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Legends
by [?]

Those ecclesiastical histories entitled Legends are said to have originated in the following circumstance.

Before colleges were established in the monasteries where the schools were held, the professors in rhetoric frequently gave their pupils the life of some saint for a trial of their talent at amplification. The students, at a loss to furnish out their pages, invented most of these wonderful adventures. Jortin observes, that the Christians used to collect out of Ovid, Livy, and other pagan poets and historians, the miracles and portents to be found there, and accommodated them to their own monks and saints. The good fathers of that age, whose simplicity was not inferior to their devotion, were so delighted with these flowers of rhetoric, that they were induced to make a collection of these miraculous compositions; not imagining that, at some distant period, they would become matters of faith. Yet, when James de Voragine, Peter Nadal, and Peter Ribadeneira, wrote the Lives of the Saints, they sought for their materials in the libraries of the monasteries; and, awakening from the dust these manuscripts of amplification, imagined they made an invaluable present to the world, by laying before them these voluminous absurdities. The people received these pious fictions with all imaginable simplicity, and as these are adorned by a number of cuts, the miracles were perfectly intelligible to their eyes. Tillemont, Fleury, Baillet, Launoi, and Bollandus, cleared away much of the rubbish; the enviable title of Golden Legend, by which James de Voragine called his work, has been disputed; iron or lead might more aptly describe its character.

When the world began to be more critical in their reading, the monks gave a graver turn to their narratives; and became penurious of their absurdities. The faithful Catholic contends, that the line of tradition has been preserved unbroken; notwithstanding that the originals were lost in the general wreck of literature from the barbarians, or came down in a most imperfect state.

Baronius has given the lives of many apocryphal saints; for instance, of a Saint Xinoris, whom he calls a martyr of Antioch; but it appears that Baronius having read in Chrysostom this word, which signifies a couple or pair, he mistook it for the name of a saint, and contrived to give the most authentic biography of a saint who never existed![1] The Catholics confess this sort of blunder is not uncommon, but then it is only fools who laugh! As a specimen of the happier inventions, one is given, embellished by the diction of Gibbon–

“Among the insipid legends of ecclesiastical history, I am tempted to distinguish the memorable fable of the Seven Sleepers; whose imaginary date corresponds with the reign of the younger Theodosius, and the conquest of Africa by the Vandals. When the Emperor Decius persecuted the Christians, seven noble youths of Ephesus concealed themselves in a spacious cavern on the side of an adjacent mountain; where they were doomed to perish by the tyrant, who gave orders that the entrance should be firmly secured with a pile of stones. They immediately fell into a deep slumber, which was miraculously prolonged, without injuring the powers of life, during a period of one hundred and eighty-seven years. At the end of that time the slaves of Adolius, to whom the inheritance of the mountain had descended, removed the stones to supply materials for some rustic edifice. The light of the sun darted into the cavern, and the Seven Sleepers were permitted to awake. After a slumber as they thought of a few hours, they were pressed by the calls of hunger; and resolved that Jamblichus, one of their number, should secretly return to the city to purchase bread for the use of his companions. The youth, if we may still employ that appellation, could no longer recognise the once familiar aspect of his native country; and his surprise was increased by the appearance of a large cross, triumphantly erected over the principal gate of Ephesus. His singular dress and obsolete language confounded the baker, to whom he offered an ancient medal of Decius as the current coin of the empire; and Jamblichus, on the suspicion of a secret treasure, was dragged before the judge. Their mutual inquiries produced the amazing discovery, that two centuries were almost elapsed since Jamblichus and his friends had escaped from the rage of a Pagan tyrant. The Bishop of Ephesus, the clergy, the magistrates, the people, and, it is said, the Emperor Theodosius himself, hastened to visit the cavern of the Seven Sleepers; who bestowed their benediction, related their story, and at the same instant peaceably expired.