The countdown to Christmas has officially begun! In less than a week, amongst the mounds of wrapping paper and stacks of Christmas cards, we will find ravaged boxes and tins of sweets and the kitchen cupboards will be laden down with bottles of wine and other festive drinks. These items are not usually bought by ourselves but are gifts from visitors, dropping by over the holiday period. These presents and tokens are a far cry from the very first bout of festive gift-giving in Bethlehem but their appearance in our homes at this time of the year puts me in mind of the role of the first Christmas visitors; The Three Wise Men, their gifts and their presence in the literature of the Middle Ages.
The Three Kings of Cologne, a Middle English translation of the Historia Trium Regum by John of Hildesheim gives us a narrative full of information about this trio of travellers. It combines, as the introduction to the Middle English translation states, biblical narrative including descriptions of the Holy Land and information provided by the Church Fathers with “common traditions and well-known facts” (xiv). These elements are also enhanced by the inclusion of “lore of the Far East” (Morey: 227); fantastical descriptions of the exotic lands from which these three men come from and which are reminiscent of the descriptions often found in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.
“and there be also grete waters and wildirnesses ful of wilde and perlous beestis and horribil serpynts , and there growe also Reedys so high and so grete that men make therof hows and schippys” (The Three Kings of Cologne:40).
The wonders and miracles surrounding the Nativity are balanced with the wonders surrounding the “foreign” in this substantial works, a description of both the sacred and the secular. This reflected the unavoidable tendency of readers and also pilgrims during the Middle Ages to desire a search for both the holy and the exotic in this world.
The description of each of the Magi’s respective journeys towards the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem in this work, even though unattainable, could be a viewed as the perfect form of pilgrimage as they do not stop for food or rest but travel constantly for almost two weeks until they reach their destination, facing few obstacles while following the star. This, as Dee Dyas notes, “made them the ideal role models for pilgrims” (131), figures whose commitment to their travels should be commended and emulated.
The bodies of these “ideal role models” became objects of veneration and a centre for pilgrimage themselves during the Middle Ages after being moved from Constantinople to Milan in 344 and then from Milan to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa in 1164. The Three Kings of Cologne does not stop its narrative after their arrival in Bethlehem but ensures to recount their lives afterwards and, following their deaths, the travels of their relics, emphasising that in Cologne “ther thie be kept and worschipped of alle maner of naciouns in to this day” (138). Their ornate shrine was completed in 1225 and can be seen in Cologne Cathedral to this day, attracting many pilgrims and visitors.
Dyas, Dee. Pilgrimage in Medieval English Literature, 700-1500. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: D.S. Brewer, 2001. Print.
Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2000. Print.
Of Hildesheim, John. The Three Kings of Cologne. Ed. Carl Horstmann. London: Pub. for the Early English Text Society by N. Trübner &, 1886. Print.
“Shrine of the Three Kings.” Shrine of the Three Kings. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2012.