University of Glasgow


Part of the Library and University Services

Please note that these pages are from our old (pre-2010) website; the presentation of these pages may now appear outdated and may not always comply with current accessibility guidelines.


Book of the Month

January 2007

William Caxton

The Golden Legend

  Westminster: c.1483-1484 
Sp Coll Hunterian Bg.1.1

For the first book of 2007 we feature a fifteenth century copy of The Golden Legend, a medieval compendium of the lives of the saints. It is a massive folio volume, produced and translated by William Caxton, England's first printer. It is one of ten Caxton books from the library of William Hunter (1718-83) now in Glasgow University Library's Special Collections Department.

Opening page: detail of illustration of the Saints in Glory

William Caxton (1422?-1491) was a successful merchant who learned the new art of printing in Cologne. After publishing several books on the Continent, in 1476 he set up the first printing shop in England at the sign of the Red Pale in Westminster. Over a twenty year period he produced some 100 works, many of them translations into English.

The Golden Legend is one of the largest books Caxton ever printed, a folio volume of just under 900 pages produced on extra large "royal" paper. Described by Blades as his magnum opus - a 'tremendous undertaking' - it was expensive and difficult to produce such a large scale work. Indeed, at one point, he nearly abandoned the project in despair. However, according to the work's preface, he was encouraged to go on by the Earl of Arundel who promised to take a reasonable quantity of copies when completed, and to pay him an annuity of a buck in summer and a doe in winter as some recompense for the effort. William FitzAlan, ninth Earl of Arundel (1417-87) was a Yorkist magnate; he was Master of Game south of the Trent, so well placed to make this offer.

The book is lavishly illustrated with woodcuts. The picture of the Saints in Glory, shown here to the right, is the largest block that Caxton ever used. The book also contains nineteen folio-width woodcuts, and fifty-one column-width illustrations of Old Testament scenes and saints. Although some of the more generic illustrations are repeated, the creation of such a large number of wood blocks undoubtedly contributed to the overall expense of the work's production. According to Hodnett, the whole series is the work of two artists. Usually disparaging about the woodcutters employed by Caxton, Hodnett concedes that the overall design of The Golden Legend is actually successful, grudgingly stating that by broad standards the work is 'not a failure as an illustrated book'.

Opening page: with illustration of the Saints in Glory

Of course, as well as resulting in an attractive work, the illustrations were meant to play a practical part in helping early readers navigate through a large and unwieldy text, providing a means by which the stories of the saints could be identified easily and quickly, by the use of a standard iconography that makes each saint instantly recognisable.

As well as the standard illustrations of the saints and their attributes, there are also many active narrative scenes - such as this depiction of the birth of Our Lady. As well as having a dramatic impact, these are valuable for the details of medieval domestic interiors.

Folio 284r: detail showing the nativity of Our Lady

Folio 345r: detail showing the history of Halloween (leaf S6 in the [b] setting, with headline using type 5)

This book used to be described as having been produced in two editions, but bibliographers now agree that in fact two variants exist of the same edition, printed concurrently some time in 1483-1484. Paul Needham describes these variant settings as [A] and [B] copies: while quires a-t and A-E exist in a common setting found in both versions of the work, the remaining quires differ in the use of Caxton's type 3 in the headlines of variant [A], and the smaller type 5 in the headlines of variant [B]. Our copy is found in setting [B]. It is not known why Caxton had cause to reprint some 256 leaves, although Duff reasonably speculates that perhaps a large part of the stock of the original issue ([A]) was somehow destroyed.
In common with many of the works that Caxton chose to print, The Golden Legend was a medieval bestseller. It is a collection of saints' lives, arranged according to the liturgical year. The original work (usually referred to as the Legenda Aurea) was compiled in Latin between 1250 and 1280 by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa.

Folio 258r: close up detail of an angel from the illustration of the assumption of Our Lady

Voragine's work was a compendium: he drew upon many existing works, aiming to provide in a convenient form the best information known about the lives and miracles of the saints. Perhaps originally intended to be a manual for preachers, it became popular as a book for private devotion and reading.

Folio 258r: detail showing the assumption of Our Lady

Folio 336r: the passion of eleven thousand virgins

In the fourteenth century at least two independent translations into French were made, including a fairly literal one by Jean de Vignay. In about 1438 an English translation (known as the Gilte Legende) was made by a 'synfulle wrecche'. 

One of the most popular non-liturgical works of the late Middle Ages, over 1000 manuscript copies of the Legenda Aurea survive. It was also one of the first books to be printed (in c. 1469) and was subsequently reprinted many times throughout the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Said to be the most widely read book after the Bible in the Middle Ages, its proliferation fostered a number of imitations.

In the prologue to his version, Caxton alludes to the 'long tyme' it took him to translate such a massive work. By far the longest of his translations, Painter estimates that it contains over 600,000 words. The task took him at least 15 months - although it was finished by November 1483, it is mentioned in his book the Polychronicon in July 1482. As in several of his other books, Caxton personalises his text by dropping in occasional autobiographical asides. We learn, for example, that he has seen the foreskin apparently cut from the baby Jesus in the Church of Our Lady at Antwerp where on Trinity Sunday it is displayed with 'great reverence'. Meanwhile, he claims to have learned the story of Saint Ursula's 11,000 maidens from a 'noble doctor' in Cologne .

Caxton's translation was based on three versions of the book: the original Latin, de Vignay's French, and the English Gilte Legende. He combined and adapted these, with many additions from other sources. His use of these texts is freely admitted and defended in the prologue: 'Against me here might some persons say that this legend hath been translated tofore, and truth it is; but forasmuch as I had by me a legend in French, another in Latin, and the third in English, which varied in many and divers places; and also many histories were comprised in the two other books which were not in the English book; therefore I have written one out of the said three books.'

In reworking the text, Caxton omitted some of the saints found in Voragine's original, but also added many extra stories (many of them English or Irish) from manuscript sources. His version is unique in its sequence of Old Testament lives from Adam to Judith; in fact, as Butler points out, this section of his text is little more than a disguised version of the Bible - circumventing the laws that prevented the publication of the Bible in English at this time. It is interesting to consider that Caxton's work could well have been used for readings in Churches, making scripture more intelligable to ordinary people.

Folio 80r: detail showing Judith and Holofernes

The colophon at the end of the work states that the book was finished on 20 November 1483, the first year of the reign of King Richard the Third. There has been some dispute as to whether this date refers to the completion of the translation, or to the completion of the printing. However, most bibliographies now concur that this must be the date of translation: BMC XI suggests that printing may well have commenced before the translation was finished, and that the actual printing may have been ongoing until March 1484. None of the types employed were used after 1484 in any of Caxton's other books.

Folio 80r: detail of hand painted initial 'A'

Like many fifteenth century printed books, the work has been 'finished off' by hand, with initial letters being supplied in manuscript throughout the text. By the 1480s, most of Caxton's books were actually using printed initials rather than rubrication by hand. Painter suggests that either Caxton or his patron, Arundel, felt that the assignment to produce a book 'in the most best wise' required the extra effort of such manual colouration.

Folio 444v: detail showing colophon

Folio 74v: detail showing Job

Folio 44v: detail showing Moses and Christ

Folio 304v: detail showing Saint Michael

A boil ridden Job is pursued by Satan, and Moses receives the tablet bearing the Holy Commandments above. Renaissance artists often portrayed Moses with two horns, as here. This is a result of a mistranslation from Hebrew into the Latin - the original Hebrew actually refers to Moses' face as shining with light rather than being horned. Saint Michael is shown at far right in his great victory of slaying a dragon. Although some of the legends and miracle stories related may now seem to us outlandish, in the original work Voragine actually took great trouble to sift through the traditional tales and to weed out some of the more preposterous elements. Their inclusion can actually help us to understand the medieval mindset. As Ryan says in the preface to his translation into modern English of Voragine's text, the Legenda Aurea is useful today for study in the fields of myth and legend, hagiography and folkore, medieval history, literature, art and religion; quoting Emile Mle, he states: 'The Golden Legend remains one of the most interesting books of its time for those who seek in medieval literature for the spirit of the age to which it belonged'.

Folio 348v: detail showing Saint Barbara

Saint Barbara is shown to the left with her 'attribute' of a tower. The beautiful Barbara was locked in a tower by her pagan father Dioscurus to keep her away from suitors. She secretly became a Christian and was eventually beheaded by her father after being painfully tortured. Dioscurus was struck dead by lightning in divine retribution, however. Barbara was one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. Her name was invoked against lightning and fire, and, by association, she became the patron of artillery and mining. Her feast day was celebrated on 4 December until the 1969 reform of the Roman Catholic liturgy when her name was taken out of the litany of saints.

To the right is shown the illustration for the feast of the invention (or founding) of the Holy Cross, now referred to as the Triumph of the Cross. According to the legend, the cross was 'rediscovered' over two hundred years after the Resurrection of Our Lord by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. All three crosses were found buried; that of Jesus' was identified from the three after it was held over the body of a dead man and its power brought him back to life.

Folio 167r: detail showing the invention of the Holy Cross

Folio 227v: detail showing marginal manuscript annotations

As well as being interesting for its text and illustrations, like most books of this age, our copy of The Golden Legend bears traces of its own private history, witnessing the fact that it has been read and re-read frequently over the past five hundred years. Although we do not know who originally owned it, there are many signs of different readers' use, with annotations in the margins and markings to the text throughout.
One of the most dramatic reader interventions occurs at the chapter on the life of Thomas Becket. Both the woodcut and its accompanying text have been censored by being heavily scored out. A later chapter on his translation (where the same illustration is repeated) receives the same treament.

By the Fifteenth Century the shrine of Becket at Canterbury had become one of the most popular and frequently visited pilgrimage sites in England. During the reformation, however, this cult was seen by Henry VIII to be both a religious and political danger to his authority; according to Scully, Henry believed that the worship of Becket challenged the idea of royal supremacy - a triumph of the church over the king.

Folio 105r: detail showing martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket

Folio 105r: detail of Saint Thomas Becket

A proclamation issued on 16 November 1538 against 'contentious and sinister opinions ... by wrong teaching and naughty printed books' directly attacked Becket. His feast was therefore removed from the calendar, his sainthood revoked, and his shrine and images of him destroyed.

Following the Reformation, many Catholic books were either destroyed or defaced - some of them selectively, as in this case, to remove material now deemed to be objectionable. In many surviving copies of The Golden Legend, the contentious pages relating to Becket have been ripped out altogether.

Folio 105r: the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Beckett


Another interesting feature of our copy is the fact that it is actually an amalgamation of (at least) two copies. Leaves at both the beginning (ai-aiv; avii-viii; bi; bviii; ci-ii) and the end (kki; kkiv; kkv-vi) of the book have been supplied from a shorter copy than that of the main body of the volume. The leaves of this shorter copy are frequently marked in the margins with a distinctive flower motif, a device often employed by early readers to flag up memorable sections of text. There are also numerous underlinings in the text, indicating that this copy of the work was closely read at some point. Another difference between the two copies can be found in the initials supplied in manuscript: those in the shorter copy use an ink with a purple hue, while those in the longer copy are a more vibrant red colour.



Folio 18v: The Resurrection

There are several names written in the book at various points. Those that are decipherable include 'G. Garton' on the opening page (the longer copy) and John Finch on the final page (the shorter copy). This last page is extensively annotated below the colophon: the imprint 'By me Wylyam Caxton' has been copied out in a variety of scripts, with a biographical note on Caxton crammed in to the right; Finch's ownership inscription is below, dated 1697. Although this John Finch has not been traced, it is likely from the inscription that he would be a relative of one of the Earls of Winchilsea, possibly Sir Heneage Finch (1621-1682) or his son Daniel Finch (1647-1730) - who had at least fifteen children survive into adulthood.

We know that William Hunter bought this book for 12. 5s. in 1773 at the sale of James West's extensive library. James West (1703-1772) was a politician and antiquary who, according to Dibdin, reputedly revived the 'love of black-letter lore and of Caxtonian typography'. Hunter was himself an avid collector of incunabula. Indeed, he acquired over 500 books printed in the Fifteenth Century, including ten examples from the press of William Caxton. His library of some 10,000 books and 600 manuscripts was bequeathed to the University of Glasgow, along with his other collections and money to house them. The collections arrived in 1807 and were housed in the purpose built Hunterian Museum.

The Hunterian, Scotland's oldest public museum, celebrates its bicentenary this year and will be reopening in Spring with new exhibitions dedicated to Hunter. A regularly changing small selection of books from Hunter' library will be displayed along side other artefacts from his collections. In the meantime, this volume will be on display in the showcase in the Special Collections foyer on level 12 of the library from January to March 2007.

Folio 444v: detail showing manuscript annotations below colophon


Cordyale, or Four last thinges 24 March 1479: Hunterian Bv. 2. 21
The Chronicles of England 10 June 1480: Hunterian Bv. 2. 31
Godefroy of Boloyne, or the siege and conqueste of Jherusaslem, or Eracles 20 November 1481: Hunterian Bv. 2. 29
Polycronycon after 2 July 1482: Hunterian Bv. 2. 9
The book callid Cathon after 23 December 1483: Hunterian Bv. 2. 16
The lyf of our Lady  1484: Hunterian Bv. 2. 20
The bok yf Eneydos
 after 22 June 1490: Hunterian Bv. 2. 10 

See also the virtual web exhibition on Printing in England and the February 2003 book of the month article on a fifteenth century manuscript version of the Legenda Aurea.

Pierce Butler Legenda aurea - Legende doree - Golden legend: a study of Caxton's Golden legend with special reference to its relations to the earlier English prose translation Baltimore: Murphy, 1899 Level 9 Main Lib Gen Lit A120 BRU

W. P. Courtney 'West, James (1703-1772)', rev. Patrick Woodland Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 20 Dec 2006]

Martha W. Driver The image in print: book illustration in late medieval England and its sources London: British Library, 2004  Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B51:1 2004-D

E. Gordon Duff William Caxton Chicago: The Caxton Club, 1905 Sp Coll RF 327

Ed. Lotte Hellinga Catalogue of books printed in the Xvth Century now in the British Library: BMC Part XI England 2006 [on order]

Edward Hodnett English woodcuts, 1480-1535 Oxford: 1973 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B79:1 1935-H2

Paul Needham The printer & the pardoner: an unrecorded indulgence printed by William Caxton for the Hospital of St. Mary Rounceval, Charing Cross Washington: 1986 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog B51:1 1986-N (see entry for Cx67)

Seymour de Ricci A census of Caxtons [Oxford]: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Oxford University Press, 1909 Level 11 Main Lib Bibliog D72:10 1909-D

Robert E. Scully 'The unmaking of a saint: Thomas Becket and the English reformation' The Catholic Historical Review 86:4 (Oct 2000):pp.576-602  Main Lib Theology Pers CA 500

Jacobus de Voragine; translated by William Granger Ryan The golden legend: readings on the saints Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993 Level 10 Main Lib Theology MB120 JAC5

Article on Saint Barbara from Wikipedia Accessed 20 Dec2006


Return to main Special Collections Exhibition Page
Go to Book of the Month Archive

Julie Gardham January 2007
With thanks to Samantha Sherry for initial research and images