A hagiography is a written account of a saint’s life. The name comes from the ancient Greek words hagios, meaning holy, and graphia, meaning writing. Saints can be viewed as the medieval equivalent of superheroes. Their biographies often drew from real life with the addition of fantastical elements. Although they may not be accurate retellings of a person’s life, they are a valuable source for discovering more details about the period. For instance, saints' lives can tell us about the medieval household, the understood role of women, family dynamics, and the poor; this information is usually left out of other sources but is prominent in hagiographies.
One of the most popular hagiographies in the Middle Ages was the Golden Legend (Legenda aurea) written by the archbishop of Genoa, Jacobus de Voragine (1228/30-1298). Intended as a quick reference for the clergy, the Golden Legend is actually not one saint’s life but a collection of saints’ lives and liturgical and doctrinal instruction. The term “legend” here does not mean folklore or fairy tale, but instead a text that is meant to be read out loud. The connotations we have of the term legend, however, did become associated with Jacobus’s Legend after the Reformation when humanists deplored Jacobus’s work as idolatry. Prior to the Reformation, the Legend was immensely popular. Over 1,000 manuscripts of the Latin version survive today and there are another 500 extant manuscripts of translations into the European vernaculars. Jacobus broke the text down into the main divisions of the liturgical year. Chapters 1-5 cover Advent to Christmas, Chapters 6-30 cover Christmas to Septuagesima- the Sunday 70 days before Easter, Chapters 31-53 deal with the period between Septuagesima and Easter, Chapters 54-76 encompass Easter to the Pentecost, and finally Chapters 77-180 handle the Octave of Pentecost all the way back to Advent. Jacobus cited the Patristic authors in his writing, but also emphasized the miraculous and the inhuman aspects of the stories. This last point is what made the Legend so popular in the Middle Ages and also what caused its downfall after the Reformation. The Legend is a good reference for the lives of the saints, issues of importance to Jacobus and the Church in the thirteenth century, and as a handbook of doctrine, particularly on the medieval church’s understanding of salvation.
These are other examples of hagiographies from the collection. Martyrologium contain information regarding the lives of martyrs and other saints.
 Eamon Duffy, “Introduction to the 2012 Edition,” in The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, by Jacobus de Voragine, translated by William Granger Ryan, xi-xx (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993); “Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa,” Encyclopedia Britannica, last updated December 30, 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacobus-de-Voragine.
Head, Thomas. Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Palmer, James T. Early Medieval Hagiography. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press, 2018.