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

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