In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

My Feet Are Cut OffBarbara Newman

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Gilte Legende Vol. I 
edited by Richard Hamer and Vida Russell.
Early English Text Society (Oxford), 496 pp., £65, November 2006, 0 19 920577 9
Show More
Gilte Legende Vol. II 
edited by Richard Hamer and Vida Russell.
Early English Text Society (Oxford), 1036 pp., £65, August 2007, 978 0 19 923439 4
Show More
Show More

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.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.