Saint Nicholas and the Three Scholars

Adapted by Anne Malcolmson, from TRES CLERICI, a twelfth-century manuscript of the Abbey Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire

Cast of Characters

AN OLD WOMAN, his wife

The scene represents a road or pathway through a forest. At one side of the stage stands a little cottage. Enter three Scholars trudging wearily along the road.

We three, whom love of learning has brought
Thus far to travel on foreign ways,
Should look for a lodging for the night
While the sun still spreads its warming rays.
Yea! He holds his horses upon the shore;
Soon they will dive beneath the sea.
We know nought of this land.
Therefore, Shelter we now must seek, all three.

An old man comes out of the cottage across the stage. He putters about his dooryard, as the Scholars spy him and point to him.

Yonder, look you, there appears
A grave old man, soberly dressed.
Perhaps if we offer to him our prayers,
He will receive us and be our host.

The Scholars approach him politely.

Sire, for love of learning we've come
Many a mile to this foreign coast.
Pray, give us lodging. We're far from home,
And we would sleep while the night doth last.
Now let the Maker of All be your Host!
I'll give you no hospitality!
It would bring me only an extra cost,
And there would be no benefit for me.

The Scholars are taken aback. The Old Man turns away from them discourteously. As the Scholars whisper together, an Old Woman enters from the cottage. They spy her, and after a brief consultation, the First Scholar approaches her and bows.

Dear lady, you may grant our plea
For a place to sleep, though you profit none.
For such kindness and generosity,
The Lord may bless you and send you a son.

The Old Woman looks at them, as they all bow to her. After a moment's consideration, she turns to her husband and speaks privately to him.

Dear husband, to give hospitality
To these poor studious young men
Is the least we can do in charity.
It will bring us no loss; it will bring us no gain.

The Old Man thinks it over, then shrugs his shoulders, and answers her.

Good wife, I'll listen to what you say.
I'm willing to let them stay the night.

He comes forward to the Scholars.

Now, wandering scholars, come here to me!
You may have the lodging that you have sought.

The Scholars show their gratitude and bow deeply. The Old Woman bustles about to make their beds ready. She fetches cushions from inside the cottage and places them in a row in the center of the stage. She retires to the door of the cottage, while the Old Man leads the Scholars to their pallets, then he joins his wife. The Scholars prepare for bed. They remove their heavy purses and place them on the ground behind their pillows. They wrap themselves in their cloaks, lie down with their heads on the cushions, and soon fall asleep. When they are fast asleep, the Old Man and Old Woman tiptoe over to look at them. The Old Man points to the purses.

Just see how fat these purses be!
There is plenty here of silver and gold.
If it were not for the infamy,
We could steal the money that these do hold.

He continues to stare thoughtfully at the purses, while the Old Woman sighs.

We have borne the burden of poverty,
Husband, as long as we've drawn breath.
We might escape our penury,
If we had but the heart to put them to death.

They look at one another as the idea begins to gain a hold over them. The Old Woman plucks her husband's sleeve and whispers.

Come! Take your sword out of its sheath!
You could have great riches to call your own,
If you'd put these wanderers to death,
And no one would know what you had done.

After some hesitation, the Old Man takes out his sword. He stabs the sleepers. They pick up the bodies and carry them, one by one, into the cottage. Then they return and fondle the purses. As they are doing this, they catch sight of someone approaching. Quickly they hide the purses in the cottage and assume modest attitudes as they come out. St. Nicholas enters, dressed in the robes of a bishop and carrying a crosier as a staff. He walks wearily.

A traveler, I, weary of my way.
Surely I can walk no further.

He sees the old couple and bows to them graciously.

A lodging for the night, I pray
You give to me, good sire and mother.

The Old Man and Old Woman hesitate. They whisper.

Is this man worthy to be our guest?
Dear wife, I'll do whatever you say.
You can see that his rank is of the highest.
He is nobly born. We should let him stay.

The Old Man nods in agreement. He turns to St. Nicholas and bows politely.

Weary traveler, draw thee near.
You seem to be a gentleman.
If you desire some dinner here,
Whatever you wish, I shall try to obtain.

St. Nicholas bows to them. He stands to one side, as they bustle about. The Old Man fetches a chair and a table, which he sets up in the center of the stage, just in front of the cushions left by the Scholars. The Old Woman sets the table with cutlery and several covered dishes. At last all is ready, and they lead the Saint to the table. He sits down and smacks his lips, while they take their places slightly behind him on either side. One by one, he takes the covers off the dishes and replaces them. As he does so, his expression changes from pleasure to disappointment and finally to anger. He turns first to one, then to another of the couple.

ST. NICHOLAS fiercely
I can eat none of these dishes here! Good fresh meat is what I crave!

The Old Man recovers slightly from his astonishment and speaks very humbly.

I've brought thee the best of our own poor fare.
Good fresh meat we do not have.

St. Nicholas jumps up furiously, upsetting the table and chair. He picks up his crosier and shakes it at the Old Man.

Now you have plainly told a lie!
Too much fresh meat your cupboards hold!
Fresh meat you have butchered in villainy!
You've slaughtered three men to gain their gold!

The old people cling to one another in terror at the Saint's last statement. Then the Old Woman falls to her knees before him.

Have mercy, good sir, and pity us!
For you must be a saint from God.

The Old Man falls to his knees before the Saint.

Although our crime is hideous,
Christ Himself might pardon our deed.
They kneel before him in anguish, begging for forgiveness. St. Nicholas strides angrily up and down the stage, then turns to them and speaks sternly.
Bring forth the bodies of the slain,
And in your hearts repent your sin!
By God's grace, these dead shall rise again.
With weeping, ye may your pardon win.

The old couple kneel penitently for a moment, then slowly rise to their feet and enter the cottage. As they go, the Saint brusquely moves the table and the chair aside. The old people carry out the body of the First Scholar, and place it on the ground before the Saint, with its head on a cushion. They bring out the other two in the same manner. Then they fetch the purses, and sigh as they place them on the ground. When they have finished, they kneel before their cottage door. St. Nicholas takes his place in the center of the stage, in front of the three "bodies," and prays.

Oh, God! From Whom all things have come,
Heaven and earth and air and sea,
Raise up these men who are lying dumb.

He turns slightly and indicates the Scholars. He pauses. Then he indicates the old couple.

And hearken to those that cry out to Thee!

There is a moment of silence. St. Nicholas, his head still bent in prayer, steps to the side of the stage opposite the couple. Then slowly the First Scholar begins to move, as though he were waking from sleep. The others follow him. They stretch, look about them, reach for their purses, and finally rise to their feet. They look at one another in wonder.

As they do so, the Old Man and the Old Woman raise their heads and see the miracle. Their expressions change from contrition to great joy. They lift their arms and faces toward the Saint, who stands immobile with his crosier extended in blessing. They rise, and the whole cast bows to the audience and leaves the stage.


From Miracle Plays: Seven Medieval Plays for Modern Players by Anne Malcolmson, illustrated by Pauline Baynes, Houghton Mifflin, 1959. Used by permission.

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