A short note on Hagiography: Its Definition and Examples

A hagiography is the writing or study of the lives of the saints. Also known as hagiology; it is, as a rule, the specialized study of saints, often inspired by veneration.

There are two main groups of such works: the literary and the liturgical.

1. Notable examples of the literary are: Eusebius of Caesarea’s record of the martyrs of Palestine (4th c.); Theodoret’s account of the monks of Syria (5th c.); Gregory the Great’s of the monks of Italy (6th c.); the Byzantine Menology (12th c.) – the menology being a sort of calendar of the Greek Church which incorporates biographies of the saints; the Chronicle of Nestor (c. 1113), written by a priest of that name and known as the primary Russian Chronicle; the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (13th c.).

2. Liturgical sources are documents, very often calendars, which record information about devotion paid to saints. These were local as well as universal calendars; also known as martyrologies. Well-known examples were compiled by Hieronymian (6th c.), Bede (8th c.), Adon, and Usuard (9th c.). There was also the Roman Martyrology of the late 16th c.

To these instances, one should add the Acta Sanctorum, a series of lives of the saints arranged in order of their feasts in the ecclesiastical year. This was begun by the Bollandists, a body of Belgian Jesuits (named after John Bolland, a Flemish Jesuit), in the 17th c. The first volume appeared in 1643, and the last of the original series in 1786. There is also the Acta Sanctorum Ordinis Sancti Benedicti, a history of the saints of the Benedictine Order, published between 1668 and 1701.

A curiosity in this genre in English literature is John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (popularly known as The Book of Martyrs), first published in Latin in 1559 and in English in 1563. This vast work (about twice the length of Edward Gibbon‘s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) was a history of the Christian Church but contains detailed accounts of many martyrs, particularly the Protestant martyrs of Queen Mary’s reign.

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