Legends of the Saints
Popular stories about the saints that include both truth and fiction
Legends of the Saints.—Under the term legend the modern concept would include every untrue tale. But it is not so very long since its meaning has been extended thus far, nor is such a definition historically justifiable. That which was understood by the word legend, at the time when the concept arose, included both truth and fiction (considered from the standpoint of modern historical criticism). And this is what the numerous friends of the legend among the German poets, since the days of the Romantic School, understand by the term. The legenda included facts which were historically genuine, as well as narrative which we now class as unhistorical legend. The term is a creation of the Middle Ages, and has its source in the reading of the prayers used in Divine service. Since the days of the martyrs, the Church recalled to mind her famous dead in the prayers of the Mass and in the Office, by commemorating the names noted in the martyrologies and making mention of incidents in their lives and martyrdom. When the lectio became a matter of precept, the reading matter in the office for the day became in a precise sense legenda (that which must be read). After the thirteenth century the word legenda was regarded as the equivalent of vita and passio, and, in the fifteenth century, the liber lectionarius is comprised under what is known as “legend”. Thus, historically considered, legend is the story of the saints. As by this time it had unfortunately happened that the stories of the saints were supplemented and embellished by the people according to their primitive theological conceptions and inclinations, the legend became to a large extent fiction. The age of the Reformation received the legend in this form. On account of the importance which the saints possessed even among Protestants, especially as the instruments of Divine grace, the legends have remained in use to this day, particularly in sermons. The edition of the “Vitae Patrum”, which Georg Major published at Wittenberg in 1544 by Luther’s orders, closely follows Athanasius, Rufinus, and Jerome, rejecting merely the obvious fantasies and aberrations, such as, for example, were to be seen in the “Vita s. Barbarae”, the “Legenda Aurea” of the thirteenth century, or in the Vita s. Simeonis Stylitae” of Pseudo-Antonius. But the opposition to the ancient Church became intensified, and led to the Reformers’ breach with the saints. Simultaneously, the legends of the saints disappear from Protestantism, and it is only in the nineteenth century, after the brief appearance of Romanticism, that they again find entrance into official Protestantism in connection with the attempts of Ferdinand Piper (d. 1899 at Berlin) to revive the popular calendars.
In the usage of the Catholic Church and of the people, the legend plays the same part today as in the Middle Ages. Here also science has taught that distinctions are to be made. Thus it was felt that not all the legends we possess were of equal value, and especially that the editions of the lives of the saints were entirely unsatisfactory. It was the Jesuit Heribert Rosweyde of Utrecht who, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, undertook to remedy matters by referring to the most ancient texts, and by pointing out how the tales developed. Rosweyde wished merely to correct the old collections; his idea was to treat the martyrologies, beginning with the most ancient, from the philological standpoint. But his scheme was forthwith taken up by his order, and after his death (1629) was carried out on a large scale, with an eye also to sectarian opponents, who might learn from the lives of the saints the continuity of Catholic teaching and Catholic life. Thus there came into existence the “Acta Sanctorum” of the Bollandists (q.v.). This monumental work has become the foundation of all investigation in hagiography and legend.
In their present state of development, we would do well to keep these two departments separate. The meaning of the word legend has indeed been practically transformed; the Roman Breviary officially designates the lesson for the day as lectio, and the Church now recognizes the legend rather as a popular story, since the populace are always more impressed by the extraordinary and the grotesque. The legend has thus come to be regarded merely as a fictitious religious tale. Nothing therefore stands in the way of a distinction, which besides is indispensable to those who desire clearness in hagiography. Hagiography is today the province of the historian, who must, even more carefully in the history of the saints than in other historical questions, test the value of the sources of the reports. Only thus will it be possible to arrive at the fundamental question of all hagiography, the question of miracles in history. Are matters, which the modern man is inclined to take as legend, authentically vouched for, or are they met with only in doubtful sources? The belief in miracles, considered as such, does not affect the historian. He has only to gather the original authorities together and to say: This is what happened, so far as historical science can determine. If this presentation of the facts be correct, then no objection can be raised against the results. We have now an abundance of hagiographic memorials which are just as truly history as any other memorials. Reports of miracles which partake of a vague and general character we may and must exclude from this category—e.g. when St. Gregory the Great, in a letter to St. Augustine, makes mention of the miracles which followed on Augustine’s zealous activity in England: “Scio quod omnipotens Deus per dilectionem tuam in gente, quam eligi voluit, magna miracula ostendit” (“I know that Almighty God by His love for thee has shown forth great miracles among the people, whom he wished to be saved”—”Gregorii Registrum”, XI, ep. xxxvi). We possess hagiographic reports on the best possible authority in numerous legal documents and official registers concerning depositions under oath. Such vouchers, however, cannot in the nature of the case be applicable to the entire life of a saint, but only to individual occurrences, and, for the most part, not to occurrences in the saint’s lifetime, but to those which took place at his shrine. The miracles of healing at the shrine of Bishop Willehad at Bremen (d. about 790) in 860, the miracles of Bernard in the “Liber Miraculorum” of 1146-47, the cures at the grave of Bishop Bruno of Wurzburg (d. 1045) in 1202-03, are related in a manner open to no objection.
Concerning the miraculous occurrences at the grave of St. Peter Parenzo at Orvieto (d. 1199)—an exhaustive list cannot be attempted here; we quote but a few examples—of St. Bertrand of Aquileia(d. 1350), of St. Helena of Udina (1458), of St. James Philippi of Faenza (1483), of St. Hypolistus of Atripalda (1637-46), of St. Juventius in Casa Dei (at Rouen, 1667-74), we have documentary accounts (Acta SS., May, V, 98-9; June, I, 791 sqq.; April, III, 255; May, VI, 166 sqq.; May 1, appendix, VII, 528; June, I, 45 sqq.). In addition to these records we possess an imposing array of reports of eyewitnesses in every century, lucid Acts of martyrs, relations like that of the monk Cuthbert on the death of the Venerable Bede (735), of Willebald of Mainz on the life of Boniface the Great, the history of the holy virgin Oda (d. 1158) at Gute-hoffnung near Bingen, the life of Cardinal Nicholas Albergati of Bologna (d. 1443). Whoever gives fair consideration to all these facts must come to a double conclusion: (I) that the extraordinary does not necessarily appertain to the life of the saint; and (2) that in every case these signs and wonders are not unworthy of the saint, e.g. cures, apparitions, prophecies, visions, transfigurations, stigmata, pleasant odor, in corruption. But the historian ought likewise to remember that (leaving the stigmata, an essential Christian manifestation, out of the question) all these phenomena were also known to antiquity. Ancient Greece exhibits stone monuments and inscriptions which bear witness to cures and apparitions in the ancient mythology. History tells of Aristeas of Proconnesus, Hermotimus of Clazomenae, Epimenides of Crete, that they were ascetics and thereby became ecstatic, even to the degree of the soul leaving the body, remaining far removed from it, and being able to appear in other places. Nor is it essential that medieval mysticism be something different from the ancient hieromania; in both cases the presumption is the same as regards the faculties of the soul.
History, therefore, knows of miracles, and the nature of the historical miracle itself leads us to the distinction between history and legend. If the authentic reports are held to be trustworthy, and within the bounds of physical and psychical experience, and the unauthentic reports repel us owing to their fantastic embellishments, then we will be justified in claiming that the surplus of these latter narratives over the authentic reports is untrue, and is legend in the modem sense of the word. The establishment of this distinction is therefore, entirely a matter of historical method. But, since mistrust of the historical work may lead to the suspicion that the estimation of the value of the sources has been influenced by the subject matter of the miracle, the proof must be carried a step farther, and the origin of the superfluous matter demonstrated. Hence arises as our next task, to indicate (I) the contents and (2) the sources of legends.
Manifold as the varieties of legends now seem to be, there are fundamentally not so very many different notions utilized. The legend considers the saint as a kind of lord of the elements, who commands the water, rain, fire, mountain, and rock; he changes, enlarges, or diminishes objects; flies through the air; delivers from dungeon and gallows; takes part in battles, and even in martyrdom is invulnerable; animals, the wildest and the most timid, serve him (e.g. the stories of the bear as a beast of burden; the ring in the fish; the frogs becoming silent, etc.); his birth is glorified by a miracle; a voice, or letters, from Heaven proclaim his identity; bells ring of themselves; the heavenly ones enter into personal intercourse with him (betrothal of Mary); he speaks with the dead and beholds heaven, hell, and purgatory; forces the Devil to release people from compacts; he is victorious over dragons; etc. Of all this the authentic Christian narratives know nothing. But whence then does this world of fantastic concepts arise? A glance at the pre-Christian religious narratives will dispel every doubt. All these stories are anticipated by the Greek chroniclers, writers of myths, collectors of strange tales, neo-Platonism, and neo-Pythagorism. One need only refer to the Hellados peri?g?sis of Pausanias or glance through the codices collected by Photius in his “Bibliotheca”, to recognize what great importance was attached to the reports of miracles in antiquity by both the educated and uneducated. The legend makes its appearance wherever the common people endeavored to form theological concepts, and in its main features it is everywhere the same. Like the myth (the explanatory fable of nature) and the doctrinal fable, it has its independent religious and hortatory importance. The legend claims to show the auxiliary power of the supernatural, and thus indicate to the people a “savior” in every need. The worshipper of divinity, the hero worshipper, is assured of the supernatural protection to which he has established a claim. With the old mythologies and genealogies of gods, of which they serve after a certain fashion as corroborative evidence, these tales may be regarded as the theology of the people. The guiding thoughts are in every case taken from life; they deal with the fulfilment of the simple wishes and expectations likely to arise in the minds of men whose lives were spent in contest with the forces and laws of nature.
Hellenism had already recognized this characteristic of the religious fable, and would thus have been obliged to free itself from it in the course of time, had not the competition with Christianity forced the champions of the ancient polytheism to seek again in the ancient fables incidents to set against the miraculous power of Christ. In this way popular illusions found their way from Hellenism to Christianity, whose struggles in the first three centuries certainly produced an abundance of heroes. The genuine Acts of the martyrs (cf., for example, R. Knopf, “Ausgewahlte Martyreracten”, Tubingen, 1901; Ruinart, “Acta Martyrum sincera”, Paris, 1689, no longer sufficient for scientific research) have in them no popular miracles. After the persecutions, however, when, with the lapse of time, there was no longer any standard by which to measure the unexampled heroism of the martyrs, it became easy to transfer to the Christian martyrs the conceptions which the ancients held concerning their heroes. This transference was promoted by the numerous cases in which Christian saints became the successors of local deities, and Christian worship supplanted the ancient local worship. This explains the great number of similiarities between gods and saints. For the often maintained metamorphosis of gods into saints no proof is to be found. The earliest Catholics of whom legends are told are therefore the martyrs. And from them the conceptions are then transferred to the confessors, as, after the days of persecution, the scene of the contest for salvation was changed from the rack and the amphitheatre to the human soul.
But how was the transference of legends to Christianity consummated? The fact that the Talmud also uses the same ideas, with variations, proves that the guiding thoughts of men during the period of the first spread of Christianity ran in general on parallel lines. There is no doubt, therefore, that these Christian legends are to be traced to a common oral tradition, which was unconsciously transferred from one subject of a legend to another. For the hypothesis of this literary transference, no proofs can be given. If St. Augustine (De cura pro mortuis gerenda, xii) and also St. Gregory the Great (Dialogues, IV, xxxvi) relate of a man, who died by an error of the Angel of Death and was again restored to life, the same story which is already given by Lucian in his “Philopseudes”, such an example at once shows that the literary style was not the model, but that the oral relation was. Augustine and Gregory received the story of the occurrence from those who claimed to have seen it. To such an extent had certain imaginary conceptions become the common property of the people that they repeated themselves as auto-suggestions and dreams. There are ideas of so pronounced a peculiarity that they can be invented only once, and their successive reappearances in new surroundings must, therefore, be due to oral transmission. Such is the characteristic tale of the impostor, who concealed the money he owed in a hollow stick, gave this stick to the creditor to hold, and then swore that he had given back the money; this tale is found in Conon the Grammarian (at Rome in Caesar’s time), in the Haggada of the Talmud (Nedarim, 25a), and in the Christian legends of the thirteenth century in Vincent of Beauvais. The leading ideas of the legends were transferred individually, and appeared later in literary form in the most varied combinations. Not till the sixth century may the literary type of martyr be considered as perfected, and we are subsequently able to verify the literary associations of ideas. This Catholic type had indeed had models in the distant past. The pre-Christian religious narrative had already worked up the old motives into romances, and, starting from this example, there arose in Gnostic circles after the second century the apocryphal accounts of the lives of the Apostles, indicating dogmatic prepossessions. The Church combatted these stories, but the opposition of centuries—the Decree of Gelasius in 496 is well-known—was unable to prevent the genuine narratives from becoming infected, and the ideals of the common people from obtaining preponderance over historical facts. The place of origin and of dissemination of these mere legends was the East. With the termination of the sixth century the taste for them was transplanted to the West also, owing to the active intercourse between Syria and Gaul. Even Gregory of Tours (d. 594) was acquainted with the apocryphal lives of the Apostles. At the beginning of the seventh century we already find related in Gaul (in the “Passio Tergeminorum” of Warnahar of Langres), as an incident in the local history of Langres, a story of martyrdom originating in Cappadocia.
The seventh century sees the literary form of legend domiciled in the West. Bede‘s “Martyrology” and Aldhelm of Malmesbury (d. 709) indicate a wide knowledge of this foreign literature. Ireland. and England eagerly follow in the new direction. In the western part of the continent the taste changes according to the times. Rough times require more abundant consolations; thus the legends of the “savior” make their appearance in the Merovingian seventh century up to the middle of the eighth; others in the time of the perils from the Northmen, of the religious wars, and the Crusades, and especially towards the end of the Middle Ages with its social calamities. During the millenarian tenth century, the era of the Cluniacs and mysticism make the biographies of the saints subjective. The twelfth century brings with the new religious orders the contemplative legends of Mary. The thirteenth sees the development of the cities and the citizens, hand in hand with which goes the popularization of the legend by means of collections compiled for the purposes of sermons, vitae sanctorum, exempla, or merely to give entertainment (Vincent of Beauvais, Caesarius of Heisterbach, James of Vitry, Thomas of Chantimpre, “Legends Aurea“); in this century also arise the legends of Mary and, in connection with the new feast of Corpus Christi (1264) a strong interest in tales of miracles relating to the host. Indeed it was in the very nature of the case that the new legend should appear otherwise than the old. Transubstantiation is something specifically Christian. Still, we find only variations of the old concepts of transformation and apparitions, as in the innumerable stories which now circulated of visible incarnation of the Divine Child or of the Crucified One, or of the monstrance being suspended in the air. But the continuity of the concepts is quite evident in the case of the legend of Mary. If Mary considers herself as betrothed to the priest who serves her, the meaning of this is not far to seek; but nevertheless Callimachus (third century B.C.) had also treated this idea in a legend of Artemis, and Antoninus Liberalis and the Talmud have variations of it. And if, in this legend of Mary, the Blessed Virgin put a ring on the hand of her betrothed under quite characteristic circumstances, that is nothing else than the Roman local legend of the betrothal of Venus, as it has been preserved by William of Malmesbury and the “Deutsche Kaiserchronik” of the twelfth century.
Therefore: (I) the original reports of martyrdoms and lives do not present what is called “legend”; (2) legends repeat the conceptions found in the pre-Christian religious tales. From this it follows that we have a right to identify the pre- and post-Christian popular religious tales; the legend is not Christian, only Christianized. But where then lie its ultimate sources? In many cases it has obviously the same origin as the myth, when it refers the incomprehensible to religious heroes. Antiquity traced back sources, whose natural elements it did not understand, to the heroes; such was also the case with many legends of the saints, although others should rather be regarded as outgrowths of the genuine history of the saints. Etymology also has often led to the promotion of legends; thus, Christopher becomes the actual Christ-carrier. Again, there must be taken into consideration the inexhaustible imagination of the common people; merely because the people expected help, or punishment, in certain situations, the fulfilment of such expectations was soon related. And, finally, general axioms of experience (as in Pantschatantra) or, in the case of the Talmud and Christianity, merely sentences and figures of speech from the Holy Scripture are clothed in the garb of narrative.