Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend

The other day I was browsing the manuscript Royal MS 10 E IV looking for images to feature on my Instagram account. While doing so I came across this bit of marginalia:

Pope Leo getting his hand chopped off | Royal MS 10 E IV f.194v | Source: The British Library

Naturally, I was a bit curious. What was going on here? Why had that man just chopped off both of the other man’s hands? Why was he wearing that hat? And why is everyone so nonchalant about this? My questions only grew when I went to the next page and saw this:

Pope Leo with no hands and missing a foot with the Virgin Mary and an angel | Royal MS 10 E IV f.195r | Source: The British Library

Now things were becoming stranger! Why no foot? Why was this happening in front of a church? What was that angel doing there? Was the woman the Virgin Mary or a queen? What was going on? Finally I went to the next page and was greeted with another picture:

Pope Leo and The Virgin Mary | Royal MS 10 E IV f.195v | Source: The British Library

At this point, my curiosity was overwhelming. I knew it was time to do a bit of research. Luckily for me, Royal MS 10 E IV’s content caption on the British Library’s website is pretty detailed. (Sometimes it’s not.) I quickly discovered that these are illustrations from The Golden Legend.

The Golden Legend is a compilation of hagiographies (or in other words, biographies of saints). The stories were collected by a Dominican friar (then archbishop) named Jacobus de Voragine. He wrote this text around the year 1260. For a while, The Golden Legend was one of the most popular printed book in Europe. Once the printing press was invented of course! That being said, it was also a pretty popular book before the printing press. At least 900 (perhaps more!) manuscripts survive. Some of these manuscripts are abridged versions of the full text. In 1900 Temple Classics published a seven-volume version of The Golden Legend, so it’s no wonder some scribes decided to make a few cuts!

Despite The Golden Legend’s popularity, during the sixteenth century, it became significantly less relevant. The text wasn’t printed as much and people were starting to question the sources Jacobus de Voragine had used. Eventually, The Golden Legend stopped being seen as a reliable source of information. Which is fair. Sometimes the lives of saints can be a bit unrealistic if you don’t believe in miracles. (And I say this as a person who considers himself culturally Catholic.) It probably also didn’t help that Jacobus de Voragine’s etymologies of the saints’ names are not the most accurate.

That all being said, The Golden Legend was still an important text for hagiographies. Even if you don’t believe everything in it, it can still be fun to read stories about the marvelous.

 

Sources:

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/

https://press.princeton.edu/books/paperback/9780691154077/the-golden-legend  (The book description, not the book itself)

The Legenda Aurea: A Reexamination of Its Paradoxical History By Sherry L. Reames

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Legend

Caesarius of Heisterbach’s The Dialogue on Miracles: What Happens When Novices Return to the World

Today we have another cautionary tale of what happens when a novice attempts to return to the world after taking vows. It is also another example of Caesarius of Heisterbach’s dislike of knights.

Chapter Fifteen focuses on an old ex-knight named Benneco. Our narrator, The Monk, knew Benneco personally and they happened to be novices at the same time. Despite Benneco’s age, he wasn’t particularly religious. He was also pretty flip-floppy about whether or not he actually wanted to be a monk. As a result, he had a tendency to saunter back to the secular world and then come sauntering back to the monastery. The Monk uses a lovely metaphor when describing this:

“[Benneco] would not listen to the advice of his brethren, and as a dog to his vomit, so did the wretched man return to the world.” (pg. 22)

(I will note that this is not the first time Caesarius of Heisterbach uses the ‘dog to vomit’ metaphor in The Dialogue on Miracles. He seems to love this metaphor.)

Royal 11 D IX f. 213v Novice returning to the world
Novice returning to the world | Royal 11 D IX f. 213v | Source: The British Library

Even though Benneco leaves once, he does come back again. The Rule of Saint Benedict (the guide monastic orders follow) tolerates a monk running away and returning three times. After the third time, the hesitancy is deemed ridiculous and the monk isn’t allowed back at all. In Benneco’s case, he leaves a second time to return to his secular home. There he falls extremely ill. Unfortunately for Benneco, he isn’t given a third chance. Instead, he dies an unrepentant secular man.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking ‘Why is this considered a miracle? It’s just some old guy dying.’ And that’s a good question! See, while Benneco is dying there’s a storm going on outside. But it’s not just any storm. This storm is specifically happening outside Benneco’s house and from the wording, it appears to only be happening around his house. To make things spookier, a ton of crows are flying over the roof. The omens freak everyone in the house out and they book it out of there. Well, except for an old woman. She stays.

The Monk ends the tale with this extremely forboding one-liner:

“See then how they die, who depart from God.” (pg. 22)

The Novice lightly comments how all the omens must be the result of demons and The Monk agrees. The Monk then goes on to warn his young student that anyone who unrepentantly looks back from the monastic life is doomed to Hell. He adds in a bible verse to further emphasize his point. After all, you can’t doubt what Jesus says!

But The Novice does. Not fully convinced, he points out that in The Rule of Saint Benedict things are much more lenient for people who want to leave:

“If it is so mortal a sin for a novice to return to the world, what then is the meaning of S. Benedict’s instruction that when the rule has been read over to the novice, it should be said to him: ‘” This is the law under which thou desirest to enlist; if thou canst: keep it, go forward; if not, go in peace.”‘ (pg. 23)

Once called out, the Monk quickly comes up with an excuse. Being that Saint Benedict thinks leaving is a horrible thing to do but if you are going to do so, you should do it as a novice, not as a full-blown monk. Furthermore, once you’re a novice you can leave your monastery but you can’t leave the monastic life. (It’s all very contradictory, however, this could be due to a translation error.) And if you want to leave the monastery or Order you have to get special permission from the Pope. To stress just how serious monastic vows are, The Monk explains that even secular people who have made vows to the abbot must follow them. They are no longer allowed to have a secular career or get married.

Clearly, this story is an attempt at making sure no novices leave the monastery. It’s easier to make a reluctant person stay through fear then sheer faith. It’s definitely a sketchy practice, though, in my opinion, it’s not the worst way monks made sure their brethren couldn’t leave if they wanted to. (But that’s another article for another day!)

Source:

Heiscerbach, Caesarius of, and G.G. Coulton. Dialogue on Miracles. Translated by H. Von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland, vol. 1, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929, https://archive.org/details/caesariusthedialogueonmiraclesvol.1/page/n45/mode/2up