Reference > Rev. Alban Butler > Lives of the Saints > An Introductory Discourse
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73).  Volume I: January.
The Lives of the Saints.  1866.
An Introductory Discourse
THE LIVES of the principal martyrs, fathers, and other more illustrious saints, whose memory is revered in the Catholic church, are here presented to the public. An undertaking of this kind seems not to stand in need of an apology. For such are the advantages and so great the charms of history, that, on every subject, and whatever dress it wears, it always pleases and finds readers. So instructive is it, that it is styled by Cicero, “The mistress of life,” 1 and is called by others, “Moral philosophy exemplified in the lives and actions of mankind.” 2 But of all the parts of history, biography, which describes the lives of great men, seems the most entertaining and the most instructive and improving. By a judicious choice and detail of their particular actions, it sets before our eyes a living image of those heroes who have been the object of the admiration of past ages; it exhibits to us a portraiture of their interior virtues and spirit, and gives the most useful and enlarged view of human nature. From the wise maxims, experience, and even mistakes of great men, we learn the most refined lessons of prudence, and are furnished with models for our imitation. Neither is the narration here interrupted, nor the attention of the reader hurried from one object to another, as frequently happens in general history. On these and other accounts are the lives of eminent personages the most agreeable and valuable part of history. But in the lives of the saints, other great advantages occur. Here are incidentally related the triumphs of the church, the trophies of the most exalted virtue, and the conversion of nations. What are profane histories better than records of scandals? What are the boasted triumphs of an Alexander or a Cæsar, but a series of successful plunders, murders, and other crimes? It was the remark of the historian Socrates, that if princes were all lovers of peace and fathers of their people, and if the lives of men were an uniform and steady practice of piety, civil history would be almost reduced to empty dates. This reflection extorted from the pen of a famous wit of our age, in his history of the empire of the West since Charlemagne, the following confession: “This history is scarcely any more than a vast scene of weaknesses, faults, crimes, and misfortunes; among which we find some virtues, and some successful exploits, as fertile valleys are often seen among chains of rocks and precipices. This is likewise the case with other histories.” 3 But the lives of the saints are the history of the most exemplary and perfect virtue and prowess. Whilst therefore, all other branches of history employ daily so many pens, shall this which above all others deserve our attention, be alone forgotten? Whilst every part of the soil is daily raked up, shall the finest spot be left uncultivated? Our antiquaries must think themselves obliged by this essay, as the greater part of these saints have been the objects of the veneration of the whole Christian world during several ages. Their names stand recorded in the titles of our churches, in our towns, estates, writings, and almost every other monument of our Christian ancestors. If the late learned bishop Tanner, by his Notitia Monastica, deserved the thanks of all lovers of antiquity, will they not receive favourably the history of those eminent persons of whom we meet so frequent memorials?  1
  Besides the principal saint for each day, in this collection is added a short account of some others who were very remarkable in history, or famous among our ancestors. The English and Scottish churches had, by the mutual intercourse and neighbourhood of nations, a particular devotion to several French saints, as appears from all their ancient breviaries, from a complete English manuscript calendar, written in the reign of Edward IV. now in my hands, and from the titular saints of many monasteries and parishes. Our Norman kings and bishops honoured several saints of Aquitain and Normandy by pious foundations which bear their names among us: and portions of the relics of some French saints, as of St. Salvius, kept in the cathedral of Canterbury, have rendered their names illustrious in this kingdom. The mention of such, were it but for the satisfaction of our antiquaries, &c. will, it is hoped, be pardoned. Though the limits of this work would not allow long abstracts of these secondary lives, yet some characteristical circumstances are inserted, that these memoirs might not sink into a bare necrology, or barren list of dates and names. For, unless a narration be supported with some degree of dignity and spirit, and diversified by the intermixture of various events, it deserves not the name of history; no more than a plot of ground can be called a garden, which is neither variegated with parterres of flowers, nor checkered with walks and beds of useful herbs or shrubs. To answer the title and design of this work, a short account is given of those fathers whose names are famous in the history of the church, and in the schools; but who have never been honoured among the saints. But such fathers or other eminent persons are spoken of only in notes upon the lives of certain saints, with which they seem to have some connexion. It was the compiler’s intention to insert among the lives of the saints an account of none to whom public veneration has not been decreed by the authority of the Holy See, or at least of some particular churches, before this, on many just accounts, was reserved to the chief pastor of the church. The compiler declares that the epithets of Saint and Blessed are never employed in this work, but with entire submission to the decrees of Urban VIII. on this subject; and that if they are any where given to persons to whom the supreme pastors of the church have never juridically granted this privilege, no more is meant by them, than such persons are esteemed holy and venerable for the reputation of their virtue; not that they are publicly honoured among the saints. The same is to be understood of miracles here related, which have not been judicially examined and approved, the part of an historian differing entirely from an authentic decision of the supreme judge.  2
  The actions of several apostles and other illustrious saints were never committed to writing: and, with regard to some others, the records of their transactions, by falling a prey to the moths or flames, have perished in the general wreck: yet their names could not be omitted. If their history afford little to gratify vain curiosity, at least a heart which seeks and loves God, will find, even in these scanty memoirs, every thing interesting and entertaining. If the names of some saints have been transmitted down to us without particular accounts of their lives, 4 their virtues shine with no less lustre in heaven: and this very circumstance is pleasing and favourable to humility, which studies and loves to lie concealed and unknown; and it was pointed out by the hidden life of Christ. It is also objected, that certain actions of some saints, which were performed by a special instinct of the Holy Ghost, are to us rather objects of admiration than imitation: but even in these we read lessons of perfect virtue, and a reproach of our own sloth, who dare undertake nothing for God. But some may say, What edification can persons in the world reap from the lives of apostles, bishops, or recluses? To this it may be answered, that though the functions of their state differ from ours, yet patience, humility, penance, zeal, and charity, which all their actions breathe, are necessary virtues in all persons. Christian perfection is in its spirit and essence every where the same, how much soever the means or exercises may vary. Though edification be the primary view in works of this nature, the other ends of history are not neglected, as it becomes more entertaining and useful in proportion as it is more clear, complete, and important. This, it is hoped, will excuse certain short digressions which are sometimes inserted, and which the laws of correct writing allow when not too long, frequent, or foreign, when they have a natural connexion with the subject, and when the want of regularity is compensated by greater perspicuity and utility. This liberty is more freely taken in parts which would have otherwise seemed barren. Notes are added, which seemed useful to the bulk of those for whom this work was designed, or likely to attract the curiosity of some to whom these lives would otherwise have seemed obscure, or not sufficiently interesting. This method renders sacred biography a more universal improvement in useful knowledge, and, by enlarging the view, becomes more satisfactory and engaging.  3
  Certain critics of this age, as they style themselves, are displeased with all histories of miracles, not considering that these wonders are, in a particular manner, the works of God, intended to raise our attention to his holy providence, and to awaken our souls to praise his goodness and power; often also to bear testimony to his truth. Entirely to omit the mention of them would be an infidelity in history, and would tend, in some measures, to obstruct the great and holy purposes for which they were effected. Yet a detail of all miracles, though authentically attested, is not the design of this work. Wherefore, in such facts, it seemed often sufficient to refer the reader to the original records. But miracles may be the subject of a particular disquisition.  4
  A tedious sameness in the narration hath been carefully avoided, and in relating general virtues, it is hoped that the manner, diction, and thoughts will be found new. Where memoirs allowed it, such a collection of remarkable actions and sayings of the saints hath been selected as seems neither trifling nor redundant, and may serve to express their character and spirit. In this consists the chief advantage of biography, as in painting, a portraiture draws its life from the strength of the features. By this singular excellency doth Plutarch charm his readers, cover, or at least compensate for, his neglect of style and method, and other essential blemishes, and make even the most elegant writers who have attempted a supplement to his lives, 5 to appear tedious and dull to one who hath first read his work. What eloquence could furnish so fine a description, or convey so strong an idea of the pride of Alexander, as the short answers of that prince to the Cynic philosopher, or to Darius? or of the modesty of Phocion, as the well-chosen circumstances of his disinterestedness and private life? 6  5
  In these lives of the saints pious reflections are sometimes interspersed, though in general sparingly, not to swell the volume, or seem to suspect the judgment of the reader, or to forestall the pleasure of his own reflections. The study and exercise of virtue being the principal end which every good Christian ought to propose to himself in all his actions and undertakings, and which religious persons have particularly in view in reading the lives of saints, in favour of those who are slow in forming suitable reflections in the reading, a short instruction consisting of maxims drawn from the writings or example of each saint, is subjoined to the principal life for each day, which may be omitted at discretion. A succinct account of the writings of the fathers is given in marginal notes, as a key to young theologians in studying their works; their ascetical lucubrations are principally pointed out, in which their spirit is often discovered, even to better advantage than in the best histories which are left us of their actions.  6
  The compiler’s first care in this work hath been a most scrupulous attachment to truth, the foundation or rather the soul of all history, especially of that which tends to the advancement of piety and religion. The indagation is often a task both nice and laborious. If we weigh the merit of original authors, some we shall find careless and injudicious, and many write under the bias of party prejudice, which strangely perverts the judgment. By this, James Basnage could in his History of the Jews, (b. 6.) notoriously mistake and misrepresent, by wholesale, the clearest authorities, to gratify his prepossession against an incontestable miracle, as the most learned Mr. Warburton hath demonstrated in his Julian, (b. 2. ch. 4.) Some write history as they would a tragedy or a romance, and seeking at any rate to please the reader, or display their art, often sacrifice the truth for the sake of a fine conceit, of a glittering thought, or a point of wit. 7 Another difficulty is, that ancient writings have sometimes suffered much by the bold rashness of modern critics, or in the manuscripts, by the slips of careless copiers. 8 Again, authors who polish the style, or abridge the histories of others, are seldom to be trusted; and experience will show us the same of translations. Even Henry Valois, the most learned and celebrated Greek interpreter, is accused of having sometimes so far mistaken the sense of Eusebius, as to have given in his translation the contradictory of the meaning of his author.  7
  A greater mischief than all these have been the forgeries of impostors, especially heretics. Indeed if the father of lies, by the like instruments, found means to counterfeit forty-eight or fifty false gospels, of which a list is given by Calmet, 9 is it surprising that, from the same forge, he should have attempted to adulterate the histories of certain saints? But the vigilance of zealous pastors, and the repeated canons of the church, show, through every age, how much all forgeries and imposture always were the object of their abhorrence. Pope Adrian I. in an epistle to Charlemagne, mentions this constant severe law of the church, and says, that no acts of martyrs are suffered to be read, which are not supported by good vouchers. 10 The council in Trullo, 11 and many others down to the present age, have framed canons for this purpose, as F. Honoratus of St. Mary shows. 12 Pope Gelasius I. in his famous Roman council in 494, condemns the false acts of St. George, which the Arians had forged, 13 &c. Tertullian 14 and St. Jerom 15 inform us that, in the time of the apostles, a certain priest of Asia, out of veneration for St. Paul and St. Thecla, forged false acts of their peregrinations and sufferings; but for this crime he was deposed from the priesthood by St. John the Evangelist. No good end can, on any account, excuse the least lie; and to advance that pious frauds, as some improperly call them, can ever be lawfully used, is no better than blasphemy. All wilful lying is essentially a sin, as Catholic divines unanimously teach, with St. Austin, against the Prisciallianists. It is contrary and most hateful to the God of truth, and a heinous affront and injury offered to our neighbour; it destroys the very end and use of speech, and the sacred bond of society, and all commerce among men; for it would be better to live among dumb persons, than to converse with liars. To tell any lie whatsoever in the least point relating to religion, is always to lie in a matter of moment, and can never be excused from a mortal sin, as Catholic divines teach. 16 Grotius, the Protestant critic, takes notice, that forgeries cannot be charged upon the popes, who, by the most severe canons, forbid them, punish the authors if detected, and give all possible encouragement to judicious critics. 17 This also appears from the works of innumerable learned men among the Catholics, and from the unwearied labours with which they have given to the public the most correct editions of the ancient fathers and historians. Good men may sometimes be too credulous in things in which there appears no harm. Nay, Gerson observes, 18 that sometimes the more averse a person is from fraud himself, the more unwilling he is to suspect imposture in others. But no good man can countenance and abet a knowing fraud for any purpose whatever. The pretence of religion would exceedingly aggravate the crime.  8
  If any particular persons among the monks could be convicted of having attempted to palm any false writing or lie on the world, the obligations of their profession would render their crime the more odious and enormous. But to make this a charge upon that venerable body of men in any age, is a most unjust and a notorious slander. Melchior Cano, who complains of interpolations which have crept into some parts of sacred biography, justifies the monks from the infamous imputation which some, through ignorance or malice, affect to cast upon them; 19 and Mabillon has vindicated them more at large. 20 On their diligence and scrupulosity in general, in correctly copying the manuscripts, see Dom. Coutant, 21 and the authors of the new French Diplomatique. 22 In the Penitential of St. Theodore the Studite, a penance is prescribed for a monk who had made any mistake in copying a manuscript. In 1196, in the general chapter of the Cistercians, it was ordered that the church of Lyons and monastery of Cluni should be consulted about the true reading of a passage in a book to be copied. Anciently books were chiefly copied and preserved in monasteries, which for several ages were the depositories of learning. Mr. Gurdon 23 and bishop Tanner 24 take notice, that in England the great abbeys were even the repositories of the laws, edicts of kings, and acts of parliament. The history of Wales was compiled and kept through every age, by public authority, in the monastery of Ystratflur for South Wales, where the princes and noblemen of that country were interred; and in the abbey of Conwey for North Wales, which was the burying-place of the princes of that part. Conringius, 25 a German Protestant, writes, “In the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries, there is scarcely to be found, in the whole Western church, the name of a person who had written a book, but what dwelt or at least was educated in a monastery.” Before universities were erected, monasteries, and often the palaces of bishops, were the seminaries of the clergy, the nurseries for the education of young noblemen, and the great schools of all the sciences. To the libraries and industry of the monks we are principally indebted for the works of the ancients which we possess. Grateful for this benefit, we ought not to condemn them because, by a fatality incident to human things, some works are come down to us interpolated or imperfect. 26  9
  Accidental causes have given frequent occasions to mistakes, which, when we consider, we cannot be surprised if sometimes good men have been deceived by false memoirs. As to authors of wilful forgeries, we have no name harsh enough to express, nor punishment equal to their crime. But the integrity even of Geoffry of Monmouth is no longer impeached, since it hath been proved that in his British history he was not the author of the fables which he published upon the credit of other vouchers.  10
  Nevertheless, upon these, and the like accounts, history calls aloud for the discernment of criticism. And many learned men, especially of the monastic order, have, for our assistance, with no less industry than success, separated in ancient writings the sterling from the counterfeit, and by collating manuscripts, and by clearing difficult points, have rendered the path in this kind of literature smooth and secure. The merit of original authors hath been weighed; we have the advantage of most correct editions of their works; rash and groundless alterations of some modern critics, and the blunders of careless copiers or editors are redressed; interpolations foisted into the original writings are retrenched; and a mark hath been set on memoirs of inferior authority. Moreover, the value of ancient manuscripts being known, ample repositories of such monuments have been made, curious lists of which are communicated to the public, that any persons may know and have recourse to them. It must also be added, that the laborious task of making the researches necessary for this complicated work, hath been rendered lighter by the care with which several judicious and learned men have compiled the lives of many particular saints. Thus have Mabillon and Bulteau written the lives of the saints of the order of St. Benedict; the elegant Touron of that of St. Dominick; Le Nain, of the Cistercian order; Tillemont, the Maurist Benedictin monks, and Orsi, those of the principal fathers of the church, &c. 27 The genuine acts of the primitive martyrs, the most valuable monument of ecclesiastical history, have been carefully published by Ruinart. Some of them are presidial acts, i. e. extracted from the court registers; others were written from the relations of eye-witnesses of undoubted veracity. To this treasure an accession, which the learned Orsi and others doubt not to call of equal value, hath been lately made by the publication of the genuine acts of the martyrs of the East, or of Persia, and of the West, or Palestine, in two volumes, folio, at Rome. Those of the East were chiefly written by St. Maruthus, a neighbouring bishop of Mesopotamia: the others seem to contain the entire work of Eusebius on the martyrs of Palestine, which he abridged in the eight book of his history. Both parts were found in a Chaldaic manuscript, in a monastery of Upper Egypt, and purchased by Stephen Evodius Assemani, archbishop of Apamea, and his uncle Joseph Simonius Assemani, first prefect of the Vatican library, at the charges of Pope Clement XII. who had sent the former into the East on that errand. The manuscripts are deposited in the Vatican library. Joseph Assemani is known in the republic of letters by his invaluable Oriental library, his Italicæ Historiæ Scriptores, his Kalendaria Ecclesiæ Universæ notis Illustrata, &c. and Stephen, by his share in the publication of the works of St. Ephrem, and by the Acta Martyrum Orientalium et Occidentalium. The learned Jesuits at Antwerp, Bollandus and his continuators, have given us the Acta Sanctorum, enriched with curious remarks and dissertations, in forty-one large volumes in folio, to the 5th day of September. To mention other monuments and writers here made use of, would be tedious and superfluous. The authorities produced throughout the work speak for themselves: the voracity of writers who cannot pretend to pass for inspired, ought to be supported by competent vouchers.  11
  The original authors are chiefly our guides. The stream runs clear and pure from the source, which in a long course often contracts a foreign mixture; but the lucubrations of many judicious modern critics have cast a great light upon ancient historians: these, therefore, have been also consulted and compared, and their labours freely made use of.  12
Note 1. Cicero, l. 2. de Orat. c. 9. [back]
Note 2. Voss. Ars Hist. cap. 5. [back]
Note 3. Voltaire’s Annals of the Empire of Germany. [back]
Note 4. Some call in question the existence of certain saints, as SS. Bacchus, Quirinus, Mercurius, Nilammon, Hippolytus, &c. because these names are of pagan origin. But that Christians often retained those names is evident, not only from the oldest Martyrologies, but from Eusebius, Theodoret, and other ancient writers, who often mention Christians named Apollonius and Apollinarius, from Apollo, &c. and St. Paul speaks of a disciple called Hermes, or Mercurius; and had another named Dionysius, or Bacchus. Dr. Geddes and others object to the existence of St. Almachius, St. George, St. Winefred, &c. but we shall find their honour supported in this work by irrefragable authorities. Longinus not only signifies a spear, but was a Roman name, and that of a soldier and martyr, on the 15th of March: whether he be the person who opened the side of Christ with a spear or no, is a point of less importance. Mr. Addison and Dr. Middleton thought they had hit on a great discovery when they transformed Mount Soracte into St. Orestes. But that mountain is commonly called, not St. Orestes, but San Sylvestro, together with the monastery on its summit. Moreover, we find both in the Roman Martyrology and Greek Menæ two saints of the name of Orestes recorded, the one on the 9th of November, the other on the 13th of December, who both suffered under Dioclesian, one in Armenia, the other in Cappadocia. The latter is also named by St. Gregory Nazianzen, in his oration on St. Basil. If, by slips of copiers, mistakes have happened in some names, or accidental circumstances; or if certain private persons should be convicted of having been any time deceived in some saint, this would not affect the credit of authentic general Martyrologies. [back]
Note 5. Mrs. Dacier, Mr. Rowe. [back]
Note 6. This made Theodoras Gaza say, that if learning must suffer a general shipwreck, and he had only his choice left him of preserving one author, Plutarch should be the man. [back]
Note 7. With this fault the famous king of Prussia, who is perfectly acquainted with the affairs of the North, charged the florid author of the history of Charles XII. of Sweden. Nor could this historian, as it is said, give any other answer to the complaint of the Hamburghers, that he had notoriously slandered them with regard to their conduct towards the citizens of Altena, than that his fiction was plausible and ingenious, founded in their mutual jealousy, according to the maxim of dramatic writers, Feign with probability. Of this cast indeed, though we have many modern examples, we know, perhaps, none among the authors of antiquity. [back]
Note 8. Thirty thousand various readings were found by Mr. Mills in the Greek New Testament: Dr. Bentley reckoned twenty thousand in Terence, and twice as many as there are verses in the poet Manilius. Even the most valuable Vatican and Alexandrian manuscripts of the Bible abound in faults of the copiers; and editions of works made from single manuscripts are always very defective; witness those of Cornelius Nepos, and the Greek Hesychius. Patrick Young, (called in Latin Patricius Junius,) when keeper of the king’s library at London, scrupled not to erase and alter several words in the most valuable Alexandrian Greek manuscript copy of the Bible, as is visible to this day. What wonder then (how intolerable soever such liberties are) if the like has been sometimes done by others in books of less note, with a presumption like that of Dr. Bentley in his amendments of Horace. [back]
Note 9. Prelim. Dissert. on St. Matthew. [back]
Note 10. Sine probabilibus autoribus, Conc. t. 7. 954. [back]
Note 11. Can. 62. [back]
Note 12. Règles de la Critique, T. 2. p. 12. 20. et Diss. 3. p. 134. [back]
Note 13. See Mabillon. Disquis. de Cursu Gallic, s. 1. [back]
Note 14. Tert. l. de Bapt. c. 17. [back]
Note 15. Catal. Vir. illustr. c. 7. [back]
Note 16. See Nat. Alexander, Collet, Henno, &c. in Decalogum de Mendacio. [back]
Note 17. Grot. l. de Antichr. T. 3. Op. Theolog. [back]
Note 18. Gerson, ep. ad Morel. [back]
Note 19. De Loc. Theol. l. 11. c. 5. [back]
Note 20. Diplomat. l. 3. c. 3. [back]
Note 21. Coutant, Vindic. veter. Cod. Confirm. p. 32. 550, &c. [back]
Note 22. Diplom. T. 4. p. 452, &c. [back]
Note 23. Gurdon, Hist. of Parliament, T. 1. [back]
Note 24. Pref. to Notitia Monastica, in fol. [back]
Note 25. Dissert. 3. de Antiq. Acad. [back]
Note 26. How easy was the mistake of a copyist or bookseller, who ascribed the works of some modern Austin to the great doctor of that name? or who, finding several sermons of St. Cæsarius annexed in the same copy to those of St. Austin, imagined them all to belong to one title? Several disciples, published, under the names of St. Austin, St. Gregory, or St. Zeno, sermons or comments which they had heard from their mouths; by the same means we have three different editions of the confession of St. Ephrem. We have already seen many works falsely published under the name of Boerhave, which never came from his pen; as, The Method of Studying Physic, Materia Medica, Praxis Medica, and a spurious edition of his Chemistry, which seem all to come from the pens of his scholars. [back]
Note 27. Among the compilers of the lives of saints, some wanted the discernment of criticism. Simeon Metaphrastes, patrician, first secretary and chancellor to the emperors Leo the Wise, and Constantine Porphyrogenitus, in 912 (of whose collection one hundred and twenty-two lives are still extant,) sometimes altered the style of his authors where it appeared flat or barbarous, and sometimes inserted later additions and interpolations, often not sufficiently warranted, though not by him forged; for Psellus, in his panegyric, furnishes us with many proofs of his piety. See Cave, (Hist. Litér. t. 2. p. 88.) who, with other judicious critics, entertains a much more favourable opinion of Metaphrastes than Baillet. See Metaphrastes vindicated by Leo Allathis. (Diatr. de Nilis, p. 24.) James De Voragine, of the order of St. Dominick, and archbishop of Genoa, author of the Golden Legend, in 1290, wrote still with less judgment, and, in imitation of Livy, often made the martyrs speak his own language. Lippoman, bishop of Verona in 1550, and Laurence Surius, a Carthusian monk of Cologne in 1570, sometimes wanted the necessary helps for discernment in the choice of materials. The same is to be said of Ribadeneira, except in the lives of saints who lived near his own time, though a person otherwise well qualified for a writer of sacred biography. Several who have augmented his works in France, Spain, or Italy, laboured under the same misfortune, and often gathered together whatever the drag-net of time had amassed. John Capgrave, an Austin friar, some time confessor to the Duke of Gloucester, who died at Lynn in Norfolk, in 1484, compiled the legend of the saints of England, from a more ancient collection, the Sanctilogium of John of Tinmouth, a monk of St. Albans, in 1366, of which a very fair manuscript copy was, before the last fire, extant in the Cottonian library. By the melting of the glue and warping of the leaves, this book is no longer legible, unless some such method be used as that which is employed in unfolding the parched and mouldering manuscripts found in the ruins of Herculaneum.
  On the other hand, some French critics in sacred biography have tinctured their works with a false and pernicious leaven, and, under the name of criticism, established scepticism. [back]
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