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Stories you remember

10 August 2012

Alison Shell considers medieval hagiography

The Golden Legend: Readings on the saints
Jacobus de Voragine, author
William Granger Ryan, translator
introduction by Eamon Duffy
Princeton University Press £27.95
Church Times Bookshop £25.20 (Use code CT374 - free postage on UK online orders during August)

"THE GOLDEN LEGEND was written by a man of an iron mouth and a leaden heart," fulminated George Abbot in 1604: "you papists have good stomachs that can digest such cold iron." As his Protestant polemic suggests, this collection of saints' lives has been seen as a byword for why the Reformation had to happen; and, from the Counter-Reformation onwards, piety of this kind has often been an embarrassment to educated Roman Catholics, too. Certainly, many of the tales included in The Golden Legend are as improbable as they are edifying: my favourite one tells of how, when St Euphemia was fed to the lions, they twined their tails together and made a chair for her to sit on.

Post-modern scepticism has, paradoxically, displayed the truth behind these stories. The very positive reaction to the British Museum's "Relics" exhibition last year demonstrated that it is now possible to affirm the creativity of these stories and artefacts, and be touched by their zeal, while not being troubled by the fact that they were intended to be taken literally. Eamon Duffy, who has long been a prominent apologist for late medi-eval Catholicism's exuberant pieties, introduces this edition, helpfully emphasising how the volume acts as a guide through the liturgical calendar.

Thanks to this, and to William Granger Ryan's translation, which first appeared in 1993, Princeton University Press's volume must rank as one of the most useful reprints of the year for church historians, art historians, and students of medieval and early modern literature.

Yet The Golden Legend was originally compiled for use by preachers. In this context, it could not be used straight-facedly any more; yet it could, perhaps, still act as a starting-point for reflecting on how fictional embellishment can make goodness attractive and memorable. Where saints are invariably brave, constant, and holy, there is little to distinguish them from each other; the stories and attributes traditionally associated with them may sometimes be improbable or arbitrary, but, at the same time, they are part of what have made Christians remember and follow them.

Dr Alison Shell teaches in the English Department of University College, London. She was formerly Professor of English at Durham University.

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