23 March 2017


There are a few books that are especially useful to anyone who wishes to understand or to make religious art; living in an time when its meaning has become obscure and its traditions have become neglected, they are essential.

The Bible, obviously, is foremost. After that, the book that I pull from the shelf most often is the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century encyclopedia that collects, organizes and expands the contents of medieval martyrologies. Blessed James of Voragine is the author.

Although usually described as a compilation of saints’ lives, it contains also a wealth of information related to the feasts of the temporal cycle. As I wrote in my essay on Hagiography and the Benefit of Doubt, I consider the contents of the traditional martyrologies worthy of belief.

More commonly, they are treated with sneering condescenion. In the present day, the Golden Legend is often treated as an amusing curiosity, a collection of outlandish stories that cannot be taken seriously. That is partly because of an irrational bias against believing in certain kinds of miracles (as if omnipotence were in some way qualified), and partly because few have read the book in its entirety.

Blessed Jacobus was not irrationally credulous. In the Golden Legend, He readily admits when a story is based on a doubtful source. In several places, he writes that he is recording a story (such as that of the childhood of Pontus Pilate) for the record, but considers it unworthy of belief. In others, he acknowledges contradicting versions of a particular story, and presents both (sometimes passing judgment on which he considers correct, sometimes not). In others, he makes a theological criticism of a particular tradition (for example, in his entry on the Feast of the Circumcision, he argues that all of the divine body of Christ was assumed into Heaven, and that relics of the Christ Child’s foreskin iare therefore false).

The Golden Legend is a a work of erudition and insight, the work of a smart and holy man who yet had a healthy generosity in his consideraion of tradition. It contains none of that eager dismissiveness that is found throughout Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints.

In the entire Golden Legend, I find fault only in perhaps a dozen sentences. There are some places where married life and the company of women are excessively (I believe) disparaged, which is common enough in medieval and patristic writings for monastic readers; a few infelicitious uses of the term Ethiopian to describe a pitch-black demon; and one occasion (in the legend of St. Margaret of Antioch) where Blessed Jacobus is more skeptical than I think necessary.

The Golden Legend is not altogether comprehensive: for example, many of the Irish saints are not included. Certain saints attained their widespread popularity after the thirteenth century, and are not included - St. Barbara and St. Roch are notably absent.

But the Golden Legend nevertheless summarizes, better than any other single book, the spirit of devotion to saints that spanned all of Christendom for nearly the first three-quarters of history under the New Covenant. The idea expressed therein of what a saint is, and what a saint does, is the only idea that can truly be called traditional, handed down from the time of the Fathers and the time of the Apostles. To adopt another, contradicting idea of what a saint is or what a saint does is to profess faith in a different thing altogether, even if the same word is used to name it, even if many of the old figures are grandfathered into the new definition.

The Golden Legend has not only enormous religious value, but enormous cultural value as well. Better than any other single book, it summarizes one of the major cycles of Western literature. These are the heroes and the stories that, for centuries, everyone knew. The art and thought and history and literature of those centuries are indecipherable without some knowledge of these heroes and stories. That knowledge gives content and context to other products of traditional Christian civilization such as Thomistic thought and Gothic architecture. Without it, they are like empty, nestless shells. I cannot take seriously any list of the great books of the Western world that does not include the Golden Legend near its top.

The Golden Legend was first translated into English in 1483, by William Caxton. Much of this translation can be found online, or reprinted. This is the translation that William Morris published at the Kelmscott Press in 1892. I enjoy reading 15th-century English, and so value this translation highly. It is, is places, more of a paraphrase of Blessed Jacobus than a direct translation, and it includes new material (such as the legend of St. Barbara and a long liturgiological treatise on the Mass).

William Granger Ryan translated the 13th-century text in its entirety into modern English. This is the version I have on my shelf, in two volumes. I have seen a one-volume edition of the same translation for sale. This is an exceptionally useful book, although the footnotes add an element of skepticism to it.