The Bones and Bari

It’s the Feast of St Nicholas today. Most people know him better as Santa Claus.

He was a very early bishop (3rd-4th century CE) and known for giving secret gifts to girls in need of dowries. In some branches of Christianity he is the patron saint of prostitutes, because of the gifts.

Nicholas lived at a critical time in early Christianity, when Christianity linked with the Roman Empire. In his lifetime, he would have seen that change happen and also been a part of it. It’s been a long time since I played in the sandpit of later Roman history. In fact, it was when I was an undergraduate. I’m happy to return to it one day and explore again, if people want me to. Or tell more stories of other peoples’ bones. My form of the macabre is gentle, but it exists.

Today, however, I promised the story of the bones of Nicholas. Other years I will tell the pickled children story, but this year, when I asked, people wanted to hear about the bones.

This is not from his lifetime (obviously) and not even from soon after his death. In fact, I don’t know when it was from. What I know is a purely and utterly fictional rendition of the story, from the Middle Ages. After studying diverse histories as an undergraduate, I became a Medievalist, and so many of my best stories come from the Middle Ages.

This pure and utterly fictional rendition comes from an actual event. Some (I ought to know how many, but I’ve forgotten if I ever even checked that aspect) of Nicholas’ bones were moved from Myra to Bari. They arrived in Bari on 9 May 1087 (according to the website I looked at, but I’ve seen other dates), and this is the day of the official celebration of the translation of the relics. Every year from 7-9 May, Bari celebrates this.

Now for the fun bit. I’ve read two versions of the translation* of the bones.

The first story was from Bari. It praised the sailors who rescued the bones from danger and possible destruction in Myra. In this version, the bones adventured across the water and arrived in Bari and everything was perfect ever after. It’s the dull version and I honestly don’t remember any details.

The other tale is quite different. Sailors stole the bones from their proper burial place (Nicholas did, indeed, die in Myra, and the tomb is still there, to the best of my knowledge) and smuggled them on board a ship. The ship set sail. Nicholas was not happy that his bones (or some of his bones) had been stolen.

He was a saint and his anger was full of power. Thunder roared and lightning struck and waves three times higher than the ship crashed against its side. Nicholas was polite and distant with young women and totally cool with saving pickled children, but he protested the perfidy of the sailors with much vigour. The adventure was neither swift nor safe. It was gloomy and perilous and full of dangers and I would not like to know the dreams of the surviving sailors. Despite Nicholas protesting the voyage with every fibre of his dead bones, the sailors brought them to Bari.

These days there are bones of Nicholas in many places, and, to the best of my knowledge, no angry storms associated. I’d very much like to see the bones assembled, and to know how many of them came from the same man. Some study has been done on them and several of the remaining bones come from a man of the right age and around the right dates. This is a lot better than the situation for many of saints’ relics. At one stage John the Baptist had four heads…


*’translation’ is the correct term here. When an ordinary person does their bones are moved. When a hated person died, their bones may be moved, or burned, or kicked around with despite. When a saints’ bones need moving, they are translated.

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