The Legends of the Saints – Introduction

Editorial Note

For those who, whether as a matter of duty or of devotion, are accustomed to recite the Divine Office with its historical lessons, for those again who as the Church’s local representatives are often asked to explain difficulties regarding the cultus of the Saints, for all, in fine, who take an interest in the discussions upon pagan survivals provoked by so many of our modern folk-lorists, it has been thought that a translation of Father Delehaye’s Légendes Hagiographiques would be likely to prove a welcome addition to the Westminster Library. The Editors accordingly have felt no hesitation in including in the series a work which has everywhere won high commendation abroad from scholars of all shades of opinion. The translation has been made by Mrs. V. M. Crawford from the second edition of the French original, and has been carefully revised in passing through the press. Nothing has been added save a few bibliographical references kindly suggested by the author himself.

Author’s Introduction

Recent progress in scientific hagiography has given rise to more than one misunderstanding. Historical criticism when applied to the lives of the saints has had certain results which are in no way surprising to those who are accustomed to handle documents and to interpret inscriptions, but which have had a somewhat disturbing effect on the mind of the general public.

Religious-minded people who regard with equal veneration not only the saints themselves but everything associated with them, have been greatly agitated by certain conclusions assumed by them to have been inspired by the revolutionary spirit that has penetrated even into the Church, and to be highly derogatory to the honour of the heroes of our faith. This conviction frequently finds utterance in somewhat violent terms.

If you suggest that the biographer of a saint has been unequal to his task, or that he has not professed to write as a historian, you are accused of attacking the saint himself, who, it appears, is too powerful to allow himself to be compromised by an indiscreet panegyrist.

If, again, you venture to express doubt concerning certain miraculous incidents repeated by the author on insufficient evidence, although well-calculated to enhance the glory of the saint, you are at once suspected of lack of faith.

You are told you are introducing the spirit of rationalism into history, as though in questions of fact it were not above all things essential to weigh the evidence. How often has not an accusation of destructive criticism been flung, and men treated as iconoclasts, whose sole object has been to appraise at their true value the documents which justify our attitude of veneration, and who are only too happy when able to declare that one of God’s friends has been fortunate enough to find a historian worthy of his task.

One might have thought that this simple analysis of the attitude of suspicion which so many devout souls assume in regard to historical criticism would suffice to demonstrate the injustice of their prejudices. Unhappily, it is less easy than might be supposed to efface an impression which, as they think, can only have been inspired by piety.

The conditions under which so many accounts of martyrs and lives of saints have been put together are, as a rule, too little known for any common ground of criticism to be available. Many readers are not sufficiently on their guard against the vague sentiment which endows hagiographers with some mysterious privilege of immunity from the errors of human frailty to which all other categories of writers are liable.

We therefore believe that We shall be doing a useful work if we try to classify, more definitely than has been done hitherto, the Various methods pursued by pious writers, to sketch in broad outline the genesis of their compositions^ and to show how far they are from being protected against errors which exact history is bound to denounce.

It may, perhaps, be as well to warn the reader from the first against an impression that might be gathered from a study which is mainly devoted to the weak points of hagiographic literature.

To give assistance in detecting materials of inferior workmanship is not to deny the excellence of what remains, and it is to the ultimate advantage of the harvest to point out the tares that have sometimes become mingled with the wheat to a most disconcerting extent.

The simple narrative of heroic days, written, as it were, with pens dipped in the blood of martyrs, the naive histories, sweet with the perfume of true piety, in which eye-witnesses relate the trials of virgins and of ascetics, deserve our fullest admiration and respect.

For that very reason they must be clearly differentiated from the extensive class of painfully-elaborated biographies in which the features of the saint are hidden by a heavy veil of rhetoric, and his voice overborne by that of his chronicler. There is an infinite distance between these two classes of literature. The one is well known, and its own merits recommend it. The other too often passes undetected and prejudices the first.

It must surely be admitted that from this simple task of classification, the need for which we are anxious to demonstrate, it is a far cry to that work of destruction which we may be suspected of having embarked upon.

Moreover, if we recommend any one who feels drawn to hagiographic studies to plunge boldly into the realm of criticism, we should advise no one to advance blindfold, neither have we dreamed of disguising the fact that by misapplying methods of research, however efficacious they may be in themselves, there is danger of being led to quite inadmissible conclusions.

It is easy to satisfy oneself on this point by glancing through the chapter in which we have discussed the questions touching upon mythological exegesis, so much in vogue at the present day. Certain brilliant displays which have taken place in that arena have dazzled a public more preoccupied with the novelty of the conclusions than with their trustworthiness. It has been our duty to lay down the necessary limitations, and to show how they may best be observed.

We do not profess to have written a complete treatise on hagiography. Many points which may suggest themselves to the reader have not even been touched upon, and we make no pretension of having exhausted any one of the subjects of which we have treated.

The quotations and examples might have been multiplied almost indefinitely. We believe ourselves justified, however, in resisting the temptation to impress the reader by a cheap display of erudition, and in avoiding everything that might have encumbered our exposition without adding anything to the force of the argument.

To indicate briefly the spirit in which hagiographic texts should be studied, to lay down the rules for discriminating between the materials that the historian can use and those that he should hand over as their natural property to artists and poets, to place people on their guard against the fascination of formulas and preconceived systems, such has been the aim of this volume.

Controversy – an evil counsellor – has been banished as far as may be from this little book. Nevertheless we shall occasionally be compelled to call attention to other people’s mistakes. Defective methods, alas, frequently take shelter behind names of the highest credit, and sometimes, when attacking erroneous views, one may give the impression of attacking persons. For the critic it is a real cause for regret that in the thick of the fight blows sometimes fall on those at whom they were not aimed. Let it be understood, once and for all, that we have aimed at nobody.

Some chapters of this study first appeared in the Revue des Questions historiques (July, 1903). We have slightly revised and completed them in a few places. Except for two or three unimportant additions, this new edition of the book is simply a reprint of the first, which appeared in March, 1905.