|Hagiography (Greek, â€˜writing about holy thingsâ€™) is a Judaeo-Christian phenomenon. The original hagiographa (â€˜holy writingsâ€™) were the so-called â€˜poeticalâ€™ books of the Bibleâ€”Psalms, Proverbs, Jobâ€”as distinct from the Books of the Law or the Prophets. The content of these books was held to be exemplary rather than didactic.
In the Christian era, the same function was assigned to biographies of saints and martyrs. Their lives and their thoughts and utterances were set out as examples. Literary texts, aimed at the reading public, often dwelled on the â€˜meaningâ€™ of the events of a saint\'s life, drawing it out in prose which was often flowery, philosophical and devotionalâ€”a relative of such great medieval allegories as The Romance of the Rose or ChrÃ©tien de Troyes\' Arthurian romances. Hagiography for ordinary (that is, at this time, illiterate) people, by contrast, was largely done in picturesâ€”and paradoxically, the religious meaning of the torments and revelations depicted was not drawn out, but left to be deduced. John Foxe\'s Book of Martyrs (1563) is a characteristic exampleâ€”and typical as much of the Gothic imagination of the genre as of its assertive pietism.
That such writings survived well into the present can be attested by the present writer, who can remember as a child of six or so (in the 1940s) being shown a prized, leather-bound book of saints\' stories, and who still has nightmares based on the pictures of disembowellings, gougings and burnings at the stake which seized the attention despite, rather than because of, the images of parting clouds and beckoning angels at the top of every scene. Hagiography also survives in a bastardized, secular form: fan magazines and articles in popular papers, magazines and film biopics, which treat famous people with the same kind of breathless, uncriticalâ€”though usually less sadisticâ€”idolization. KMcL