Sanctus Nicolaus Arhusiensis
by Haki Antonsson
Niels Knudsson was the offspring of King Knud Magnusson (1146-1157) and, according to the B-Legend, a noble-born concubine. Niels is known to have died in 1180, while four years earlier he had been in attendance when King Valdemar I donated land to the monastery of Esrom. In 1182 Bishop Valdemar gave land to Væ monastery in Skåne for the salvation of his brother Niels’s soul. There is evidence that pilgrims had begun to offer donations to St. Niels in the early thirteenth century: in 1215 Bishop Ebbe of Århus divided the income from these donations between his canons and the building-fund for his cathedral. As two papal letters demonstrate (see below) the Danish Church and the king attempted to secure papal canonization of Niels in the middle of the thirteenth century. This initiative appears, however, to have been unsuccessful. The days of Niels’s death and translation are unknown and there is no trace of any liturgy composed in his honour.
De Vita et Miraculis B. Nicholai Arusiensis (The Life and Miracles of the Blessed Niels of Aarhus). The two medieval texts on St. Niels of Århus have traditionally been referred to as the A-Legend and the B-Legend.
- GERTZ, M.CL. 1908-1912: VSD, Copenhagen, 393-405.
(Danish) OLRIK, H. 1893 (repr. 1968): Danske Helgernes Levned, Copenhagen, 296-316.
Date and place
The main indications of the A-Legend’s date of composition are the dating of the last miracle to 1252 and the papal letters to 1254 and 1255. It is thus attractive to link the composition of the original A-Legend with the attempts that were made to secure papal canonization of St. Niels in the middle of the thirteenth century. As for the date of the original B-Legend, the single marker is the reference to Bishop Johannes of Århus who died in 1306. From the context it is clear that Johannes was already dead at the time of writing. GERTZ pointed out that in the last episode another Johannes, who was cantor of Århus cathedral, is referred to as an informant, and in Liber Arusiensis the same person is noted under the year 1345 (GERTZ 1908-1912, 396). While it is impossible to tell if this Johannes wrote more than the last miracle a date for composition around the middle of the fourteenth century appears likely. There is probably no need to look any further than the cathedral chapter of Århus for the authors of both the A- and B-Legend.
Summary of contents
The A-Legend begins with four episodes from Niels’s life. They tell how he was raised by a woman whom he believed was his mother until she revealed herself as his grandmother and, moreover, informed him that his real mother had died at his birth. This revelation inspires Niels to adopt an ascetic lifestyle which he strictly adheres to, even at the court of the Danish king (Valdemar II). Later Niels returns to his farmstead near Århus and there, having provided ample proof of his holiness, he dies. Prior to his death he makes known his wish to be buried in a little chapel by the sea which later serves as the site of Århus cathedral. Miracles and wonders reveal the suitability of this place for Niels’s burial. These snapshots from Niels’s life are then followed by fourteen healing miracles the last of which dates to 1252. The miracles, which take place both at and away from Niels’s grave, are brief and for the most part lacking in detail. Thus, five of them neither divulge the names of the people involved nor their place of origin; the others are from Denmark. The A-Legend concludes with two papal letters which were sent in response to petitions to begin a canonization process for Niels. The first is from Innocent IV to the bishops of Slesvig and Viborg and the abbot of Øm. The letter gives the green light for the establishment of a commission to investigate the life and miracles of Niels. This is confirmed in the second letter from Pope Alexander IV which is addressed to the bishop of Viborg, the abbot of Øm and the prior of the Dominican priory in Århus.
The B-Legend consists of eleven miracles and an episode that explains the origins of Niels’s conception. It reveals that a man learned in astrology told King Knud Magnusson of the greatness awaiting a boy conceived that very night. Knud then sent for a noble girl with whom he fathered Niels. This episode is particularly interesting because its source, we are told, was a book written in the Danish tongue that had been kept in the church in Skiby and contained many things about the saint. A distinctive feature of the miracle collection in the B-Legend, especially in comparison with the miracles in the A-Legend, are the four miracles that deal with punishments meted out to those who offend in any way Niels and his cult.
Medieval reception and transmission
The A- and B-Legends are only preserved in seventeenth-century copies made by Thomas Bartholin, the royal antiquarian of the Danish court, from a manuscript that was destroyed in the 1728 fire of Copenhagen. In turn, Bartholin’s exemplar probably only contained abbreviated or selective versions of both Legends. Thus the A-Legend provides only the incipit of the prologue “Ad gaudium etc.”, while the brevity of the B-Legend and its haphazard structure raises the possibility that the author of Bartholin’s exemplar included only episodes that were not found in the A-Legend. GERTZ believed that the same redactor had himself placed the two papal letters at the end of A. Both A and B are found in Copenhagen, Royal Library, Bartholinianorum Tom. D., p. 448 ff. (GERTZ 1908-1912, 395-96).
- GAD, T. 1961: Legenden i dansk middelalder, vol. 2, Copenhagen, 177-79.
- JØRGENSEN, E. 1909: Helgendyrkelse i Danmark, Copenhagen, 45-47.
- KRÖTZL, C. 199: Pilger, Mirakel und Alltag. Formen des Verhaltens im skandinavischen Mittelalter (12.-15. Jahrhundert) (Societas Historica Finlandiae, Studia Historica 46), Helsinki, 70-73.
- PALUDAN, H. 1988: “Skt. Clemens og hellig Niels. Fromhedsliv og politik i Århus stift omkring 1190,” in Kongemakt og samfund i middelalderen. Festskrift til Erik Ulsig på 60-årsagen 13.2, ed. P. Enemark et al. (Arusia-historiske skrifter 6), 41-53.