The French title of this tale is “Le Miracle du grand saint Nicolas.” The following notes are based on the original French story as presented on the Wikisource website.
In the beginning of his novel, Anatole France made it clear that the Saint Nicholas about whom he was writing was not the kind bishop of Myra, whose feast falls on December 6. It was a more obscure figure who happened to have the same name as the man whom children love. Anatole’s story concerns a Saint Nicholas who was bishop of Trinqueballe in Vervignole.
Nicholas had become bishop of Trinqueballe at an early age. He was a saintly prelate and governed his people with wisdom, fairness, and moderation. He was benevolent to the poor and kind to children. He regularly visited the people under his care.
One day Nicholas and his deacon named Modernus were traveling. They came to a forest where their mules had trouble forcing their way through the thorny vegetation. Nicholas became tired and suggested that they rest and eat some bread and wine.
Modernus said that they had no bread or wine because Nicholas had given it all to the poor people that they had met along the way. Nicholas said that God had a good reason for their lack of food, and sooner or later His purpose would become clear to them. In the meantime, Nicholas said that they would have to continue onward and look for herbs for their mules and berries for themselves. Although he planned to sleep in the forest after finding something to eat, they spent the entire night traveling.
They eventually emerged from the forest, but then it started raining. When they finally encountered an inn, they were tired and chilled to the bone.
As Nicholas was warming himself by a moribund fire in the inn, a demon who was as big as a hazelnut spoke to Nicholas from the embers of the fire. There was a large container filled with brine in a dark corner of the room. The demon said that its contents were delicious and urged Nicholas to eat some of it.
Nicholas recognized that it was an evil spirit who had spoken to him. He made the sign of the cross, and the demon exploded with a terrible noise, just like a chestnut which someone throws into a fire without cutting it open.
An angel from heaven then appeared to Nicholas and told him that Garum (the innkeeper) had killed three children, cut them into pieces, and put them in the brine, where they had been for seven years. Encouraged by the angel, Nicholas extended his hands and said: “Children, get up!” The children immediately emerged from the brine.
In the meantime, Garum had entered the room. Nicholas told him to look at the children whom he had killed. He expressed the wish that Garum might repent and receive forgiveness. Garum ran out into the night, even though a storm was raging.
It was impossible to find the parents of the three children. The mother of Maxime had accidentally lost him while she was following an army in the hope of engaging in her unsavory profession. The parents of Robin were poor peasants who deliberately left him to die in a forest. Sulpice did not even know who his parents were. So Nicholas entrusted the three boys to a pious widow named Basine, who was also taking care of Mirande, a niece of Nicholas.
The three boys were ignorant and rude. All three children showed evil tendencies. The naturally cautious Robin was prone to practice dissimulation. The bold Maxime was addicted to ungovernable rage. Sulpice often harbored false ideas and obstinately refused to be corrected. They were grossly disrespectful to Basine and played cruel tricks on Mirande, Modernus, and others. For example, once they plunged the head of Mirande into a barrel of molasses.
After playing an especially wicked prank, Modernus said that the children would become worse than Herod if they were not punished, and Basine agreed with him. However, Nicholas thought that the children should always be treated with meekness, clemency, and longsuffering.
The indulgent attitude of Nicholas bore bitter fruit. When Maxine was seventeen years old, he gathered a gang of good-for-nothings and kidnapped some girls from a neighboring town and deprived them of their virginity. When the parents came to reclaim their daughters, they girls were ashamed to go home and decided to remain with their captors.
When Nicholas gently admonished Maxime, he merely shrugged his shoulders and turned his back on his benefactor.
When Berlu, the king of Vervignole, assembled an army to wage war against the neighboring kingdom of the Mambourniens, Maxime quietly left Trinqueballe, stole a horse and a mare, persuaded a farm boy to accompany him, and presented himself to the king. The king accepted the services of Maxime, who soon became one of the greatest captains of Vervignole.
In the meantime, Sulpice had been studying so that he might enter the ranks of the clergy. However, he adopted all kinds of false ideas. He believed in the doctrines of the Manicheans, Arians, Sabellians, Albigensians, Nestorians, and others. He did not seem to realize that the different doctrines that he espoused were contrary to one another.
Sulpice also displayed iconoclastic fervor. He persuaded a large number of young people to leave their homes and follow him as he burned church property in an effort to reduce the church to evangelic poverty. Some of his followers died of cold and hunger; others were killed by villagers who did not like what they were doing.
The gentle admonitions of Nicholas had no effect on Sulpice. After a futile conversation with the erring youth, Nicholas thanked the Lord for giving him this young man as a grindstone on which he could sharpen his patience and his charity.
In contrast to the other two, Robin seemed to be a good boy. He was good at mathematics, especially when it came to money matters. Nicholas trusted him with church finances, and he seemed to do a good job. He always managed to supply Nicholas with money that the saintly prelate could use for alms and hospitality.
However, it was hypocrisy. As a result of clever manipulation, Nicholas fell deeply in debt, while Robin became rich. Robin also enriched himself at the expense of Mirande, who lost all her jewels and fine clothes as a result of his chicanery.
Seligman, Issachar, and Meyer, three usurers whom Robin had employed, came to church to collect the money that Robin had borrowed from them in the name of the church. When Nicholas could not pay, they took the costly treasures with which the church was adorned. Nicholas objected in vain.
When King Berlu finally defeated the enemy, the victorious soldiers returned to Trinqueballe and celebrated their victory by raping, robbing, and killing the people that they were supposed to be protecting. Maxime forcibly deprived Mirande of her innocence.
Sulpice continued to cause trouble for Nicholas. He professed repentance for his past heresies and became a Franciscan monk. However, his repentance did not last long. He got the idea that people could return to their primal innocence if they lived like beasts. He encouraged people to remove their clothes and move about on their hands and knees. His ideas were widely adopted. Even Mirande became part of this movement.
The Dominican inquisitor Gilles Caquerole asked Nicholas to deliver Sulpice and Mirande to the Inquisition for questioning. Nicholas was fond of his niece, so he refused to hand her over. As a result, the pope deposed Nicholas from his episcopate and excommunicated him.
Mirande was imprisoned, but Sulpice escaped and joined a monastery in Mambournie, where he developed new ideas that were worse than before.
Nicholas decided to become a hermit and sadly journeyed to a lofty mountain in western Vervignole. Here he met Garum, who had also become a hermit. Garum thanked Nicholas, saying that his admonition had saved his soul. Nicholas then told Garum about his subsequent sufferings and asked why he had been punished so cruelly. Garum told Nicholas to worship God without asking Him to give an account of His actions.
Nicholas built a cabin next to Garum’s. Here he spent the rest of his days in prayer and penitence.
Some may not like it that Anatole France used the name Saint Nicholas for the protagonist of this tale. I myself wish that he had used a name not associated with any historical character. It is possible that the author himself felt a little uncomfortable about it.
However, if you read the story, you will immediately observe that using the name of this famous saint enabled him to write an interesting introduction.