The Golden Legend (Latin: Legenda Aurea) by Jacobus de Voragine (Jacopo da Varagine) is a collection of hagiographies, lives of the saints, that became a late mediaeval bestseller. It was probably compiled around 1260.
A medieval best seller
Initially titled simply Legenda Sanctorum, Latin for "Saints' readings", its popularity gained it the title by which it is best known. More than a thousand manuscript copies of the work survive, and when printing was invented in the 1450s, editions appeared quickly, not only in Latin, but also in every major European language. It was one of the first books William Caxton printed in the English language; Caxton's version appeared in 1483.
The book sought to compile traditional lore about all of the saints which were officially held up for veneration at the time of its compilation. De Voragine typically begins with a fanciful etymology for the saint's name. An example (in Caxton's translation) shows his method:
As a Latin author, de Voragine must have known that Silvester, a relatively common Latin name, simply meant "from the forest." The "correct" derivation in modern eyes is alluded to in the text, but set out in parallel to fanciful ones that lexicographers would consider quite wide of the mark. Even the "correct" explanations (silvas, "forest", and the mention of green boughs) are used as the basis for an allegorical interpretation. De Voragine's etymologies had different goals from modern etymologies, and cannot be judged by the same standards. De Voragine's etymologies have parallels in Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae, in which linguistically accurate derivations are set out beside allegorical and figurative explanations.
Lives of the saints
De Voragine then moves on to the saint's life, compiled with reference to the readings from the Roman Catholic Church's liturgy commemorating that saint; then embellishes the biography with supernatural tales of incidents involving the saint's life from less reliable sources. More than 130 sources have been identified for the tales related of the saints in the Golden Legend; in addition to the Bible, these sources include apocryphal texts such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, the histories of Gregory of Tours and John Cassian, and the Speculum historiale by Vincent de Beauvais. Many of his stories have no other known source. A typical example of the sort of story related, also involving St Silvester, shows the saint receiving miraculous instruction from Saint Peter in a vision that enables him to exorcise a dragon:
Miracle tales of relics
Many of the stories also conclude with miracle tales and similar wonderlore from accounts of those who called upon that saint for aid or used the saint's relics. Such a tale is told of Saint Agatha; De Voragine has pagans in Catania repairing to the relics of St Agatha to supernaturally repel an eruption of Mount Etna:
Invaluable to students of mediaeval culture
Written in simple, readable Latin, the book was read in its day for its stories; any one of which will be well told, but in mass they tend to become monotonous and blur together, with their repetitious accounts of martyrdoms and miracles. The book is the closest thing we have to an encyclopaedia of the lore of the saints in the late Middle Ages; as such it is invaluable to art historians and mediaevalists who seek to identify saints depicted in art by their deeds and attributes. Its repetitious nature is probably explained by the fact that de Voragine meant to write a compendium of saintly lore for sermons and preaching not the popular entertainment it became.
In his history of The Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch observed that the Golden Legend inadvertently may have helped trigger the Protestant Reformation by arming scepticism about the cult of the saints, such as that exhibited by Erasmus in his Praise of Folly. By compiling such a thorough vade-mecum of saintly wonderlore, showing highly similar stories being attached to different saints and relics, questioning readers could conclude that these tales circulated by local churches were probably mythical.