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What is a Hagiography?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A hagiography is a biography of a saint. The term is also used to describe the study of saints, although some people prefer to describe the study of saints as hagiology. Hagiographies have an ancient and esteemed history in Christian culture, and they are also present in several other religious traditions, especially Buddhism and Islam.

The art of hagiography arose early in the days of the Christian church, when it was used primarily as a propaganda tool. The idea was that by disseminating information about the lives of the saints, Christians could conceivably win converts. Hagiographies were far from dull accounts of history; they included inspirational stories and set up legends and myths about the people in them. Many hagiographies also included ghoulish descriptions of martyrdom, undoubtedly to appeal to people with more base sentiments.

In addition to being used to spread Christianity, hagiographies were also utilized as a tool to sanctify people. Many notable ecclesiastical figures and other church authorities commissioned hagiographies of themselves in the hopes that they would later be venerated as saints, and this was sometimes successful. In all cases, a hagiography typically stressed the subject's bravery, intrepid spirit, and Christian faith.

The heyday of the hagiography occurred in the medieval era, when numerous hagiographies were produced, both individually and in collections. During this era, many people created calendars of the saints, and those who could read were able to learn about a different saint each day; a medieval version of the page a day calendar, as it were. Many of these calendars have since been canonized, and a calendar of saints days exists today in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Although the hagiography is treated as a bit old fashioned in the modern era, it is still possible to find well-researched scholarly works on the lives of the saints, along with more traditional hagiographies. Some of these materials are quite interesting, documenting the lives and works of early moves and shakers in the Christian church, as well as the activities of more modern saints.

Because a hagiography was typically designed to present its subject in the best possible light, you sometimes hear “hagiography” used as a slang term to describe a secular biography. When used in this sense, a hagiography is a fawning, uncritical, and often poorly researched biography which paints a very adulating picture of its subject, rather than an accurate discussion of someone's life and works.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Azuza — On Oct 27, 2011

I find current accounts of the early church very interesting. I also feel certain that modern hagiographies are much more accurate than those produces during the Medieval times.

I feel like now, when someone puts together a hagiographic work like this, it's a scholarly work. It's not meant to be propaganda, but rather to tell the truth about historical occurrences. The people who write them usually have PhD's and do extensive research about their subjects. They include references and a bibliography. I know you couldn't find that in a Medieval hagiography!

By sunnySkys — On Oct 27, 2011

@JessicaLynn - Perhaps people didn't find the idea of dying a gruesome death appealing. However, I could see how being sainted and then going to heaven to be with god would be appealing to people. Especially people living fairly miserable lives in the Medieval Era.

I've actually never heard the term hagiography before, in a religious or secular way. But, I'm pretty sure I've seen various secular hagiographies at bookstores. You know, the "authorized" biography of a famous person? Where they put in all the flattering stuff, and leave the bad stuff out?

I suppose you can't blame people for wanting to put their best face forward. But at least don't call it a truthful biography then!

By JessicaLynn — On Oct 26, 2011

I find it interesting that there is a whole different word for the biography of a saint. I feel like this is another way the Catholic church shows that saints aren't just regular people, like you or I. If they were, a book about their life would simply be called a "biography."

Also, I find their early use as propaganda to be a little surprising. I wouldn't think that reading about a faithful person who died a very gruesome death would win any converts to a religion. I don't know about you, but if I had to risk my life to join a church, I don't think I would do it!

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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