century.  Behind the cult presumably lies a real human being, but we know nothing whatsoever about him.

Reference works usually say something like this:

Saint Nicholas (Greek: Άγιος Νικόλαος , Agios [“saint”] Nikolaos [“victory of the people”]) (280 - 6 December 343) is the common name for Nicholas of Myra, a saint and Bishop of Myra (Demre, in Lycia, part of modern-day Turkey).  Although born to great wealth, he was generous to the poor.  He had a reputation for secret gift-giving and many stories are told of his benevolence.  At the council of Nicea he championed orthodoxy against the Arian heresy.  He died 6 December 343.

The trouble is, none of this is actually history.  It is, rather, an attempt to find historic kernels hidden in the mass of legends that surround the figure.  Extracting history from legend is an exacting task, one that requires a great deal of time, patience, and above all, some basis (other than personal preference) for evaluating the material.

Ideally there would exist a historical record, however meager, about the figure in question—as there is, for example, about Billy the Kid or William Shakespeare.  The matter of history then gives us something with which to judge the matter of legend; we have in that case a basis for making a decision.  The exact balance struck may depend on the views held by the particular historian about the soundness of tradition or the like, but at least there is some ground to stand on in making a decision.  But for Saint Nicholas there is nothing of the sort, no historical record of any kind.

Another possibility would be to examine the context in which he is supposed to have lived; to take a look at what is known about Myra (let us say) or the office of the bishop in the early fourth century (let us say) and use that information to judge the plausibility of the stories that have come down to us.  The weakness with this approach, however, is obvious.  It already assumes a certain body of facts—say that a man named Nicholas in fact existed in the early fourth century, that he was a bishop and that he lived in Myra.  You could apply the same sort of standards in evaluating the stories about Sherlock Holmes, for example, and in the end you’d be no closer to determining any facts about the historic Sherlock Holmes, because there was no such person.

Given the absence of anything but the legend to work with, the starting point has to be the legend itself.  A story that has been attached to various figures, for example, is far less likely to be genuine than one that is told only about the character we’re looking at.  A story that appears late in the transmission of the legend, and whose growth can be traced over time, is almost certainly not accurate, especially in its latest stage of development.  I would also note that stories that purport to tell the origin of some particular custom or landmark should be examined extremely closely; human beings enjoy telling such stories and attaching them to famous figures without too much regard for the facts on the ground.

Two stories about the legendary Saint Nicholas have always stuck in my mind.  The first I encountered many years ago, though I don’t specifically remember where.  Essentially the bishop gets wind of a guy in town who is impoverished; he is so poor that he can’t afford dowries for his three daughters.  The father is therefore contemplating turning his house into a brothel and prostituting his kids in order to make ends meet.  (The version I remember from my childhood was a bit vague on this particular point, actually.)  The bishop, however, decides to circumvent this by providing dowries for the daughters.  He does so by tossing a bag of gold through the man’s window in the dead of night.  (Again, the version I remember from childhood had him dropping the bag down the chimney.)  The man is delighted with this and does indeed succeed in marrying off his eldest daughter, thanks to Bishop Nicholas.  Pleased that the father didn’t for example make off with the money himself, the bishop tosses a second sack of gold through the window for the second daughter, and then later on a third sack for the third.  On that occasion, however, he is caught by the father, who expresses his gratitude for what the bishop has done for him and his children.  And they all live, we may assume, happily ever after.

Now Jona Lendering suggests that this story is likely to be true because it contains no supernatural elements, and that the motive for Nicholas’ actions—his concern over the fate of the girls—is unique in ancient literature.
Care for women was not a top priority in the Roman empire, and the anecdote, in this form, can not have its roots in a pagan environment. On the other hand, in early Christianity, women played an important role (e.g, as deaconesses). Only when the new faith had become a mass religion, the attitudes of the majority of the Mediterranean population started to infiltrate Christianity. The position of women became worse.
The story fits the early fourth century, cannot be derived from pagan roots, and does not require “a miraculous suspension of the laws of physics”.  He therefore concludes it “to be inevitable that it [is] simply true.”  Against this I would note that while truth is one possibility, even accepting his arguments it is not the only one.  The best we can say is that the story is likely to have originated at the same time the bishop is supposed to have lived.  Charles W. Jones (St. Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend, p. 57) is a bit less certain:
May we presume that a devotee of N, most probably a preacher, knew a fine story and believed that to add it to N’s life would honor both story and hero, as Washington was wedded to the equally inexplicable cherry tree?
I’m not going to mix into this particular discussion except to say that (as Lendering points out) there is in fact an ancient antecedent to this story, and it is found in the life of the first century Neopythagorean philosopher Apollonius of Tyana.  The philosopher ran into a guy who had four daughters and an inadequate sum of money with which to provide dowries; further, once he had given their dowries he would be wiped out.  Apollonius persuaded him to invest the money in an estate outside town instead.  At first the man complained “because, whereas he might have kept the 20,000 drachmas that he had in hand, he now reflected that the estate which he purchased for the sum might suffer from frost and hailstorms and from other influences ruinous to the crops.”  However, when instead “he got a very large yield from the olive-trees, when everywhere else the crops had failed, he began to hymn the praises of the sage, and his house was crowded with suitors for the hand of his daughters urging their suits upon him.”  Again, all live happily ever after, we may suppose.

Now there are notable differences between the stories; Nicholas hands out money, where Apollonius only hands out advice.  Nicholas may come off as the more generous here, but Apollonius comes up with the better long-term solution; he makes it possible for the man to support himself by steering him in a useful direction, where Nicholas provides only a quick fix for his present difficulties.  Did either incident happen?  Anything is possible, but we’re clearly in the realm of folklore here, not history.

The other story that sticks in my mind about the bishop of Myra is one that came up while I was sitting in on the Nag Hammadi seminar in Claremont.  One time during the Christmas season, before the event started, one of the grad-students (I actually don’t remember who, now) entertained us with a rundown of the life of Saint Nicholas as recorded in legend.  According to him the bishop was present at the Council of Nicea, and got into a disputation with the arch-heretic Arius himself.  The disputation became heated and Arius seemed to have the upper hand.  Orthodoxy itself was trembling on the brink of disaster, when Nicholas came up with the perfect refutation.  He slugged Arius, breaking his jaw, thus keeping him from continuing his heretical arguments, and so Christianity was saved from error, and all lived happily ever after (we may assume).

Okay, there actually is such a story about Nicholas, though the versions I’ve seen are not quite so dramatic as the one I remember from that particular occasion.  It wasn’t Arius himself; it was an anonymous Arian, and the bishop silenced him by slugging him in the face; nothing is said about breaking his jaw.  Jona Lendering notes:
According to this legend, Nicholas was so angry at an advocate of Arianism that, overcome by apostolic zeal, he struck his opponent. Not everyone appreciated this blow for Arianism, and the presidency of the Council decided that Nicholas was no longer allowed to wear the ornaments of a bishop. Therefore, Nicholas is shown without mitre on Greek icons. In fact, this anecdote is embarrasing, and this is a reason why it is unlikely to have been invented.
Okay, it is true that an embarrassing anecdote is less likely to have been invented than a praiseworthy one, at least by a historical figure’s admirers, but the extant accounts don’t seem to have looked at it that way.  Jesus and Mary are supposed to have approved his action.  And here the history of the tradition is overriding; when it turns up in an earlier account we read:
…all the Orthodox were gathered at Nicea to establish a true Constitution of the Faith and to drive away the blasphemous doctrine of Arius, with a view to peaceful conciliation of the whole Church.  It was effected by the determination that the Son was equal in honor with the Father and that both Persons were conjoint.  The admirable Nicholas helped to bring this about as a member of the sacred synod, and he strenuously resisted the casuistry of Arius, reducing to naught his every tenet. [Symeon Metaphrastes as quoted in Charles W. Jones, p. 63]
Only later does Nicholas punch an Arian, and only after that do accounts mention the negative reaction from other bishops.  Plausible it may be, but truth and plausibility are by no means the same thing.  In this case the lateness of the story, combined with the fact that we can trace its development, suggests that the information is bogus.  It’s also worth noting (perhaps) that Nicholas is not listed as a participant in the council of Nicea in most lists, though as they were compiled after the fact and are not necessarily complete, that may not count for much.

None of this really matters all that much.  There’s no real evidence to suggest that the historical Saint Nicholas was anything more than a convenient name to graft onto a legend; the legend might well be much the same if Nicholas of Myra never existed.  And in truth, though I’ve expressed it as a hypothetical, it may well be the fact that Nicholas never existed.  A cult and a legend do not necessarily add up to a historical figure, and wishful thinking is not the same as historical research.  For one thing, the former is much easier than the latter.


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