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Saints' Lives in Middle English Collections: Introduction


1 Exceptions are Thaïs (IV), a reformed prostitute, Scholastica (V[b]), nun and sister of Benedict (V[a]), and the unnamed, faithful wife of Julian Hospitaller (VIII).

2 Reames, ed., Middle English Legends of Women Saints.

3 See, e.g., Lees, ed., Medieval Masculinities; Hadley, ed., Masculinity in Medieval Europe; and Riches and Salih, eds., Gender and Holiness.

4 Compare Late Latin hagiographa, from Greek agios ("holy"), and graphai ("writings").

5 See below, p. 7, for some factors contributing to the post-medieval decline of the cult of saints. On early Christian saints and their social significance, see the important collection of essays by Brown, Society. On sanctity in the later Middle Ages, see Vauchez, Sainthood. For modern ecclesiastical attitudes to sainthood, see Woodward, Making Saints. For a comparative perspective, see Kieckhefer and Bond, eds., Sainthood.

6 On the early development of the saints' cults, the classic English study is still that of Brown, The Cult of the Saints. See also Wilson, ed. and intro., Saints and Their Cults, with valuable early bibliography; and Howard-Johnston and Hayward, eds., The Cult of Saints.

7 MacDonald, Christianizing Homer. See also the controversial historical reading of Davies, The Revolt of the Widows. The most recent English collection of the "Apocryphal Acts" of the Apostles is in Elliott, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 227-533.

8 "Tribue nobis ex eius imitacione terrena despicere et celestium donorum semper participacione gaudere" (Legg, ed., The Sarum Missal, p. 331).

9 See Ward, Miracles and the Medieval Mind, and Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims. Vauchez (in Sainthood) describes the development of the canonization process. Recently edited and translated Latin collections of miracles of individual saints include Sheingorn, The Book of Sainte Foy, and Whatley, The Saint of London. On the role of the saints' cults in late medieval English parish life, see Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, pp. 155-205.

10 For an excellent brief overview of hagiography as it affects medieval England, see Reames and Vanderbilt, "Hagiography." For the Latin tradition, with special attention to Anglo-Latin, see also Townsend, "Hagiography." For a historian's recent introduction to hagiography in general and to a substantial chronological selection of hagiographic texts, see Head, ed., Medieval Hagiography, pp. xiii-xxxviii (with much relevant bibliography). Among book-length efforts to survey the genre of hagiography are Delehaye's classic (but now dated) study, The Legends of the Saints, the structuralist study by Elliot, Roads to Paradise, and the insightful but discursive essays by Heffernan in Sacred Biography. On the problematic relationship between history, biography, and hagiography, see Stancliffe, St. Martin and His Hagiographer, and Lawrence, St. Edmund of Abingdon. Delehaye's specialized study of the passio genre has still not been translated or superseded: Les passions des martyrs et les genres littéraires, second ed. The most recent English studies of the passio genre comprise gendered readings of the female martyr passio, e.g., by Wogan-Browne: "The Virgin's Tale"; see also Wogan-Browne and Burgess, eds., Virgin Lives and Holy Deaths, pp. xi-xix.

11 For descriptions of the history and ongoing projects of the Bollandists, visit their website at

12 Examples of the upsurge in the modern study of hagiography are the multi-volume collaborative history in progress under the direction of Guy Philippart, Hagiographies, Hagiographica, edited by Claudio Leonardi (founded in 1994), and the magisterial study of early Christian and early medieval hagiography by Berschin, Biographie und Epochenstil im lateinischen Mittelalter.

13 Studies relevant to England include Rollason, Saints and Relics in Anglo-Saxon England; Ridyard, The Royal Saints of Anglo-Saxon England; Lewis, The Cult of St Katherine of Alexandria; and various collections of essays such as Bonner, Rollason, and Stancliffe, eds., St. Cuthbert. For the Latin hagiographic background, see Michael Lapidge and R. C. Love, "The Latin Hagiography of England and Wales (600-1550)," in Philippart, 1994-, vol. 3 (2001), pp. 203-325.

14 See, e.g., Reames, "Mouvance and Interpretation in Late-Medieval Latin"; Winstead, Virgin Martyrs; Delany, Impolitic Bodies; Wogan-Browne, Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture; and Thompson, "The Legend of St. Agnes."

15 BHL 5415, 5439, and 8012.

16 The earliest surviving ME saints' lives, also from the Southwest Midlands, are the female martyrs' legends in the well-known and much edited "Katherine Group." See, e.g., Millett and Wogan-Browne, Medieval English Prose for Women.

17 Recent surveys are James E. Cross, "English Vernacular Saints' Lives Before 1000 A. D.," in Philippart, 1994-, vol. 2 (1996), pp. 413-27, and E. G. Whatley, "Late Old English Hagiography, ca. 950-1150," in Philippart, 1994-, vol. 2 (1996), pp. 429-99.

18 See Wogan-Browne, Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture, for discussion and bibliography relating to Anglo-Norman hagiography. A brief but valuable survey is M. Thiry-Stassin, "L'hagiographie en Anglo-Normand," in Philippart, 1994-, vol. 1 (1994), pp. 407-28. On Old French hagiography in general, some of which circulated in England, see most recently Robertson, The Medieval Saints' Lives.

19 A standard history of the factors underlying the shift from French to English in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but bypassing the influence of the Church, is that of Baugh and Cable, A History of the English Language, pp. 126-57. For a searching overview of the political and cultural implications of the emergence of Middle English literature, see Nicholas Watson, "The Politics of Middle English Writing," in Wogan-Browne, et al., 1999, pp. 331-52.

20 See the survey and bibliography by Lawrence Muir, "Translations and Paraphrases of the Bible, and Commentaries," in MWME 2.381-409, 534-52. See also Robert Raymo, "Works of Religious and Philosophical Instruction," MWME 7.2255-2378, 2470-82.

21 Still the best single bibliography of ME saints' lives is that of Charlotte D'Evelyn, "Legends of Individual Saints," in MWME 2.561-635. A recent survey of ME hagiography is Manfred Görlach, "Middle English Legends, 1220-1530"; more specialized is Winstead, Virgin Martyrs. Heffernan, Sacred Biography, includes a good deal of scattered commentary on ME hagiography. A still useful literary-historical survey of Old and Middle English hagiography is that of Gordon H. Gerould, Saints' Legends, and the stylistic study by Theodor Wolpers, Die englische Heiligenlegende des Mittelalters, unfortunately never translated into English.

22 The standard survey of medieval Latin saints' legendaries is that of Philippart, Les légendiers latins.

23 Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea, ed. Maggioni. See also the modern English translation by Ryan, The Golden Legend, and the useful selection by Stace, The Golden Legend: Selections. The standard study in English is that of Reames, The Legenda aurea: A Reexamination of Its Paradoxical History. For the influence of the Legenda aurea on ME hagiography, see Görlach, "Middle English Legends." Two important collections of essays, both edited by Dunn-Lardeau, are Legenda aurea, sept siècles de diffusion, and Legenda aurea - La légende dorée (XIIIe-XVe s.).

24 See, for example, Werner Williams-Krapp, "German and Dutch Translations of the Legenda aurea," in Dunn-Lardeau, Legenda aurea, sept siècles de diffusion, pp. 227-31.

25 Bokenham, Legendys of Hooly Wummen, ed. Serjeantson; see also the translation by Delany in A Legend of Holy Women.

26 Görlach, The Textual Tradition of the South English Legendary, pp. viii-x.

27 Görlach, "Middle English Legends," p. 477.

28 Caxton, The Golden Legend, ed. Ellis. Ellis' modern spelling version is now accessible online at Another hagiographic collection produced by Caxton, his Vitas patrum, containing lives and sayings of the so-called desert fathers, which he left to Wynkyn de Worde to publish (1495), was translated quite closely from a French Vie des Pères (1486). The Life of St. Thaïs (IV; see below) derives ultimately from an anecdote in the Vitas patrum.

29 On the complex interrelationships of SEL, GiL, and GoL, see Görlach, The South English Legendary, Gilte Legende and Golden Legend.

30 Hamer and Russell, eds., Supplementary Lives.

31 For more on GiL see below, Chapter III, Introduction.

32 See the Introduction to Chapter IV for further information about the complicated textual history of NHC. Another legend from NHC, that of St. Anastasia (from a late recension of the collection), is translated into modern English by Winstead, Chaste Passions, pp. 44-48.

33 Mirk, Mirk's Festial, ed. Erbe; Speculum Sacerdotale, ed. Weatherly. Several of the texts edited by Reames in Middle English Legends of Women Saints are from the Festial and Speculum Sacerdotale.

34 See Upchurch, "The 'Goed Fyn' of Saint Alexius."

35 See most recently Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, pp. 112-46, and Görlach, "Middle English Legends," pp. 464-69.

36 Chaucer's contemporary John Gower included the legend of Pope Silvester and the Emperor Constantine in his Confessio amantis 2.3187-3496 (in The English Works of John Gower, ed. G. C. Macaulay, 1.216-24). On William Paris' life of St. Christine, see Winstead, Virgin Martyrs, pp. 83-85.

37 There is no separate bibliography of the individual lives as distinct from those composed for inclusion in legendaries. They are all listed together, seriatim, in D'Evelyn's alphabetical bibliography, "Legends of Individual Saints," in MWME 2.561-635.

38 The most recent brief introduction is in Wogan-Browne et al., eds., Idea of the Vernacular, pp. 195-96. See also Jankofsky, ed., The South English Legendary, and the various studies by Görlach cited in these notes. An older introduction, with bibliography, is that of D'Evelyn, in MWME 2.413-18, 556-59.

39 See, most recently, Pickering, "South English Legendary Style."

40 In the scansion example below, x and / indicate respectively unstressed and stressed syllables. || indicates the caesura between (normally) the fourth and fifth feet. I have not marked off the individual feet.

41 A breviary is a service book used by monks and other clerics in church services other than the Mass; such books contained not only the special prayers, psalms, chants, etc. for individual feast days, but frequently contained special "lections," or "lessons," to be read during the long night office on a given saint's feast day, abbreviated from longer vitae and passiones of such saints.

42 The Temporale cycle includes all the feasts closely associated with Christ, most of them occurring on different dates from year to year, hence the term "moveable" feasts. Among these are Advent Sunday (the fourth Sunday before 25 December, Christmas Day) and Easter itself, along with the Lenten feast Quadragesima, Ascension Day, and Whitsunday (Pentecost), whose dates each year are determined by the shifting date of Easter. Fixed days within the Temporale include Christmas Day, Circumcision (1 January), and Epiphany (6 January). See Hughes, Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office, pp. 6-12. On the complexities of the Temporale content of SEL, see most recently Liszka, "The South English Legendaries." Also important is the work of Pickering. See, among his many valuable studies, "The Southern Passion and the Ministry and Passion."

43 D'Evelyn and Mill, eds., The South English Legendary.

44 See Görlach, ed., An East Midland Revision of the South English Legendary.

45 Jankofsky, "Legenda Aurea Materials" and "National characteristics"; Heffernan, "Dangerous Sympathies."

46 See, e.g., "Shaping a Saint's Life," and Everyday Saints.

47 Prologue, line 66, in DM 1:1-3.

48 Prologue to the Life of St. Fabian, line 5, in ESEL.

49 Samson, "The South English Legendary," pp. 185-95.
The selection of Middle English saints' lives edited in this volume is designed, like other volumes in the Middle English Texts Series, for relative newcomers to medieval English language and literature (and in this case to hagiography), but it is hoped that the volume will also be of use to more experienced students and scholars seeking to engage more closely with saints' legends whose previous printed editions have provided little or no scholarly apparatus or aids to further research. It will be immediately obvious that the selection here focuses mainly, if not exclusively, on male saints.1 It was conceived as a complement to another volume of the Middle English Texts Series, devoted solely to female saints.2 The selection of holy men in the present volume is intended to be broadly representative of saints' lives in Middle English and of the classic types of hagiographic legend as these were presented to the lay public and less-literate clergy of late medieval England. The specific selection and ordering of legends is explained below, after a brief introduction to its larger context. It should be pointed out at the outset that the current selection was not made with any conscious agenda of problematizing the gender of these saints or of staking out a particular position in the burgeoning field of studies in masculinity.3 It is to be hoped, however, that while they were chosen with other criteria in mind, the legends printed here may prove interesting and relevant to readers pursuing questions of gender in religious narrative, as well as to those interested generally in vernacular hagiography and its sources, and in the vast flowering of Middle English devotional literature in the later Middle Ages.

Saints and Hagiography

While still officially espoused by modern Catholicism, the idea of personal sanctity, as embodied in the spectacularly holy lives and deaths that form the subject matter of Christian hagiography ("writings about the saints"),4 is no longer prominent in Western culture. But in the Christian communities of late antiquity and the Middle Ages it was widely accepted that God from time to time endowed an individual man or woman with special grace to live conspicuously according to the divine will and to wield supernatural power, either from the moment he or she was born, or after a decisive episode of conversion to an intensely committed Christian life as an adult.5 In this volume, it happens that of those saints whose lives are told in full, the former type (sanctity in birth) is exemplified only in Benedict, the latter (adult conversion) by Thaïs, Francis, and Julian, and, in his own way, by Jerome.

The gift of sanctifying grace was perceived to result not only in the saint's extraordinary degree of moral rectitude, religious zeal, unwavering faith in God, and compelling personal charisma and authority, but also in his or her acts of supernatural power, whether of healing, visionary foresight, exorcism (the ability to detect and expel demons), or, as with the martyr saints, unperturbed resistance to the pain of physical torture and mutilation. After foreseeing and experiencing a death (either by natural causes or by martyrdom) accompanied by further marvels, the saint's soul typically was reported to have ascended joyfully to Heaven where it could be expected to exercise another saintly power: namely, interceding with God in response to the prayers of the faithful. Soon afterwards, or in some cases years later, beginning in the community where the holy body was buried, the death date (depositio, lit. "laying to rest") came to be celebrated as an annual feast day of special church services, public festivities, and pilgrimage, and his or her name became a fixture in the festal calendars of churches wherever the saint's memory was revered, which in some cases eventually meant all over Christendom.6 For example, the cults of saints either buried in Rome or, like St. Andrew, buried in Greece but venerated early in Rome, were carried all over Europe partly by the report of pilgrims and gifts of relics and partly by the widespread adoption, from the seventh through the ninth centuries, of service books reflecting Roman liturgical customs.

In many churches, especially in the more literate monasteries where liturgies were more elaborate and hagiography more assiduously cultivated, it became customary on a celebrated saint's feast day to read selections from a written vita ("life") or, for a martyr, from a passio ("passion," lit., "suffering") recounting his or her torture and execution. Such works were sometimes composed within a generation or two of the saint's death by one of his or her followers or by a professional writer who would interview members of the community for information and anecdotes. In many cases, however, stories constituting the saint's legend might circulate orally for years, even centuries, before being written down.

The variety in the origins of the Latin vitae and passiones is represented in the present volume, albeit indirectly, in that the legends here are Middle English translations and adaptations, typically abbreviated and abridged in comparison with their Latin sources. Thus the ME legends of the martyrdoms of the apostle Andrew (I[a]) and of George (II[a]) are based closely on well-known anonymous or pseudonymous passiones for each saint that circulated widely in the Greek East and soon afterwards in Latin translations and redactions in western Europe and that were frequently copied into the great legendaries or "passionals" maintained by the great religious houses and some smaller churches. The story of George's martyrdom is typical of the passio genre in focusing only on the saint's arrest, interrogation, torture, and martyrdom, saying little or nothing about his earlier life and development as a Christian. Like many early passiones, that of George is a stylized fictional imagining of the martyrdom, which survives in many different versions, most of which derive from one or more "archetypes" composed in Greek up to two centuries after the putative date of the saint's late-third-century martyrdom proper.

Andrew's Latin passio, although it resembles that of George in its present form, was itself based on and extracted from longer "apocryphal acts," detailing his missionary wanderings and career, as well as his martyrdom; these longer acts, thought to have originated among heretical Christian communities, were composed in Greek in the third century close to the very beginnings of hagiographic tradition and exemplify the Christian appropriation of classical literary traditions of epic and romance.7

The ME legends of Benedict and his sister Scholastica (the Life of St. Benedict, V[a], and the Life of St. Scholastica, V[b]), on the other hand, are based on the standard vita composed in Latin by Pope Gregory the Great in the late sixth century as the second book of his anthology of lives and miracles of recent Italian holy men and women (The Dialogues), and the Francis legend (VII) is based on the Latin life by Bonaventure, leader of the Franciscan order in the mid-thirteenth century. Gregory wrote about Benedict and his sister a generation or two after their deaths and had to rely on the oral traditions of communities at Benedict's cult sites. While few today would give total credence to everything Gregory records about Benedict, generally accepted as "historical" is at least the broad outline of Gregory's account of the saint's youthful retreat from urban culture into eremitic solitude, then rural missionary work and the founding of many monasteries in central Italy. Likewise, Bonaventure's life of Francis, completed in the 1260s, was based on two or more written vitae composed only thirty years earlier (shortly after the saint's death) by members of the Franciscan order who knew the saint well. While the conventions of hagiography encouraged these early biographers to idealize their subject in various ways, and to devote a great deal of space to miracles, their work nonetheless is believed to bring us close to the actual shape of Francis' life.

These written lives served not only to commemorate and glorify the dead saints, and to promote their cults as intercessors (more on this below), but they also frequently served as vehicles for instruction on certain points of doctrine. For example, in the Martyrdom of St. Andrew (I[a]), in the first dialogue between Andrew and his persecutor, the judge Egeus (lines 23-40) seeks to discredit Andrew's faith in the divinity of Christ by charging that Jesus' crucifixion showed His vulnerability and powerlessness. Andrew counters by insisting that, far from being evidence of weakness, His death on the Cross was itself an act of divine power and testified to Jesus' strength of will, since He predicted in advance the time and manner in which His death would happen. A similarly didactic dialogue occurs in John Lydgate's Saint Austin at Compton (VI) where an English knight argues vigorously in the archbishop's presence for his right to withhold the tithes demanded of him by the parish priest (lines 186-93). In this case, of course, the entire tale is framed in didactic terms as an exemplum (see below) illustrating the importance of paying tithes, and the dire consequences of withholding them.

It is also often assumed that the lives of the saints themselves were intended to serve as models for virtuous human behavior, and this was doubtless true up to a point, but, given the often superhuman feats the saints are seen performing, it is clear that ordinary Christians could not have been expected to imitate these extraordinary figures literally, but rather to strive for proportionate achievements within their reach. A prayer for the feast of St. Francis in a service-book widely used in late medieval England, the Sarum Missal, does not ask God to endow the congregation with the grace to imitate Francis by becoming wandering, barefoot friars, but rather in a general way asks Him to "grant us to follow his example in despising earthly things and to enjoy everlasting participation in the gifts of heaven."8 In the SEL version of the Life of St. Francis (VII), the poet describes Francis' fondness for visiting lepers, kissing their hands, feet, and mouths, and tells how Francis gave the lepers generously of his possessions, adding that he did so "bi costume" (line 56, "habitually"). The poet then comments:
So aghte, me thencth, ech man and namelich the riche,
Vor our Lord hath so ofte be iseie in hor liche (lines 57-58)

[So should everyone, it seems to me, and especially the rich; / For our Lord has so often been seen in their (the lepers') likeness.]
The emphasis on the wealthy here implies that the poet expects people to imitate Francis' regular habit of making donations to the lepers, but the exhortation does not appear to be enjoining everyone to be physically intimate with them. More literal imitation of the saint seems to be implied, however, in Simon Winter's exhortations to Margaret of Clarence that in reading The Life of Saint Jerome (III[a]) she "may lerne and take ensample to lyve a Cristemannys lyfe in penaunce and straytnes" (lines 13-14). The widowed Margaret is thought to have adopted a semi-monastic lifestyle, which may well have included an ascetic regime similar to that practiced by Jerome, although in the Thames valley she would not experience the scorpions and searing heat suffered by Jerome in the Syrian desert.

In addition to the vita and passio, another hagiographic genre associated with saints' cults is the liber miraculorum ("book of miracles"). The emergence of a saint's cult often was accompanied by (and unlikely to succeed without) the willingness of its sponsors and the surrounding public to believe that the bodily relics of the saint were the source of continuing displays of supernatural power: the power to heal disease, for example, or to avert fires, or to punish the church's enemies, and so on. The saint's spirit, though in Heaven, was believed to remain active among mortals, particularly in response to the explicit prayers or felt needs of the originating community or of individual devotees. The liber miraculorum, compiled assiduously by the clerical guardians of the saint's reliquary shrine, contains anecdotes, sometimes brief and simple, and sometimes quite elaborate and lengthy, concerning individual miracles believed to have been performed by God through the intercession of the saint, not only shortly after his death but also in some cases centuries later. Often fascinating for the insights they provide today into otherwise obscurely documented medieval communities, books of miracles became important in the later Middle Ages as documents in support of canonization by the pope, although papal approval was not usually sought before the twelfth century. The local community's acceptance and promotion, through a written vita and liturgical commemorations, of their hero's claim to sanctity were usually sufficient proof of its validity. While the present volume, and vernacular saints' legends in general, concentrate mainly on the saints' living acts rather than on their posthumous activities, extracts from such a miracle collection are found below in the chapter on Jerome (III).9

Better represented in the current volume are individual miracle stories that circulated independently at first and only later became incorporated into a given saint's "dossier." The famous stories of St. George and the Dragon (II[b]) and St. Jerome and the Lion (III), as well as the less-well-known Saint Austin at Compton (VI), purport to record miracles performed by the saint in his lifetime, although they were unknown to the earliest hagiographers. Together with the posthumous miracle of Andrew and the Three Questions (I[b]) and the Life of St. Julian Hospitaller (VIII), these stories exemplify the tendency of medieval hagiography to merge at times with literary fiction and entertainment. In addition, the Andrew and Augustine miracles are also prominent examples of the prolific late medieval narrative genre of exempla or illustrative anecdotes, many of which were culled from saints' legends and from the thirteenth century onwards began to be collected for use by preachers to enliven their sermons. The short Life of St. Thaïs (IV) functions as just such an exemplum in the homily from which it is edited here.

From the fourth century to the sixteenth century, the cults of the saints occupied an important place in the developing system of Christian beliefs and rites, and the literary forms associated with them make up a major component of medieval literary production. It is true that the life and death of Jesus, as recounted in the gospels, interpreted in the Pauline letters, and believed to be prefigured and prophesied in the historical and prophetic books of Judaic scripture, remained at the core of the church's teaching. But hagiography came to form a vast supplement to the Bible, reinforcing in stylized, formulaic narratives the belief that God's power and love continued to be active in the world, and that the proliferating holy shrines of His saints offered points of local access to the glittering remoteness of the heavenly Jerusalem. Rarely "biographical" in the modern sense of the term, even when composed, as noted above, soon after the deaths of their subjects, the medieval lives of Christian saints are often closer to myth than history in their profusion of supernatural feats of power and suffering, and in their stereo-typed and "unrealistic" portrayal of idealized Christian identity. As has often been pointed out in recent scholarship, the hagiographers sought to describe not the distinctive traits of a unique individual in a particular moment in historical time, but rather his or her likeness to Christ and other saints, and his or her embodiment of the truths of orthodox Christian doctrine and ethical teaching. Each legend was also designed to prove, by recounting miracles and acts of power, its hero's genuine sanctity and worthiness of continued veneration.10

In the early modern period, in northern Europe, the advocates of Protestant reform sought to restore the Bible as the only sacred text worthy of Christian devotion and repudiated the cult of the saints, along with other aspects of medieval Catholicism, as idolatry and superstition. As a result of this Protestant dismissal of hagiographical texts as irreligious, and the rise of the spirit of scientific inquiry and increasingly skeptical attitudes towards the miraculous and supernatural, much of medieval Christian hagiography, especially the legends of the best known apostles and martyrs, has long been deemed unworthy of historical and even literary study except among a few notably energetic Roman Catholic scholars such as the Bollandists.11 It is only in the past few decades that hagiographic texts have begun to be re-read and re-edited, not so much as flawed or fraudulent biographies but as valuable sources and expressions of the beliefs, values, and preoccupations of the communities and individuals who produced them.12 Saints' lives and cults have become for historians not simply evidence of religious devotion but also complex "sites" where lines of political, economic, and social force converge and where figurations of gender and power are discernible.13 Various changes taking place over recent decades in the field of literary criticism have doubtless helped draw critics to the study of this once marginal genre: among the developments is the retreat from earlier preoccupations with formalism and aestheticism, along with the weakening of the idea of a canon of great authors and the broadening of the definition of "literature" and "text" to include modes of writing and communication formerly deemed beyond the pale of literary appreciation. Modern students have begun to read past the ostensibly bland and stereotyped surface of hagiographic narrative, to note the variety of detail and nuance amid the superficial uniformity, and to find different kinds of "difference" and mouvance in the subtle discrepancies between successive versions of the same legend.14

The Selection of Saints

The original plan for this volume aimed at a representation of the chronological history of medieval Christianity through its saints, while showcasing the main categories of saints as they appear in a variety of types and periods of Middle English hagiography, with a special focus on the British Isles in texts composed in the chief dialects of Middle English. As the work proceeded it became obvious that the original plan, calling for over twenty individual texts dealing with more than a dozen saints, was overly ambitious, given the relative lack of existing scholarship and consequent need for much detailed research, and the amount of research required not merely to edit the texts themselves but also to compile the introductions and notes. In the end, to expedite publication after far too long a delay (for which the principal editor is solely responsible), the broad scope of the volume as first envisaged has been reduced, while its basic criteria of selection have been retained.

The texts are arranged so as to constitute a "legendary history" of post-New Testament Christianity in seven parts. Legends such as those printed here, despite their historical unreliability in the eyes of modern scholars, provided generations of medieval people, both lay and clerical, with a stately procession of figures that constituted the Christian past, as well as being still "present" as glorious members of the body of Christ, the communion of saints. Thus the selection of saints in this volume begins with St. Andrew (I), representing the age of Jesus' immediate followers, the missionary apostles of the first century, whose apocryphal "acts" seem to have been composed mainly in the second and third centuries. Following the apostles are, successively, the age of martyrdom and persecution (St. George, II), the late antique age of patristic learning (St. Jerome, III) and of the desert hermits (St. Thaïs, IV), the monastic culture of the early Middle Ages (St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, V), and the conversion of the northern barbarians and establishment of the national churches (St. Austin, VI). The historical sequence then leaps forward many centuries to one of the Church's late bursts of spiritual and pastoral energy, as represented by St. Francis (VII), who in the thirteenth century preached an evangelical revival of apostolic poverty. Chapter VIII (a number that for learned medieval Christians signified the eternal peace destined to follow the end of historical time) features Julian the Hospitaller, an apparently mythical saint (one of several medieval reincarnations of Œdipus) whose legend is literally timeless in that it lacks any indication of when or where it is supposed to have taken place.

In addition to their historical significance for medieval readers, the saints featured here represent many of the principal types of Christian hero: apostle and martyr (Andrew), martyred layman and soldier (George), doctor of the church (Jerome), abbot and monastic founder (Benedict), virgin (Scholastica), pastoral bishop and missionary (Austin), and a lay founder of an order of mendicant friars who was also a mystic (Francis). Thaïs, the prostitute saint and desert solitary, is classified like Mary Magdalen and Mary of Egypt as "paenitens" (penitent) in the Bollandists' master bibliography of Latin hagiography.15 Julian Hospitaller fits the same category. However, in terms of the main divisions of saints recognized in the church liturgy, all the saints in this volume fall into one of three groups: apostle and martyr (Andrew), martyr (George), and confessor (everyone else).

The national coloring of the selection is less rich than originally envisaged. Only Austin of Canterbury, founder of the English church (VI), Andrew, patron saint of Scotland (I), and George (II) can be regarded as national saints of the British Isles, the latter two by adoption, since their original cults were in the distant East. Regional variety is, however, deliberately reflected in the mix of ME dialects. Two of the texts - St. Andrew and the Three Questions (I[b]) and the Life of St. Julian Hospitaller (VIII) - are in the Middle Scots dialect of the late fourteenth century. The Life of St. Thaïs (IV) is in an Anglo-Irish dialect of Middle English of the early fifteenth century. Two legends, those of St. Jerome (III) and St. Austin (VI) display different variants (and widely contrasting styles) of the greater London region's dialect in the early and later fifteenth century, while the episode of St. George and the Dragon (II[b]) is from the Northeast Midlands in the late fourteenth century. The remaining texts (Martyrdom of St. Andrew, I[a], and of St. George, II[b]; the Lives of Benedict and Scholastica, V; and the Life of St. Francis, VII) are in the dialect of the Southwest Midlands, the cradle of early Middle English hagiography, from around the turn of the thirteenth century.16 It will also be evident from this synopsis that the chronological range of the selection, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, covers the bulk of the Middle English period of the English language's development.

The Sources of Middle English Hagiography

Impressive numbers of saints' legends survive from Anglo-Saxon England, composed in Old English verse and prose,17 and from Anglo-Norman England in Norman French verse.18 Some of the Old English prose legends continued to be read in some English communities well into the twelfth century, while the saints' legends in French had an English audience from the early twelfth through the fourteenth century since French continued in use, especially as a literary language, among the higher nobility throughout this period. But from the mid- to late thirteenth century, the linguistic and literary scene became more diverse. Just as secular chivalric romances of French origin began appearing in Middle English, so French and Latin devotional texts began to be translated or adapted into various dialects of Middle English with growing frequency. The reasons for this shift are numerous, but among them is the fact that English dynastic ties with Normandy and other parts of France were weakening, and as a result spoken English was becoming more common among the upper classes, especially among the minor nobility and country gentry. From the later thirteenth century, the Church appears to have encouraged the production of Middle English texts as part of its efforts to promote higher standards of religious knowledge and practice among the laity in general.19 Prominent in newly emerging Middle English religious literature were biblical texts20 and the lives of saints.21

The ME saints' legends in this volume are drawn from two different and representative kinds of sources: nine of the twelve distinct items are from large, more or less organized collections of legends, while the remaining three are compositions originally independent of the known collections. This reflects the general pattern presented by the more than five hundred surviving Middle English legends concerning about three hundred saints. Most of them are found in either the South English Legendary (SEL) the Scottish Legendary (ScL), the Gilte Legende (GiL), or Caxton's Golden Legend (GoL). These large English legendaries in turn form part of a general European trend which begins with the appearance in the thirteenth century of several organized and selective collections of Latin legends. The saints represented in these new legendaries are on the whole only those widely venerated throughout the Western Church, and their legends are provided in considerably abridged and edited form. This combination of abbreviated legends and a selective roster of saints contrasted sharply with the bulky, multi-volume legendaries commonly found in the great monastic houses and larger churches and cathedrals.22 By far the most successful of the abbreviated collections was the Legenda aurea of the Dominican Jacobus de Voragine, finished around 1266.23 The rapid circulation of manuscripts of the Legenda aurea, aided no doubt by the high degree of mobility of the Dominicans, Franciscans, and other new orders of friars, must have helped spur the production of vernacular legendaries of similar types, even when, as is true of the Middle English SEL, the Legenda aurea was not initially the main source of the vernacular legendary. Vernacular legendaries of this sort were compiled from the late thirteenth to the fifteenth century in languages as diverse as Occitan (Provençal), French, Dutch, Low German, High German, Catalan, Castilian, Czech, and Hungarian.24 In England and some of the other continental countries, the early vernacular legendaries and individual legends tended to be composed in verse. After the fourteenth century the preferred medium is usually prose.

Other smaller ME collections include the so-called Vernon Golden Legend, the North English Legendary (itself part of a larger gospel homiliary, the Northern Homily Cycle [NHC]), and Osbern Bokenham's "Chaucerian" Legends of Holy Women. None of these exhibits the scale or organized design of the larger hagiographic legendaries. Bokenham's, for example, took shape over time and mainly as a series of individual commissions for different patrons among the gentry of East Anglia, and were eventually copied into one manuscript that is now all that survives of the rest.25

Most successful of the ME legendaries, at least to judge from the numbers of surviving copies, are the earliest and latest: the verse SEL and Caxton's prose GoL. SEL is extant, more or less complete, in twenty-five manuscripts (dated from the late thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth century), plus nineteen fragmentary manuscripts, with evidence of at least four lost manuscripts.26 Individual items from SEL survive in eighteen other manuscripts. In view of its early date and enduring influence, and also in view of the relative difficulty of its language and the lack of "user-friendly" editions, SEL is the most frequently represented source in this volume with six distinct items (chapters I[a], II, V, VII). A more detailed introduction and bibliographical notes to SEL follow later in this General Introduction.

Caxton's GoL, one of the earliest English printed books, first appeared in 1483 and was reprinted several times over the next forty years. Translated mainly from Jean de Vignay's fourteenth-century French prose translation of the Legenda aurea, but with frequent use of the Latin original and other sources, GoL is the largest extant English legendary and was intended to be "an authoritative and exhaustive collection."27 It is not represented in the present volume, however, partly because of space constraints but also because students now have relatively easy access to this famous work.28 An important model and frequent supplementary source for Caxton was an earlier fifteenth-century prose legendary, GiL, compiled in the 1430s, which itself had been in large part adapted from Jean de Vignay's fourteenth-century French translation of the Latin Legenda aurea, and supplemented with numerous lives of English saints, some of which were simply taken from SEL and rewritten as prose.29 GiL is likewise not represented directly in the present volume, a significant portion of it having just been published for the first time.30 But Simon Winter's prose Life of Saint Jerome (III[a]) is similar in its London area provenance and date (fifteenth century, second quarter), as well as in its prose style, to those composed for GiL. One of the manuscripts of GiL actually incorporates Winter's Life in preference to the legendary's indigenous version (which follows the Legenda aurea more closely than Winter and includes the episode of St. Jerome and the Lion that Winter omits).31

Important for its place in early Scottish literary history, as well as for its intrinsic poetic quality, is ScL, a large, unified collection, which was aimed at a lowland Scots audience in the late fourteenth century, but did not apparently achieve wide circulation. From ScL are drawn two items in this volume (I[b] and VIII). The ScL legends are based mainly on versions in the Legenda aurea.

Legendaries such as SEL, ScL, and their later prose equivalents, are narrative collections designed as private devotional reading and pious diversion for lay people and perhaps also for religious who could not easily read Latin or French. But narratives about saints are also found in compilations of a different, more mixed type. The Life of St. Thaïs edited here (IV) comes from the Northern Homily Cycle, a homiliary or book of sermons on the gospel lessons for various kinds of feasts days, Sundays, and even weekdays throughout the year. Linked by modern scholars with the Austin canons, the collection was designed not, apparently, as preaching material, but rather as reading material for the laity; it is a striking example of the late medieval trend by which pious layfolk, while remaining outside the cloister, were encouraged to imitate the habits of reading and liturgical observance formerly practiced only by monastics and other regular clergy and solitaries. The Thaïs legend in the NHC serves as an exemplum illustrating various themes in a homily expounding the meaning of a gospel reading for a Monday during Pentecost.32 More explicitly intended for preaching is the collection known today as Mirk's Festial, from the Shropshire region of the West Midlands around 1400. It was intended to provide parish priests with sermons they could preach on the major moveable feasts and principal saints' days throughout the year, and is filled with illustrative anecdotes, or exempla, designed to divert as well as instruct, and often in the form of single hagiographic episodes extracted from longer lives. A somewhat later compilation, also designed for use by priests, but in which the saints' legends are regarded by modern scholars as inferior to those of Mirk, is the Speculum Sacerdotale.33

Finally, a substantial number of Middle English saints' legends were composed and circulated as separate works, although some were then interpolated into organized collections by individual scribes. Thus Simon Winter's Life of Saint Jerome (III[a]), as mentioned above, is the version of choice in one of the manuscripts of GiL, but Winter wrote the life originally for an individual patron, Duchess Margaret of Clarence, and it circulated in a variety of idiosyncratic manuscript contexts. Similarly, in the later fourteenth century, anonymous stanzaic lives of the fictional ascetic saint, Alexius, the "man of God," were inserted in various manuscripts of SEL, despite their obviously different metrical form.34 John Lydgate's poem, Saint Austin at Compton (VI), on the other hand, survives only in manuscripts containing lyric and narrative poetry by Lydgate, Chaucer, and other courtly poets of the era. Lydgate, who composed several long and ambitious saints' lives in addition to shorter ones, typifies the tendency for fifteenth-century men of letters, including Osbern Bokenham and John Capgrave, to devote their poetic energies to hagiography more frequently than their more talented fourteenth-century predecessors, who largely avoided the genre.35 A celebrated exception, however, is Chaucer's tale of St. Cecilia, preserved in The Canterbury Tales as The Second Nun's Tale, but composed independently of, and earlier than, the Tales themselves.36 Most of the surviving individual saints' lives, however, are anonymous.37

The South English Legendary

General information about those Middle English compilations from which we have drawn only one or two legends, such as the Scottish Legendary and Northern Homily Cycle, is provided in the introductions to individual chapters below. But since several legends are edited from one or another recension of SEL it seemed more appropriate and more economical to provide a brief introduction to that collection here.38

SEL is a large collection of Middle English versions of the lives of well-known saints of the Church at large as well as of Britain itself. As far as we know, it was the earliest attempt to provide a comprehensive legendary in Middle English. It survives in dozens of copies, none of which is precisely identical with any other, while many differ considerably not only as to which legends are included but also in some cases as to which version of a given saint's legend is selected. In other words, scribes felt free to adapt the collection to local interests and needs, not only omitting feasts of no importance to them but also adding texts for saints not represented in their master copy.

Despite this textual "instability," there is enough in common between the various extant copies for scholars to have posited the existence of an original core collection, usually designated the "Z" collection, compiled by an individual poet-translator in the Southwest Midlands of England, in the vicinity of Gloucester and Worcester. This unknown poet (sometimes linked with the author of Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle)39 was working probably in the decade after 1270. He writes in rough rhyming couplets, basically iambic in rhythm but with some irregularity as to the number of unstressed syllables before the stressed one in each foot. There are usually seven strong stresses per line (the "fourteener"), with a caesura dividing the line into two parts of respectively four feet and three feet, but sometimes either part may seem "light," i.e., lack sufficient syllables. A random short passage, lines 53-55 from the Martyrdom of St. Andrew (I[a]), will illustrate the flexibility with which the lines have to be scanned for reading aloud.40 Notice the frequent clusters of weak stresses that were evidently slurred lightly or swallowed altogether, sometimes with elision, as in line 53, where extra syllables proliferate awkwardly in the first four feet, whereas the next line (54), apart from examples of elision before a following vowel ("Andreu," he sede, "ich . . ."), is a perfectly regular iambic line. Trochaic juxtaposition of strong stresses (as in thou have, line 55) is also not uncommon.

The SEL-poet deals with each saint in legends that vary considerably in length (some have less than a hundred lines, but the longest, Thomas of Canterbury, is over a thousand). The SEL-poet seems to have adapted many of his chosen legends from individual Latin sources or composite sources not yet identified, although the most prolific modern scholar of SEL, Manfred Görlach, has always maintained that it must have been a Latin "office breviary" containing abbreviated versions of saints' lives.41 Görlach, however, could not identify such a breviary among those surviving from late medieval England. Complicating matters somewhat, Görlach discovered that after the poet-compiler had completed legends for the feasts occurring during the first half of the year, he must have acquired a copy of de Voragine's Legenda aurea and made use of the Legenda's lives of many saints from later in the calendar (e.g., the legend of St. Andrew the apostle), also using it to revise some already composed.

The SEL "Z" collection has not survived complete or uncontaminated. Its quondam existence is the widely accepted hypothesis of Görlach, building on the earlier researches of another German Anglicist, Carl Horstmann, who edited what he entitled The Early South English Legendary (ESEL) from a late-thirteenth-century manuscript. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Miscellany 108 is the earliest surviving SEL manuscript and the most important witness to "Z," although it is incomplete and "disorderly." It originally contained about seventy-five legends. Görlach was unable to identify the precise provenance (place of origin) of the collection, but on dialectal grounds pointed to the area in and around Gloucester, where various religious houses could have provided the kind of library the SEL-author needed if, as it seems, he worked from a variety of hagiographic sources.

Görlach became convinced, after painstaking collation of items in dozens of SEL manuscripts, that after the Z compiler had completed a set of saints' legends the collection circulated for some years before it underwent considerable expansion and revision around 1300, probably in the same region, if not at the same center, as Z. This revision stage is known as the "A" collection, represented in several manuscripts of the early fourteenth century and later, containing up to ninety legends. The A reviser not only added legends of saints not included by Z, but he also may be the one to have added readings for both fixed and movable feasts normally associated with the "Temporale," although there are signs that the Z stage included such readings as well.42 The A reviser also added a new, more elaborate Prologue, and tinkered with many of the texts originally in Z, adding explanatory and sometimes humorous or satirical comments, as is pointed out where possible in the notes to the texts in this volume. Two of the A manuscripts are the basis of the second and most recent modern edition of SEL,43 which is the basis of the Martyrdom of St. George in this volume (II[a]), while we have used another A manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 43, for some others (Martyrdom of St. Andrew, I[a]; Lives of St. Benedict and St. Scholastica, V, and St. Francis, VII). Further revisions occurred to the whole collection as it circulated more widely during the fourteenth century (including a version in the East Midland dialect, compiled around 1400),44 but its textual evolution seems to have more or less ceased by the end of the century. The largest single SEL collection is in another Bodleian manuscript, Bodley 779 (early fifteenth century), containing over 130 legends. Needless to say, a great deal more work remains to be done on the textual transmission of SEL.

The few modern scholars to work closely with the poetry of SEL are in broad agreement about many of its distinctive characteristics, which include simplification of doctrinal or theological content; use of plain diction, largely devoid of learned poetic figures or elaborate descriptive terms; abbreviation of incidents and longer speeches found in the Latin sources; occasional expansion through authorial didactic explanations and interjections; "dramatization" by means of short passages of lively, often combative dialogue, often replacing third-person narrative in the Latin sources; the use of colloquial rhetorical devices to involve the audience emotionally and sympathetically, and to arouse wonder, indignation, or humor; and plentiful emphasis on native English saints and nationalist sentiments.45 More recently, one of the editors of this volume, Anne Thompson, looks more closely than previous critics at the differences between the legends retold in SEL and their Latin sources, pointing out ways in which the SEL-poet lacks the "relentless didacticism" typical of literature aimed by clerics at the laity at this time, and fosters a relationship with his audience, and with the phenomenal, mundane world, that is unusual and unexpected in hagiographic writing.46

Still uncertain, however, is the intended audience itself. Modern scholars initially assumed that SEL, with its calendar arrangement, was designed for use by the parish clergy or friars during church services for ordinary, mixed congregations, but this view has been challenged on the grounds that many of the saints celebrated in the collection (e.g., Mary of Egypt) were unlikely to have feast days at the parish level, that the SEL legends vary too greatly in length to be serviceable in a liturgical setting, and that the manuscripts themselves provide no evidence of such use. Neither of the two surviving prologues implies, much less mentions, a liturgical role for the legends, but rather both suggest a collection designed for continuous reading: "Telle ichelle bi reuwe of ham"47 ("I will relate them one after the other") and "Þei ich of alle ne mouwe nou3t telle : ichulle telle of some"48 ("Though I may not relate all of them, I will relate some"). Moreover, the often earthy, lively style and boisterous content seem closer to literary entertainment and satire than liturgical commemoration. Annie Samson has proposed, therefore, that the likely purpose of the collection was to provide Christian reading matter for the lower nobility and landed gentry, but her arguments have yet to be pursued.49 We hope that the SEL texts assembled in this volume will help stimulate further research on this and other aspects of this important medieval legendary, as well as on Middle English saints' legends in general.





Johannes Bolland et al., eds., Acta Sanctorum
Bollandists, Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina
British Library
Cambridge University Library
The Canterbury Tales
The South English Legendary, ed. D'Evelyn and Mill
Early English Text Society
The Early South English Legendary, ed. Horstmann
The Gilte Legende
Henry Bradshaw Society
Brown and Robbins, eds., The Index of Middle English Verse
Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea
Middle English
Middle English Dictionary
Severs and Hartung, eds., A Manual of the Writings in Middle English
The Northern Homily Cycle
, ed. Nevanlinna
Old English
The Oxford English Dictionary
Old French
Old Norse
Migne, ed., Patrologia Latina
The Scottish Legendary, ed. Metcalfe
The South English Legendary
Troilus and Criseyde

Go To The Martyrdom of St. Andrew in the South English Legendary Introduction