- Golden Legend
The Golden Legend (Latin: Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum) is a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Varagine that was widely read in late medieval Europe. More than a thousand manuscripts of the text have survived. It was likely compiled around the years 1259–1266, although the text was added to over the centuries.
Initially entitled Legenda sanctorum (Readings of the Saints), it gained its popularity under the title by which it is best known. It overtook and eclipsed earlier compilations of abridged legendaria, the Abbreviatio in gestis et miraculis sanctorum attributed to the Dominican chronicler Jean de Mailly and the Epilogus in gestis sanctorum of the Dominican preacher Bartholomew of Trent. When printing was invented in the 1450s, editions appeared quickly, not only in Latin, but also in almost every major European language. Among incunabula, printed before 1501, Legenda aurea was printed in more editions than the Bible and was one of the most widely published books of the Middle Ages. During the height of its popularity the book was so well known that the term “Golden Legend” was sometimes used generally to refer to any collection of stories about the saints. It was one of the first books William Caxton printed in the English language; Caxton’s version appeared in 1483 and his translation was reprinted, reaching a ninth edition in 1527.
Written in simple, readable Latin, the book was read in its day for its stories. Each chapter is about a different saint or Christian festival. The book is considered the closest thing to an encyclopaedia of medieval saint lore that survives today; as such, it is invaluable to art historians and medievalists who seek to identify saints depicted in art by their deeds and attributes. Its repetitious nature is explained if Jacobus da Varagine meant to write a compendium of saintly lore for sermons and preaching, not a work of popular entertainment.
The book sought to compile traditional lore about saints venerated at the time of its compilation, ordered according to their feast days. Jacobus da Varagine for the most part follows a template for each chapter: etymology of the saint’s name, a narrative about their life, a list of miracles performed, and finally a list of citations where the information was found.
Silvester is said of sile or sol which is light, and of terra the earth, as who saith the light of the earth, that is of the church. Or Silvester is said of silvas and of trahens, that is to say he was drawing wild men and hard unto the faith. Or as it is said in glossario, Silvester is to say green, that is to wit, green in contemplation of heavenly things, and a toiler in labouring himself; he was umbrous or shadowous. That is to say he was cold and refrigate from all concupiscence of the flesh, full of boughs among the trees of heaven.
As a Latin author, Jacobus da Varagine must have known that Silvester, a relatively common Latin name, simply meant “from the forest”. The correct derivation is alluded to in the text, but set out in parallel to fanciful ones that lexicographers would consider quite wide of the mark. Even the “correct” explanations (silvas, “forest”, and the mention of green boughs) are used as the basis for an allegorical interpretation. Jacobus da Varagine’s etymologies had different goals from modern etymologies, and cannot be judged by the same standards. Jacobus’ etymologies have parallels in Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae, in which linguistically accurate derivations are set out beside allegorical and figurative explanations.
Jacobus da Varagine then moves on to the saint’s life, compiled with reference to the readings from the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgy commemorating that saint; then embellishes the biography with supernatural tales of incidents involving the saint’s life.
Miracle tales of relics
Many of the stories also conclude with miracle tales and similar wonderlore from accounts of those who called upon that saint for aid or used the saint’s relics. Such a tale is told of Saint Agatha; Jacobus da Varagine has pagans in Catania repairing to the relics of St. Agatha to supernaturally repel an eruption of Mount Etna:
And for to prove that she had prayed for the salvation of the country, at the beginning of February, the year after her martyrdom, there arose a great fire, and came from the mountain toward the city of Catania and burnt the earth and stones, it was so fervent. Then ran the paynims to the sepulchre of S. Agatha and took the cloth that lay upon her tomb, and held it abroad against the fire, and anon on the ninth day after, which was the day of her feast, ceased the fire as soon as it came to the cloth that they brought from her tomb, showing that our Lord kept the city from the said fire by the merits of S. Agatha.
look here: Medieval Sourcebook: The Golden Legend
- SELECTED READINGS FROM THE GOLDEN LEGEND
By Jacobus Voragine (1275), translated by William Caxton (1483)