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.

11 Things We No Longer See In Schools

Popartic/iStock via Getty Images
Popartic/iStock via Getty Images

If you ask a fifth grader what a card catalog is, there’s a good chance your question will be met with a blank stare. And while this might make you feel positively ancient, there are definitely some academic traditions and technologies from your parents’ and grandparents’ generations that you’re too young to know about, too. For example, did you ever solve a multiplication problem with a slide rule, or carry your books with a book strap?

Here are eight things that you may or may not remember from your time in school, but today’s students probably won’t.

1. Card Catalogs

Before digital catalogs could deliver a list of books perfectly matched to even the vaguest search term, you had to manually hunt for relevant information in the drawers of a massive cabinet. However unwieldy and inefficient card catalogs may seem compared to current technology, there was a certain tactile satisfaction in thumbing through card after card to find a particular author, title, or subject. The Online Computer Library Center officially declared the death of the card catalog in 2015 after it sent its last shipment of cards to Concordia College’s library in Bronxville, New York. But plenty of old catalogs live on as storing units for sewing supplies, wine bottles, and more.

2. Food Pyramids

1995 USDA food pyramid
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 1992 food pyramid that many Millennials likely remember from their early school days broke food groups into ambiguous serving sizes and advised you to eat the most servings of bread, rice, cereal, or pasta each day. It was replaced in 2005 with the more modern MyPyramid diagram, which identified serving sizes in cups or ounces and corresponded with a website you could visit for more information. In 2011, the USDA effectively killed the food pyramid altogether with the launch of MyPlate, a new plate-shaped diagram that recommends you eat mostly vegetables and grains. This, of course, has an extensive website of its own.

3. Rope Climbs

Though fitness tests in gym class have been stressing students out at least since the early 1960s, some of the tests themselves have changed. According to the parameters set by the Presidential Youth Fitness Program—which schools can use as a guide for evaluating grade school P.E. students—push-ups, pull-ups, and curl-ups have withstood the test of time, but there’s no mention of a rope climb. The new dreaded portion of the exam is the PACER, a series of sprints during which you have progressively less time to complete each one.

4. Slide Rules

slide rule
claudiodivizia/iStock via Getty Images

The slide rule, which dates back to the 1600s, did the job of a calculator before modern calculators existed in the classroom. It looks like a ruler crammed with extra lines and numbers, but the middle portion slides back and forth to give you the answers to multiplication and division problems, exponents, square roots, and more. It fell out of fashion with Hewlett-Packard’s introduction of the handheld electronic calculator in 1972, though some particularly fastidious math teachers still use them to keep their students from succumbing to the somewhat mindless nature of automatic calculators.

5., 6., 7., and 8. Chalkboards, Chalk, Chalk Erasers, and Chalk Holders

chalkboard, eraser, and chalk
diamondsky/iStock via Getty Images

Since just about every chalkboard has been replaced by either its cooler younger sibling, the dry-erase board, or its genius baby cousin, the smart board, it stands to reason that all chalkboard accessories have also gone out the window—no more chalk, chalk holders, or chalkboard erasers. The gradual disappearance of chalkboards also means that children will no longer understand the actual noise made by fingernails on a chalkboard. Much like we use the phrase chalk it up to mean “give credit” without having experienced it in its original context—where store owners would write a customer’s outstanding charges on a chalkboard—future generations might use “fingernails on a chalkboard” as an almost meaningless synonym for “really bad sound.”

9. Book Straps

book strap
Hemera Technologies/iStock via Getty Images

Before students carted heavy textbooks around in backpacks, tucked them into the crooks of their arms, or simply decided not to bring them to class, there was the book strap: a glorified leather belt which fastened around a pile of books and often included a handle. It didn’t protect your books from bad weather and it didn’t contain compartments for any other school supplies, but it might help keep your pants up if you forgot your actual belt.

10. Dodgeball

Dodgeball may not have completely disappeared from schools yet, but it’s only a matter of time before hearing the name never again evokes that strange mixture of excitement and fear. The soft-balled combat competition, also known as bombardment, killer ball, and murder ball, so obviously pits athletes against their less coordinated classmates and promotes the idea of a human target that it’s ceased to be the cornerstone of gym class. Many schools have outright banned it, while others have quietly replaced it with less polarizing activities. And, if Justin Long’s concussion on the set of 2004’s cult classic DodgeBall is any indication, those foam balls can cause some damage.

11. Dunce caps

student wearing a dunce cap in classroom
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The earliest known written mention of a dunce cap was in Charles Dickens’s 1840 novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, in which it’s made of old newspapers and sits on its own shelf in the classroom. The conical symbol of idiocy gained popularity during the Victorian era throughout both the U.S. and Europe, and continued to humiliate schoolchildren well into the 1950s. As if standing alone in the corner wearing flashy headgear didn’t draw enough attention to you, sometimes the dunce cap even featured bells.

Soon You'll Be Able to Book a Night Inside the Palace of Versailles

The exterior of the Palace of Versailles
The exterior of the Palace of Versailles
mtnmichelle/iStock via Getty Images

Beginning next spring, interested tourists can say au revoir to more traditional lodging in favor of spending the night inside the Palace of Versailles, as Thrillist reports.

Back in 2015, the palace’s management announced it was looking for an outside partner to convert three of the palace’s buildings into guest accommodations. That outside partner turned out to be Airelles, a luxury hospitality group with three other properties in France.

In 2020, the company will begin accepting bookings for Le Grand Contrôle, a 14-room hotel located in the palace’s south wing. The hotel will also feature a new restaurant from famed French chef Alain Ducasse, the second-most decorated Michelin star chef in the world.

Tourists beware, though: A single night at the company’s other properties generally cost upwards of $500 per night, so a stay at Le Grand Contrôle is unlikely to be cheap. But visitors who want to shell out the money for a room can look forward to an unbeatable location, first-class dining, and the joy of relaxing while telling others to “let them eat cake” (which Marie Antoinette never said, but it's befitting nonetheless).

[h/t Thrillist]

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