This is one of several translated excerpts from Byzantine sources produced and mounted with historical introduction and commentary by Paul Stephenson.

Nicholas the Monk, former soldier, a 'beneficial tale'


Nicholas the monk, former soldier, is the fictional protagonist of a Byzantine "beneficial tale," known more commonly in English as a parable. Nicholas' story (BHG 2311) appears for the first time in a thirteenth-century version of the Synaxarion of Constantinople, but an anonymous alter ego had acted in a remarkably similar fashion some three hundred years earlier, in a story inserted into the Life of Nicholas of Stoudios (BHG 1365). Although to date there has been no English translation of either,(1) there are several summaries of the Life of Nicholas of Stoudios (henceforth VNS),(2) and John Wortley's very useful commentary on the beneficial tale (henceforth NMS).(3) So great are the similarities between the versions that descriptions tend to focus on where they diverge.

The parable

In both versions of the parable, the protagonist sets out to war against the Bulgars in the army of Emperor Nikephoros I (in VNS he is a member of the imperial guard, or scholae). For one reason or another (neither version is specific) he travels apart from the army, and spends the night at an inn or hostel (according to the VNS, this was located in Thrace). Having been treated well and fed by the hostess (in VNS, she is a wealthy woman apt to entertain those passing by, in NMS she is the innkeeper's daughter) the protagonist takes to his bed. However, during the night, on three occasions, he is woken by the woman, who is driven by a satanic lust to proposition him. On all three occasions he resists her, and he berates her for wishing to drag him down into "the depths of hell." Departing (in the NMS having taken time to pray) the protagonist heads towards the battlefield. In the VNS, but not the NMS, the temptress sends slaves to hide her shame by killing the protagonist, but instead the killers die by God's grace. Arriving in the vicinity of the battle, the protagonist has a supernatural experience (in the VNS he is summoned to a mountain-top by a voice, whereas in the NMS he simply falls asleep and dreams what follows). A powerful figure appears to him (in the VNS, we are told further that he is aged, gigantic and dressed in white), seated with his legs crossed, right upon left. He draws the attention of the protagonist to the battle between the Romans and Bulgars, proceeding below them, and to the fact that the Romans are winning. The seated figure then places his left leg upon his right and the Bulgars gain the upper hand (foot). The Romans are all slaughtered, but the man draws the protagonist's attention to a single bare patch on the battlefield, where no corpse lays. That, he observes, was where the protagonist would have fallen had he succumbed to advances of the temptress (called in the NMS "the triple-braided snake,"). The protagonist (having awoken in the NMS) withdraws from the vicinity of the battlefield and prays, but he cannot save the army, only himself. Consequently, he enters a monastery and serves God truly, becoming a holy father.

Who was Nicholas the Monk, former Soldier?

Nicholas did not exist. As Kazhdan observed, "contrary to [Ivan] Dujcev['s analysis] there is no reason to identify Nicholas of Stoudios with Nicholas the stratiotes (or Nicholas the Monk ...)."(4) It is perfectly clear from the VNS that Nicholas of Stoudios was not the anonymous soldier, but rather enjoyed telling his story for the edification and education of his monks. Consequently, the name Nicholas became associated with the anonymous soldier, likely after the VNS was first written down early in the tenth century (by various estimates c. 910-940). The protagonist of the beneficial tale remained quite mutable, for example, once the tale migrated into the Russian synaxarion he became a Slav. Such is the fate of a cipher.

Wortley suggests that the story contained in the VNS can be traced very accurately to its source, as the author provides a detailed chain of transmission: the author heard it from his abbot, Anatolius, who had heard it from Nicholas, who had heard it from a disciple named Cyprian, who had visited the anonymous former soldier. (5) However, it strikes us that the detail is provided to lend an air of authenticity to what is clearly an invented tale. The insertion of such a tale into a Life is also rather odd, as the author realizes, for he offers an apology of sorts. It is here that he reveals that Nicholas of Stoudios enjoyed retelling the story to his monks.

It would appear to be the case that, whether or not we believe the chain of transmission offered by the anonymous author of the VNS, the parable was first recounted by Nicholas in the Stoudios Monastery, in the years around c. 850. Nicholas was hegoumenos of Stoudios from 848 to 858, and again but briefly from 867 until his death on February 4, 868. Although we cannot entirely discount the fact that a certain number of monks at Stoudios, as elsewhere, may well have been deserters from the Roman army -- like the protagonist of our parable, indeed -- there would appear to be little value in Nicholas recounting to his monks, who were most unlikely to become fornicating soldiers, a tale concerned principally with the moral purity of those headed into battle.

Elements of the story and language contained in the parable of Nicholas the Monk, former Soldier, might be compared with Proverbs 9.

An English translation of the Beneficial Tale of Nicholas the Monk, Former Soldier, by B. Shilling and P. Stephenson.



Basic Bibliography

Costa-Louillet, G. da (1955-57) "Saints de Constantinople aux VIIIe, IXe et Xe siècles (suite)," Byzantion 25-27, 782-852.

Dobschütz, E. von (1909) "Methodios und die Studiten. Strömungen und Gegensrömungen in der Hagiographie des 9. Jahrhunderts," BZ 19, 41-105.

Halkin, F. (1967) "Lesquels de saints Nicolas?," AB 85, 58.

Kazhdan, A. and Alice-Mary Talbot (1998), eds., Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database, Washington D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks. The introduction is a paginated PDF document.

Stephenson, P. and B. Shilling, "Nicholas the Monk, former soldier," in E. Fisher, S. Papaioannou and D. Sullivan, eds., Byzantine Religious Culture. Studies in Honor of Alice-Mary Talbot (Leiden, 2012), 421-38.

Wortley, J. (1980) "Legends of the Byzantine disaster of 811," Byzantion 50, 533-62.

Wortley, J. (1991) A Repertoire of Byzantine Beneficial [διηγησεις ψυχωφελεις]

January 2012


(1) A full English translation will accompany a forthcoming critical edition of the Life of Nicholas of Stoudios, by J. Heldt (Uppsala).

(2) Dobschütz (1909) 70-72. The fullest and most accessible summary remains Costa-Louillet (1955-57) 794-812.

(3) Wortley (1980) 550-54. Wortley (1996) offers an English translation of and commentary on twenty-two tales collected in the eleventh century by Paul, Bishop of Monemvasia. In addition, Wortley (1991) has supplied the best general introduction to "beneficial tales," and summaries of almost 1000 at:

(4) Kazhdan and Talbot (1998) 72, against Dujcev in FGHBulg 4, 25-27. This is repeated from ODB, 1471. See also Halkin (1967) 58.

(5) Wortley (1980) 551; PG 105, 893A.