The Golden Legend: Prologue

The Golden Legend:

"...the histories of The Golden Legend will be a new revelation of inestimable value."
The Golden Legend: Prologue

AMONG the books which afford us an insight into the popular religious thought of the middle ages, none holds a more important place than the Legenda Aurea or Golden Legend. The book was compiled and put into form about the year 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, who laid under contribution for his purpose the Lives of the Fathers by S. Jerome, the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, and other books of a like kind; while for the lives of the saints more nearly approaching his own age he appears to have industriously collected such legends as he could meet with, whether in manuscript or handed down by oral tradition. All persons living in later times have been deeply indebted to the man who thus embodied for their benefit and instruction a picture of the mental attitude of the age in which he lived. If the study of it be not absolutely essential, it may safely be averred that it will be most helpful and profitable, to all those who care to realise to themselves the faith of their forefathers, and in no small degree will it enable them more fully to understand the inspiration of the men whose faith found its expression in the glories and mysteries of Gothic ecclesiastical architecture. To those who can pace the aisles of a great cathedral or priory or abbey church, or even tread the humbler stones of an ancient parish church, without being touched with a sense of reverent wonder, the pages of The Golden Legend will appeal in vain. Its perusal will strike no responsive chord in their hearts. But to those who, whatever may be their creed, never set foot in those stone-written records of the past without a feeling of awe and veneration, mingled with an earnest longing to understand something of the spirit which breathes forth from them, and a desire to know what it was that so wrought in the minds of their makers as to produce the Music Gallery at Exeter, the South Porch at Lincoln, the Galilee at Durham, the stained glass at York, the East Window at Wells, and a thousand other marvels, to say nothing of the greater glories that await us in the magnificent churches of France, which even after centuries of destruction, neglect, and ill-usage still impress us with wonder and admiration, the histories of The Golden Legend will be a new revelation of inestimable value. The corbels of roof and cloister vaulting which look down on us with quaint and tender beauty, and the strange and sometimes monstrous or demoniacal gargoyles of the exteriors, will have a newer and fuller meaning if we allow ourselves thoroughly to enter into the spirit of the book before us.

We shall seem to hear the majestic roll of the solemn chants of Advent and the rejoicings of Christmas, the penitential pleadings of the Lenten season and the triumphal songs of Easter, as we read the eloquent passages devoted to those sacred seasons, even though the style be such as modern ears are little accustomed to, and therefore may sometimes appear, especially on a first reading, as more or less rugged and obscure.

Lovers of the picturesque can scarcely fail to be charmed with such wonderful tales as those of the childhood of Moses and the history of Pontius Pilate, which the author frankly sets down as 'apocriphum'; while the folk-lorist will find a rich field to interest him in a territory hitherto but little explored.

In such histories as that of S. Brandon we dwell for a while in a veritable wonderland. The lives of S. Jerome, S. Macarius, S. Anthony, and S. Mary of Egypt, and other saints of the desert, read like the echoes of another world, so far removed are they from modern habits of thought, faith, and practice; while those of S. Francis, S. Dominic, and S. Thomas of Canterbury bring before our eyes the life of the middle ages hardly less vividly than the tales of the Gesta Romanorum or the everliving creations of Geoffrey Chaucer. Verily there is a plentiful harvest for those who care to reap. Having read every page very carefully six times, with unabated interest, in the course of editing two editions, I can testify to the attraction the book has for one who loves the wondrous records of old days.

Though it does not appear to have been among the earliest of printed books, the Legenda Aturea was no sooner in type than edition after edition appeared with surprising rapidity. Probably no other book was more frequently reprinted between the years 1470 and 1530 than the compilation of Jacobus de Voragine. And while almost innumerable editions appeared in Latin, it was also translated into the vulgar tongue of most of the nations of Europe, usually with alterations and additions in accordance with the hagiological preferences of the different nationalities. It is with an early French translation that we are chiefly concerned, of which Caxton's version is a close rendering. The French book in question is a large folio volume of four hundred and forty-three leaves, printed in double columns, with forty-four lines to the page. Two copies of it only are known in this country, one in the British Museum, and the other in Cambridge University Library. There may of course be copies lurking in foreign libraries, but I have not been able to hear of any. It is without any indication of place of printing, date, or printer, and until quite lately these particulars had baffled the researches and conjectures of bibliographers; but latterly Mr. R. Proctor of the British Museum has succeeded in identifying the type as proceeding from the press of Peter Keyser, a rival of Anthony Vernard at Paris. It contains the lives of many French saints who are not included in the work of Voragine, notably those of S. Genevieve and S. Louis.

Convincing proof that this is the book referred to by Caxton in his preface as 'a legende in frensshe,' is afforded by the fact that where the printer has left gross misprints uncorrected in his text, the translator has blindly followed him without any attempt to make sense of them. The most curious instance of this occurs in the explanation of the supposed etymology of the name of S. Stephen. The French printer has turned the Old French which should have read 'fames venues,' (femmes veuves) into 'seine venues,' which Caxton attempts to translate by 'hole comen' (whole come), regardless of the fact that it has no meaning whatever. It has rarely been attempted to clear the present text of obscurities by any alteration, on principle; but in this instance, for the meaningless words 'hole comen,' those of 'widow women' have been substituted in accordance with the Latin, which Caxton seems never to have troubled himself to refer to. Again, in the life of S. Genevieve the French version has the typographical error of "a name' for 'a navire,' which the translator simply renders 'at name,' and this in later editions becomes 'at none' without making any better sense. This has been altered to 'by ship' as being the obvious meaning. The text has been amended in one or two other instances where a slight alteration made a passage intelligible; but, as I have said, there has been no attempt to clear obscurities generally or to interfere with the translator's language.

The observant reader can scarcely fail to note the difference between the style of the Bible histories, which I take it come from the 'Legend in English,' which Caxton mentions in his preface, and that of the translator's work, greatly to the advantage of the former. The summary is in truth done with a master's hand. The life of S. Thomas of Canterbury is again a specimen of vigorous English clearly written, and is probably also taken from the 'Legend in English.'

Though Caxton speaks of himself as the translator, and we have personal glimpses of him in the anecdotes he relates in 'The Circumcision of our Lord, 'The History of David,' and 'The Life of S. Austin,' it is hardly to be supposed that he could have been at the labour of translating the whole book. He appears indeed to have employed some one whose knowledge of French must have been considerably less than that we are willing to credit him with, considering his long residence in French Flanders. Colour is also given to the suggestion that he availed himself of extraneous help in the work of translation by his special assertion at the end of the life of S. Roch: 'which lyfe is translated oute of latyn into Englysshe by me, William Caxton.'

It may be remarked as a curious bibliographical and historical coincidence, that while Wynken de Worde was engaged in printing the last of the Old English editions of The Golden Legend in London, William Tyndale was busily occupied at Cologne trying to get into type the first of the unnumbered editions of the English New Testament. The old order giveth place to the new.


THE holy and blessed Doctor S. Jerome saith this authority: Do alway some good work, to the end that the devil find thee not idle. And the holy Doctor S. Austin saith in the book of the labour of monks that, no man strong or mighty to labour ought to be idle. For which cause, when I had performed and accomplished divers works and histories translated out of French into English at the request of certain lords, ladies, and gentlemen, as the story of the Recuyel of Troy, the Book of the Chess, the History of Jason, the History of the Mirror of the World, the fifteen books of the Metamorphoses, in which be contained the Fables of Ovid, and the History of Godfrey of Boulogne in the Conquest of Jerusalem, with other divers works and books, I ne nyste what work to begin and put forth after the said works tofore made; and forasmuch as idleness is so much blamed, as saith S. Bernard the mellifluous Doctor, that, she is mother of lies and stepdame of virtues, and that it is she that overthroweth strong men into sin, quencheth virtue, nourisheth pride, and maketh the way ready to go to hell. And John Cassiodorus saith that the thought of him that is idle, thinketh on none other thing but on lickerous meats and viands for his belly. And the holy S. Bernard, aforesaid, saith in an epistle: When the time shall come that it shall behove us to render and give account of our idle time, what reason may we render, or what answer shall we give when in idlenesse is none excuse? And Prosper saith that, whosoever liveth in idleness, liveth in manner of a dumb beast. And because I have seen the authorities that blame and despise so much idleness, and also know well that it is one of the capital and deadly sins, much hateful unto God, therefore I have concluded and firmly purposed in myself no more to be idle, but will apply myself to labour and such occupation as I have been accustomed to do.

And forasmuch as S. Austin, aforesaid, saith upon a psalm that, good work ought not to be done for fear of pain, but for the love of righteousness, and that it be of very and sovereign franchise, and because me seemeth to be a sovereign weal to incite and exhort men and women to keep them from sloth and idleness, and to let to be understood to such people as be not lettered, the nativities, the lives, the passions, the miracles, and the death of the holy saints, and also some other notory deeds and acts of times past, I have submised myself to translate into English the legend of saints which is called Legenda Aurea in Latin, that is to say the Golden Legend. For in like wise as gold is most noble above all other metals, in like wise is this Legend holden most noble above all other works. Against me, here might some persons say that, this legend hath been translated tofore, and truth it is. But forasmuch as I had by me a legend in French, another in Latin, and the third in English, which varied in many and divers places, and also many histories were comprised in the other two books which were not in the English hook, and therefore I have written one out of the said three books, which I have ordered otherwise than the said English Iegend is, which was before made, beseeching all them that shall see or hear it read, to pardon me where I have erred or made fault, which, if any be, is of ignorance and against my will, and submit it wholly of such as can and may, to correct it, humbly beseeching them so to do, and in so doing they shall deserve a singular laud and merit, and I shall pray for them unto Almighty God, that he of his benign grace reward them, etc., and that it profit to all them that shall read or hear it read, and may increase in them virtue, and expel vice and sin, that by the example of the holy saints they amend their living here in this short life, that by their merits they and I may come to everlasting life and bliss in heaven. Amen.

And forasmuch as this said work was great and over chargeable to me to accomplish, I feared me in the beginning of the translation to have continued it because of the long time of the translation, and also in the imprinting of the same, and in manner half desperate to have accomplished it, was in purpose to have left it after that I had begun to translate it, and to have laid it apart, ne had it been at the instance and request of the puissant, noble, and virtuous Earl, my lord William, Earl of Arundel, which desired me to proceed and continue the said work, and promised me to take a reasonable quantity of them when they were achieved and accomplished, and sent to me a worshipful gentleman, a servant of his, named John Stanney which solicited me, in my lord's name, that I should in no wise leave it, but accomplish it, promising that my said lord should during my life give and grant to me a yearly fee, that is to wit, a buck in summer and a doe in winter, with which fee I hold me well content. Then at contemplation and reverence of my said lord I have endeavoured me to make an end and finish this said translation, and also have imprinted it in the most best wise that I could or might, and present this said book to his good and noble lordship, as chief causer of the achieving of it, praying him to take it in gree of me William Caxton, his poor servant, and that it like him to remember my fee. And I shall pray unto Almighty God for his long life and welfare, and after this short and transitory life to come into everlasting joy in heaven; the which he send to him and me and unto all them that shall read and hear this said book, that for the love and faith of whom all these holy saints have suffered death and passion. Amen.
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