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Medieval Sourcebook:
The Golden Legend: Prologue (Volume 1)

[Note: To make the text as useful as possible to readers, the Golden Legend is available at this site in multiple forms: very large files for each of the volumes, and by chapter.  See the Golden Legend Main Page/Index for other volumes or chapter length files.]


AMONG the books which afford us an insight into he popular religious thought of the middle ages, none holds a more important place than the Legenda Aurea or GoIden Legend. The book was compiled and put into form about the year 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, who laid under contribution for his purpose the Lives of the Fathers by S. Jerome, the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, and other books of a like kind; while for the lives of the saints more nearly approaching his own age he appears to have industriously collected such legends as he could meet with, whether in manuscript or handed down by oral tradition. All persons living in later times have been deeply indebted to the man who thus embodied for their benefit and instruction a picture of the mental attitude of the age in which he lived. If the study of it be not absolutely essential, it may safely be averred that it will be most helpful and profitable, to all those who care to realise to themselves the faith of their forefathers, and in no small degree will it enable them more fully to understand the inspiration of the men whose faith found its expression in the glories and mysteries of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. To those who can pace the aisles of a great cathedral or priory or abbey church, or even tread the humbler stones of an ancient parish church, without being touched with a sense of reverent wonder, the pages of The Golden Legend will appeal in vain. Its perusal will strike no responsive chord in their hearts. But to those who, whatever may be their creed, never set foot in those stone-written records of the past without a feeling of awe and veneration, mingled with an earnest longing to understand something of the spirit which breathes forth from them, and a desire to know what it was that so wrought in the minds of their makers as to produce the Music Gallery at Exeter, the South Porch at Lincoln, the Galilee at Durham, the stained glass at York, the East Window at Wells, and a thousand other marvels, to say nothing of the greater glories that await us in the magnificent churches of France, which even after centuries of destruction, neglect, and ill-usage still impress us with wonder and admiration,-the histories of The Golden Legend will be a new revelation of inestimable value. The corbels of roof and cloister vaulting which look down on us with quaint and tender beauty, and the strange and sometimes monstrous or demoniacal gargoyles of the exteriors, will have a newer and fuller meaning if we allow ourselves thoroughly to enter into the spirit of the book before us.

We shall seem to hear the majestic roll of the solemn chants of Advent and the rejoicings of Christmas, the penitential pleadings of the Lenten season and the triumphal songs of Easter, as we read the eloquent passages devoted to those sacred seasons, even though the style be such as modern ears are little accustomed to, and therefore may sometimes appear, especially on a first reading, as more or less rugged and obscure.

Lovers of the picturesque can scarcely fail to be charmed with such wonderful tales as those of the childhood of Moses and the history of Pontius Pilate, which the author frankly sets down as 'apocriphum'; while the folk-lorist will find a rich field to interest him in a territory hitherto but little explored.

In such histories as that of S. Brandon we dwell for a while in a veritable wonderland. The lives of S. Jerome, S. Macarius, S. Anthony, and S. Mary of Egypt, and other saints of the desert, read like the echoes of another world, so far removed are they from modern habits of thought, faith, and practice; while those of S. Francis, S. Dominic, and S. Thomas of Canterbury bring before our eyes the life of the middle ages hardly less vividly than the tales of the Gesta Romanorum or the everliving creations of Geoffrey Chaucer. Verily there is a plentiful harvest for those who care to reap. Having read every page very carefully six times, with unabated interest, in the course of editing two editions, I can testify to the attraction the book has for one who loves the wondrous records of old days.

Though it does not appear to have been among the earliest of printed books, the Legenda Aturea was no sooner in type than edition after edition appeared with surprising rapidity. Probably no other book was more frequently reprinted between the years 1470 and 1530 than the compilation of Jacobus de Voragine. And while almost innumerable editions appeared in Latin, it was also translated into the vulgar tongue of most of the nations of Europe, usually with alterations and additions in accordance with the hagiological preferences of the different nationalities. It is with an early French translation that we are chiefly concerned, of which Caxton's version is a close rendering. The French book in question is a large folio volume of four hundred and forty-three leaves, printed in double columns, with forty-four lines to the page. Two copies of it only are known in this country, one in the British Museum, and the other in Cambridge University Library. There may of course be copies lurking in foreign libraries, but I have not been able to hear of any. It is without any indication of place of printing, date, or printer, and until quite lately these particulars had baffled the researches and conjectures of bibliographers; but latterly Mr. R. Proctor of the British Museum has succeeded in identifying the type as proceeding from the press of Peter Keyser, a rival of Anthony Vernard at Paris. It contains the lives of many French saints who are not included in the work of Voragine, notably those of S. Genevieve and S. Louis.

Convincing proof that this is the book referred to by Caxton in his preface as 'a legende in frensshe,' is afforded by the fact that where the printer has left gross misprints uncorrected in his text, the translator has blindly followed him without any attempt to make sense of them. The most curious instance of this occurs in the explanation of the supposed etymology of the name of S. Stephen. The French printer has turned the Old French which should have read 'fames venues,' (femmes veuves) into 'seine venues,' which Caxton attempts to translate by 'hole comen' (whole come), regardless of the fact that it has no meaning whatever. It has rarely been attempted to clear the present text of obscurities by any alteration, on principle; but in this instance, for the meaningless words 'hole comen,' those of 'widow women' have been substituted in accordance with the Latin, which Caxton seems never to have troubled himself to refer to. Again, in the life of S. Genevieve the French version has the typographical error of "a name' for 'a navire,' which the translator simply renders 'at name,' and this in later editions becomes 'at none' without making any better sense. This has been altered to 'by ship' as being the obvious meaning. The text has been amended in one or two other instances where a slight alteration made a passage intelligible; but, as I have said, there has been no attempt to clear obscurities generally or to interfere with the translator's language.

The observant reader can scarcely fail to note the difference between the style of the Bible histories, which I take it come from the 'Legend in English,' which Caxton mentions in his preface, and that of the translator's work, greatly to the advantage of the former. The summary is in truth done with a master's hand. The life of S. Thomas of Canterbury is again a specimen of vigorous English clearly written, and is probably also taken from the 'Legend in English.'

Though Caxton speaks of himself as the translator, and we have personal glimpses of him in the anecdotes he relates in 'The Circumcision of our Lord, 'The History of David,' and 'The Life of S. Austin,' it is hardly to be supposed that he could have been at the labour of translating the whole book. He appears indeed to have employed some one whose knowledge of French must have been considerably less than that we are willing to credit him with, considering his long residence in French Flanders. Colour is also given to the suggestion that he availed himself of extraneous help in the work of translation by his special assertion at the end of the life of S. Roch: 'which lyfe is trans- lated oute of latyn into Englysshe by me, William Caxton.'

It may be remarked as a curious bibliographical and historical coincidence, that while Wynken de Worde was engaged in printing the last of the Old English editions of The Golden Legend in London, William Tyndale was busily occupied at Cologne trying to get into type the first of the unnumbered editions of the English New Testament. The old order giveth place to the new.


The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275.  First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.)

This chapter is from: Volume 1: Prologue

Scanned by Robert Blackmon. [email protected].

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

© Paul Halsall, September 2000
[email protected]

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