Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea / Heiligenlegenden


Published by Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, 1982


It was around 1260 that Jacobus da Varagine, a Dominican and Bishop of Genoa, wrote his Legenda aurea, a collection of hagiographies, which should become the bestseller of the Middle Ages. More than 1,000 scripts of this work are preserved! And when the printing press was invented, prints in all important European languages were made between 1450 and 1500. The English edition, for instance, was reissued nine times in close to 40 years. Indeed from those times, there are even more prints of the Legenda aurea than of the Bible!


The Legenda aurea was thus the great book of folk tales of Christianity. Its content shaped people's belief. What could be found in the Legenda aurea, was the canonical version of a collection of lives of saints, so to speak. If anyone was named in the Legenda aurea, they were worth special praise. 


For a modern reader though, these texts are somewhat hard to digest. Who would still be interested in miracles and martyrdoms nowadays? One might sometimes chuckle at these saints' ability to stay alive and still protest after the most absurd methods of torture. But is a chuckle really reason enough to waste one's time on this reading?


Whoever wants to gain something from reading the Legenda aurea has to dig deeper. They have to sense the mind-set that lies behind the mere plot of all of these legends. An entirely new worldview will then unfold, almost a counter draft to present-day capitalism.


The Legenda aurea shows us a society that perceives this mortal world as a vale of tears and every devout Christian would happily trade it for a glorious after world. It offers a written manual to all the altars, frescoes and glass paintings in our Gothic cathedrals, frequently mistaken for nothing more than works of art. If anyone wants to understand a Catholic church they cannot go without Jacobus da Varagine.


And one should consider another thing ˗ that Jacobus' legends were pure capital. If a person could boast about owning one of the relics of the martyrs praised by Jacobus, they could lure pilgrims from all of Europe into their church. And pilgrims have always meant good business. They paid for accommodation and food and even left charitable donations. Churches and hospitals were built in these places. Important trade centres emerged. No wonder the German word "Messe" means both trade fair and religious mass.


The great age of the Legenda aurea ended when the humanists rediscovered the stories of the antiquity. Erasmus of Rotterdam for instance could not help but make fun of its unrealistic tales. He perceived it as national dulling. And many others have supported this interpretation.


But still: the dream of a life where our success or failure in the here and now do not matter but a wholly different standard is set. Wouldn't it be a wonderful notion?


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Christina Schlögl



Signet Sunflower Foundation