Legendary material in Christian hagiography
A legendary, in Christian literature, is a collection of biographies of saints or other holy figures. The pre-eminent example of the form is the mid-thirteenth-century Legenda aurea or 'Golden Legend', which contained a large number of saints' lives, organised according to the liturgical year. The genre fell into decline following the Reformation.
The legenda (literally, that which is for reading) included facts which were historically genuine, as well as narrative which Christians now class as unhistorical legend. The term is a creation of the Middle Ages, and has its source in the reading of the prayers used in religious services. Since the days of the martyrs, the Catholic Church recalled to mind her famous dead in the prayers of the Mass and in the Office, by commemorating the names noted in the martyrologies and making mention of incidents in their lives and martyrdom. When the lectio became a matter of precept, the reading matter in the office for the day became in a precise sense legenda (that which must be read).
After the 13th century, the word legenda was regarded as the equivalent of vita (Life) and passio (suffering), and, in the 15th century, the liber lectionarius is comprised under what is known as "legend". Thus, historically considered, legend is the received story of the saints.
Early medieval embellishment
Gregory of Tours (d. 594) was acquainted with the apocryphal lives of the Apostles. At the beginning of the 7th century we already find related in Gaul (in the "Passio Tergeminorum" of Warnahar of Langres), as an incident in the local history of Langres, a story of martyrdom originating in Cappadocia.
The 7th century sees the literary form of legend domiciled in the West. Bede's "Martyrology" and Aldhelm of Malmesbury (d. 709) indicate a wide knowledge of this foreign literature. The legends of the "saviour" make their appearance in the Merovingian 7th century up to the middle of the 8th.
High Middle Ages
During the millenarian 10th century, the era of the Cluniacs and mysticism make the biographies of the saints subjective. The 12th century brings with the new religious orders the contemplative legends of Mary. The thirteenth sees the development of the cities and the citizens, hand in hand with which goes the popularization of the legend by means of collections compiled for the purposes of sermons, vit sanctorum, exempla, or merely to give entertainment (Vincent of Beauvais, Cæsarius of Heisterbach, James of Vitry, Thomas of Chantimpré, "Legenda Aurea"); in this century also arise the legends of Mary and, in connexion with the new feast of Corpus Christi (1264), a strong interest in tales of miracles relating to the Host.
There are only variations of the old concepts of transformation and apparitions, as in the innumerable stories which now circulated of visible incarnation of the Divine Child or of the Crucified One, or of the monstrance being suspended in the air. But the continuity of the concepts is quite evident in the case of the legend of Mary. If Mary considers herself as betrothed to the priest who serves her, the meaning of this is not far to seek; but nevertheless Callimachus (3rd century BC) had also treated this idea in a legend of Artemis, and Antoninus Liberalis and the Talmud have variations of it. And if, in this legend of Mary, the Blessed Virgin put a ring on the hand of her betrothed under quite characteristic circumstances, that is nothing else than the Roman local legend of the betrothal of Venus, as it has been preserved by William of Malmesbury and the "Deutsche Kaiserchronik" of the 12th century.
The most important medieval legend collection was the Latin Legenda aurea or Golden Legend. Around 1400, a German legendary called Der Heiligen Leben ('The Lives of Saints') became the dominant legendary in German, 'unparalleled in its overall popularity in the whole of Europe ... Hardly a work of German literature was read by such a wide audience'.
Early modern Protestant reception
The stories of the saints were supplemented and embellished according to popular theological conceptions and inclinations, and the legend became to a large extent fiction. The Protestant Reformation received the legend in this form. On account of the importance which the saints possessed even among Protestants, the legends have remained in use. The edition of the "Vitæ Patrum", which Georg Major published at Wittenberg in 1544 by Martin Luther's orders, closely follows Athanasius, Rufinus, and Jerome, rejecting merely some obvious fantasies and aberrations, such as, for example, were to be seen in the "Vita s. Barbaræ", the "Golden Legend" of the 13th century, or in the "Vita s. Simeonis Stylitæ" of Pseudo-Antonius. Luther himself produced an edition of the Life of St John Chrysostom with a marginal commentary intended to show how the text was in fact full of lies: Luther entitled it Die Lügend von S. Johanne Chrysostomo or 'The Liegend of St John Chrysostom'. This was itself an influential work, promoting the decline of the legendary as a format for religious literature.
But the legends of the saints shortly disappeared from Protestantism. It is only in the 19th century, that they again find entrance into official Protestantism in connexion with the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, and the attempts of Ferdinand Piper (d. 1899 at Berlin) to revive the popular calendars.
In the usage of the Catholic Church, the legend plays the same part to-day as in the Middle Ages, but it was felt that not all the legends we possess were of equal value, and especially that the editions of the lives of the saints were entirely unsatisfactory. It was the Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde of Utrecht who, at the beginning of the 17th century, undertook to remedy matters by referring to the most ancient texts, and by pointing out how the tales developed.
Rosweyde wished merely to correct the old collections; his idea was to treat the martyrologies, beginning with the most ancient, from the philological standpoint. But his scheme was taken up by other Jesuits, and after his death (1629) was carried out on a large scale. This was with an eye also to sectarian opponents, and in defense of the continuity of Catholic teaching and Catholic life. The Acta Sanctorum of the Bollandists became foundational for investigation in hagiography and legend.
The Roman Breviary officially designates the lesson for the day as lectio, and the Catholic Church now may recognize the legend rather as a popular story or a fictitious religious tale. Hagiography is to-day the province of the historian, who must test the value of the sources of the reports.
The belief in miracles, considered as such, does not affect the historian, who has only to gather the original authorities together and to say: This is what happened, so far as historical science can determine. If this presentation of the facts be correct, then no objection can be raised against the results.
Content and sources
Then arises as the next task, to indicate;
- the contents and
- the sources of legends.
Manifold as the varieties of legends can seem to be, there are fundamentally not so very many different notions utilized. The legend considers the saint as a kind of lord of the elements, who commands the water, rain, fire, mountain, and rock; he changes, enlarges, or diminishes objects; flies through the air; delivers from dungeon and gallows; takes part in battles, and even in martyrdom is invulnerable; animals, the wildest and the most timid, serve him (e.g. the stories of the bear as a beast of burden; the ring in the fish; the frogs becoming silent, etc.); his birth is glorified by a miracle; a voice, or letters, from Heaven proclaim his identity; bells ring of themselves; the heavenly ones enter into personal intercourse with him (betrothal of Mary); he speaks with the dead and beholds heaven, hell, and purgatory; forces the Devil to release people from compacts; he is victorious over dragons; etc. Of all this the authentic Christian narratives know nothing.
But whence then does this world of fantastic concepts arise? All these stories are anticipated by the Greek chroniclers, writers of myths, collectors of strange tales, neo-Platonists, and neo-Pythagoreans. Examples are in the Hellados periegesis of Pausanias, or the codices collected by Photius in his "Bibliotheca".
Great importance was attached to the reports of miracles in antiquity. The legend makes its appearance wherever people endeavoured to form theological concepts, and in its main features it is everywhere the same. Like the myth (the explanatory fable of nature) and the doctrinal fable, it has its independent religious and hortatory importance. The legend claims to show the auxiliary power of the supernatural, and thus indicate to the people a "saviour" in every need. The worshipper of divinity, the hero-worshipper, is assured of the supernatural protection to which he has established a claim.
Hellenism had already recognized this characteristic of the religious fable. Popular illusions found their way from Hellenism to Christianity, whose struggles in the first three centuries certainly produced an abundance of heroes. The genuine Acts of the martyrs (cf., for example, R. Knopf, "Ausgewählte Märtyreracten", Tübingen, 1901; older less scholarly edition in Ruinart, "Acta Martyrum sincera", Paris, 1689, no longer sufficient for scientific research) have in them no popular miracles.
In numerous cases in which Christian saints became the successors of local deities, and Christian worship supplanted the ancient local worship. This explains the great number of similarities between gods and saints. But how was the transference of legends to Christianity consummated? The fact that the Talmud also uses the same ideas, with variations, proves that the guiding thoughts of men during the period of the first spread of Christianity ran in general on parallel lines. For example, Augustine of Hippo (De cura pro mortuis gerenda, xii) and also Gregory the Great (Dialogues, IV, xxxvi) relate of a man, who died by an error of the angel of death and was again restored to life, the same story which is already given by Lucian in his Philopseudes.
Another example is characteristic tale of the impostor, who concealed the money he owed in a hollow stick, gave this stick to the creditor to hold, and then swore that he had given back the money; this tale is found in Conon the Grammarian (at Rome in Cæsar's time), in the Haggadah of the Talmud (Nedarim, 25a), and in the Christian legends of the 13th century in Vincent of Beauvais. The leading ideas of the legends were presumably transferred individually, and appeared later in literary form in the most varied combinations. Not till the 6th century may the literary type of martyr be considered as perfected, and we are subsequently able to verify the literary associations of ideas.
The pre-Christian religious narrative had already worked up old motifs into romances. There arose in Gnostic circles after the 2nd century the apocryphal accounts of the lives of the Apostles, indicating dogmatic prepossessions. The Christian Church combatted these stories, but the opposition of centuries—the Decree of Gelasius in 496 is well-known—was unable to prevent the narratives from becoming unhistorical as to facts.
- Werner Williams-Krapp, 'German and Dutch Translations of the Legenda Aurea,' in Legenda aurea: Sept siècles de diffusion. Actes du colloque international sur la 'Legenda aurea': texte latin et branches vernaculaires à l'Université du Québec à Montréal 11-12 mai 1983 (Montréal: Éditions Bellarmin, 1986), p. 229, cited by Marianne E. Kalinke, The Book of Reykjahólar: The Last of the Great Medieval Legendaries (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), p. 4.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Legends of the Saints". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. The entry cites:
- Hippolyte Delehaye, Les légendes hagiographiques (Brussels, 1905), tr. CRAWFORD, Legends of the Saints (London and New York, 1908);
- GÜNTER, Legenden-Studien (Cologne, 1906);
- ____, Die christl. Legende des Abendlandes (Heidelberg, 1910).