What Was ‘The Golden Legend’ and Why is it Relevant Today?

‘The Golden Legend’ is one of the classic texts of our faith—and perhaps one of the most influential.

The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana manuscript of the Golden Legend.
The Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana manuscript of the Golden Legend. (photo: Photo: ‘Sailko’, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have written elsewhere of the second-bestselling book of all time, Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. (Second, of course, only to the Bible.). But what was the most influential book among medieval and Renaissance Catholics?

Here I think it is safe to say that The Golden Legend by the Dominican Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (1229-1298) may have held that title from the time of its first publication around 1260 to at least the Counter-Reformation, about three hundred years later.

The book is of import for several reasons. First, Jacobus was among first to take most of the major “acts” of the early martyrs, fathers, and doctors of the church and put them into one (if oversized) volume. All the usual great saints—along with their legendary deeds (hence the title)—are here, from St. Michael the Archangel to St. Augustine, St. John the Baptist to St. Bernard. These saints appear not only larger than life, but, since the tome is largely a martyrology, larger than death, too.

Second, The Golden Legend was written almost specifically for preachers (not for nothing was Blessed Jacobus a member of the still-new Order of Preachers), so his work—which borrows, even steals, freely from Augustine’s Confessions to St. Bernard’s homilies—was meant to edify the faithful, convert the heathen, and combat the heresies plaguing Europe.

However, the book became wildly popular with artists and artisans of all stripes since it told in unblinking detail of the almost unthinkable tortures so many of the early saints underwent—one scholar went so far as to find 81 different types of martyrdom in its pages. And thus, The Golden Legend became an almost endless trove for every major and minor artist to quarry from.

Blessed Jacobus, who was a contemporary of the Common Doctor, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas (also a Dominican), also had the scholastic knack for systematizing almost everything in The Golden Legend, and the book is replete with lists of all types, stripes, and kinds from the Ten Commandments and Eight Beatitudes, to the seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy, to—and here Bl. Jacobus is in more rarefied air, the five pains of Jesus’ passion and the four prerogatives of Christ’s very nature.

However, even during his lifetime, The Golden Legend was a bit of an automatic throwback to earlier times: The Apostolic and Patristic periods are well represented throughout its 1,000 pages, but almost no saints (pace Bernard and Peter the Martyr) within a couple of hundred years of the book’s writing appear. This odd “instant-retro” is reminiscent of what was to come several centuries later when the King James Version of the Bible was written in an English language that, even at the time, was considered antiquated.

Despite the book’s popularity among preachers and artists and librarians (The Golden Legend is one of those rare books that instantly flourished and then continued to become even more widely disseminated), there was bound to be a pushback and that came with the Protestant “Reformation.” Blessed Jacobus’s book was everything that Calvin, Zwingli and Luther hated: a mythologizing of the early Church was bad enough for these heretics, but the inclusion of the Church year, which provides a sort of weird gestalt to the whole text, pushed it over the line, and from the 16th century onwards The Golden Legend was almost a derogatory term.

The Council of Trent, however, shoved back down the throats of the schismatics the very teaching and preaching they hated and refused to meet them halfway—or meet them at all. To paraphrase Sir Kenneth Clark: the three things that the Protestants loathed—the cult of the saints (especially their relics), the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the primacy of the papacy, were not only accentuated by the revived Catholic Church, but celebrated. This provided The Golden Legend with, if not a new lease on life, at least a second wind.

But it didn’t last very long. The Council of Trent had sanctioned the Society of Jesus to regain ground lost to Luther, Calvin et al., and the Jesuits, for good or ill, relied more on the Spiritual Exercises of their sainted founder and his penchant for mysticism and learning, rather than Dominican and Franciscan preaching. And thus, The Golden Legend fell, if not out of favor, then at least off the Church’s radar.

More bad news for the book followed: The Church produced the official Roman Martyrology proper, which was to be said at Prime (the third Canonical Hour in the Divine Office), and this comparatively slender volume tamped down the excesses that even Bl. Jacobus himself describes as “hard to believe as fact.”

In the English-speaking world, The Golden Legend was replaced almost wholesale by Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints (both in its four- and one-volume editions) in the 18th century. Butler, in a sense, filled in a lot of the blanks—and since Jacobus had concentrated on almost anything post-ninth-century, there was plenty to fill. The Golden Legend had left open.

If there was ever going to be a death knell for a book, the Second Vatican Council might have done it to The Golden Legend: the legendary lives and feats of heroism of the early saints were not only toned-down, but turned off completely in most missals. Many saints celebrated in the Legend were dropped from the Universal Calendar, and others had their days inexplicably moved or lumped together with other “optional memorials.”

However, with Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificium, which liberated the extraordinary form of the Latin Mass in 2007, The Golden Legend is now not only back in print, but the very saints whose days had been suppressed are now being celebrated or at least commemorated.

So, it is a joy to read the revised 2012 edition of The Golden Legend, featuring an excellent and informative introduction by Eammon Duffy, and translated by William Granger Ryan. The book is of value to the believer and nonbeliever alike in that it contextualizes almost any major work of religious artwork from the late Middle Ages to the late Renaissance. And for sheer pleasure in terms of reading the lives of the saints, it is every bit the equal of Alban Butler and a more fully fleshed out version of The Roman Martyrology. It is indeed one of the classic texts of our faith—and perhaps one of the most influential.