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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XIV. English Prose in the Fifteenth Century. II

§ 2. The Golden Legend

Caxton’s largest and most popular book, The Golden Legend, is, also, the most medieval in kind. It may almost be called a cyclopaedia of traditional sacred lore, comprising not lives of the saints only, but explanations of the church service and homilies upon the feast days, as well as a shortened but complete chronicle, Lombard in origin, to A.D. 1250. The public decidedly preferred it to Malory or Chaucer, and it went through edition after edition. For one thing, it was a long-recognised classic; for another, it presented the favourite mixture of morality combined with entertainment. Many of the lives are copies from earlier English versions, more or less “mollified” by their editor. Those of French saints are a new, and often slipshod, translation. Others are compiled from the three renderings (Latin, English and French) and from further sources such as Polychronicon and Josephus, and practically form a new version. With regard to the merit of these, opinions will differ. It may be true that Caxton’s Becket, for example, presents a more compact story than the original; on the other hand, the incessant curtailment has spoiled the charming incident of the Saracen princess. Caxton, moreover, altered the usual arrangement of the Legend to insert a series of lives of Old Testament heroes, and it is a vital question in estimating his rank as a prose writer whether these lives are to be reckoned his own or not. They are so far superior to the mere translations that one of his critics takes it for granted they must be his own; another, that they must come from an earlier English version now lost. The MSS. of the old version now remaining to us contain none of these Old Testament lives save Adam, from which the Caxtonian version differs entirely. The earlier Adam, except for the usual legendary interpolations, is strictly Biblical in language, adhering closely, at first, to the revised Wyclifite version, afterwards to the first Wyclifite version; whereas Caxton’s Adam is, in the main, a sermon, and the succeeding lives, though they follow the Bible closely as to incident, are much shortened as to wording, and not distinctively reminiscent of the Wyclifite versions; indeed, they afford more points of resemblance to the later phraseology. If it can be supposed that Caxton actually rendered them into English himself, his literary powers here rose to a pitch far higher than he attained at any other time.