Hagiography is the study of saints.
- Hagiology, by contrast, is the study of saints collectively, without focusing on the life of an individual saint.
Development of hagiography
Hagiography comprised an important literary genre in the early millennia of the Christian church, providing informational history as well as inspirational stories and legends. A hagiographic account of an individual saint can comprise a vita.
The genre of lives of the saints first came into being in the Roman Empire as legends about Christian martyrs and were called martyrologies. In the 4th century, there were 3 main types of catalogs of lives of the saints:
- annual calendar catalog, or menaion (in Greek, "menaios" means "month") (biographies of the saints to be read at sermons);
- synaxarion, or a short version of lives of the saints, arranged by dates;
- paterikon (in Greek, "pater" means "father"), or biography of the specific saints, chosen by the catalog compiler.
In Western Europe hagiography was one of the more important areas in the study of history during the Middle Ages. The Golden Legend of Jacob de Voragine compiled a great deal of mediæval hagiographic material, with a strong emphasis on miracle tales.
The Bollandist tradition continues the study, academic assembly, appraisal and publication of materials relating to the lives of Christian saints. (See Acta Sanctorum.)
Hagiography of the medieval period in England
With the introduction of Latin literature into England in the 7th and 8th centuries the genre of the life of the saint grew increasingly popular. It is not surprising that such a genre would become popular in England. When one contrasts it to the popular heroic poem, such as “Beowulf,” one finds that they share certain common features. In “Beowulf,” the titular character battles against Grendel and his mother, while the saint, such as Athanasius’ Antony (one of the original sources for the hagiographic motif) or the character of Guthlac, battle against figures no less substantial in a spiritual sense. Both genres then, focus on the hero-warrior figure, but with the distinction that the saint is of a spiritual sort.
In Anglo-Saxon and medieval England, Hagiography became a literary genre par excellence for the teaching of a largely illiterate audience. Hagiography provided priests and theologians with the classical handbooks in a form that allowed them the rhetorical tools necessary to defend the truth of their scriptures.
Of all the English hagiographers no one was more prolific nor so aware of the importance of the genre as Ælfric the abbot of Eyneshem. His text The Lives of the Saints (MS Cotton Julius E.7) comprises a set of sermons on saint’s days, formerly observed by the English Church. The text is made up of two prefaces, one in Latin and one in Old English, and 39 lives beginning on December 25 with the nativity of Christ and ending with three texts to which no saint’s days are attached. The text spans the entire year and describes the lives of many saints, both English and continental, and harkens back to some of the earliest saints of the early church.
Imitation of the life of Christ then was the benchmark against which Saints were measured, and imitation of the lives of Saints was the benchmark against which the general popluation measured itself.
Hagiography in Eastern Orthodoxy
In the 10th century, a Byzantine monk Simeon Metaphrastes was the first one to change the genre of lives of the saints into something different, giving it a moralizing and panegyrical character. His catalog of lives of the saints became the standard for all of the Western and Eastern hagiographers, who would create relative biographies and images of the ideal saints by gradually departing from the real facts of their lives. Over the years, the genre of lives of the saints had absorbed a number of narrative plots and poetic images (often, of pre-Christian origin, such as dragon fighting etc.), mediaeval parables, short stories and anecdotes.
The genre of lives of the saints was brought to Russia by the South Slavs together with writing and also in translations from the Greek language. In the 11th century, the Russians began to compile the original life stories of the first Russian "saints", e.g. Boris and Gleb, Theodosius Pechersky etc. In the 16th century, Metropolitan Macarius expanded the list of the Russian "saints" and supervised the compiling process of their life stories. They would all be compiled in the so called Velikiye chet’yi-minei catalog (Великие Четьи-Минеи, or Grand monthly readings), consisting of 12 volumes in accordance with each month of the year.
The genre of lives of the saints was often used as an ecclesiastic and political propaganda. Today, the works in this genre represent a valuable historical source and reflection of different social ideas, world outlook and aesthetic concepts of the past.
Critics of modern biographies who detect uncritically reverential stances on the part of a biographer may damn such work as a "hagiography" by extension.
- Societé des Bollandistes (http://www.kbr.be/~socboll/)