IT will be well, after giving this short account of the dear |Master,| to relate as far as it is possible to do so, the mysterious history of |the Man.| This history must be read not only as a very imperfect sketch -- for the facts are difficult to ascertain, but also bearing in mind, that whilst historians who have carefully examined the few documents which throw light on the subject, are fully persuaded that |the Man| and Nicholas of Basle are the same person, others have been found who doubt it.
The weight of evidence, however, appears to me to rest with those who regard |the Man| as Nicholas of Basle.
The details that follow are taken chiefly from the writings of |the Man| himself, who calls himself only |the friend of God from the Oberland.| I relate them as they are put together by Dr. Carl Schmidt, the historian, who has carefully and conscientiously examined the story with every help from authentic sources.
About the 1308, he says, there was a son born to a rich merchant named Nicholas of the Golden Ring, who lived in the city of Basle, and owned property in year and near town. The boy was called Nicholas.
The house of Nicholas of the Golden Ring was next door to a Beguine house called the |Black Bear.| Margaret, the sister of little Nicholas, was a |Beguine Sister,| and is mentioned by a friend of Dr. Tauler's, Henry of Nordlingen, as |an especial friend of God.| There appears to have been a meeting of |Brethren| in this Beguine house, and it seems probable that the family of |the Golden Ring| were at lease strongly inclined to the belief and practice of the |Brethren.|
When little Nicholas was thirteen years old, it came to pass that his father took him at Easter time to a church, where he heard |much preaching about tile sufferings and the death of the Lord.| This for the time so filled his heart, that in his blindness and ignorance he went secretly to buy himself a crucifix, which he kept hidden in his room. Every night he knelt before it, and remained upon his knees meditating upon the pain and shame which the Lord suffered. And he prayed earnestly that through the death of the Lord he might be brought to know His will, and to do it. He asked the Lord to guide him, and to show him what manner of life he should lead, and whether he should be a priest or a layman. And be besought the Lord that He would make him obedient to His will, whether it were sweet or bitter to the flesh. We find also that at this time he either had a Bible, or had an opportunity of reading one.
This fact, and also the circumstance that he bought the crucifix secretly, and kept it hidden, confirm the probability that the family of the Golden Ring were amongst those who were disposed to conform to the teaching of the |Brethren.|
In later days, when Nicholas was given up to a life of pleasure, no doubt his Bible was forgotten, but the thought that for him the Lord had died, followed him at all times and in all places, and every night he knelt, as when he was a boy, before his little crucifix, and felt a blind sad longing after Him whom as yet he knew not.
When Nicholas was fifteen years old, his father took him to travel about in foreign lands, that he might learn such things as would fit him for being a merchant.
The boy Nicholas had a dear friend at Basle, the son of a knight, who was exactly of his own age. And just at the time when he went on his travels with his father, his friend was also taken by his father, the knight, to travel about to tournaments, and warlike jousts, that he might be well accomplished in all knightly learning.
When the two boys returned to Basle, they became again fast friends, notwithstanding that one was of a noble family, and the other the son of a merchant.
Four years later, the father of Nicholas died, and the business fell into his hands. This obliged him to make a journey of some months. When he returned, he found that his mother also was dead, and he was the possessor of a large fortune.
His friend, the young knight, persuaded him, therefore, to give up his business, and live with him |in knightly wise| a life of pleasure.
Nicholas needed but small persuasion. He rode with his friend to tournaments and jousts, they visited together at courts and castles, and were made much of by fair and noble ladies, with whom they walked |by fountains and in gardens,| and whom they entertained with songs and travellers' tales. Wherever they went they were welcomed and feasted, and before long they had both pledged themselves to fair and noble maidens, whom they loved passionately, and who loved them in return.
The young knight had but a short betrothal. He married his bride, and took her home to his castle. But Nicholas was not so happy in his courtship, for the family of his bride were not content that she should marry the son of a merchant; and though the young knight earnestly implored them to consent, year after year went by, and the marriage was still deferred. At last four years had past. Nicholas was by that time twenty-four years old. He had become impatient. He determined to join his friend the knight, who was going on a far journey over the sea. But his Margaret entreated him not to leave the neighbourhood, therefore he consented to remain, and waited two years longer.
At the end of that time, the mother of the maiden gave her consent to their public betrothal, on condition that Nicholas should settle upon his wife the sum of 6,000 florins.