Sounding the Cult of St. Nicholas: The Meeting of French and Latin in Hagiographic Song and Drama

Mary Channen Caldwell
University of Pennsylvania 

What is the language of saints? Surviving texts in dozens of languages from the Middle Ages suggest that saints understood, and could be venerated in, any number of tongues, from that of the church (Latin) to an array of vernacular languages and dialects.Many of the earliest vernacular writings address the cult of saints, seeking intercession in a linguistic mode proper not to an individual saint and their historical (or fictional) background, but instead in the language of the devout supplicant. Through language, one’s relationship with a saint could be made personal, with prayers, songs, and vitae in the vernacular affording an intimate connection with the holy figure that the official language of the church may not always or uniformly afford.

In this paper, I explore the role of the French language in song and drama in praise of St. Nicholas. Rather than considering solely texts in French, however, my focus is on points of contact between French and Latin in a collection of lyrical poems and dramas from twelfth- to thirteenth-century France. In some cases, the texts are overtly bilingual,alternating between the two languages. In other cases, the point of linguistic contact occurs through the act of composition, with hagiographic Latin texts replacing secular French ones by means of contrafacture. The linguistic interplay featured in these works, I argue, functions on multiple levels. First and foremost, explicit bilingualism has particular relevance for the cult of St.Nicholas, whose popularity as a saint stems from his wide-ranging and inclusive patronage (he is often styled as an “everyman’s saint”). The cult of St.Nicholas welcomed linguistic and cultural diversity, as a thirteenth-century hymn asserts: “Let Greeks and Latins, and every tongue, tribe, and nation…citizen, or foreigner, sing praises [to St. Nicholas] with equal zeal.”[1] I suggest that Nicholas’s pan-language,pan-European identity as a saint is foregrounded by means of linguistic code-switching in these hagiographic works. I also approach the bilingualism of these lyrical and poetic texts from the perspective of form and structure,showing how the mixture of French and Latin is predetermined by the registral and cultural associations of each language. Specifically, in most cases bilingualism in honor of St. Nicholas coalesces in French around popular songs and song forms, including the French refrain;by contrast, the treatment of Latin in each case privileges, both stylistically and in terms of vocabulary, the saint’s clerical affiliation as a proto-bishop.Draw on a range of scholarship, particularly that of Yvonne Cazal, Catherine Léglu, Brigitte Cazelles, and Jan Ziolkoski, this paper highlights the importance of linguistic mingling between French and Latin in poetic and dramatic hagiographies for St. Nicholas from the high Middle Ages. 


[1] The hymn is Cleri patrem et patronum: “Graecus omnis et latinus / Lingua tribus natio…Hospes cives peregrines / Pari psallat studio.”