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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The King of Scotland’s Peculiar Language Experiment

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The tiny island of Inchkeith, which lies around 3 miles north of Edinburgh in middle of Scotland’s Firth of Forth, has had a long and turbulent history. In the 12th century, the island was first used as a stop-off for boats and ferries sailing from Edinburgh to Fife. Two centuries later, Inchkeith’s position made it strategically useful during the Scottish Wars of Independence, and it was repeatedly attacked by invading English troops during the lengthy Anglo-Scottish Wars. In the 15th century, it was used to quarantine the sick during an outbreak of the “contagious sickness callit the grandgor” (syphilis) in nearby Edinburgh, and again during an outbreak of the plague 100 years later. But the most unusual event in the island’s history may have taken place in 1493, when the Scottish king James IV chose to use the island as the location of a bizarre and cruel language deprivation experiment. 

Of all Scotland’s kings, James IV is remembered as a true Renaissance man: well-educated and naturally inquisitive, he was fond of history, art, poetry, and literature, and interested in medical advancement and scientific enlightenment. During his reign he became patron to a number of notable Scots writers and makars (bards), studied dentistry and surgery, licensed the first printworks in Scotland, and funded several court alchemists and apothecaries to carry out their experiments under his supervision. One of James’s best known alchemists, John Damian, is even supposed to have used the king’s funds to construct a set of man-sized chicken-feather wings, which he used to launch himself from the parapets of Stirling Castle, claiming that he would be able to fly to France; needless to say, he failed, and was reportedly left with a broken leg after plummeting into a dung heap several stories below. 

Of all the king’s intellectual interests, however, his love of language was perhaps the most significant. James is reputed to have been the last Scottish monarch to have spoken Scots Gaelic as well as English, but he was also fluent in Latin, French, German, Italian, Flemish, and Spanish, which the Spanish envoy to Great Britain, Pedro de Ayala, informed King Ferdinand of Spain that he spoke “as well as the Marquis, though he pronounces it more distinctly.”

It was James’s love of languages, combined with his natural inquisitiveness and empiricism, that apparently led him to conceive of his peculiar experiment: In 1493, the king ordered two newborn babies to be sent to live on the isolated island of Inchkeith to be raised by a deaf mute woman. His aim was to see what language (if any) the children acquired, because with no other linguistic input, he believed that this language, whatever it might be, must surely be the innate, God-given language of mankind.

Language deprivation experiments precisely like this one have a lengthy history—one of the earliest is recorded in the works of the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that, in the 7th century BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I sent two infants to live with a shepherd in one of the most isolated parts of his kingdom, on the condition that they never be spoken to. According to Herodotus, the children repeatedly babbled the word bekòs, an ancient Phrygian word meaning “bread,” leading Psamtik to believe (albeit mistakenly) that Phrygia rather than Egypt was mankind’s oldest civilization. 

Similar experiments were reportedly carried out by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (“But he laboured in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments,” according to one account), and the 16th century Mughal Indian Emperor Akbar, who found that children raised in isolation remained mute even as they grew older.

But whether or not King James IV genuinely carried out his own deprivation experiment on Inchkeith is open to some speculation, and it’s certainly possible that his love of languages—alongside tales of similar experiments being carried out elsewhere—merely sparked a tall tale that has since refused to die. Nevertheless, the 16th century Scottish historian Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie included James’s experiment in his Historie and Chronicles of Scotland, compiled almost 100 years later. As he explains: 

The king also caused [to] take one deaf woman, and put her in Inchkeith, and give her two bairns with her, and furnish her in all necessary things pertaining to their nourishment, desiring hereby to know what languages they had when they came to the age of perfect speech. Some say they could speak Hebrew, but for my part I know not but from [other people’s] reports.

Did the children really learn to speak fluent Hebrew? You can make your own mind up on that one—but as the author Sir Walter Scott later commented, “It is more likely they would scream like their dumb nurse, or bleat like the goats and sheep on the island.”

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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