South English Legendary, The

South English Legendary, The
(Early South English Legendary)
(ca. 13th–15th centuries)
   A collection of SAINTS’ LIVES in MIDDLE ENGLISH verse (mainly seven-syllable couplets), The South English Legendary was a very popular text, surviving in 63 manuscripts, no two of which are identical. The number of legends included varies from manuscript to manuscript, from 55 to 135 in those that are more or less complete. The earliest known manuscript (Oxford Bodleian Library ms. Laud Misc. 108)—which is clearly not the original— is dated about 1270, while the latest was compiled around 1500. The original version was probably produced in southwest England in the mid-13th century, and ultimately was copied throughout the South and the Midlands. At one time the work was attributed to the monk ROBERT OF GLOUCESTER, but that attribution is no longer accepted. Its original author, audience, and purpose are unknown.
   The textual history of The South English Legendary is incredibly complex. Copied by scribes throughout England for a variety of audiences, each manuscript received some revision or alteration, whether in the form of the addition of a favorite local saint, the alteration of vocabulary because of differences in dialect, the revision of the order in which the lives are presented, or the wholesale reworking of some of the lives: Some lives (like that of St. Agnes) survive in two versions that merely differ in length; others (Saint Benedict, for example) exist in two radically different versions because of completely different sources.
   Most of the lives included in the South English Legendary probably have their sources in Latin originals (it is possible that the GOLDEN LEGEND, compiled about 1260, was an inspiration for the South English Legendary), though most were probably known to their audiences through long oral and written traditions. Saints’ lives in general tend to contain certain generic formulas, whatever the details of the original legend, so that many of the legends in this collection have similar features. For example, because the ideal of physical virginity had become synonymous in Christian theology with spiritual purity, nearly all of the female saints included in the collection are depicted as virgin martyrs who reject the material world, most often marriage in particular, as representing the lusts of the flesh. Virginity is less of an emphasis for male saints, but there are formulaic aspects to their lives as well: The martyrs are all persecuted by zealously anti-Christian emperors or their surrogates, and all are tortured in a dramatic manner. Later male saints are all admired for miraculous events that surround their lives as a result of their holiness.
   Still, there is some interesting variety in the text. The collection includes lives of New Testament figures (such as Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist), of early Christian martyrs (St. Agnes and St. Cecilia), of important church figures (St. Francis and St. Gregory), of Irish saints (St. Patrick and St. Brendan), and of popular English saints (like Thomas Beckett and Saint Frideswide). It also includes a variety of other miscellaneous material, such as information about feast days and Old Testament history, as well as a detailed account of medieval cosmogony. Two different prologues, one longer than the other, survive in the extant manuscripts. Both declare that the Legendary is made up of the lives of holy men and women, and that the lives should be read on the feast days appropriate for the individual saints. Thus the chief concern of the compilers of the manuscripts was to collect lives for use chronologically throughout the church year—in some manuscripts the lives are arranged according to the calendar year, from January through December, in some according to the Liturgical Year, beginning with Advent in November. Certainly this desire of a text for festival days contributed to the widespread textual tradition of the South English Legendary. But the popularity of the text in its own time undoubtedly owes something as well to its colloquial use of language and its often humorous or even satirical narrative voice.What could be a rather tedious didactic exercise often becomes, in the Legendary, fascinating and entertaining reading.
   ■ Boyd, Beverly. “A New Approach to the South English Legendary,” Philological Quarterly 47 (1968): 494–498.
   ■ Görlach, Manfred. The Textual Tradition of the South English Legendary. Leeds Texts and Monographs, New Series 6. Leeds: University of Leeds, 1974.
   ■ Klaus, Jankofsky, ed. The South English Legendary: A Critical Assessment. Tübingen, Germany: Francke, 1992.
   ■ The South English Legendary. Edited from Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 145 and British Museum MS Harley 2277. Edited by Charlotte d’Evelyn and Anna J.Mill. 3 Vols. EETS, 235, 235, and 244. London: Oxford University Press, 1956.
   ■ Thompson, Anne B. “Narrative Art in the South English Legendary,” JEGP 90 (1991): 20–30.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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