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:
- Silvester is said of sile or sol which is light, and of terra the earth, as who saith the light of the earth, that is of the church. Or Silvester is said of silvas and of trahens, that is to say he was drawing wild men and hard unto the faith. Or as it is said in glossario, Silvester is to say green, that is to wit, green in contemplation of heavenly things, and a toiler in labouring himself; he was umbrous or shadowous. That is to say he was cold and refrigate from all concupiscence of the flesh, full of boughs among the trees of heaven.
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:
- In this time it happed that there was at Rome a dragon in a pit, which every day slew with his breath more than three hundred men. Then came the bishops of the idols unto the emperor and said unto him: O thou most holy emperor, sith the time that thou hast received christian faith the dragon which is in yonder fosse or pit slayeth every day with his breath more than three hundred men. Then sent the emperor for S. Silvester and asked counsel of him of this matter. S. Silvester answered that by the might of God he promised to make him cease of his hurt and blessure of this people. Then S Silvester put himself to prayer, and S. Peter appeared to him and said: "Go surely to the dragon and the two priests that be with thee take in thy company, and when thou shalt come to him thou shalt say to him in this manner: Our Lord Jesu Christ which was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried and arose, and now sitteth on the right side of the Father, this is he that shall come to deem and judge the living and the dead, I commend thee Sathanas that thou abide him in this place till he come. Then thou shalt bind his mouth with a thread, and seal it with thy seal , wherein is the imprint of the cross. Then thou and the two priests shall come to me whole and safe, and such bread as I shall make ready for you ye shall eat."
- Thus as S. Peter had said, S. Silvester did. And when he came to the pit, he descended down one hundred and fifty steps, bearing with him two lanterns, and found the dragon, and said the words that S. Peter had said to him, and bound his mouth with the thread, and sealed it, and after returned, and as he came upward again he met with two enchanters which followed him for to see if he descended, which were almost dead of the stench of the dragon, whom he brought with him whole and sound, which anon were baptized, with a great multitude of people with them. Thus was the city of Rome delivered from double death, that was from the culture and worshipping of false idols, and from the venom of the 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:
- And for to prove that she had prayed for the salvation of the country, at the beginning of February, the year after her martyrdom, there arose a great fire, and came from the mountain toward the city of Catania and burnt the earth and stones, it was so fervent. Then ran the paynims to the sepulchre of S. Agatha and took the cloth that lay upon her tomb, and held it abroad against the fire, and anon on the ninth day after, which was the day of her feast, ceased the fire as soon as it came to the cloth that they brought from her tomb, showing that our Lord kept the city from the said fire by the merits of S. Agatha.
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.