Christian hagiographies focus on the lives, and notably the miracles of men and women canonized by the Roman Catholic church, the Anglican Communion, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox churches, and the Church of the East. Other religions such as Buddhism, Islam and Sikhism also create and maintain hagiographical texts (such as the Sikh Janamsakhis) concerning saints, gurus and other individuals believed to be imbued with sacred power.
Hagiographic works, particularly those of the Middle Ages, can often incorporate a valuable record of institutional and local history, and evidence of popular cults, customs, and traditions. However, when referring to modern, non-ecclesiastical works, the term hagiography is often used as a pejorative reference to biographies and histories whose authors are perceived to be uncritical or reverential to their subject.
Hagiography constituted an important literary genre in the early Christian church, providing some informational history along with the more inspirational stories and legend. A hagiographic account of an individual saint can constitute a vita or biography, a description of the saint's deeds and/or miracles, or an account of the saint's martyrdom (a passio) - or be a combination of these.
The genre of lives of the saints first came into being in the Roman Empire as legends about Christian martyrs were recorded. The dates of their deaths formed the basis of martyrologies. In the 4th century, there were three main types of catalogs of lives of the saints:
- annual calendar catalogue, or menaion (in Greek, μηναῖον, menaion means "monthly" (adj, neut), lit. "lunar"), biographies of the saints to be read at sermons ;
- synaxarion ("something that collects"; Greek συναξάριον, from σύναξις, synaxis i.e. "gathering", "collection", "compilation"), or a short version of lives of the saints, arranged by dates;
- paterikon ("that of the Fathers"; Greek πατερικόν; in Greek and Latin, pater means "father"), or biography of the specific saints, chosen by the catalog compiler.
In Western Europe hagiography was one of the more important vehicles for the study of inspirational history during the Middle Ages. The Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine compiled a great deal of medieval hagiographic material, with a strong emphasis on miracle tales. Lives were often written to promote the cult of local or national states, and in particular to develop pilgrimages to visit relics. The bronze Gniezno Doors of Gniezno Cathedral in Poland are the only Romanesque doors in Europe to feature the life of a saint. The life of Saint Adalbert of Prague, who is buried in the cathedral, is shown in 18 scenes, probably based on a lost illuminated copy of one of his Lives.
Many of the important hagiographical texts composed in medieval England were written in the vernacular dialect Anglo-Norman. With the introduction of Latin literature into England in the 7th and 8th centuries the genre of the life of the saint grew increasingly popular. When one contrasts it to the popular heroic poem, such as Beowulf, one finds that they share certain common features. In Beowulf, the titular character battles against Grendel and his mother, while the saint, such as Athanasius’ Anthony (one of the original sources for the hagiographic motif) or the character of Guthlac, battles against figures no less substantial in a spiritual sense. Both genres then focus on the hero-warrior figure, but with the distinction that the saint is of a spiritual sort.
Imitation of the life of Christ was then the benchmark against which saints were measured, and imitation of the lives of saints was the benchmark against which the general population measured itself. In Anglo-Saxon and medieval England, hagiography became a literary genre par excellence for the teaching of a largely illiterate audience. Hagiography provided priests and theologians with classical handbooks in a form that allowed them the rhetorical tools necessary to present their faith through the example of the saints' lives.
Of all the English hagiographers no one was more prolific nor so aware of the importance of the genre as Abbot Ælfric of Eynsham. His work The Lives of the Saints (MS Cotton Julius E.7) comprises a set of sermons on saints' days, formerly observed by the English Church. The text comprises two prefaces, one in Latin and one in Old English, and 39 lives beginning on December 25 with the nativity of Christ and ending with three texts to which no saints' days are attached. The text spans the entire year and describes the lives of many saints, both English and continental, and hearkens back to some of the earliest saints of the early church.
There are two known instances where saint's lives were adapted into vernacular plays in Britain. These are the Cornish-language works Beunans Meriasek and Beunans Ke, about the lives of Saints Meriasek and Kea, respectively.
Other examples of hagiographies from England include:
- the Chronicle by Hugh Candidus
- the Secgan Manuscript 
- the list of John Leyland
- possibly the book Life by Saint Cadog
Ireland is notable in its rich hagiographical tradition, and for the large amount of material which was produced during the Middle Ages. Irish hagiographers wrote primarily in Latin while some of the later saint's lives were written in the hagiographer's native vernacular Irish. Of particular note are the lives of St. Patrick, St. Columba (Latin)/Colm (Irish) and St. Brigit/Brigid—Ireland's three patron saints. Additionally, several Irish calendars relating to the feastdays of Christian saints (sometimes called martyrologies or feastologies) contained abbreviated synopses of saint's lives, which were compiled from many different sources. Notable examples include the Martyrology of Tallaght and the Félire Óengusso. Such hagiographical calendars were important in establishing lists of native Irish saints, in imitation of continental calendars.
In the 10th century, a Byzantine monk Simeon Metaphrastes was the first one to change the genre of lives of the saints into something different, giving it a moralizing and panegyrical character. His catalog of lives of the saints became the standard for all of the Western and Eastern hagiographers, who would create relative biographies and images of the ideal saints by gradually departing from the real facts of their lives. Over the years, the genre of lives of the saints had absorbed a number of narrative plots and poetic images (often, of pre-Christian origin, such as dragon fighting etc.), mediaeval parables, short stories and anecdotes.
The genre of lives of the saints was brought to Kievan Rus' by the South Slavs together with writing and also in translations from the Greek language. In the 11th century, the Rus' began to compile the original life stories of the first Rus'ian saints, e.g. Boris and Gleb, Theodosius Pechersky etc. In the 16th century, Metropolitan Macarius expanded the list of the Rus'ian saints and supervised the compiling process of their life stories. They would all be compiled in the so-called Velikiye chet’yi-minei catalog (Великие Четьи-Минеи, or Great Menaion Reader), consisting of 12 volumes in accordance with each month of the year. They were revised and expanded by St. Dimitry of Rostov in 1684-1705.
- Jean Bolland
- Alban Butler
- Hippolyte Delehaye
- Reginald of Durham
- Legendary material in Christian hagiography
- Life of Alexander Nevsky
- from the Greek ἁγιογραφία; hagiographia, from ἅγιος, (h)agios, "holy" or "saint" and γράφειν, graphein, "to write"
- Davies, S. (2008). Archive and manuscripts: contents and use: using the sources (3rd ed.). Aberystwyth, UK: Department of Information Studies, Aberystwyth University. p. 5.20. ISBN 978-1-906214-15-9
- Koch, John T. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. pp. 203–205. ISBN 1-85109-440-7. Retrieved November 23, 2009.
- Barbara Yorke, Nunneries and the Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses (Continuum, 2003) page 22
- Stowe MS 944, British Library
- G. Hickes, Dissertatio Epistolaris in Linguarum veterum septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archeologicus (Oxford 1703-05), p. 115.
- John Leland, The Collectanea of British affairs, Volume 2. page 408.
- R.M. Liuzza Old English News Letter (Medieval Institute, Western Michigan University, 2006) vol 39 No2. page8.
- Tatlock, J. S. P. (1939) "The Dates of the Arthurian Saints' Legends", Speculum 14.3 (July 1939:345-365) p. 345
- Heffernan, Thomas J. Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages. Oxford, 1992.
- Mariković, Ana and Vedriš, Trpimir eds. Identity and alterity in Hagiography and the Cult of Saints (Bibliotheca Hagiotheca, Series Colloquia 1). Zagreb: Hagiotheca, 2010.
- Vauchez, André, La sainteté en Occident aux derniers siècles du Moyen Âge (1198-1431) (BEFAR, 241). Rome, 1981. [Engl. transl.: Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge, 1987; Ital. transl.: La santità nel Medioevo. Bologna, 1989].
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- "Hagiography". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- Hippolyte Delehaye, The Legends of the Saints: An Introduction to Hagiography (1907)
- James Kiefer's Hagiographies
- Societé des Bollandistes
- Hagiography Society