The South English Legendary is a Middle English (13th to 14th century) hagiographic work, best preserved in MS Harley 2277 and CCCC 145, which contain 92 narrative lives, extremely varied in length, usually including one of two prologues and often including a life of Christ and/or temporal items. The collection also includes lives of “anti-saints” Judas and Pilate.
It is written in verse with a line of fourteen syllables and seven stresses but with much irregularity and deviation, the same metre as the Chronicle attributed to Robert of Gloucester, with certain lives appearing in both, suggesting complex forms of textual entanglement. The South English Legendary grew as it was copied, and later manuscripts often add in new saints’ lives.
Over sixty manuscripts containing all or part of the South English Legendary survive. Dialect and affiliations are the main evidence for the origin of a given manuscript, because for many of these manuscripts the provenance is lacking.
The Bodleian Library houses the oldest manuscript (MS Laud Misc. 108), which is estimated to have been written in 1265, although Horstmann dated it to 1280-90. It is likely that the manuscript elements were being worked on for many years in advance of its compilation.
The major manuscripts containing versions of the Legendary are:
Manfred Görlach concluded that the initial collection of saints’ lives comprising the South English Legendary was created c. 1270-85. This has largely been supported by subsequent scholarship.
Dialectal evidence suggests that the text was composed initially in the South-West or West Midlands of England.
Who first compiled the Legendary is made difficult by two characteristics of the text. The first is its popular style, emphasizing narrative over theological concerns. The second is its wide distribution, which does not correspond clearly to any particular clerical order. Görlach provides a succinct and accurate summary of the theories put forward before his own assessment in 1974. In 1887, Horstmann first suggested the larger Benedictine house in Gloucester as the origin of the Legendary. J. E. Wells in his 1916 Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1400, which was influenced by Horstmann, also suggested Benedictine monks. G.H. Gerould, in his 1916 Saints’ Legends, agreed with the theory that Benedictine monks created the Legendary. In 1927, B. D. Brown in the EETS Southern Passion (EETS 169) argued instead that friars created the text. M. E junior football socks. Wells, in two articles, agreed with Brown as did Hinnebusch in 1951. In 1960, Kasmann allowed the possibility of a Cistercian origin for the Legendary water in glass. T. Wolpers, in his Heiligen legende in 1964, allowed the possibility of either Benedictines or Cistercians, but found the evidence strongest for a mendicant origin lemon lime press, presumably intended for preaching to a lay audience. L. Braswell in 1971, while acknowledging the possibility of either Benedictine monks or Cistercians, also suggested that the Legendary may have originated among secular clergy, but more probably Augustinian canons. Finally, Görlach makes a tentative argument in favour of a smaller ‘core’ Legendary compiled for a Benedictine house of either monks or nuns and acquiring layers of influence as it spread first to other religious houses and from there to a lay audience.
There is general agreement that the Legendary was adapted from multiple sources, though there are large sections of original material as well as material with no known source. Original material often appears in the forms of asides to the audience and expanded dialogue.
Manfred Görlach has argued that the probable main sources of the Legendary are a legenda close to the Sarum Use (while there are notable similarities, there is no surviving legenda matching closely enough to have been the actual text used); a copy of a Summa, such as Belet’s, used as a source for the facts in the entries for the movable feasts; general knowledge of the Bible; and some texts of native saints. The Legenda Aurea was also used as a source for the Legendary, but Görlach dates the earliest version of the Legendary earlier than the arrival of the Legenda Aurea in England and argues that, while it was then used as a source for the Legendary, it had less influence than was previously assumed. Görlach has pointed out in support of his argument that the Legendary’s longer narratives are written as one continuous life, and not in sections as in the Legenda Aurea. He has also pointed out that the stated beginning of the collection, in either of its prologues, is 1 January, not 29 November as in the Legenda Aurea.