For every medieval manuscript we possess, scholars estimate that at least ten have perished. The compendium of Latin saints’ lives known as the Golden Legend, with its staggering thousand exemplars, must have been second only to the Bible in popularity. Compiled by the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine around 1260, it became a standard text on every preacher’s bookshelf and was translated into every vernacular. Its first English version, the Gilte Legende – produced by ‘a sinful wretch’ in 1438 from a French intermediary – enjoyed only modest success before it was overtaken by Caxton’s print version in 1483. But this long-awaited edition from the Early English Text Society presents an opportunity to reflect on the meanings that saints’ lives held for medieval culture. (Readers who prefer modern English can consult the excellent translation by William Granger Ryan, published by Princeton in 1993.)
Pious instruction, sensational entertainment, conservative propaganda, erotic titillation, sacred violence – the Golden Legend offered all these and more. Most obviously, it offered a way to hallow time. Governed by the liturgical year, beginning with Advent, the Legend presents each saint’s biography on his or her feast day, interspersed with chapters on the feasts of Christ and Mary and the times of fasting. Legenda means ‘material to be read’; saints’ legends took their name from the fact that they were read in church on the appropriate days. Grounded in sacred presence, integrated with the rhythms of summer and winter, seed time and harvest, the Legend also rooted the community in an idealised past. Though medieval authors wrote the lives of several hundred contemporaries, a handful of whom were eventually canonised, it is not these that fill the pages of the Golden Legend. In fact, only six of its roughly 175 saints are ‘modern’. (The precise number of saints is hard to gauge because of such groups as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and the Eleven Thousand Virgins – a whole female army that, thanks to a paleographic error, shared the martyrdom of St Ursula.) The vast majority belonged to a distant past: apostles, martyrs, desert fathers, popes, theologians, founders of bishoprics. Some were sources of local pride, while others enjoyed the love and veneration of the whole Church. Towns, children, parishes and days of the year were named for them. Even as late as Henry V the Battle of Agincourt was remembered as St Crispin’s day, after an obscure patron of cobblers and tanners, and Oxford still has its Hilary Term.
Commemorated on 14 January, Hilary of Poitiers was a distinguished theologian, but the Legend takes more interest in his actions. Having persuaded his virgin daughter not to marry, St Hilary feared that her resolve might weaken, so he also prayed for and obtained her imminent death. At his wife’s request, he then secured ‘that same grace’ for her and ‘sent her before to the kingdom of heaven’, leaving the path clear for his own monastic vows. Domestic violence through prayer is heartily endorsed, while men and women unite in the absolute rejection of family values. St Felicitas heartens all seven of her sons to face slaughter because the ‘strength of love within her … overcame the sorrow of the flesh’. St Perpetua remains steadfast in her quest for martyrdom despite the desperate pleas of husband and parents. As a coup de grâce, when her father laid her nursing infant in her arms, ‘she threw the child from her’ with the words: ‘Depart from me, ye enemies of God, for I know you not.’ What is remarkable about this tale is that it depends, in part, on Perpetua’s own prison diary, written in AD 203. But the diary, the oldest known Latin work by a woman, is more humane than the Legend. Though resolute, the martyr-designate confesses that she is torn by anguish for her baby and grief for her ageing father. One of her chief consolations, the ability to pray her little brother out of purgatory, does not make it into the Gilte Legende. Mere human feeling, however generous, cannot qualify as saintly virtue.
Overwhelmingly monastic and clerical in its values, the Legend makes a fetish of virginity. Only 22 of the featured saints are women, and more than half of these are virgin martyrs. More often than not, their fathers figure among their torturers, angered by the daughters’ rejection of patriarchal authority – a subversive element lingering from the pre-Constantinian era. St Agnes, the paradigmatic virgin, is a romantic heroine whose legend gave rise, at a distance, to the custom Keats immortalised in ‘The Eve of Saint Agnes’. After rejecting a suitor in no uncertain terms (‘go hence from me, shepherd of death, beginning of sins … for I have another love’), the 13-year-old saint sings the praise of Christ, her betrothed, whose ‘mother is a virgin and his father never knew woman … at whose beauty the sun and moon marvel … whose love is chastity, whose touching is continence, and whose coupling virginity’. Having refused to marry or sacrifice to pagan gods – two demands that are virtually equivalent in virgin martyr legends – Agnes is stripped and led to a brothel, but her hair miraculously grows to cover her whole body, and an angel protects her. Accused of witchcraft, she is thrown into a roaring fire, but the flames turn aside to consume the pagans instead, until she is finally slain and goes to consummate her heavenly nuptials.
As far as tortures go, Agnes escapes lightly. The Legend shows remarkable ingenuity in the deaths of its martyrs, featuring 81 types of torture in all, from the barbecued St Lawrence to the skinned St Bartholomew, who is said in different versions to have been crucified upside down, flayed alive and beheaded. Jacobus opts for all three. Often it is only after a long series of torments have failed to dispatch a saint that the executioners cut off his head. The litany of holy violence culminates in St James the Dismembered, whose legend could have inspired an episode in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Slain finger by finger and toe by toe, this martyr responds to the loss of each digit with a Bible verse or a prayer. Only when the 27th stroke has severed his right leg does he mention any pain. While his exhausted executioners pause to rest, St James prays for death, as if to apologise for his lack of devotion: ‘I have no fingers to stretch up to thee, nor hands to join before thee; my feet are cut off and my knees, so that I may not bow them to thee.’
How can we explain this carnival of cruelty? Theologically, the saints were of course imitating Christ, who saved the world by his suffering, so martyrdom in the primitive Church was prima facie evidence of sanctity. It was also one of the best recruiting tools the new religion had, for the impressive liturgies, the great cathedrals and the dazzling intellectual achievements came later. But the authentic Acts of the Martyrs are sober documents, and do not linger over accounts of torture any more than the Gospels revel in the gory details of crucifixion. Church authorities frowned on over-zealous Christians who presented themselves too enthusiastically for martyrdom, as saints in the Legend often do. The public taste for new, ever more fanciful tortures developed gradually, reaching a peak with the Golden Legend itself. Paradoxically, the point is not so much pain as the lack of it: however savage their tortures, the saints do not scream in agony but persist in prayer, impervious. Stretched on the rack, St Agatha exults: ‘I delight in these pains … as one who has found great treasures.’ After her breasts are cut off, St Peter heals them (over her protests) so that she can survive to face new torments. A kind of double vision is required of the spectator: where pagan kings and their minions see only unbearable pain, martyrs experience the invisible power of God. Their legends thus depict a strange mix of passio and apatheia, willed suffering and studied indifference to it. In this way they offer a compromise between the old Stoic ideal of equanimity and a new Christian ethos that Esther Cohen has called ‘philopassianism’, the love of pain. It differs from masochism in that pain is valued, not as a perverse source of pleasure, but as a moral and spiritual good.
Admittedly, the theology is dubious, for if God did not shield his own son from agony, why should he shield his martyrs? A similar question can be asked about the virgins, whose tortures entail public nudity and sexual humiliation. Rape is often threatened yet never enacted, presumably because it would destroy their talismanic status. Although St Augustine reassured actual rape victims that, if they had not mentally consented, they were still chaste in the eyes of God, the legends tell a different story. Not a single martyr endures the ultimate shame. Conversely, women who have lost their virginity rarely enjoy the privilege of martyrdom. The harlot Mary of Egypt fasts in the desert for 47 years until she is holy enough to levitate and walk on water, while the courtesan Thais, converted by a desert father disguised as a client, endures three years of solitary confinement, immured with her own bodily wastes. Her saviour – Abba Paphnutius, christened ‘Abbot Payn’ by the translator – insists that she deserves no better. The misogyny of this legend may be offset by the account of St Marina, a transvestite monk, whose adventures were more often spun out in romances than read in church. Disguised and entrusted to a monastery by her father, ‘Marinus’ passes as an exemplary monk until an innkeeper’s daughter accuses him of fathering her child. To avoid revealing her secret, Marina accepts exile and shame, rears the bastard and is exposed as a woman only when the astonished monks wash her body for burial. The Legend’s translator’s pronouns faithfully reflect the gender-bending narrative: ‘He meekly and patiently … endured his life in holy works till she passed to our Lord.’
Not everything in the Legend was taken as Gospel truth, so to speak. Authors traditionally distinguished between a saint’s imitanda, the virtues to be imitated by all Christians, and admiranda, the miracles that evoked admiration and awe. While spiritual writers emphasised imitanda – models of patience, humility, chastity and the like – the layfolk much preferred admiranda. Jacobus transmits as reliable truth the information that the infant St Nicholas fasted from the breast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and that milk flowed from St Catherine’s headless body instead of blood. But even he draws the line at St Margaret. In her prison cell, the saint is supposed to have been swallowed alive by the devil in the form of a dragon but, by signing herself with the cross, she made its body burst open to emerge unscathed. That part of her legend, Jacobus admits, ‘is considered apocryphal and not to be taken seriously’. But the English translator omits this caveat, presuming that lay credulity stretched further than that of clerics.
More to the point, Margaret’s escape from the monster’s belly made her, by sympathetic magic, the patroness of childbirth. Where lay piety was concerned, both imitation and wonder took a back seat to patronage. A saint’s particular speciality is sometimes written into the legend in the form of a dying prayer. Margaret asks that all women who invoke her in labour may be safely delivered, while St Blaise prays for those who suffer from maladies of the throat. More often, though, patronage depends on the saint’s method of martyrdom: St Lucy was invoked as patron of the blind, St Agatha of breast cancer, and St Apollonia of toothache. St Sebastian, shot full of arrows ‘like a hedgehog’, came to be the patron of archers but also of the Black Death, perhaps by assimilation to Apollo, perhaps because his wounds suggested plague sores. Unofficially, as the only male saint martyred in the nude, he supplied rich opportunities for artists and has now become a patron of gay men.
Since the majority of saints in the Legend had cults dating to antiquity or the early Middle Ages, they never had to undergo the process of canonisation. Like much of Rome’s bureaucratic machinery, that process was formalised by 12th and 13th-century popes. Wonders never went out of fashion, but the theologians and canon lawyers of the curia increasingly stressed imitanda. Would-be saints henceforth needed well-documented lives of virtue, official biographies composed in a style far removed from the Golden Legend, and legions of witnesses to testify to their holiness. Among the first to run this gauntlet successfully were the Legend’s six ‘modern’ saints, whose detailed lives provide striking contrasts with the older material. Jacobus tried to be even-handed with respect to the duelling religious orders. Among his six are St Thomas of Canterbury (Chaucer’s ‘hooly blisful martir’); St Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian mystic; St Francis of Assisi; and St Dominic, less charismatic but a better administrator, whose Domini canes (‘hounds of the Lord’) served as frontline inquisitors while the rival Franciscans splintered in internal discord. Among those inquisitors was the Legend’s most recent saint, Peter Martyr of Verona, cut down by an assassin on his way to persecute heretics in Milan. Murdered in 1252, he was canonised less than a year later – the fastest papal canonisation in history – and credited with numerous miracles by his order, but never gained a popular following.
The Legend’s last modern saint, Princess Elisabeth of Hungary, seems at first to represent a decisive break with earlier modes of female sanctity. A laywoman and mother of three, she lost her husband at 20 and became a Franciscan tertiary. In the four years of her widowhood she fed the hungry, tended the sick, gave lavishly to the poor and used her dowry to found a hospital, finally dying of exhaustion at 24. A straight line seems to link this medieval icon of charity with the recently beatified Mother Teresa. But there is more to the story, for Elisabeth owed her sainthood largely to her sadistic confessor, Conrad of Marburg, whose brutal treatment hastened her death. Aside from the severe floggings and other penances he ordered, Conrad forcibly separated Elisabeth from her children and her favourite servants ‘to break her will so that she should address all her affections to God’. In the face of these deprivations, ‘she was found glad and obedient and sober and patient.’ Many of the local saints venerated in the later Middle Ages followed a similar model of penitence, fierce asceticism and strict obedience to a confessor who, if he outlived the saint, might end by writing a Life and promoting a cause.
The Legend was a living text. Its translator not only Englished the work of Jacobus, but added a supplement of 20 native saints (published in a separate EETS volume), including Aldhelm, Edward King and Martyr, Augustine of Canterbury, Dunstan, Frideswide and Brendan. First printed in 1483, the Golden Legend saw eight more editions, the last by Wynkyn de Worde in 1527, and its popularity showed no sign of waning on the eve of the Reformation. But a newly Protestant kingdom had no use for the old saints and their marvels. Soon the word ‘legend’ itself changed its meaning. In his Ecclesiastical Polity (1597), Hooker characterised ‘legends’ as ‘nothing else but heaps of frivolous and scandalous vanities’, and Bacon began his essay ‘Of Atheism’ (1612) with the statement: ‘I had rather believe all the fables in the Legend, and the Talmud, and the Alcoran, than that this universal frame is without a mind.’ The scientist posited rational religion as a via media between atheism and superstition, as embodied in the scriptures of Catholics, Muslims and Jews. In Catholic Europe, the Golden Legend would be superseded by the Acta Sanctorum, a 68-volume monument of Jesuit critical scholarship, published intermittently from 1643 to 1940. But even after centuries of pruning with Occam’s razor, the luscious jungle of legend has not lost its power to fascinate.