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The Golden Legend (Latin: Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum) is a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Varagine that was widely read in late medieval Europe. More than a thousand manuscripts of the text have survived. It was likely compiled around the years 1259–1266, although the text was added to over the centuries.
Initially entitled Legenda sanctorum (Readings of the Saints), it gained its popularity under the title by which it is best known. It overtook and eclipsed earlier compilations of abridged legendaria, the Abbreviatio in gestis et miraculis sanctorum attributed to the Dominican chronicler Jean de Mailly and the Epilogus in gestis sanctorum of the Dominican preacher Bartholomew of Trent. When printing was invented in the 1450s, editions appeared quickly, not only in Latin, but also in almost every major European language. Among incunabula, printed before 1501, Legenda aurea was printed in more editions than the Bible and was one of the most widely published books of the Middle Ages. During the height of its popularity the book was so well known that the term "Golden Legend" was sometimes used generally to refer to any collection of stories about the saints. It was one of the first books William Caxton printed in the English language; Caxton's version appeared in 1483 and his translation was reprinted, reaching a ninth edition in 1527.Written in simple, readable Latin, the book was read in its day for its stories. Each chapter is about a different saint or Christian festival. The book is considered the closest thing to an encyclopaedia of medieval saint lore that survives today; as such, it is invaluable to art historians and medievalists who seek to identify saints depicted in art by their deeds and attributes. Its repetitious nature is explained if Jacobus da Varagine meant to write a compendium of saintly lore for sermons and preaching, not a work of popular entertainment.
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date of publication: 1298
- no edition found