Moral relativism in the medieval church: St Nicholas

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas, the 4th-century bishop of Myra (that’s in present-day Turkey). I thought it suitable to share with you a story from the life of the saint whose name I bear (as my middle name).  There were many lives of St. Nicholas written in the Middle Ages, but Jacobus de Voragine’s account in his Golden Legend (c. 1260, a medieval bestseller) is by far the most exciting of all. He begins by saying that after his baptism, baby Nicholas would only suck on his mother’s breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, emphasising Nicholas’ early commitment to a life of fasting and abstinence. Then he goes on to relate the many miracles the saint performed in the company of sailors. Right after his death, a cult spawned and people of all sorts began to trust the saint’s power. The story I include below involves a Jew, an icon, a handful of thieves and an apparition and does something very strange indeed.  It seems to suggest that theft and iconoclasm could lead to conversion to medieval Christianity. This way, it serves as an example of something nobody would dare suggest for this period: that the medieval Church admitted of moral relativism, showing that actually nothing is intrinsically wicked, that faith transcends questions of good and bad, right and wrong.

Another Jew saw the virtuous miracles of St. Nicholas, and did do make an image of the saint [an icon], and set it in his house, and commanded him that he should keep well his house when he went out, and that he should keep well all his goods, saying to him: Nicholas, lo! here be all my goods, I charge you to keep them, and if thou keep them not well, I shall avenge me on you in beating and tormenting you. And on a time, when the Jew was out, thieves came and robbed all his goods, and left, unborne away, only the image. And when the Jew came home he found him robbed of all his goods. He questioned the image saying these words: Sir Nicholas, I had set you in my house for to keep my goods from thieves, why have you not kept them? You shall receive sorrow and torments, and shall have pain for the thieves. I shall avenge my loss, and refrain my frenzy in beating you. And then took the Jew the image, and beat it, and tormented it cruelly. Then a great marvel occurred, for when the thieves departed with the goods, the holy saint, like as he had been in his array, appeared to the thieves, and said to them: Why have I been beaten so cruelly for you and have so many torments? See how my body is hewed and broken; see how that the red blood runs down by my body; go fast and restore it again, or else the wrath of God Almighty shall make you as to be one out of his wit, and that all men shall know your felony, and that each of you shall be hanged. And they said: Who are you that says to us such things? And he said to them: I am Nicholas the servant of Jesus Christ, whom the Jew has so cruelly beaten for his goods that you took away. Then they were afraid, and came to the Jew, and heard what he had done to the image, and they told him the miracle, and delivered to him again all his goods. And thus came the thieves to the way of truth, and the Jew to the way of Jesus Christ.

P.S. The gravitas of my suggestion must not lead anyone to think that this is anything but a pleasantry. Admittedly, the mere thought that the Jew’ infliction of derivative damage on St Nicholas marshalled him to conversion does not need any further witty suggestions. This disclaimer comes as a result of a reader’s (he knows who he is) denunciation of my suggestion that conversion to faith justifies the use of any kind of morality. This reader must remember our chat over lunch today.

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