Featured Medieval - St. Nicholas and the Boy Bishop

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by FitzNigel, Dec 6, 2020.

  1. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist

    December 6th is St. Nicholas’ day. Today, the saint is most closely associated as the inspiration for Santa Claus, as the original saint was known for his kindness to children. Other more entertaining (if perhaps inaccurate) tales of the saint exist, including his attendance at the Council of Nicaea where he supposedly assaulted the heretic Arius. His feast day is celebrated by giving small gifts such as leaving chocolates or coins in the shoes of children left out her night.

    Nicholas punching Arius

    In late medieval England, another tradition developed around St. Nicholas’ day. Because of his association with Children, it was the day that some churches (particularly in East Anglia) chose a Boy Bishop for the later feast of the Holy Innocents held on December 28th. During this time, the bishop symbolically stepped down from his duties and allowed a chosen boy from the parish to oversee his duties (excepting saying the mass). The boy would be dressed as a bishop, and bless the people of the town.

    A supposed tomb for a Boy Bishop in Salisbury Cathedral

    So this is a long-about way of present a recent purchase (okay, I’ve had it for a moth now, but had to wait for today for obvious reasons…). As part of this ceremony of the boy Bishop, the abbey of Bury St. Edmunds issued a lead token in imitation of coins which are connected with the Saint’s feast. This connection is made due to the inscription which reads +SANCTE NICHOLAE ORA PRO NO (Saint Nicholas pray for us) on the obverse.

    Med-09d-Eng-1485-temp Henry VII-Tok-BBG-Bury-4228.jpg
    temp. Henry VII-Henry VIII (c. 1485-1530)
    Bury St. Edmunds ‘Boy Bishop’ PB Token, 26.28mm x 4.40 grams
    Obv.: +SANCTE NICHOLAE ORA PRO NO. Bust of St. Nicholas right, wearing mitre and holding crozier
    Rev.: AVE | REX | GEN | TIS inside, ECCE | NOVA | FACIO | OMNIA outside, around a long cross with three pellets in each angle
    Ref.: De Wit 4228

    Exactly what these tokens were used for is a bit of a mystery. They may have been mock alms distributed by the boy bishop, or perhaps distributed as a type of local charitable currency redeemable within he community. We don’t really know. Interestingly though, a mold for the tokens was found in Bury St. Edmunds, which gives proof to the location of manufacture, as well as the method. The tokens were made in both penny and groat size (my example being the size of a groat).


    Happy St. Nicholas’ Day everyone! Celebrate by posting some coins gifted to you, and by punching a heretic!

    Further Reading: https://www.caitlingreen.org/2015/01/st-nicholas-or-boy-bishop-tokens-in.html


    Egry, VD76, Bing and 23 others like this.
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  3. TheRed

    TheRed Well-Known Member

    What a fascinating token @FitzNigel congrats on getting such a cool item. I had never heard of one until your post. They are another entry on they list of medieval mysteries thatI would love to get an answer to. I'll have to keep my eye open for these in both the groat and penny seize going forward.
    FitzNigel likes this.
  4. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist

    I think the groat is harder to find (which would make sense based on that mold), but it is the more interesting design
  5. Gavin Richardson

    Gavin Richardson Well-Known Member

    Hey, I've got one of those. On a whopping 3-quid bid!

    Boy Bishop Token ca. 1480-1530 A.D.

    Lead penny type

    16.26 mm. 1.82 g. 0°

    SANCTUS NICHOLAUS; Bishop’s mitre.

    AVE REX GENTIS; Long-armed cross with three balls in each quadrant.

    eBay; aps-coins-uk 2/17/16

    It’s been suggested that the reverse balls are those associated with the St. Nicholas legend, but these balls or pellets are common on all pennies of the period.

    “Stuart Rigold has argued that they were primarily low-value, symbolic lead ‘tickets’ distributed as largesse by the Boy Bishop to local children and the poor each December, who could then take these tokens and redeem them for sweetmeats and alms at the Abbey or the local St Nicholas Guild…”

    Bid: £3.21 Total: $10
    Egry, VD76, scottishmoney and 5 others like this.
  6. FitzNigel

    FitzNigel Medievalist

    Nice! I guess I need to find a penny size too...
    Gavin Richardson likes this.

    +VGO.DVCKS Well-Known Member

    Terrific writeup to match a stunning example, @FitzNigel. @Gavin Richardson, I'd never heard of the penny variety. Kind of cool how they kept the reverses deliberately anachronistic, to underscore the very unofficial nature of the 'issue.'
    FitzNigel likes this.
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