The Miracle of the Great St. Nicolas
by Anatole France, illustrated by L. A. Patterson
This early 20th century satire twists the legend of St. Nicholas of Myra rescuing three boys from the salting-tub into a saga of unintended consequences and the possibility of good turning to evil, making the invented character, ‘Bishop Nicholas of Trinqueballe,’ into a tragic Job-like figure
T. NICOLAS, Bishop of Myra in Lycia, lived in the time of Constantine the Great. The most ancient and weighty of those authors who have mentioned him celebrate his virtues, his labours, and his worth: they give abundant proofs of his sanctity; but none of them records the miracle of the salting-tub. Nor is it mentioned in the Golden Legend. This silence is important: still one does not willingly consent to throw doubt upon a fact so widely known, which is attested by the ballad which all the world knows:
“There were three little children
In the fields they went to glean.”
This famous text expressly states that a cruel pork-butcher put the innocents “like pigs into the salting-vat.” That is to say, he apparently preserved them, cut into pieces, in a bath of brine. This is, to be sure, how pork is cured: but one is surprised to read further on that the three little children remained seven years in pickle, whereas it is usual to begin withdrawing the pieces of flesh from the tub, with a wooden fork, at the end of about six weeks. The text is explicit: according to the elegy, it was seven years after the crime that St. Nicolas entered the accursed hostelry. He asked for supper. The landlord offered him a piece of ham:
“‘Wilt eat of ham? Tis dainty food.’
‘I’ll have no ham: it is not good.’
‘Wilt eat a piece of tender veal?’
‘I will not make of that my meal.
Young salted flesh I want, and that
Has lain seven years within the vat.’
Whereas the butcher heard this said
Out of the door full fast he fled.”
The Man of God immediately resuscitated the tender victims by the laying of hands on the salting-tub.
Such is, in substance, the story of the old anonymous rhyme. It bears the inimitable stamp of honesty and good faith. Skepticism seems ill-inspired when it attacks the most vital memories of the popular mind. It is not without a lively satisfaction that I have found myself able to reconcile the authority of the ballad with the silence of the ancient biographers of the Lycian pontiff. I am happy to proclaim the result of my long meditations and scholastic researches. The miracle of the salting-tub is true, in so far as essentials are concerned, but it was not the blessed Bishop of Myra who performed it; it was another St. Nicolas, for there were two: one, as we have already stated, Bishop of Myra in Lycia; the other more recent, Bishop of Trinqueballe in Vervignole. For me was reserved the task of distinguishing between them. It was the Bishop of Trinqueballe who rescued the three little boys from the salting-tub. I shall establish the fact by authentic documents, and no one will have occasion to deplore the end of a legend.
I have been fortunate enough to recover the entire history of the Bishop Nicolas and the children whom he resuscitated. I have fashioned it into in a narrative which will be read, I hope, with both pleasure and profit.
“The Miracle of the Great St. Nicolas,” from the Golden Tales of Anatole France, Anatole France, illustrated by L. A. Patterson, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, 1927.