The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints

The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints

The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints

The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints


Depicting the lives of the saints in an array of factual and fictional stories, The Golden Legend was perhaps the most widely read book, after the Bible, during the late Middle Ages. It was compiled around 1260 by Jacobus de Voragine, a scholarly friar and later archbishop of Genoa, whose purpose was to captivate, encourage, and edify the faithful, while preserving a vast store of information pertaining to the legends and traditions of the church. In this translation, the first in English of the complete text, William Granger Ryan captures the immediacy of this rich work, which offers an important guide for readers interested in medieval art and literature and, more generally, in popular religious culture.

Arranged according to the order of saints' feast days, these fascinating stories are now combined into one volume. This edition also features an introduction by Eamon Duffy contextualizing the work.


Eamon Duffy

The Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, of Jacobus de Voragine was one of the most influential books of the later Middle Ages. It is a compendium of saints’ lives and of liturgical and doctrinal instruction, culled in the 1260s from a wide range of patristic and medieval sources. Its compiler, Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (the Latin form of jacopo or Giacomo de Varrazze, ca. 1229–1298), intended his book as an aid for busy priests and preachers in need of a handy source of vivid anecdote, instruction, and edification to bulk out their sermons and catecheses. Many such compilations were produced in thirteenth-century Europe, as the Church sought both to promote more active religious engagement among parish clergy and laypeople, and to police the orthodoxy of popular belief and practice. The new orders of mendicant friars were in the forefront of this campaign to instruct and enthuse ordinary Christians, and Jacobus, an Italian Dominican friar who became Prior of the Lombard Province in 1267, was working in a tradition established earlier in the same century by members of his own relatively new order. Jean de Mailly began work on his Abbreviatio in gestis et miraculis sanctorum in the late 1220s, within ten years of the foundation of the Order of Preachers, and his fellow Dominican Bartholomew of Trent produced his Epilogus ingesta sanctorum in the mid-1240s. Jacobus drew freely on both these collections, but those books, popular as they were, survive now in just a couple of dozen manuscripts apiece. Jacobus’s Legenda Aurea, by contrast, has survived in almost a thousand manuscript copies of the Latin text alone, with another five hundred or so manuscripts containing translations of all or part of the Legenda into one or another of the great European vernaculars. His own order seems not at first to have considered Jacobus’s Legenda definitive, and other Dominicans went on compiling similar hagiographical works well into the fourteenth century. But even in Jacobus’s own lifetime his book, doubtless transmitted across Europe through Dominican networks initially, had moved well beyond the confines of the order, and was establishing itself as the most widely used compendium of its kind. As early as the 1280s it was already one of the shaping influences on local hagiographical projects far removed from Italy, such as the vernacular

The only full-length study is G. Monleone, Jacopo de Voragine e la sua Cronaca de Genoa (Rome: Istituto storico italiano per il Medio Evo, 1941).

For both, see Sherry L. Reames, The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of Its Paradoxical History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 164ff.

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