Tag Archives: Reformation


I have been feeling a bit run down lately, which I attributed first to the typical murky New England spring weather and secondly to the end-of-semester rush, or some combination thereof. Then I realized it wasn’t just fatigue but also a certain sadness, brought on by the fact that I have been lecturing about assassinations all week. Teaching takes its toll! By coincidence, I was covering eras of extreme violence in two of my courses: a survey of the Renaissance and the Reformation and an introduction to European history. In the former, we’re in the midst of the religious wars of the second half of the sixteenth century, while in the latter we’re in the later nineteenth-century Belle Époque, which wasn’t all that belle if you ask me. So in just the last week, I’ve referenced the assassinations of  William I of Orange, leader of the Protestant opposition in the Dutch Revolt against Spain (1584), the French kings Henri III (1589) and Henri IV (1610), as well as (jumping forward three centuries) Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1881), U.S. President James Garfield (1881), President Carnot of France (1894), Prime Minister Cánovas del Castillo of Spain (1897), Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary (1898), King Umberto I of Italy (1900) and President William McKinley of the United States (1901). And then I woke up this morning to realize that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on this day in 1865–the icing on the cake.

Assassination Lincoln 1865 LOC

A pretty somber week indeed, but also an opportunity to explore the comparative natures of early modern and modern assassinations. I know the earlier era so much better, so it is easier for me to comprehend the religious environment that created the motivations and rationales for violent acts. This was a civil holy war between Christianity, and both sides were absolutely certain of the rightness and urgency of their cause. Nevertheless, in an age of divine-right rule, these assassinations were still shocking, particularly that of William of Orange, the first leader to be killed by a handgun.

Assassination William the Silent

PicMonkey Collage

Assassination Henri IV German Broadside 1610 BM

An 18th century image of William of Silent’s assassination, and variant covers of Lisa Jardine’s 2005 book:  The Awful End of Prince William the Silent. The First Assassination of a Head of State with a Handgun. German broadside illustration of the assassination of King Henri IV in 1610, British Museum.

As alarming as these murders were and are, it is the modern assassinations that I find even more chilling; even though they were targeting single individuals, they were seldom personal but rather acts of public relations–the propaganda of the deed.  Their frequency is equally chilling: in the last decade of the nineteenth century alone the leaders of nearly every western European nation were struck down, along with poor Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) of Austria, stabbed in the chest with a nail file while she was walking down a Geneva promenade accompanied only by her maid. Clearly no on was safe, and that was the central message that “organized” anarchism meant to convey.

Assassination Carnot 1894

Assassination Elizabeth

Aroused! Puck Magazine illustration with lady law and order preparing to slay the anarchist snake and President Carnot’s body lying in state, 1894; the front page of the San Francisco Call for September 11, 1898, reporting the assassination of Empress Elizabeth, both Library of Congress.

Saint Nicholas

Today is the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, (270-343) who evolved, through the centuries, into Santa Claus, because of his legendary roles as a protector of children and secret gift-giver. This was quite an evolution, in more ways than one! Nicholas is known alternatively as Nicholas of Myra, as he served as Bishop of that southern Turkish city (now called Demre) for much of his life, and Nicholas of Bari, as his relics were removed to southern Italy in the eleventh century. The Italians who confiscated the relics of the revered Saint claimed that were acting in the name of “security”, as Myra was increasingly vulnerable to Muslim attacks, but one could certainly ascertain that it was a case of simple theft. There are many stories associated with Nicholas’s holy works, so many that he is also referred to as Nicholas “the wonder-worker”, but the most popular relates a rather dark tale in which Nicholas visited an inn during a regional famine, and quickly discerned that the innkeeper had chopped up three boys and encased them in brine to sell them as pickled pork.  Nicholas brought the innocents back to life, and evolved into the savior of children who found themselves “in a pickle”.

Nicholas of Bari Stowe Breviary BL

Nicholas BM Dutch

Nicholas BM Flemish

British Library MS Stowe 12, “The Stowe Breviary”, 1322-25; Dutch woodcut print, 1480-1490, and hand-colored engraving from a Flemish prayer-book by the “Monogrammist M”, 1500-1525, both British Museum.

Images of Nicholas with the resuscitated boys (in their pickle barrel) can be found in all manner of religious texts from the medieval and early modern eras, as illustrated by those above, and were also the single focus of a succession of paintings and prints from the Renaissance and after. When Nicholas is not in the company of the boys, he is often pictured with the young women whom he saved from lives of prostitution by secretly gifting their father with gold for their dowries, another work of wonder that solidified his connection with the young (and vulnerable).

Nicholas Met Boys

Nicholas Met Dowry

Two altarpiece panels representing the holy deeds of Saint Nicholas by Bicci di Lorenzo, 1433-35:  Saint Nicholas Resuscitating Three Youths and Saint Nicholas Providing Dowries, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The religious history of Saint Nicholas is pretty easy to reconstruct, but when hagiography meets folklore it gets a bit more confusing. One thing is certain: the transformation of the saint into the jolly dispenser of gifts is much more a phenomenon of western Christian culture than it is of the Orthodox Church, which still recognizes Saint Basil of Caesarea as the benevolent gift-giver (on his feast day of January 1).  The other factor that seems pretty clear is the role of the Reformation. The modern Santa Claus seems to be an amalgamation of the Dutch and Flemish Sinterklaas, the English “Father Christmas” and a secularized Saint Nicholas. While the Dutch Sinterklaas still arrives on the eve of St. Nicholas, wearing a Bishop’s hat and bearing a staff, the Protestant prohibition of his veneration gradually transformed him into a secular figure. Across the English Channel, a similarly-dressed (and aged), “Father Christmas” reemerges only after the Reformation and Revolution, when the Restoration ushers in a return to the “merry old England” of memory. And when these figures cross the Atlantic, the melting pot of American culture (and Coca Cola) gradually transforms them into our very own Santa Claus.

Nicholas Print 1604p

Nicholas Sinterklaas

Nicholas Father Christmas 1890 Vand Ap

Engraving of Saint Nicholas by Antonius Wierix, 1604, British Museum; Sinterklaas celebration in Amsterdam, 2011, and a Father Christmas card, c. 1890, Victoria & Albert Museum.

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