The history of the Christian world is presented in the cathedrals as it is in Vincent of Beauvais's Speculum historiale, where periods are reckoned not by the deeds of emperors and kings but by the lives of saints. The windows and statuary of the churches proclaim that since the coming of Christ the really great men are the doctors, confessors and martyrs. Conquerors who filled the world with their fame appear in the humblest of attitudes; tiny figures smaller than children, they kneel at the feet of the saints.[The Gothic Image: Religious Art in France of the 13th Century by Emile Mâle, translated by Dora Nussey. Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958]
We know from the Speculum historiale that such was the mediaeval conception of history. Nothing could be more surprising than the scheme of the great work from which so many generations of men and the kings themselves learned history. At the beginning of each chapter Vincent of Beauvais mentions the emperors of the East and of Germany and the kings of France, and devotes a few lines to their battles and their treaties. He then reaches his subject, the story of the saints who were contemporaries of these kings and emperors. His heroes are abbots, anchorites, young shepherdesses, beggars. The translation of relics, the founding of some monastery, the healing of a demoniac, the retreat of a hermit to the desert, are to him the most important facts in the history of the world.
Vincent of Beauvais shows neither surprise nor interest in the appearance among the barbarians of Boethius and Symmachus, the last of the Romans. He turns his eyes away from Rome, and serenely marshals the only events of the time which to him seemed worthy of men's knowledge the miracles of St. Leonard in Limousin, the miracles of St. Maxentius in Poitou and the journeys of St. Malo. The life of St. Die in the forests of the Vosges engages the historian longer than the doings of the Emperor Heraclius.
In this way mediaeval history becomes merely a record of a few pure souls who lived far from the haunts of men. One gets the impression that the world in the ninth and tenth centuries was inhabited by saints, a world like that landscape in the Campo Santo at Pisa where one sees only anchorites at prayer. With the exception of the crusades, even great contemporary events never take the foremost place in Vincent of Beauvais's book. The battle of Bouvines passes almost unnoticed between the stories of St. Mary of Oignies and of St. Francis of Assisi. The saints form a spiritual chain reaching from St. Louis to the apostles, and from them through the patriarchs and prophets to Abel, the first of the just.
In the eyes of the thirteenth century the real history of the world was the story of the city of God. It is necessary to bear in mind such a conception of history in order to understand the innumerable legends of saints which are painted or carved in the cathedral of Chartres, where each window or bas-relief is like a chapter from the Speculum majus. In this reading of history the enormous number of images of saints which decorate the churches find at least partial explanation.
But for the Christian of the Middle Ages the saints were not only the heroes of history, they were also his intercessors and patrons... The Christian received at baptism the name of the saint who was to be his patron and example. These names were not chosen at hazard, but were preferably those of ancient local bishops or monks whose relics worked wonders, and many baptismal names, today proper names, point to the native district of the family who bear them. When the child grew up, chose a trade and entered a guild, a new saint welcomed him. If he were a mason he celebrated the feast of St. Thomas the apostle, if a wool-carder the feast of St. Blaise, if a tanner the feast of St. Bartholomew. On that occasion he forgot the hard work and the long days, and proud as a knight walked behind the banner of his patron saint, went to mass with the master and wardens, and later sat at table with them. The name of a saint was associated with the happiest memories of his youth. The patronal festival was the great festival when the town gave itself up to spectacle; splendid processions passed by, bearing gorgeous reliquaries, and mystery plays were performed. In the rudest little town in the France of that day men were gay at least once in the year, and they danced under the elm-tree near the cemetery on the feast-day of the saint whose relics were in the church. In provinces in central France the village festival is still called the apport, a name reminiscent of the offering which on that day every good Christian should present at the altar of the local saint.
In the Middle Ages by the influence of the saints men were torn away from their monotonous lives, and compelled to take a staff and set out through the world. All travellers were then pilgrims. The poorest went from abbey to abbey, from hospice to hospice, as far as the shrine of St. James at Compostella, while those who could not undertake a long journey contented themselves with offering a candle to St. Mathurin of Larchant or St. Faron of Meaux. The roads in France were crowded with travellers who wore in their hats the leaden image of St. Michel du Peril or of St. Gilles of Languedoc. These pilgrim signs were worth a king's safe-conduct, and these peaceable men who travelled for the good of their souls were unmolested by hostile armies.
Then, too, in each province there were sacred spots, consecrated by some bishop, hermit or martyr... The peasant of the Morvan came yearly to drink at the spring which had gushed forth at the touch of St. Martin's crosier, or dragged himself on his knees round the rock on which the great bishop's mule had left the impress of its shoe... Sanctuaries, hermitages and sacred wells made up the geography of the day.
The lore of the saints was the only learning, and it influenced every thought and action. It was to the saints that a man looked for healing in sickness. Against fever he invoked St. Genevieve of Paris, against diseases of the throat St. Blaise. St. Hubert, the great huntsman who lived for so long among the hounds, cured hydrophobia by means of a horse-shoe, first blessed in his chapel, then applied red-hot to the wound. St. Apollina, whose jaw was broken by her persecutors, cured the toothache. St. Sebastian, St. Adrian, and from the fourteenth century St. Roch, were the protectors of towns against the plague, which never entered a house bearing the three protective letters VSR (vive Saint Roch). A patron overflowing with kindness had pity to spare for all the weaknesses and fears of poor humanity. The girdle of St. Foy or of St. Margaret relieved the expectant mother of the weariness of her condition; a ribbon bearing the name of St. Amable of Riom worn on a child's wrist prevented nightmare; St. Servatius sustained feeble souls in fear of death. St. Christopher guarded men from sudden death, and it was enough to have seen his great figure at the entrance to the church to be sure of a safe return from a journey: Christophorum videas, postea tutus eas.
The virtue of prayers recited in honour of the saints extended to the plants, the animals, to all nature. St. Cornelius protected the oxen, St. Gall the hens, St. Antony the pigs, St. Saturninus the sheep, and St. Medardus sheltered the vines from the frost...
In the crises of life, in times of sickness of body or of soul, the comforting name of some saint came to mind. The traveller who had lost his way at nightfall prayed to St. Julian the hospitaller. Desperate causes were confided to St. Jude. Knights keeping vigil before entering the lists invoked the aid of St. Drausinus, bishop of Soissons. Thomas á Becket passed the night at the bishop's tomb before starting for England to fight as God's champion against Henry II. Men imprisoned in deep dungeons confided themselves to St. Leonard, promising like Bohemund to hang silver chains in his chapel on the day of their deliverance...
In the little calendars carved by unlettered peasants the chief dates of the year were marked by the attributes of some saint. An arrow stood for St. Sebastian's day, a key for St. Peter's, a sword for St. Paul's, and such hieroglyphs were universally understood.
The saints marked the rhythm of the year. Like constellations they seemed to rise in turn above the horizon. They retained something of the pagan charm of nature and of the seasons. St. John's day, celebrated at the time ou toute herbe fleurit, was in some measure the festival of the sun. St. Valentine's day, marking the end of winter, was (especially in England) the festival of early springtime. It was said that on that day the birds mated in the woods, and every youth should place flowers at the window of the beloved.
In popular thought the saints not only marked the return of the seasons, but regulated their progress... In Provence, St. Caesarius of Aries had power over storms, and his glove full of air taken into the valley of Vaison had there let loose the winds. St. Servatius kept three days of snow in reserve even in the middle of May. St. Barbara averted the lightning, and the bells which were sounded during a storm bore her likeness. St. Medardus was the master of the rain...
All nature proclaimed the glory of the saints. The Milky Way was called St. James's path, the phosphorescence of the sea St. Elmo's fire. In Flanders the little hedgerow berries which ripen in winter were known as lamps of St. Gudule, and in the north of France the plantain which cured the king's evil as herb of St. Marculphus...
One can well understand how it is that the figures of the saints fill so large a place in the churches, and why so many windows are dedicated to them. The people never wearied of seeing their protectors and friends... Neither did they weary of hearing them spoken of, and famous miracles and illustrious examples from the lives of the saints were commemorated in poems in the vernacular, in popular drama and in sermons. The Church was the faithful depository of almost all this endless history. Each cathedral or monastery kept the acts of the saints of the diocese, and solemnly read them on their festivals, while the lives more or less abridged of the saints famous throughout Christendom were contained in the lectionary. For centuries the saints lived in the memory of the Church through the lectionary, and when in the course of the thirteenth century the various old liturgical books were replaced by one book, the lessons of the lectionary passed into the breviary. The lectionary was made up of extracts from the more famous legends. The Historia apostolica of Abdias, the Historia erimitica, translated by Rufinus of Aquileia, the Dialogues of St. Gregory, the Martyrology of Bede, and many anonymous stories were all requisitioned with great simplicity and a complete absence of the critical spirit. It was a summary of the lives of the saints, invaluable at a time when books were scarce.
Thus it was no new departure when at the end of the thirteenth century Jacobus de Voragine wrote the famous Golden Legend, for in it he simply popularised the lectionary, preserving even its sequence. His compilation is in no sense original. He is content with completing the stories by recourse to the originals, and with adding new legends here and there. The Golden Legend became famous throughout Christendom, because it put into the hands of all men stories which until then had hardly been found outside the liturgical books. The baron in his castle, the merchant in his shop could now enjoy the beautiful tales at will.
The attack made on Jacobus de Voragine by scholars of the seventeenth century misses its mark. The Golden Legend, which they accused of being a legend of lead, was not the work of a man but of the whole of Christendom. The candour and the credulity of the writer belonged to his time. The stories of St. Thomas's voyage to India or of St. James's miraculous cloak, recounted so naively in the Golden Legend, though displeasing to the strict theologians trained in the school of the fathers of the Council of Trent, were universally accepted in the thirteenth century. They were read in public in the churches, and they were illustrated in the windows. To condemn Jacobus de Voragine is to condemn all the ancient lectionaries, and with them the clergy who read them and the faithful who listened.
Please also read my essay on Hagiography and the Benefit of Doubt.