Medieval Writing
Saints and Martyrs
glass saint Out of the turbulent early days of the Christian religion grew the veneration, from early Christian times, of those who had died for their faith. The saints were believed to have gone directly to heaven after their death. The martyrs were the most highly venerated of the saints. The list of saints steadily grew, including figures who were entirely mythological as well as medieval figures of religious renown. The stories of the saints were recorded in the literature from the earliest time, and an iconographic convention suggests that this recording was somehow significant to their sanctity, as saints are so often depicted holding a book; a sort of medieval ID card of sainthood.
glass saint
Two saints in the stained glass windows of the other great church of Chartres, the Benedictine church of St Pierre, each holding a palm frond and a book.
The cult of saints was the area of Christian religious worship which could be participated in by the laity without the intervention of the clergy. Anyone could invoke the saints and directly request their intercession. Chapels and altars for this purpose were festooned around all medieval churches. Their images appeared in stained glass, painted on walls, on furnishings, in freestanding and architectural sculpture and on tombs.
alabaster saint
Figure of a female saint with book and palm frond on the side of a 15th century alabaster tomb in the parish church of Burton Agnes, Yorkshire.
Rheims cathedral saints At Rheims cathedral, as in so many great churches of France, an array of saints guards every doorway.
Although the images and altars to the saints were accessible to the laity, the martyrologies and legendaries, or works of saints' lives, were largely confined to the literate clergy, as they were produced in Latin. The transmission of the stories to the laity was part of the oral and visual culture of the church. The priests and deacons read or told the stories of the saints to their congregations in sermons and readings, while the visual imagery of the saints and their stories surrounded them in the church.

Text versions in English translation of a range of saints' lives can be found on the web through ORB or the Medieval Sourcebook or The Ecole Initiative.

life of St Martin A brief text grab from a Latin life of St Martin of Tours, from the 12th century (Metz, Stadtbibliothek, Salis MS 37). (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
The 13th century produced one of the bestsellers of the medieval era in the form of The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, a compendium of saints' lives in Latin, which was one of the most prolifically reproduced books of the era. It perpetuated the memory of some of the more mythical saints, such as the giant St Christopher who carried the child Christ across a raging river or St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. It codified some of the apocryphal legends which had evolved to fill in the all too brief account of the origins of Christ in the gospels in the form of the story of the parents of the Virgin Mary, Joachim and Anna. It became a major source for the iconography of saints in late medieval church art. (See Ryan 1993)

An Italian 15th century manuscript of the Golden Legend is shown on the Berkeley Digital Scriptorium, from the J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University (De Bellis La.04). The page (f.iv verso) shows part of the contents page with its list of saints.

life of St Catherine 15th century depiction of the life and martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, on the wall of the parish church of Pickering in Yorkshire.
This example is literally a strip cartoon of the episodes of her life as described in the Golden Legend. A rare survival in England, and considered by aesthetes to be bad art, it shows how the texts of the lives of the saints were converted into a very literal pictorial narrative.
The feast days of the saints were highly significant in church liturgy. The church calendar was organised partly around the saints' days and partly around the major festivals of Christmas and Easter. The conduct of the mass, as set out in the missal, and of divine office, as set out in the breviary, varied according to the feast days of the saints. A calendar of saints' days was part of various liturgical books. It was also included in the major book of the laity in the later middle ages, the Book of Hours. Because the saints were so multitudinous, one calendar would not include them all. The most significant would appear in all, but every region had its favourite or local saints which would appear in works destined for a particular area. The cult of saints therefore has a spatial dimension.
Saints Stephen and John Some entries from a calendar of saints in a 15th century book of hours (National Library of Australia, MS 1097/9, f.1r), by permission of the National Library of Australia.
Baltildis virgis
In the above example, Saints Stephen and John are familiar, but who is Baltidis virgis (or virginis)? She was special to somebody.
The official saints of the church were ratified by their inclusion in the written works of the church and interpreted for the laity by the clergy. However, oral tradition does creep into this area. There were certain local figures who were venerated as saints, but who were not included in the official literature of the church. Shrines to such unofficial personages were evidently tolerated in local parish churches and provide a minor counterpoint in local oral culture to the uniform literate culture of the church.
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This site is created and maintained by Dr Dianne Tillotson, freelance researcher and compulsive multimedia and web author. Comments are welcome. Material on this web site is copyright, but some parts more so than others. Please check here for copyright status and usage before you start making free with it. This page last modified 10/2/2006.