The Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine (1230-1298) belongs to the most widely read books in the Middle Ages. It has been called the 1001 nights of Saints’ lives for its numerous stories, though when it comes to a real contest 1001 Nights will absolutely win. The reason for the success of the Legenda Aurea was that it provided knowledge in a simple Latin. The target group were priests who could use the Saints’ lives for embellishing their sermons, but translations in various vernacular languages made it highly popular amongst educated laymen.
The decline of this work rapidly set in when Humanistic scholars proved that the stories were highly unreliable.
This story is about Paul the Hermit. He is said to be the first hermit, living in the Theban desert in Egypt. St Jerome wrote a hagiography about him around 376 and for that reason it is very difficult to separate fact and fiction. In fact Jerome wrote this treatise as a Latin answer to the Greek hagiography of Anthony the Great – also an Egyptian hermit – by Bishop Athanasius. Probably to his own satisfaction Jerome had a hermit who was earlier and lived longer. Conveniently those two hermits met according to Jerome – and taken over by Jacobus de Voragine - and Anthony considered Paul his superior
Paul is said to be born in about 228 and to have died in 341. Though not impossible an age of 113 seems a bit exaggerated. In fact, I think that this well advanced age made it possible for Jerome to have Paul fit into the biography of Anthony and giving Paul a longer age made him also even more respectable than Anthony, who reached the age of 104. The meeting is the more suspicious as it is not mentioned in the Vita of Anthony by Athanasius. My guess is that the two never met and that Paul did not reach the age of 113. The Legenda Aurea states that St Paul died at the age 287 years, but is even more beyond belief!
According to the Vita, Paul fled to the desert under the persecution of Decius in 251 (not 256 as this text claims) and this could be true, but persecutions are not the only reason for retreating into the desert and: the hardship of daily life under Roman rule and the high burden of taxes caused a decline in welfare and living in the desert as monk was often more secure than tiling the land as a fellah. The popularity of following the example of Paul and Anthony is therefore not only for spiritual welfare, but certainly had mundane incentives as well.
IACOBUS DE VORAGINE
HISTORIA DE SANCTO PAULO EREMITA
Paulus primus eremita, ut testatur Hieronymus, qui eius vitam conscripsit, fervente Decii persecutione, eremum vastissimum adiit ibique in quadam spelunca LX annis hominibus incognitus permansit. Iste autem Decius dicitur fuisse Gallienus, qui fuit binomius, qui coepit anno Domini CCLVI. Videns enim sanctus Paulus Christianis tot tormentorum genera irrogari in eremum aufugit.
fervente Decii persecutione: when the persecution under Decius was fervent (AD 250)
binomius: having two names
irrogo (+ dat.): to impose upon, to use against
At that time two young Christians were taken prisoner: one was given over to physical torture, the other was put on a very soft bed in the midst of a beautiful place (locus amoenus) but with his hands and feet tied
Eo siquidem tempore duo iuvenes Christiani comprehenduntur, quorum unus toto corpore melle perungitur et sub ardore solis aculeis muscarum et crabronum et vesparum lacerandus exponitur. Alter vero mollissimo lecto imponitur et in loco amoenissimo collocatur, ubi aeris erat temperies, rivorum sonitus, cantus avium et florum olfactus. Funibus tamen floreis coloribus obtectis sic iuvenis cingitur, ut manibus vel pedibus se iuvare non posset.
melle perungitur: is besmeared with honey
aculeis muscarum et crabronum et vesparum lacerandus exponitur: is exposed to be tormented by the stings of flies, hornets and wasps
temperies (f.): mixture, pleasant temperature
olfacio: to smell (the ppp serves here as a noun: smell)
Funibus tamen floreis coloribus obtectis: though with ropes covered with flowery colours
A beautiful girl approaches the boy. Involuntary he feels sexual arousement (in carne motus contrarios rationi), but being unable defend himself, he bites off his tongue in order to drive away his lust by pain and spits that in her face. They idea of sexual temptation and how to combat it is a constant theme in Coptic literature from and about the Fathers of the Dessert.
Adest quaedam iuvencula corpore pulcherrima et impudica ac impudice tractat iuvenem Dei amore repletum. Cum autem ille in carne motus contrarios rationi sensisset, non habens arma, quibus ab hoste se eruat, linguam propriam dentibus suis incidit et in faciem impudicae exspuit et sic tentationem dolor fugavit et trophaeum laude dignum promeruit.
impudicus: unchaste, shameful
se eruat: he could free himself
promereo promerui promeritum: to deserve
St Anthony considered himself to be first hermit amongst the monks, but a dream tells him otherwise. When he sets out to look for this other hermit, he meets various strange creatures: a figure half horse, half man, an Satyr and a wolf. St Paul knowns the St Anthony is coming and he closes the entrance. When Anthony promises to stay, Paul opens the gate.
Horum et aliorum poenis sanctus Paulus territus eremum petiit. Eo tempore cum Antonius primum se inter monachos eremicolam cogitaret, in somniis alium se multo meliorem eremum colere edocetur. Qui dum eum per silvas inquireret, obvium habuit hippocentaurum, hominem equo mixtum, qui ei viam dextram demonstravit. Postmodum obvium habuit animal, ferens fructus palmarum, supra imagine hominis insignitum, deorsum vero caprae formam habens. Qui dum ipsum per Deum coniuraret, ut sibi diceret, quis esset, respondit se esse Satyrum, deum silvarum secundum errorem gentilium. Postremo obviavit ei lupus, qui eum ad cellam sancti Pauli perduxit. Paulus autem Antonium praesentiens ostium sera clausit. Antonius vero rogat, ut sibi aperiat, asserens se numquam inde recessurum, sed ibi potius moriturum. Victus Paulus ei aperuit, statimque ambo in amplexus ruunt.
eremicola : diminutive of eremita
se cogitaret: thought that he
alium se multo meliorem eremum colere edocetur: he learns that he had to venerate
per silvas: clearly our writer was unaware of the landscape of Egypt
viam dextram: the right way
animal...insignitum: a beast...having the form
amplexus, -us (m.): embrace
When it was time for a meal - called prandium in the text, but hermits ate only once a day – a crow came, bringing bread and as Paul had a visitor, the crow had the good idea of bringing a bread twice as large. Anthony is highly surprised, but for Paul it is business as usual. A pious strife (pia lis) arose about who was worthy of dividing the bread, as both wanted to give that honour to the other. Finally they do it together.
Cumque hora prandii adesset, corvus duplicatam panis partem attulit. Cumque de hoc Antonius miraretur, respondit Paulus, quod Deus sibi omni die taliter ministrabat et praebendam propter hospitem duplicaverat. Pia lis oritur, quis magis dignus esset panem dividere. Defert Paulus hospiti et Antonius seniori. Tandem uterque manum apponunt et in aequas partes panem dividunt.
praebendam (panis partem): the offered (piece of bread)
defero detuli delatum: to grant
Anthony sees that angels are taking away the soul of Paul and when he comes closer he sees that the dead body is in a praying position. At first he thinks Paul is still alive (ita ut ipsum vivere aestimaret), but once he sees he is dead. Two lions dig a grave and Anthony receives the cloak of Paul.’
Cum autem Antonius rediens iam cellae suae appropinquaret, vidit angelos Pauli animam deferentes. Qui velociter rediens invenit corpus Pauli flexis genubus in modum orantis erectum, ita ut ipsum vivere aestimaret. Sed cum ipsum mortuum didicisset, ait: "O sancta anima, quod gerebas in vita, in morte monstrasti." Cum autem non haberet, unde sepulturam faceret, ecce duo leones advenerunt et foveam paraverunt sepultoque eo ad silvam redierunt. Antonius autem tunicam Pauli ex palmis contextam assumpsit, qua postmodum in solemnitatibus utebatur. Obiit autem circa annos CCLXXXVII
gero gessi gestum: to carry out, display (i.e. being religious)
disco didici: to learn
non haberet, unde: he had nothing, with which
fovea: pit, hole
ex palmis contextam: made of palm leaves