The Golden Legend.

There are a lot of interesting things in Eamon Duffy’s LRB review-essay “The Intense Afterlife of the Saints,” but this passage is of particular LH relevance, for both word and book history:

The most successful book of the Middle Ages was the collection of saints’ lives compiled by a Dominican friar based in Lombardy, Jacobus de Voragine, in the 1260s. It took the form of a “Legendary,” a word derived from the Latin verb legere, to read, which carried no overtones of fiction or the far-fetched. A legenda was simply a book to be read aloud each day. Jacobus’s book, intended to provide clergy with material for sermons, was structured around the Christian calendar, arranging the saints’ lives in the order of their feasts throughout the year, interspersed with instructions on the major liturgical seasons of Advent, Lent, or Easter.

Jacobus’s Legenda became the most widely read book of the Middle Ages. By the end of the thirteenth century, hagiographers all over Europe were lifting material wholesale from it, earning it the nickname the Golden Legend, a Legendary worth its weight in gold. It was translated into most of the languages of Western Europe, with seven medieval versions in French alone. In all, it survives in more than a thousand manuscripts, far eclipsing every other book from the Middle Ages. And with the advent of printing, Jacobus’s text proved even more popular in the new medium. Between 1470 and 1500 an astonishing eighty-seven Latin editions of the Legenda were printed, as well as sixty-nine in various vernaculars, including four editions in English, considerably more than all the known printings of any book, even the Bible, during the same period.

I had heard of the Golden Legend and knew it was popular, but I had no idea it was that popular.

This passage has no particular LH relevance, but I can’t resist quoting it anyway:

Patronage carried responsibility as well as rights. If the saints could command the veneration of their devotees, those devotees in turn could demand results. Saints who failed to deliver might have their images or reliquaries “humiliated” by being placed on the ground, or shrouded in sackcloth, or have access to their shrines blocked with nettles or thorns until prayer was answered.

Ecclesiastical authorities protested against such superstition, and the second Council of Lyon banned all such practices in 1274, but in vain. A saint might even be punished because he was working too many miracles. When the holy monk Stephen of Thiers died in 1124 in the isolated monastery of Grandmont in the Auvergne, the flood of pilgrims to his tomb disturbed the devotions of the monks. Miracles multiplied, as did the crowds, till at last the abbot berated Stephen at the tomb:

We believe you are a saint without their proof Please stop…. If you don’t, I’m warning you, we’ll take your bones out of this place and throw them in the river.

Incidentally, most of my birthday gifts today are not particularly LH-relevant, but one that is is Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union, by Francine Hirsch, which I’m very much looking forward to. Thanks, bulbul!


  1. Well, that’s embarrassing. As a Latin teacher, I’ve used ‘agenda’, ‘referendum’, and ‘propaganda’ as examples of English words made from Latin gerundives, but had never realized that there’s an even commoner one, ‘legend’. Many of you already know this, but a gerundive is a kind of participle, sometimes called a future passive participle, but not very accurately, since includes an idea of ‘oughtness’ rather than plain futurity. So ‘agenda’ are things that ‘ought to be done’ – whether they in fact will be done is another question.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    In French, la légende means two things: ‘legend’ (a story with some basis in historical reality although with supernatural elements) and ‘caption’ (under a picture, chart, etc). Only the second meaning always refers to something written (and therefore read), since the legendary story is often one that has been transmitted mostly orally.

  3. Michael Hendry: Searching the OED’s full text for gerundive, I find the following: addend, addendum, augend, cancellandum, chambranle ‘ornamental frame around the top and sides of a fireplace, door, or window’ < Fr. < < *camerandum < post-classical camerare, influenced by Middle French branle ‘shake’, circuland, cogitandum, convertend, corrigendum, credenda, dedendum, definiendum, degradand, delenda, determinandum, distribuend, dividend, educand, explanandum, explicand(um), faciendum, gerundiv(al) itself, graduand, habendum, honorand, infinitive, initiand, integrand, invertend, ligand, manipulandum, memorand(um), merenda, minorand, minuate, minuend, mirandous, modificand, molendinarious (appears only in other dictionaries), multiplicand, naturating, nefandous, notandum, observanda, obvertend, offerand, operand, ordinand, persuadend, prebend, preferendum, proband, pudendous/um, radicand, recipiendary, reddendum, reducend, referend, repetend, reprimand, resolvend, reverend, simuland, solvend, stupendous, subducend, substituend, sub(s)trahend, summand, tacenda, tenendas, tremendous, venerand, viand(s).

    Many of these are technical terms of grammar, law, mathematics, or philosophy, but dividend, memorandum, reprimand, reverend, stupendous, and tremendous should certainly be generally recognized. I have omitted Latin phrases such as quod erat demonstrandum that have OED entries.

  4. In French, la légende . . .

    English is the same. There is legend in the sense of story, but also the legend that appears with, e.g., a series of photos in a book, and serves as a guide to their names or to information about them.

  5. GeorgeW says:

    FWIW, as a religious term, ‘legend’ (according to “The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible”) is,”A term denoting unverifiable stories or narrative cycles about celebrated people or places of the past . . . their purpose is not to provide historical accuracy but to entertain and to illustrate cherished beliefs, expectations and moral principles.”

  6. marie-lucie says:

    JC, the list of “gerundives” includes infinitive and minuate but not legend? And chambranle in this list seems rather far-fetched.

    PO, I am not familiar with English legend in the second meaning, I only know caption.

  7. “Legend” and “caption” aren’t the same. The first refers to things like a list of symbols on a map and what they denote, rather than a simple explanation of a picture’s content (caption).

  8. Stefan Holm says:

    A lot of the words in John’s list appear in Swedish too but just as technical as in English with the exception of dividend, memorandum, reprimand and the pretty common konfirmand, confirmee, and doktorand, postgraduate, both with the future/conditional sense of the ‘gérondif’ (Sw. gerundium).

    We don’t use ‘legend’ in the meaning ‘key’ (to a map, table, chart, drawing etc.). We cling to a good old compound, teckenförklaring, litt. ‘symbol explanation’. German however, otherwise the king of compounds, unexpectedly has Legende.

  9. a simple explanation of a picture’s content (caption).

    The best captions provide more than an explanation about the content of the image; they use the photograph as a jumping-off point to tell a concise story.

  10. The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia gives as one sense of legend;

    An inscription or device of any kind; particularly, the inscription on a shield or coat or arms, or the explanatory inscription on a monument or under a plan or drawing, or the inscription which accompanies a picture, whether descriptive or supposed to stand for words used by the persons represented in the picture.

  11. @Paul

    Yes, a caption is (or should be), concise, not necessarily simple.

    “Legend” does not always mean “key” in English, I should add. It’s often used interchangeably with “caption” and I would hesitate to call this usage wrong.

  12. @Alan Shaw: To me, using “legend” to mean “caption” (as opposed to “key”) simply sounds wrong. There are gray areas, certainly, where either “caption” or “legend” might work, although I feel that the acceptability of “caption” for something that I would ordinarily call a “legend” or “key” extends farther than the acceptability of “legend” extends into “caption” territory. I’ve encountered “legend” used more broadly, but so far as I can remember, it was only by nonnative speakers.

  13. I don’t see anything wrong with using legend ‘caption’ in ordinary use, though in technical discussions of layout they should probably be kept separate.

    m-l: I omitted the four words that Michael had already mentioned.

    Stefan: German also has Zeichenerklärung, of which teckenförklaring looks suspiciously like a calque. Collins claims that on a Fahrplan ‘timetable’ this word is used, whereas a Legende appears on a Landkarte ‘map’.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    JC, my point was not so much about the missing legend as the inclusion of the other terms, especially infinitive and minuate which don’t seem to fit the “gerundive” pattern at all. I might not have noticed the absence oflegend (as I felt overwhelmed by the mostly unfamiliar gerundives and did not scrutinize each one carefully), but the others stood out.

    légende vs caption : the French word refers to a description, it does not include the meaning “key” (to symbols, colours, etc).

  15. Stefan Holm says:

    John: Of course teckenförklaring is an (indirect) calque of German Zeichenerklärung. Our verb förklara (’explain’ or ’declare’) is from MLG vorklaren, modern Ger. verklären and/or erklären. The closest English cognate would be declare (cf Sw. deklarera, Du. declareeren, Ger. deklarieren and Fr. déclarer – all from Lat. declarare, ’make clear’, ’clearly show’ etc.)

    So ‘legend’ could without the Normans have been the less handy ‘token declaration’ or even the awful, but purist and morpheme by morpheme: ‘token-for-clear-ing’.

  16. m-l: Quite right. Checking the actual text rather than just the search page, infinitive and minuate are false hits: that is, the word gerundive appears somewhere in the text, but not in the (appropriate part of the) etymology. But gerund(ive) < Fr. gérond(if) is derived from the gerundive form gerundium of gerere ‘carry on, perform, etc.’ I’ve added it to the self-describing terms list.

  17. Two things:

    1. In the first comment, I didn’t mean to imply that I thought there were only three English words derived from gerundives, just that there are three common ones students would (or should) know, all of which keep their Latin endings in English. Few, if any, of John Cowan’s additions fall into both categories: perhaps only ‘memorandum’. (‘Corrigendum’ and ‘pudendum’ are about the only ones I would be likely to run across in my reading, and those probably only in the plural.) Still, ‘legend’, ‘stupendous’, and ‘tremendous’ are useful additions, despite the Anglicized (or de-Latinized) endings.

    2. Any word that doesn’t have an ND in it isn’t from a Latin gerundive: that rules out ‘naturating’ as well as ‘infinitive’ and ‘minuate’. As I tell students when we’re learning participles, the Latin geruNDive always has ND in it, right before the ending, the futURe participle always has UR, and the preseNT participle usually has NT, though it’s NS in the nominative singular (all three genders) and the accusative singular neuter. It’s not just ‘gerundive’, but also ‘future’ and ‘present’ that derive from Latin participles of the correpsonding type. There are hundreds of English adjectives formed from Latin present participles, and most of them keep their Latin conjugations, so e.g. ‘important’, ‘secant’ (1st conjugation, so -ANT), ‘tangent’, ‘correspondent’ (2nd or 3rd conjugation, so -ENT), ‘sentient’, ‘prescient’ (3rd i-stem or 4th conjugation, so -IENT). ‘Mordant’ must have picked up its A on its way through French, since it should be ‘mordent’ from mordēre. The only one I can think of that keeps its Latin NS is ‘sapiens’ as in ‘Homo sapiens’, which hardly counts as English.

  18. Here’s a question. Is the title Legenda Aurea singular (and therefore feminine) or plural (and therefore neuter)? The latter is certainly possible: ‘Golden Things-Deserving-to-be-Read’. The former is also possible, if we supply an appropriate feminine noun, but there’s more than one possibility.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    It starts out “Incipit prologus super legenda sanctorum” which must mean “legenda” is neuter plural (otherwise it would be “legendam”

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    On the other hand, the heading of the first story is “Explicit prologus. Incipit legenda sanctorum vel Lombardica hystoria.”

    I suppose that could be explained as a constructio ad sensum, with the “legenda sanctorum” construed as singular, being regarded as a single work. Like “Biblia”, I suppose, in its later developments in the vulgar tongues, thought I don’t recall ever seeing that construed as singular in Latin itself.

    If there is an implied feminine singular which a singular “legenda” is agreeing with, I suppose “historia” is the obvious candidate. A to-be-read story.

  21. David Eddyshaw says:

    And this one has “incipit prologus super legendas sanctorum”, feminine plural

  22. naturating

    It’s a hapax legomenon, appearing only in 1650: “If after the Work of Winter, viz. the Preparation of the Earth, and winnowing of the laid up Corn, it were not again delivered to naturating Nature [...].” The definition derives it from post-classical naturae naturandae, a corrupt form of natura naturans.

    Legenda Aurea

    I think it’s most likely plural: the book contains lots of stories to be read on various occasions. A 1900 edition of Caxton’s English edition runs to seven volumes.


    Definiens (counterpart of definiendum), glans, impatiens, pons ‘part of the brain’.

  23. David Eddyshaw says:

    9 ghits for “incipit prologus super legenda sanctorum”
    652 ghits for “incipit prologus super legendas sanctorum”

    The “legendas” versions found by Google seem to go back to a copy from 1478; “legenda” to Theodor Graesse’s edition of 1845. Presumably Graesse has either “improved” his sources’ Latin or more likely simply restored Jacobus’ original which when he wrote it just meant neuter-plural “readings” but had got tranmogrified into feminine stories-to-be-read “legends” between his time and Graesse’s.

    Presumably our modern sense of “legend” is largely due to this very work, which may mean that we actually owe the word it to mediaeval misunderstanding (or creative adaptation) of the precise sense of the original.

  24. Yeah, no, glans and pons are false hits too.

  25. David Eddyshaw says:

    There actually are a few ghits for “Incipit prologus super legendam sanctorum” (feminine singular) too; mind you the only one I can see that isn’t a secondary reference in another work makes a blunder in the Latin in the very next word.

    There seems no doubt, at any rate, that Mediaeval Latin had a feminine singular independent noun “legenda”, meaning – legend. Lots of people will presumably therefore have understood the title “Legenda Aurea” as singular, even if purists like ourselves who pride ourselves on our good Ciceronian Latin would say they were mistaken.

  26. Collins claims that on a Fahrplan ‘timetable’ this word [Zeichenerklärung] is used, whereas a Legende appears on a Landkarte ‘map’.

    Either Legende or Zeichenerklärung appears on printed maps. Deutsche Bahm timetables use Zeichenerklärung.

    Zeichenerklärung explains itself, whereas Legende may not be so familiar to people – especially now that the use of printed maps is declining, since car drivers and smartphone owners consult their elecztronic Navi.

    There may be something else behind Zeichenerklärung on Deutsche Bahn timetables, though. This organisation has always been stubbornly “conservative” in its terminology, preferring “German words” over furrin words like Legende. For example, in front of the Parkhaus behind the main station in Cologne is a sign announcing conditions of use: Einstellbedingungen. NOBODY uses einstellen in the sense of “park”, apart from Deutsche Bahn. On the other hand, Einparkbedingungen would sound ugly. You just can’t win.

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