In Search of Sacred Time: Jacobus de Voragine and The Golden Legend

Jacques Le Goff, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane
Published by Princeton University Press in 2014

Reviewed by Karen D. Youmans, University Honors Program, Oklahoma City University

The Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea) of Jacobus de Voragine, while not always revered for its artistry, stands unquestioned as one of the single most influential literary works of the late medieval period. Completed sometime between 1260 and 1298, the year of the Dominican friar’s death, Jacobus’ Legend exists in more than 800 medieval manuscripts and was printed in over 150 editions from the late fifteenth through the sixteenth century when it lost popularity in the face of Protestant and Renaissance humanist critiques of so-called Catholic superstition. Often seen by students and scholars of late medieval culture as a touchstone for the study of hagiography, or saints’ lives, the Legend was the best known and most widely circulated collection of saints’ lives, or legendaries, in medieval Europe.

Such legendaries proliferated during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, their popularity often connected with the Church’s increased interest in lay piety and spiritual education following the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Thus The Golden Legend, along with other medieval legendaries, has generally been studied and evaluated for its impact as a collection of exempla, brief narratives that demonstrated a spiritual lesson or provided a model to lay listeners of pious living. Like many medieval legendaries, and particularly well suited for the “preaching” Dominicans, Jacobus’ legendary is arranged in accordance with the Church calendar, providing relevant exempla for use by preachers in accordance with the Lectionary. Considering, then, the status of the Legend as the preeminent late medieval legendary, the Legendary of Legendaries as it were, what are we to make of Jacques Le Goff’s straightforward declaration in his new, posthumously released monograph, In Search of Sacred Time: Jacobus de Voragine and The Golden Legend, that “the Golden Legend is not a legendary”?

To start, Le Goff is not exactly the first to make the claim that Jacobus’ Legend is not a legendary, or rather is something more or less than a legendary. In fact, he references, in a note to that very sentence, Genevieve Brunel-Lobrichon’s 1964 categorization of the Legend as folklore.1 Her definition and others that take a broader view of the cultural significance and legacy of Jacobus’ work have not necessarily improved its reputation as either a literary, historical, or inspirational work. Sherry Reames’ widely known 1985 study of the Legend was especially critical of Jacobus’ reductionism and austerity.2 For Reames Jacobus fails in offering compelling models of imitable virtue. She is particularly concerned that his own severity and parochialism not be seen as characteristic of the hagiographic genre as a whole. When Le Goff makes his statement, however, that the Legend is not a legendary, he does so as part of a broader apologia for Jacobus that asks us to judge the work not within an entirely different context, but from a striking shift of perspective.

Studies of the Legend have tended to judge it on the basis of the power of its vignettes, mostly character-focused narratives. Le Goff moves the focus from character to liturgy in his claim that the Legend is first and foremost “a summa on time” (xii). Jacobus’ aim in writing the Legend, as Le Goff asserts, was to demonstrate, and in some ways reenact as all liturgy does, the sacralization of time. Jacobus does so by following the movement of the Church calendar, which tells the story of the reconciliation and renewal made possible by Christ’s incarnation, the central event in the liturgical year that marks the unfolding of sacred time. Jacobus’ compendium manifests over and over, Le Goff claims, the sacralization and enchanting of time. In this process of unfolding, the saint is still central, but as a “marker of time” (38). The saint marks the sacred site at which eternal truths unfold in history. Thus the importance of each legend is subsumed in the progression of this overarching narrative.

In his preface, Le Goff explains the structure of his study as he explains the structure of the Legend itself. He distinguishes among three overlapping “varieties of time” that constitute the structural logic of the Legend: “The temporale, or the time of Christian liturgy, which is cyclical; the sanctorale, or the time marked by the succession of the lives of the saints which is linear; and finally, eschatological time … the temporal road on which humanity travels toward Judgment Day” (xiii). Le Goff’s preface is followed by three short introductory sections on Jacobus de Voragine’s historical context, his “Prologue” to the Legend, and the role of the saints in medieval theology and religious practice. These three sections set a solid groundwork for Le Goff’s provocative thesis while also providing a lucid introduction, which will be accessible to readers who lack familiarity with medieval hagiography. The following chapters treat selected saints and feast days in the order of the temporale, or liturgical calendar, which is to say in the same order followed by Jacobus.

Le Goff contends throughout the book that while each saint or holy day is given a specific narrative, often with its own attending themes, the collection is united by its overarching thematic reflection on time itself. Jacobus discovers what Le Goff demonstrates to be imaginative and often complex ruminations on the complexity of time. Each separate saint or holy day becomes an opportunity for a further reflection on the nature of time. The significance of any one event is measured against its temporal relation to other events. Le Goff’s method here, or I should say what Le Goff understands as Jacobus’ method, is influenced by typological study, but not bound to simple Old Testament “type”/New Testament “fulfillment” figurative relationships. Rather he seeks to show that Jacobus is attuned to time in manifold representation, and is committed to a vision that sees all of church history in one way or another recalling and reenacting the story of human reconciliation to God through Christ’s incarnation and passion. As he states, “Voragine emphasizes anything that might enhance the importance of the period from Christ’s incarnation to his passion for the unfolding of time” (109).

The section devoted to Saint Sylvester offers a good illustration of Le Goff’s interpretive method. Bishop of Rome in 313, the year of Constantine’s conversion, Pope Sylvester is probably most widely known in connection to the so-called Donation of Constantine. This document, later shown to be an eighth-century forgery, ostensibly gave Sylvester and all subsequent popes claim to the Papal States. Jacobus, however, as Le Goff points out, seems just as interested, if not more so, in telling of Sylvester’s contribution to the church calendar and of his teachings on Christianity’s revision of Jewish theology. Jacobus gives special attention to reports that Saint Sylvester established the week as a significant unit of time and advocated for the special sanctity of Thursdays in addition to Sundays in the face of strict opposition from the Eastern Church. He also summarizes a series of sermons in which Sylvester argues that the Christian understanding of God in three persons supersedes the Jewish understanding of God and that the true meaning of both circumcision and baptism are made manifest in the life of Christ. Le Goff suggests that Jacobus devotes a longer than average section in the Legend to Sylvester because his place as the first pope after Constantine allows, historically, for a sustained reflection on Christianity’s progression away from both Judaism and paganism. This reflection is necessarily eschatological in nature as Jacobus emphasizes Christianity’s emergence out of Judaism and classical paganism “to advance further … along the road to truth” (67). “The long chapter on Saint Sylvester” Le Goff concludes, “is thus an occasion for Jacobus de Voragine to propose something like a summary of a Christian theology that brings to humanity a time of liberation” (67).

Le Goff is certainly selective in his examples, and chooses to focus on those sections that reference church history and liturgical time most explicitly, in other words, those sections which most clearly justify his thesis. But his selections are numerous (he deals specifically with nearly one-third of the vignettes in Jacobus’ compendium) and they are taken from throughout the massive work. Further, his thesis is undergirded by careful attention to the overarching structure of the work. Le Goff’s new reading also aligns nicely with what we have come to see as the encyclopedic and totalizing impulse of the twelfth- and thirteenth-century European imagination.

By inviting us to view the Legend as a summa on time, Le Goff allows us to see beyond both the frustrations with historical inaccuracies and those with the rhetorical and artistic limitations of the individual legends that have so unnerved many modern critics. “For, although the basic function of saints may be to work miracles by the will of God and to stand as examples of Christian virtue,” Le Goff explains, “their principle role in the Golden Legend was . . . the enchanting of human time by their marvelous lives” (158). While this study may not gain as wide a readership as some of his earlier volumes like The Birth of Purgatory, which has become a classic in twentieth-century medieval studies, In Search of Sacred Time should rest secure in Le Goff’s invaluable legacy of cogent and paradigm-shifting scholarship on the medieval imagination.

Cite this article
Karen D. Youmans, “In Search of Sacred Time: Jacobus de Voragine and The Golden Legend”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 45:1 , 96-98


  1. Geneviève Brunel-Lobrichon, “Légende dorée,” Dictionnaire des lettres françaises, Le Moyen Age (Paris: Fayard, 1964), 924-925.
  2. Sherry L. Reames, The Legenda aurea: A Reexamination of Its Paradoxical History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

Karen D. Youmans

Oklahoma City University
Karen D. Youmans is Honors Program Director and Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma City University.