The Golden Legend: When Saints Were Saints

Author: Sandra Miesel


Sandra Miesel

In the Late Middle Ages, spiritual reading meant the <Golden Legend>. With the exception of the Bible, this vastly influential collection of saints' lives was the favorite book of the era.

More than 100 editions in various languages were printed before the Reformation. In addition, handwritten copies were so numerous that 1,000 venerable manuscripts still survive.

At long last, this medieval bestseller has made it into modern English. Jacobus de Voragine's <Golden Legend> (hardback, 791 pp., $90), complete with imprimatur, is now available in a handsome, two-volume set from Princeton University Press.

Gracefully translated by Fr. William Granger Ryan, this is the first complete English edition of the <Golden Legend> since Jacobus finished his Latin original around 1260.

The medieval English version published by pioneer London printer William Caxton in 1483 adds and subtracts material. An earlier—and entirely different—translation done by Ryan and Helmut Ripperger in 1941 is abridged.

But Ryan's version offers every line Jacobus wrote, with a bare minimum of scholarly apparatus—just a brief introduction and footnotes to translate the Latin verse.

As Ryan explained, this "is not a study of the <Golden Legend>; it is the <Golden Legend>."

<Legenda> means "what is read"; the word is derived from the Latin <legere>, "to read." By the 14th century, the English word <legend> was used to describe stories about saints, simply because that was the most popular kind of edifying reading matter. The modern usage of legend as "an unhistorical traditional story" emerged only after 1600.

Benchmark Collection

While Jacobus thought he was writing a collection in the late medieval meaning of the word "legend" posterity views his work as unreliable fable. Still, all critics agree that, as the benchmark collection, his <Legenda> deserves its nickname <Aurea>, "Golden."

In any event, Jacobus did the best he could with the materials at harid. It is estimated that he used about 130 different sources. Although no one has untangled all the threads of influence knotted into the <Golden Legend>, it obviously draws from Patristic writers, apocryphal Scriptures, lives of the Desert Fathers, medieval historians, encyclopedists, liturgists and hagiographers.

As a preacher and a composer of sermons, Jacobus probably intended his <Golden Legend> to be a source book for preachers, starting with his own brethren in the Dominican order.

Jacobus offers theological reflection as well as information about the major feasts and seasons of the Church year, often tidily numbered like sermon outlines. His text is studded with edifying or droll anecdotes easily borrowed for preaching. He even moralizes in such digressions as a biography of the wicked Emperor Julian the Apostate or a history of the Lombards.

The work and its audience were perfectly matched. Unlike modern readers paging through the latest reference book, medieval readers were not seeking factual data. They wanted inspiring stories that would make the names on the Church calendar come alive—stories that illuminated the Scriptures, glowed with prodigies and miracles, and were certified by reputable authorities.

Authenticity was not an issue. Jacobus occasionally admits a story is apocryphal, but recounts it anyway.

The <Golden Legend> makes no attempt to present historically accurate characters. In its pages, the past is not a foreign country, and they do not do things differently there. Alien lands look just like home, and everyone wears medieval costume.

This technique made narratives seem real and vivid to a medieval audience. As translator Ryan explained, the <Golden Legend> highlights saints who "move and talk and act like the men and women Jacobus saw passing by his window on the road to heaven."

The book is also filled with implausible marvels. Although they typically repel modern readers, the marvels enthralled medieval ones. By multiplying miracles, Ryan explained, the <Golden Legend> declares that God is "not a philosophical abstraction but a living, ever-present, caring actor, the creator and giver of life."

Jacobus deploys his saints within the round of the Church year, meshing what used to be called the sanctoral and temporal cycles. He covers all the liturgical seasons and major feasts, except for the Immaculate Conception, which was not yet universally celebrated or accepted.

Although Jacobus organizes his material oddly for modern tastes, many of the ideas he develops remained familiar into recent times.

Flesh and Hearts

For example, Jacobus states: "The Lord's advent is celebrated for four weeks to signify that his coming is fourfold: He came to us in the flesh, he comes into our hearts, he comes to us at death, and he will come to judge us."

This key paragraph could still generate a sound and comprehensible Advent sermon. The continuity of the Catholic tradition shines through the <Golden Legend>.

Still, saints are the work's principal interest. Jacobus' choice of holy subjects is most revealing. His 182 chapters cover about 200 saints and some groups such as the Theban Legion and St. Ursula's 11,000 virgins.

Only 41 individuals mentioned are female (one anonymous}, and only five had been married. Several saints get multiple feasts (e.g., the Chair of Saint Peter and St. Peter in Chains) besides their principal commemoration. One feast is duplicated.

Jacobus includes important figures—apostles, evangelists, the four great Latin Fathers, the martyrs of the Roman canon—and others with especially colorful stories, some heroic early popes, wonder-working bishops, a few Desert Fathers, missionaries and so forth. He even honors the Holy Maccabees, martyrs in Old Testament times.

However, the Dominican covers only two of the great Greek Fathers—St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom. St. Margaret of Antioch and St. Catherine of Alexandria are there, but not the other two Holy Maidens—St. Barbara and St. Dorothy—who are usually grouped with them.

Jacobus lists only five of the great saints from the High Middle Ages—St. Thomas Becket, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Dominic, St. Francis and St. Elizabeth of Hungary. He also highlights fellow Dominican St. Peter of Verona, who was cruelly murdered while Jacobus was composing the <Golden Legend>.

Medieval biases affected coverage.

Jacobus presents four female penitents—St. Mary Magdalen, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Thais and St. Pelagia—but none of the powerful noble matrons from Patristic times.

Virgin martyrs interest him more than non-virgin ones. Thus, the legend-encrusted St. Lucy, St. Cecilia, St. Agatha and St. Agnes get more space than the well-documented St. Perpetua and St. Felicity.

Likewise, Jacobus relies on fables instead of the historic account of St. Ignatius' martyrdom. He sketches an accurate picture of St. Augustine from the <Confessions> and <The City of God>, but appends curious miracle stories.

Besides repeating various legends, Jacobus treats allegorical figures—St. Felicity and Her Seven Sons, St. Sophia and Her Three Daughters—and fairy tale characters—the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus—as real. Fortunately, he could not know that his tale of St. Barlaam and St. Joseph is ultimately derived from an account of the Buddha's conversion.

Perhaps the most medieval touch is Jacobus' peculiar etymology. For him and his readers, the name was the thing.

Therefore, a saint's name must symbolize his nature. Jacobus discerns deep significance in the person's name—whether or not his explanation of a name's meaning is correct.

For example, his entry on St. Amand, the apostle of Belgium, begins: "The name Amand means lovable, and the name fitted the man, for he had three qualities that make a person lovable." This explanation is true as far as it goes, but isn't terribly specific.

Fanciful Entries

The next entry, on St. Valentine, gets more fanciful. "<Valentinus> is made up of <valorem>, value and <tenens>, holding; and Saint Valentine held on to—persevered in—holiness. Or the name is like <valens tiro>, valiant soldier of Christ."

The name actually comes from <valere>, "to be strong."

Alas, these word plays drew jeers in the Renaissance.

Humanist scholars knew, for instance, that St. George bore a common Greek name meaning "farmer." They mocked Jacobus' preposterous derivation of the name from "<gerar>, holy, and <gyon>, sand, therefore holy sand; for he was like sand, heavy with the weight of his virtues, small by humility, and dry of the lusts of the flesh."

"The man who wrote the <Golden Legend>," sneered critic Luis Vives, "had a mouth of iron and a heart of lead."

After the Reformation, when the Catholic Church was anxious to emphasize historically important saints and eliminate dubious cults, Jacobus' reputation plummeted. The tools of historical scholarship were applied to hagiography, most notably by the Bollandists, a team of learned Jesuits that has been preparing the definitive <Acta Sanctorum> since the 17th century.

Yet, even though modern medievalists recognize many of the stories in the <Golden Legend> as pious fantasies, they have come to appreciate the work as an in valuable guide to the art and literature of the Middle Ages. Its naive and earnest charm opens a window into the medieval mind.

It also heavily influenced contemporaneous literature. Important examples of medieval literature drawn straight from Jacobus are the English mystery play "The Harrowing of Hell" and "The Second Nun's Tale" in Chaucer's <Canterbury Tales>.

After Vatican II, academic interest in the saints soared while clerical enthusiasm sank. Now popular curiosity seems to be returning. Mainstream publishers are scurrying to serve this emerging market.

Pivotal Publication

Thus, Ryan's translation, issued by a university press, is a pivotal publication. Above all, his version of the <Golden Legend> is a wonderful way to meet the saints as our ancestors knew them.

As the great Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye declared, "Legend, like all poetry, can claim a higher degree of truth than history itself."

Sandra Miesel is a CATHOLIC TWIN CIRCLE contributing writer.


Sandra Miesel

Authoring the <Golden Legend> was only one element in Jacobus' de Voragine's busy life, which was spent against the backdrop of terminal conflict between the papacy and the imperial Hohenstaufen dynasty.

Born near Genoa about 1230, he joined the Dominicans at age 14. He became a fine preacher and trained young friars in theology and biblical studies. His prudence and intelligence earned him election as provincial superior while he was still in his 30s. Jacobus was such a respected figure that he was chosen Archbishop of Genoa in 1286, an unusual honor for a friar. But he refused the post.

The archbishop humility did not go unnoticed. He was sent as the pope's special envoy to Genoa to lift a politically motivated interdict. His tactful performance was rewarded with a second election to the see of Genoa in 1292. This time he was pressured into accepting.

Jacobus amazed his flock by hewing to the strict observance of the Dominican rule and continuing to keep his vow of poverty. He turned the huge income of his office over to charity and the maintenance of churches. The rich of the archdiocese were moved to new levels of generosity.

Jacobus became famous as a builder and restorer of religious institutions. As an astute, reform-minded administrator, he was a model for other Italian bishops of his day.

But Jacobus was sorely disappointed by his inability to halt the bloody feuds between pro-papal and pro-imperial factions in his city. Try as he might he was only able to impose a short truce on the warring parties.

Besides the <Golden Legend> and books of sermons, Jacobus wrote about a dozen works, including a history of Genoa and a defense of the Dominicans. He is supposed to have been the first man to translate the Bible into Italian, but no trace of this project survives.

One of his odder efforts at supporting a media apostolate was organizing some Dominican novices as jugglers and acrobats to evangelize as they entertained. It was the medieval equivalent of today's "clown ministry."

Dominican writer Sr. Mary Jean Dorcy praises Jacobus for his zeal, charity and uncommon good sense.

"He was a genius at getting things done," she said, "and, fortunately, his whole heart was bent on doing for the glory of God."

Jacobus died in 1298. His reputation for holiness won him beatification by popular acclaim. His cult was ratified by the papacy in 1816. His feast day is July 13.

Taken from the November 6, 1994 issue of "Catholic Twin Circle." For subscriptions contact: Catholic Twin Circle, P.O. Box 260380, Encino, CA 91426-0380, (800) 421-3230.