John Gayford on a medieval treasury


The Legenda Aurea originally called Legenda sanctorum (Reading of the Saints) was written by Jacob de Voragine O.P. in 1259-1266. The word “legend” has changed its meaning over the years; it was originally from Medieval Latin (legenda) “thing to be read”. Golden (aurea) refers to its estimated quality and worth. It was a common refectory reading in monasteries and convents but also a source for priests and friars for preaching and catechesis for almost 300 years: during this time it became an important pastoral resource. This work was to become one of the most popular works of the Middle Ages, but also controversial with its lives of saints and events in the life of Jesus and Mary exaggerated for effect. Its text was not original and was certainly added to and even contracted over the years. In all probability it owed much of its compilation to works like Jean de Mailly’s Abbreviatio in gestis miraculis sanctorum (Summary of the deeds and miracles of the saints) which was written in about 1220 and Bartholomew of Trent’s Liber Epilogorum in gesta sanctorum (epilogue of the deeds of the saints) written in the mid-1240s. Both of these writers were fellow Dominicans, their works are now difficult to trace. 

Jacob was born about 1230 and died in 1298. He entered the Dominican order in 1244 and became prior of three different priories and was a very successful teacher. Eventually he was made Archbishop of Genoa in 1292 where he continued to write and his position as archbishop did much to enhance the popularity of Legenda Aurea. It was originally written in simple to understand Latin and went through a number of editions and there are about 1000 texts still remaining. These were originally hand-inscribed documents, very expensive with individual and variable illustrations making them into treasured items. It was translated into most European languages including English. Originally it was supposed to be a tool for the clergy to make sermons more attractive and exciting to the listeners. Its wide circulation was through the Dominican network in Europe. Laity demand became so great that vast numbers of copies were produced many with exquisite artistic craftsmanship. It remains an important monument to the culture of the Middle Ages and suited the spiritual mores of the time. The earliest English translation is dated 1438 signed as being by a synfulle wrecche.

In some ways Jacob looked backward in time. St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) lived at the same time as Jacob and was a fellow Dominican and champion of the feast of Corpus Christi, proclaimed a Catholic feast by Pope Urban IV in 1264. So it is surprising that there is no mention of this feast in Legenda Aurea. Jacob was a man of his own times and his own region which earned Legenda Aurea the nickname “the Lombardic History”. 

The Legenda Aurea is divided into four parts corresponding to four phases of spiritual development; a time of deviation or turning from the right way, a time of renewal or of calling back, a time for reconciliation, and a time of pilgrimage. After this prologue and its explanation we are taken through the church calendar that begins with Advent and proceeds through the Christian year offering advice and comments on festal events. This part also includes the history of prominent figures from the Old Testament. Then there is a calendar of Saints’ days. Originally there were about 150 in this section but that was expanded or abbreviated in subsequent editions often augmented by local variation. To each saint there was prefixed an imaginative etymology on the saints name. Then came an account of the saint’s life and death, designed to project them as heroes of the Christian faith. Even Jacob had to admit that there was exaggeration for effect. He has a belief in the devil who can only be conquered by the virtues of the saints and the work of avenging angels. Attempts were made to give provenance to his text with Biblical or patristic reference. Jacobus was a moralist and not a historian, thus the stories of the saints are those of fortitude and endurance not primarily of historical accuracy. The key to unlocking the Legenda Aurea would be more obvious to clergy and monastics of the 13th century, who used the Graduale for Mass and the Antiphonale for their offices, where the contents were divided into Temporarium and Sanctorium (saints’ days). For All Saints’ Day there is a reflection that to attain salvation we need the prayer of the saints. For All Souls’ Day there is a long and complicated discussion on purgatory. It is to be noted that many of the saints discussed in Legenda Aurea are no longer in modern Church calendars.

The Legends were the inspiration of a number of other local variations like The South English Legendaries that were written in the 13th and 14th centuries, some in Latin and some middle-English verse. We still have about 50 copies and a number of manuscript fragments, demonstrating it was a medieval best seller. This and other legendaries have been the subject of modern academic research and include saints of local interest. In the South English Legendary there is an account of the martyrdom of St. George written in old English verse dated from c.1270-1280. 

William Caxton (c. 1422-c. 1491) who introduced the printing press to England also made a translation of the Legenda Aurea from Latin into English in 1483 calling it The Golden Legende and published several editions illustrated with wood-cuts produced by his own artists, some coloured by hand. It sold at times more than the English Bible.

Right from the beginning the work had its distractors even among Dominicans, but these were muted when Jacob de Voragine became an Archbishop. By the mid-fifteenth century there were authorities’ voices that did not approve of the fables of the Legenda Aurea. Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) used his knowledge of mediaeval literature to oppose views expressed in the Legenda Aurea and when he became a Cardinal forbade his clergy to use it in preaching. These condemnations were followed when Erasmus (1466-1536) the distinguished Augustinian canon expressed in very strong terms his view that the work being full of strange lies and feigned miracles. Those trained by Erasmus were encouraged to look back to the pure sources of early Christianity, and to ground their religion on sound historical truth and solid moral worth. Thus Jacobus’s book, with its far-fetched miracles and martyrdoms, came to seem anathema. The lives of the saints should be sober and credible, exemplars of virtue rather than chronicles of wonders. The Spanish humanist Luis de Vives (1493-1540) a pupil of Erasmus articulated these views forcefully on the continent and in England. To these voices was added the chorus of expected disapproval from protestant reformers who would condemn the Golden Legend as superstitious and idolatrous. It became the embodiment of things they despised and rejected in medieval Christianity.

The Counter-Reformation saw that the more bizarre accounts of the lives of saints needed revision in the breviary lections in monastic communities. Hagiography (a branch of literature that deals with lives and legends of saint)  needed to be changed and there needed to be a search for more authentic material that did not contain what was seen as feigned miracles. There was even the claim that hagiography needed to become an exact science. Alban Butler (1710- 1773) a catholic priest at Douai, the English College in France, after 30 years of study produced his lives of about 1500 saints of the Church. This was revised by Thurston and Attwater in 1956 and now exists in a twelve volume edition with multiple authors including Anglicans. They used historical criticism to purge the text of extremes found in the original Golden Legend and other similar works that were being removed from religious libraries.

In the 19th century Romantic admiration for the Middle Ages and an interest in the sources of medieval and Renaissance art by men like William Morris would send them back to the Golden Legend. To them this was a repository of ancient folklore, and as such it was a distillation of both the imagination and the soul of the Christian Middle Ages. This excited an interest in the art and iconography produced by the Golden Legend and works of this genre, and extended to the legend of the Holy Grail.

There are a number of modern English translations of the Golden Legend including one by William Ryan and one on-line from Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook. They are each quite long thus the suggestion is you choose one legend and read it to get the flavour of the whole work. Academic theses on the art within copies of the Golden Legend are available throughout academic libraries in Western Europe and even Melbourne Australia.

Historians are more relaxed now about the Golden Legend and can see it as a valuable window into the Medieval Mind. In its day it was a “medieval best seller”, its purpose to give spice to sermons; that it did.  One can imagine people leaving the church, going to the tavern and discussing the stories they had heard over a glass or two of alcoholic beverage.  It is possible in this context that the legends would be discussed, and even expanded in a light hearted discussion. This impressed the words of the sermon beyond the dreams of any modern preacher. The puritan reformation stopped all this when the ale house was closed on Sunday. Clergy were encouraged to preach long sober sermons full of moral teaching. In some ways the excitement and joy had gone out of religion. In our own age this has been replaced by exciting historical fiction which can receive literary prizes and be serialised on television before discussion in the pub, possibly in the way stories from the various mediaeval legendaries were hundreds of years ago. But modern accounts can make saints of the profane and attempt utter destruction of the saintly integrity of others. We should not view the mediaeval legend and our historical fiction as the same: for the legends were written for moral and holy purposes, and not for a mass accolade of slanders.


Suggested Further Reading

Boureau, A. Golden Legend in Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages. Edited by Vauchez, et al. Translated by Walford, A. James Clarke & Co. Cambridge 2000.

Duffy. E. The Golden Legend in Royal Books & Holy Bones, Essays in medieval Christianity. Bloomsbury Continuum. London. 2018.

Ryan, W.G (translator) Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend. Princeton University Press Oxford 2012.