Saint's Legend

        The saint's legend, an extremely popular Medieval genre, usually develops in exactly the same plot structure with strikingly similar characterization.  The saint is recognized as a holy person even when young and uninstructed.  The saint's religious practices are extraordinary for their energetic exertion.  The saint is tested, perhaps by hardship, disease, or friends, but often by heathen or demonic oppressors.  The saint resists, marvelously, and dies singing God's praises.  Miracles often accompany or follow the testing and resistance.   In the sub-set of "Virgin Martyr legends," the saint is usually female, and if she is female, her testing always involves tortures which concentrate upon body parts which typically are eroticized by Medieval male writers when they describe female beauty (breasts, hair, teeth, skin, etc.).

        Saint's legends developed around regional Anglo-European cults based in monasteries and cities who were competing for revenue generated by donations from wills, and by pilgrims' appetite for artifacts with which to proclaim their successful completion of the pilgrimage to the site of the saint's veneration.  To establish sainthood, the Vatican created an elaborate system of trials and sub-saint statuses before the saint's canonization, and the Catholic church wages a steady campaign to defend the doctrinal authority of "the Communion of the Saints" as authentic Christian practice, against the skeptical assault of the Protestant sects.  In brief, the saint's holiness on Earth effectively opens up a conduit between the Divine and the Sacred through which petitions for aid can pass upward from beleaguered adherents to the saint's cult, and miracles can pass downward from God at the saint's interceding request.  In this belief system, the physical relics of the saint are of major importance, but they would not have nearly the same social power without the multiplication of saint's legends about the saint, which grow until they acquire a kind of stabile coherence that resists new narrative additions.  Collections of saint's legends were among the most popular narrative manuscripts produced in every Medieval Christian culture during the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.  The Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), perhaps the largest and most comprehensive of them all, was one of the three largest single volumes printed by William Caxton (449 printed folio leaves or 898 pages in 1484, second only in size and expense to the history, Polichronicon [450 leaves in 1482], and just ahead of Malory's Morte Darthur [432 leaves in 1485]).

        Literary scholars who interpret saint's legends tread an interesting path between belief and skepticism.  Most modern interpreters treat them as literature that can be subjected to the usual New Critical close-reading analysis and then interpreted via any of the current critical methods.  The Virgin Martyr legends are particularly interesting to Feminist scholars, and all of them reward Marxists, Cultural Critics, New Historicists, etc.  Nevertheless, religious studies scholars also can interpret the saint's lives in terms that accommodate belief in their religious and moral importance, seeking historically contextualized insights about the nature of Medieval belief.  In secular literary interpretation, the saint is a "character" or "persona" like any other in the narrative, with no necessary historical reality except as a character in audiences' minds and as an influence upon authors writing other works.  In religious studies interpretation, the saint is a divine being or at least an extraordinary human being which the narrative attempts to encode for religious purposes.  Either way, this is an extremely important genre because of the extraordinary importance we know it had for Medieval readers, from the humblest to the most powerful.

        For some paper-writing advice when your topic involves a saint's legend, or a narrative that borrows conventions from the saint's legend, click here.