The Golden Legend (Aurea Legenda)

Though historians rely on the earliest hagiographies for their understanding of the saints and history of the Church, for a history of saints' cults, one must be aquainted with The Golden Legend, a monumental work of pious legends.

Compiled in 1275 by Jacobus de Voragine, the Dominican Archbishop of Genoa, it was originally called Legenda Sanctorum but became known as the Aurea Legenda, as it was "worth its weight in gold."1 It quickly became one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages; around 900 manuscripts of the work survive. With the invention of printing, it became the most frequently printed book in Europe between 1470 and 1530. In 1483, William Caxton "Englished" and printed the work with the name The Golden Legend.

The first volume of the work begins with the Advent of Jesus, and follows his life through to the Ascension. It then follows the lives of the Patriarchs, Moses, and the Ten Commandments. The second volume details the lives of Old Testament figures, the Virgin Mary, and some of the Apostles and early saints. The next five volumes cover various saints, feast days, and a history of the Mass.

It retains such stories as Saint George and the dragon, Saint Eustace and the stag, and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus.

There seems to be no real order to the work, not in de Voragine's original, nor in Caxton's translation. The life of Edward the Confessor is next to the life of Saint Luke--despite some nine centuries of difference, and no alphabetical connection.

As a work of history, it's essentially worthless. However, as a collection of medieval legends and beliefs, it is invaluable.

1. The Catholic Encyclopedia: "Jacopo de Voragine" URL:

2. The Golden Legend. The Medieval Sourcebook. URL:

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