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!