Monday, August 22, 2011


On a visit today to the Church of the Assumption in nearby Savenès, I once again grokked a curious Saint and, having failed in times past to discover who it was, decided today was the day.  It wasn't so hard, actually.  I can only assume that before, I was an idiot who couldn't use the Internet, or that there was less info available the first time I had a look.  Or maybe I was simply lazy.

Entering the nave, the first chapel on the left offers sculptures of Jeanne d'Arc and Thérèse de Lisieux, as well as a statue of another saint, obviously a bishop due to his crosier, miter and gesture of benediction.  What struck me, though, was the little tub at his feet, with three cloyingly adorable, pudgy children gazing upwards with a look of gratitude:

Now, to my mind, this is both comical and weird.  I think a thought-bubble with "WTF?" appeared over my head, but no one actually saw it.  So, how to begin?  I Googled a few things and finally discovered this was Saint Nicholas.

Now, these pudgy kidlets refer to a legend wherein three children, traveling in famine-struck Myra, stopped to ask a butcher for lodging.  He let them in only to chop them into pieces, placing their remains into a barrel of brine to cure them.  His idea was that given the famine, he could pass them off as ham.  St. Nick, later visiting the region to care for the hungry, stopped at the butcher's.  The latter offered him something to eat, cured kid, but St. Nick saw through it.  Now, some versions of the tale have the butcher fleeing, or being stoned to death, or even being transformed into a kind of slave to St. Nick.  Some versions favor the three travelers to be clerks or scholars.  Whatever the case, St. Nick raises his hand in benediction like his gesture above, makes the sign of the cross and resurrects the children.

According to the St. Nicholas Center,  a song about this legend dating back to 17th-century Champagne (the region which gives bubbly its name) ends in one version with the kids saying:

Le premier dit, "J'ai bien dormi!" 
Le second dit, "Et moi aussi!"
A ajouté le plus petit,
"Je croyais être en paradis!"

The first said:  "I slept well!'
The second said  "Me too!"
The littlest added,
"I thought I was in Paradise!"

Another version can be found here.

Now, searching for more info, I came across a website which states baldly that this legend is thought to be the origin of the nursery rhyme that begins "Rub-a-dub-dub three men in a tub...."  And that may be so, I just haven't come across anything which corroborates the claim.

It may be, however that this tub tale is was at some point conflated with another St. Nick legend.  In this second tale, a poor man had three daughters he couldn't marry off for a lack of a dowry.  This meant spinsterhood or the likelihood they would end up as prostitutes.  Nicholas heard of this and decided to help out by secretly taking the family three purses of gold and tossing them through an open window into the house.  Of course, variations and details abound:  not three purses at once but one a night for three nights, or even one a year for three years on the night before each daughter came of the age to marry, etc.  Sometimes Nicholas is confronted by the poor man, at others he avoids the man and drops the gold down the chimney.  One version of this chimney tale is that a daughter had hung her stockings to dry by the chimney and the gold landed in them.  Which should sound familiar.

Now, the tub tale and the three daughters tale could in fact be conflated in the Rub-a-Dub rhyme.  Wikipedia provides some history.

The most well-known version goes like this:

Three men in a tub,
And how do you think they got there?

The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick-maker,
They all jumped out of a rotten potato,

'Twas enough to make a man stare.

OK, haha, modern commentators can't help but see a homosexual connotation in this.  But apparently, the earliest recorded (i.e. published) versions have a very important difference.  Mother Goose's Quarto or Melodies Complete, published in Boston circa 1825, had the following version, apparently consistent with another from 1798:

Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.

Again, according to Wikipedia "This led [folklorists] Iona and Peter Opie to conclude that they were three respectable townsfolk "watching a dubious sideshow at a local fair".

This version seems to have been edited to the version we know today.  I don't know in fact if the Opies' interpretation is correct, but several sources seem to think that the spectacle of three maidens (presumably naked) in a tub was a popular sideshow entertainment, like a hoochie coochie girl.  This is certainly the view being peddled by English author and librarian Chris Roberts (Heavy Words Lightly Thrown).  Yet in the NPR interview he is unaware of a common American version of the rhyme:

Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker the candlestick maker.
Turn them out, knaves all three.

Which makes me wonder if his research is all that complete and if he's merely parroting the Opies' interpretation.  Not to fling mud at Mr. Roberts.  I think it's interesting that the earliest recorded versions do in fact have maids in a tub, not three men.  Maybe the idea of women was too offensive to the progressively prudish standards of the 19th century and the reference dropped; the earlier version might be indicative of some kind of  "sex show".

The parallels with the "pickled children" in theSt. Nicholas legend aren't so great.  Three people in a tub.  A butcher.  That's it, really.  But it may be that at some these elements were recycled into the more salacious (or not) rhyme we have today.  I think the other St. Nick Legend could come into play here.  Remember the three poor daughters, whose lack of dowry might have led them into a life of prostitution?  If there were women involved in naked tub shows, they were probably prostitutes as well, no?

This page also brings up stories of St. Nicholas saving three condemned men (depicted pretty damn smashingly by Russian artist Ilya Repin in 1888) and saving at least one sailor (whose rescue led to Nicholas' ordination as a bishop), wondering if the latter may somehow be related to resurrecting kids from a tub of brine.  "Brine", bear in mind, is a word not uncommonly used to mean the sea and "tub" being another word for a leaky ship....let alone the obvious repetition of three:  three condemned men, three maidens, three children....

My proposal is not a thesis insomuch as simply throwing an idea out there.  Not having all the facts, it would be silly to insist on anything one way or the other, but it's a tantalizing possibility to think the rhyme has some connection to the various Nicholas legends.  Still, there are many other possibilities.

This person writes: 

The “Rub-a-dub-dub” rhyme was referring to laundering money. The upper floors of candle stick shops were often used as poor tenant housing and “houses of ill repute” (prostitution), because the process of rendering tallow to make candles smelled so terribly that no one that had money / social standing would live in the space. Prostitution was looked on as poorly as it is today, so spending money gained from arranging such encounters was also looked down upon. As I always heard it, the butcher & baker were in with the candle stick maker, sending him clients for his tenants and laundering their share of the profits through their successful, legitimate businesses. When they were caught “cleaning” the dirty money, all three became public embarrassments! 

I wish I knew the origin of this theory.  I have only seen it listed in one place, whereas the peepshow version is widely circulated.  While adhering to no specific interpretation, it seems clear that there is some intimation of shenanigans going on behind a facade of the crafts-men's respectability.  They come from within a "rotten potato", they are "knaves," they're at the fair ogling maids in a tub.  Maids who might not have been there had their father had enough for a dowry.

Is there in these rhymes a critique of a system where wealth as opposed to a moral character ensures respectability?  I don't know, it would seem to be implied by the spectacle of "good" citizens, tradesmen, shamelessly ogling women who are there solely due to a lack of other opportunities.  The repetition of elements in the St. Nicholas legends suggest a conflation of detail to suit whatever specific rhetorical purposes bards required.

Anyway, that sculpture still has me giggling.  Those three little salted kids seem so pleased to be awake....

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