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Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [1]

Originally a book, in the Romish church, containing the lessons that were to be read in divine service: from hence the word was applied to the histories of the lives of saints, because chapters were read out of them at matins; but as the golden legend, compiled by James de Varase, about the year 1290, contained in it several ridiculous and romantic stories, the word is now used by Protestants to signify any in credible or inauthentic narrative. Hence, as Dr. Jortin observes, we have false legends concerning the miracles of Christ, of his apostles, and of ancient Christians; and the writers of these fables had, in all probability, as good natural abilities as the disciples of Christ, and some of them wanted neither learning nor craft; and yet they betray themselves by faults against chronology, against history, against manners and customs, against morality, and against probability. A liar of this kind can never pass undiscovered; but an honest relater of truth and matter of fact is safe: he wants no artifice, and fears no examination.

Webster's Dictionary [2]

(1): ( n.) An inscription, motto, or title, esp. one surrounding the field in a medal or coin, or placed upon an heraldic shield or beneath an engraving or illustration.

(2): ( v. t.) To tell or narrate, as a legend.

(3): ( n.) A story respecting saints; especially, one of a marvelous nature.

(4): ( n.) That which is appointed to be read; especially, a chronicle or register of the lives of saints, formerly read at matins, and in the refectories of religious houses.

(5): ( n.) Any wonderful story coming down from the past, but not verifiable by historical record; a myth; a fable.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [3]

(Lat. legenda, "things to be read," lessons) was the name given in early times, in the Roman Catholic Church, to a book containing the daily lessons which were wont to be read as part of divine service. This name, however, in process of time, was used to designate the lives of saints and martyrs, as well as the collection of such narratives, from the fact that these were read by the monks at matins, and after dinner in the refectories. Anmong numerous theories as to the origin of the legeneds, the following is the most probable. Before colleges were established in the monasteries where the schools were held, the professors in rhetoric frequently gave their pupils the life of some saint for a trial of their talent for amplification. The students, being constantly at a loss to furnish out their pages, invented most of these wonderful adventures. Jortin observes that the Christians used to collect, out of Ovid, Livy, and other pagan poets and historians, the miracles and portents to be found there, and accommodated them to their own monks and saints. The good fathers of that age, whose simplicity was not inferior to their devotion, were so delighted with these flowers of rhetoric that they were induced to make a collection of these miraculous compositions, not imagining that at some distant period they would become matters of faith. Yet, when Jacob de Voragine, Peter de Natalibus, and Peter Ribadeneira wrote the lives of the saints, they sought for their materials in the libraries of the monasteries; and, awakening from the dust these manuscripts of amplification, imagined they made an invaluable present to the world by laying before them these voluminous absurdities. The people received these pious fictions wcith all imaginable simplicity, and, as few were able to read, the books containing them were amply illustrated with cuts which rendered the story intelligible.

Many of these legends, the production of monastics, were invented, especially in the Middle Ages, with a view to serve the interests of monasticism, particularly to exalt the character of the monastic orders, and to represent their voluntary austerities as purchasing the peculiar favor of heaven. For this purpose they unscrupulously ascribe to their patrons and founders the power of working miracles on the most trifling occasions. Many of these miracles are blasphemous parodies on those of our blessed Lord; not a few are borrowed from the pagan mythology; but some are so exquisitely absurd that no one but a monk could have dreamed of imposing such nonsense on the most besotted of mankind. "It would be easy to accumulate proofs of the ready belief which the lower orders of Irish Romanists give to tales of miracles worked by their priests; but it is remarkable that in the earlier legends we very rarely find supernatural powers attributed to the secular ecclesiastics; the heroes of most of the tales are monks and hermits, whose voluntary poverty seemed to bring them down to a level of sympathy with the lower orders. Indiscriminate alms, which have often been demonstrated to be the source of great evils, are always popular with thle uninstructcd, and hence we find that many of the heroes of the legends are celebrated for the prodiigality of their benevolence. The miracles attributed to the Irish saints are even more extravagant than those in the Continental martyrologies.

We find St. Patrick performing the miracle of raising the dead to life no less than seventeen times, and on one occasion he restores animation to thirty-four persons at once. Gerald, bishop of Mayo, however, surpassed St. Patrick, for he not only resuscitated the dead daughter of the king of Connaught, bent miraculously changed her sex, that she might inherit the crown of the province, in which the Salic law was then established. We find, also, in the ecclesiastical writers, many miracles specially worked to support individual doctrines, particularly the mystery of transubstantiation. Indeed, a miracle appears to have been no unusual resource of a puzzled controversialist. On one occasion the sanctity of the wafer is stated to have been proved by a mule's kneeling to worship it; at another time a pet lamb kneels down at the elevation of the host; a spider, which St. Francis d'Ariano accidentally swallowed while receiving the sacrament, came out of his thigh; and when St. Elmo was pining at being too long excluded from a participation in ithe sacramental mysteries, the holy elements were brought to him by a pigeon. But the principal legends devised for the general exaltation of the Romish Church refer to the exercise of power over the devil. In the south of Ireland nothing is more common than to hear of Satan's appearance in proper person, his resistance to all the efforts of the Protestant minister, and his prompt obedience to the exorcisms of the parish priest. In general, the localities of the stories are laid at some neighboring village; yet, easy as this renders refutation, it is wonderful to find how generally such a tale is credited. From the archives of the Silesian Church, we find that some German Protestants seem to believe in the exorcising powers of the Romish priests.

Next to the legends of miracles rank those of extraordinary austerities, such as that St. Polycronus always took up a huge tree on his shoulders when he went to pray; that St. Barnadatus shut himself up in a narrow iron cage; that St. Adhelm exposed himself to the most stimulating temptations, and then defied the devil to make him yield; and that St. Macarius undertook a penance for sin six months, because he had so far yielded to passion as to kill a flea. It is unnecessary to dwell upon these, because they are manifestly derived from the habits of the Oriental fanatics, and are evident exaggerations made without taste or judgment. See History of Popery (Lond. 1838, 8vo). The most celebrated of these popular mediaeval fictions is the Legenda Aurea, or Golden Legend, originally written in Latin, in the 13th century, by Jacob de Voragine (q.v.), a Dominican friar, who afterwards became archbishop of Genoa, and died in 1298, This work was the great text-book of legendary lore of the Middle Ages. It was translated into French in the 14th century by Jean de Vigny, and in the 15th into English by William Caxton. It has lately been made more accessible by a new French translation: La Legende Doree, traduite du Latin, par M. G. B. (Par. 1850). There is a copy of the original, with the Gesta Longobardorum appended, in the Harvard College Library, Cambridge, printed at Strasburg in 1496. Longfellow, in a note to his beautiful poem, says, "I have called this poem the Golden Legend, because the story upon which it is founded seems to me to surpass all other legends in beauty and significance. It exhibits, amid the corruptions of the Middle Ages, the virtue of disinterestedness and self-sacrifice, and the power of Faith, Hope, and Charity sufficient for all the exigencies of life and death." The story is told, and perhaps invented, by Hartmann von der Aue, a Minnesinger of the 12th century. The original may be found in Marlath's Alt-deutsche Gedichte, with a modern German version. There is another in Marbach's Volksb Ü cher, No. 32. We may mention also, among other productions, the Kaiserchronik (Imperial Chronicle), where the legendary element forms a very important part of the whole, and Werner's versified Marienleben (Life of Mary), written in 1173, etc. The authors of these works were ecclesiastics, but in the following age, when the mediaeval poetry of Germany was in its richest bloom, and the fosterers of the poetic art were emperors and princes, the legend was employed by laymen on a grand scale, and formed the subject-matter of epic narratives. Thus Hartmann von der Aue worked up into a poem the religious legends about Gregory; Konrad von Fussesbrunnen those concerning the childhood of Jesus; Rudolph von eElms those about Barlaam and Josaphat; and e Kimbat von Durne those about St. George. Between the 14th and 16th centuries legends in prose began also to appear, such as Hermann von Fritzlar's Von dem Heiligen Leben (written about 1343), and gradually supplanted the others.

Much of this legendary rubbish was cleared away by Tillemont, Fleury, Baillet, Lasunoi, and Bollandus, but the faith in many of them still remains strong in the more ignorant minds of the Romish Church. The repeated and still continued editions of the Acta Sanctorum (q.v.) afford sufficient evidence of this.

The most comprehensive and valuable work on the subject of the legends is that commenced by the Bollandists in the 17th century, Acta Sanctorum, and still in process of publication. Legends are found not only in the Roman Catholic, but also in the Greek Church. They also found an entrance into the national literature of Christian nations. Among the Germans especially was this the case, particularly in the 12th century, although specimens of legendary poems are not altogether wanting at an earlier period. In Great Britain, also, the legends of King Arthur and his Round Table have sprung afresh into popular favor, after centuries of comparative obscurity, and have once more become the treasure-house from which poet and painter draw subjects for their pictures, and in which essayists, weary of the old heathen classics, seek for illustrations and allusions.

The first of the recent poets, however, who clearly apprehended the poetic and spiritual elements of the old Christian legend was Herder, and his example has been followed by other poets, for example, the romantic school in Germany, and Bulwer and Tennyson in England. he tendency to mythic embellishment showed itself more particularly in regard to the Virgin Mary, the later saints, and holy men and women. Of all these, the most captivating, as an amiable weakness, was the devotion to the Virgin. The denial of the title "The Mother of God" by Nestorius was that which sounded most offensive to the general ear; it was the intelligible, odious point in his heresy, and contributed, no doubt, to the passionate violence with which that controversy was agitated; and the favorable issue to those who might seem most zealous for the Virgin's glory gave a strong impulse to the worship; for, from that time, the worship of the Virgin became in the East an integral part of Christianity. Among Justinian's splendid edifices arose many churches dedicated to the Mother of God. The feast of the Annunciation was celebrated both under Justin and Justinian. Heraclius had images of the Virgin on his masts when he sailed to Constantinople to overthrow Phocas; and before the end of the century the Virgin is become the tutelar deity of that city, which is saved by her intercession from the Saracens. "The history of Christianity," says dean Milman, "cannot be understood without pausing at stated periods to survey the progress and development of the Christian mythology, which, gradually growing up, and springing as it did from natural and universal instincts. took a more perfect and systematic form, and at length, at the height of the Middle Ages, was as much a part of Latin Christianity as the primal truths of the Gospel. This religion gradually molded together all which arose out of the natural instincts of man, the undying reminiscences of all the older religions the Jewish, the Pagan, and the Platonic with the few and indistinct glimpses of the invisible world, and the future state of being in the New Testament, into a vast system, more sublime, perhaps, for its indefiniteness, which, being necessary in that condition of mankind, could not but grow up out of the kindled imagination and religious faith of Christendom.

The historian who should presume to condemn such a religion as a vast plan of fraud, or a philosopher who should venture to disdain it as a fabric of folly only deserving to be forgotten, would be equally unjust, equally blind to its real uses, assuredly ignorant of its importance and its significance in the history of man; for on this, the popular Christianity popular, as comprehending the highest as well as the lowest in rank, and even in intellectual estimation turns the whole history of man for many centuries. It is at once the cause and the consequence of the sacerdotal dominion over mankind, the groundwork of authority at which the world trembled, which founded and overthrew kingdoms, bound together or set in antagonistic array nations, classes, ranks, orders of society. Of this, the parent, when the time arrived, of poetry, of art, the Christian historian must watch the growth and mark the gradations by which it gathered into itself the whole activity of the human mind, and quickened that activity till at length the mind outgrew that which had been so long almost its sole occupation. It endured till faith, with the schoolmen, led into the fathomless depths of metaphysics, began to aspire after higher truths; with the Reformers, attempting to refine religion to its primary spiritual simplicity, this even yet prolific legendary Christianity, which had been the accessory and supplementary Bible, the authoritative and accepted, though often unwritten Gospel of centuries, was gradually dropped, or left but to the humblest and most ignorant, at least to the more imaginative and less practical part of mankind." "The influence that these works exerted on the mediaeval mind," says Hardwick, "was deep and universal. While they fed almost every stream of superstition, and excited an unhealthy craving for the marvelous and the romantic, they were nearly always tending, in their moral, to enlist the affections of the reader on the side of gentleness and virtue, more especially by setting forth the necessity of patience, and extolling the heroic energy of faith. One class of those biographies deserve a high amount of credit; they are written by some friend or pupil of their subject; they are natural and life-like pictures of the times, preserving an instructive portrait of the missionary, the recluse, the bishop, or the man of business; yet most commonly the acts and sufferings of the mediaeval saint have no claim to a place in the sphere of history, or at best they have been so wantonly embellished by the fancy of the author that we can distinguish very few of the particles of truth from an interminable mass of fiction. As these Lives' were circulated freely in the language of the people, they would constitute important items in the fireside reading of the age; and so warm was the response they found in men of every grade, that, notwithstanding feeble efforts to reform them, or at least to eliminate a few of the more monstrous and absurd, they kept their hold on Christendom at large, and are subsisting even now in the creations of the mediaeval artist" (Ch. Hist. Middle Ayes).

On the origin of these legends there is a great diversity of opinion among the learned. Some trace it to the northern Skalds, who, accompanying the army of Rollo in his warlike migrations southward, carried with them the lays of their own mythology, but replaced their pagan heroes by Christian kings and warriors. Salmasius adopted the theory, which was endorsed by Warton, that the germs of romantic fiction originated with the Saracenls and Arabians, and ascribes its introduction into Europe to the effects of the Crusades, or, according to Warton himself, to the Arab conquests in Spain; that from thence they passed into France, and took deepest root in Brittany. Others, again, have seen in the tales of chivalry only a new development of the classic legends of Greece and Italy. As Christianity unquestionably borrowed and modified to its own use many of the outward ceremonies of paganism, so they held that the Christian trouveur only adopted and transmuted the heroes of classical poetry. The researches of count Villemarque and lady Charlotte Schreiber, however, to which the attention of the learned world had been directed before by Leyden, Douce, and Sharon Turner, conclusively prove that the true theory as to their origin is that they are Cymric or Armorican, or both. The wealth of the old Cymric literature in this particular respect was never even suspected until lady Charlotte Schreiber, with the aid of an eminent Welsh scholar, the Rev. Thomas Price, brought to light in their original form, accompanied by an English version. the collection of early Cymric tales known as the Mabinogion. M. de la Villemarque, for his own side of the Channel, not only confirms the evidence of lady Schreiber, but brings forward additional items of proof, from fragments of Breton songs and poems, that the roots of their renowned fiction lie deep in their literature also. Their very form the eight-syllabled rhyme, in which the French metrical version is written he claims, and apparently wvith justice, as Cynmric. See Chambers, Cyclop. s.v.; Cyclop. Brit. s.v.; Herzog, Real-Encyk. 8:274 sq.; Vogel, Versuch. einer Gesch. u. W Ü rdigung der Legenden in Illgein's Hist. theol. Abhandl. (Lpz. 1824), p. 141 sq.; Mrs. Jameson, Legends of the Monastic Orders, and her Legends of the Madonna. (See Myth).