Pope Leo and Attila (Yes, THAT Attila) in The Golden Legend

Attila the Hun is one of those famous historical figures I knew existed, but know very little about. As a result of my ignorance, I was surprised to learn that there are accounts of Attila and Pope Leo interacting with each other. Instead of doing a full analysis of their meeting, I want to look at how the text The Golden Legend tells it. Because The Golden Legend is a compilation of miracle stories and hagiographies, it is not exactly a reliable historical source. That being said, I want to take a deeper dive into why the author wrote the story the way they did.

When people are writing historical accounts it’s important to remember these things:

  1. Who is writing it?
  2. Why are they writing it?
  3. Who is their audience?
  4. What is their motive for writing it?

The answers to these questions will impact how you view the text. (By the way, these questions can and should be applied to media today too!)

 

Leoattila-Raphael

The Meeting between Leo the Great (painted as a portrait of Leo X) and Attila | Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Before I begin my analysis of the story, I will retell the story:

Attila has invaded Italy. He is doing a very good job of destroying it too. Knowing that he can’t just let this happen, Leo spends three days and three nights praying in the church of the apostles for some kind of guidance. After doing this, Leo tells his men that he’s going to meet Attila and anyone who wants to come can join him. The two men meet up. Leo has just barely gotten off his horse when the mighty Attila throws himself at his feet!

Attila begs Leo to tell him what he wants. And Leo knows exactly what he wants! He wants Attila to leave Italy and release all of his Christian prisoners. (Apparently, Leo was not particularly concerned about anyone who was not a Christian.) The story doesn’t explicitly say whether or not Attila actually did this (as a side note, Attila did, in fact, leave Italy), but it does say how angry and shocked the Huns are at Attila’s conduct in front of Leo:

“And his servants reproved him that the triumphing prince of the world should be overcome of a priest.” (christianiconography.info)

Attila has an ominous response for his critics:

“I have provided for myself and to you. I saw on his right side a knight standing with a sword drawn and saying to me: But if thou spare this man thou shalt be slain, and all thy men.” (sourcebooks.fordham.edu)

And that’s the story of Leo and Attila’s meeting! Let’s start analyzing it.

The Golden Legend is a compilation of hagiographies, collected by a friar named Jacobus de Voragine. While he didn’t write all of the stories himself, he was still a Christian, thus he has a Christain worldview. His intended audience is made of Christians as well. Furthermore, this story was written by Paul the Deacon who was also a Christian, thus he would be affected by a similar worldview/motive as Jacobus de Voragine. Hagiographies are biographies of saints and they are supposed to tell of the miracles they performed. So it’s only natural that the story is going to focus on the miracles done by and the holiness of Pope Leo.

Historically, Attila and Leo met and they negotiated for peace. In reality, how exactly Leo got Attila to leave probably wasn’t due to an angel or what have you threatening Attila and his people with physical violence. There were definitely earthly matters at play. (Earthly matters such as the famine, sickness, armies fighting back, and perhaps even a ton of money from the government to get them to go away. All of which are fantastic incentives for any invader to think to themselves, ‘Huh. Maybe trying to take over this country is more hassle than its worth.’)

Personally, I don’t think Attila was actually threatened by a knight only he could see. It’s entirely possible he had a vision, but I don’t think it’s plausible. However, whether or not Attila actually had a vision isn’t really the point of the story. The point of the text is to show that Leo is holy, Heaven says he’s holy, and Leo is saving Christians from heathen invaders.

 

 

Main Sources:

https://www.christianiconography.info/goldenLegend/leo.htm

https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/goldenlegend/GoldenLegend-Volume4.asp#Leo

The Golden Legend: Readings on Saints–Google Books

 

Other Sources:

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Attila-king-of-the-Huns

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns#In_Christian_hagiography

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Leo_I#Leo_and_Attila

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

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

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