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 detractors of the hagiographical tradition to which Golden Legend witnesses are legion - beginning with humanists such as Desiderius Erasmus and Lorenzo Valla, and including such churchmen as the Counter-Reformatonal iconoclast John Molanus, John of Launoy (the infamous denicheur), Adrien Baillet, and others whose skepticism triumphed in the great stripping of the calendars in 1969, on the instructions of Sacrosanctum Consilium to purge the liturgy of anything that smacks of mythology.
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 naïvely 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.
I will always be a defender of the Golden Legend and the traditional hagiographies - and more than a defender of them, a believer in them. That is to say, I believe that they are holy, deserving of preservation, and usually true. For this, I have been called many things - stupid, romantic, reactionary. I have, in the past, justified myself by arguing that hagiography ought to be read in the same spirit that Holy Scripture is read - with literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical significance. I have mostly abandoned this argument - not because I think it false, but because I think it unnecessary.
Believing in the veracity of the Golden Legend does not require a suspension of disbelief, nor a Sigerist double standard of truth (one truth for reason, one truth for faith), nor any particular hermeneutic. All that is required is the benefit of doubt. That is to say, most of the stories recounted by the traditional hagiographies give us no reason, in themselves, to disbelieve them.
A qualification must be made here. The hagiographies are not infallible and I certainly make no claim to the contrary. They were compiled by human authors without divine inspiration. Some contain errors. On occasion, we find confused identities, or details disproved by substantial historical evidence. On occasion, we find contradictory versions of the same story, as with multiple claimants to the same relic. In such cases, someone must be wrong. Even more rarely, we find cults of devotion whose origins can be traced, with reasonable certitude, to heretical or pagan sources or to political agenda or to blood libels or to misunderstandings or to pure fancy.
But these are the exceptions, not the rule. In the current religious consciousness, wherein the traditional hagiographies are treated mostly as sources for curious stories or irreverent jokes, the exceptions are more likely to be remembered. But they are rarities among the hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of saints whose cults have been ignominiously quashed, or whose hagiographies have been edited in the name of historical criticism.
The traditional accounts of the lives of these saints only become incredible when they are read with a prejudice against the miraculous. And most of the proofs offered by scholars debunking the hagiographies and explaining what really happened are as baseless and arbitrary as the stories themselves are accused of being.
For example, according to the Golden Legend:
The body of St. Denis raised himself up, and bare his head between his arms, as the angel led him two leagues from the place, which is said the hill of the martyrs, unto the place where he now resteth, by his election, and by the purveyance of God.
Modern hagiographies are unanimous in rejecting the story of St. Denis carrying his own head for two leagues. Nowadays, everybody knows this didn't really happen - what really happened is that two rival churches claimed the honor of being the place of the saint's martyrdom and death, and the story was invented as a compromise. Or, what really happened is that ignorant mediaeval peasants misunderstood the artistic convention of depicting a decapitated martyr holding his own head and invented a story to match.
But there is no evidence whatsoever that the story is not true as recounted above. There is no evidence whatsoever that it was invented to pacify rival holy sites, or to explain the misinterpretations of cathedral statuary. All of this is is pure conjecture. The only reason that a man would accept the new explanations is that he gives the benefit of the doubt to the skeptic over the tradition; that he believes that a saint carrying his head two leagues is something that cannot - therefore did not - happen.
And the most popular explanation - that of ignorant mediaeval peasants misinterpreting art - is completely implausible. It betrays a misunderstanding of the way hagiography, iconography and devotion related in the middle ages. (As a general rule, any explanation for anything that hinges on the idiocy of mediaeval people is a product of historical bigotry and little more.)
This explanation assumes that mediaeval hagiographies were essentially the product of folk religion, generated by the ignorant peasantry and only later accepted by the official Church - something akin to the folk devotions of contemporary Latin America. While it is certainly true that mediaeval hagiography and contemporary folk hagiography resemble each other more closely than either resembles historical critical hagiography, there is an important difference between them. In the Middle Ages, the theologically learned participated in the cults of devotion, and usually initiated them. How many of the saints in the Golden Legend were monks or nuns, whose veneration began in the very monasteries where they lived and died! The authors of their vitae were the most educated men of the day, including popes and bishops and abbots.
Jacobus of Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, was not a folklorist wandering the fields and writing down the fantastic bedtime stories of the unlettered. He merely collected, compared and expanded what was already written in the various liturgical martyrologies: what was read at Matins across Christendom. The story of St. Denis the Cephalophore was known and believed and chanted aloud by the very clergy who commissioned the cathedral sculptures. It was known and believed and chanted aloud by St. Thomas Aquinas and the scholastic theologians disputing at the University of Paris. They certainly had no reason to doubt it.
For there is no evidence that St. Denis did not carry his head, or that St. Barbara was not imprisoned in a tower, or that St. Catherine did not destroy the wheel of her torture, or that St. Medard was not sheltered from the rain by an eagle, or that St. Cuthbert was not reverenced by otters after a night of penance in the cold sea. There is no evidence that St. Eustace did not witness the apparition of the Crucified Christ between the antlers of a stag, or that St. Hubert did not witness the same, or that the two men are really one (for who says that God cannot work a similar miracle twice?). There is no evidence that a giant of monstrous appearance did not ferry the Christ Child across a river, or that St. Genevieve's candle was not snuffed by a demon - for giants and demons are real, and still exist today.
As for the the story of St. George and the dragon - we know that reptilian monsters once roamed the earth in great numbers; we know that books can be filled with lists of the so-called Lazarus taxa; we know that fishermen pull coelacanths out of African rivers, and that Laotian rock rats are sold at meat market; we know that creatures as large and as common as the giant squid are able to evade the eyes of modern man and all his gizmos; we know that creatures as large and as fantastic as the half-ton elephant bird lived and died even after the Council of Trent. Why is it implausible that large reptiles (likely now extinct, but perhaps not) fulfilling the descriptions of the hagiographies lurked in the wildernesses in the days of St. George (or St. Margaret or St. Sylvester or St. Benedict)? Or, barring this, that the ancient enemy was (and is) able to conjure them from time to time?
And even more importantly - we know that holy scripture, the inerrant Word of God, speaks of dragons and basilisks, of frogs falling from the sky and rivers turning to blood. The miracles of Elijah are no less fantastic than the miracles of St. Nicholas. Balaam's ass is no less fantastic than St. Rumwold. The Old Testament - and the New - are no less fantastic at face than the Golden Legend. They smack no less of mythology to the modern mind.
Here of course, some will object that scripture is inerrant, and that hagiography is not; the vitae of the saints form a tradition extrinsic to divine revelation - a little t tradition. And yes, this is true - but I think that the obsession in popular catechesis and apologetics over distinguishing big T and little t traditions is a good example of the old demonic ploy of making men fear exactly the wrong error at exactly the wrong time. The world is not overrun with men who think that such traditions must be believed de fide. It is overrrun with men who think that they need not be believed at all; minimalism is the heresy of the hour. Hagiographic, iconographic, monastic and liturgical traditions - these are holy and Christ-bearing things, and a Christian who dismisses them, insults them, ignores them, changes them at whim, or rejects them entirely does so at his peril.
But this really is beside the point. The debate over the worth of the traditional hagiography should not be reduced to an argument over different categories of authority. For the Bible is not just a book of stories whose veracity we are not permitted to question; it is a record of God's action among men and as man, a record of events that really occurred - and it speaks of marvels. We either live in a world in which these sort of things happen, or we do not.
If we believe that we live in such a world, the hagiographies no longer appear ridiculous. If we do not, the Resurrection itself appears ridiculous. The idea that we can save the reputation of the Church by conceding every allowable criticism to the skeptics, and that this will prevent them from crossing the uncrossable line of doubting Revelation itself, is patently ridiculous. It is like contending that a man is less likely to fall off a cliff by dancing as close as possible to its precipice, rather than building his home and living his life leagues away.
Let us give the Golden Legend and the old hagiographies the benefit of the doubt. They deserve at least that much.