Antwerp, 1607, Jesuit father Heribert Rosweyde (1569-1629) devised a plan for a philologically accurate publication of all the early and medieval lives of saints. This was printed at the Plantin Press in Antwerp and had the title, Fasti Sanctorum quorum Vitae in Belgicis bibliothecis manuscriptae. The 92-page booklet announced the publication of an eighteen-volume collection of Lives of saints. Unlike in previous (16th-century) enterprises by Lippomano and Sauer (Surius) the Latin ancient and medieval texts of the Vitae were to be reproduced faithfully from the manuscripts without any attempt to rewrite or censor them.
A list of 1300 saints, for whom Rosweyde claimed to possess one or more Lives, concluded the book. Unfortunately, due to the lack of encouragement from his Jesuit superiors this project did not materialize. However, Rosweyde was the author of another hagiographic landmark, the Vitae Patrum (Antwerp 1615), a collection of the Lives and writings of the Desert Fathers that remained the reference point in its field until 20th century.
Rosweyde’s work was continued and expanded by his fellow Jesuit, Jean Bolland (1596-1665), a Jesuit from Julémont (Liège), who embarked upon the publication of the greatest ever collection of texts and critical studies related to saints: the Acta Sanctorum or “Acts of the Saints”.
The first two volumes of the Acta Sanctorum, covering the saints whose memories are celebrated in the month of January, were published in 1643. In the 2400 pages long volume, folio size, they studied no less than 1170 saints. Furthermore, Bolland decided that his scholarly endeavours would transcend any confessional divisions. He included in his study all the saints, men or women, from all times and all geographical locations. Those about whom, little was known, were dealt with in a short paragraph, while the saints who were known from one or more Lives were the object of a ‘dossier’ in which the text editions were preceded by a historical and philological study of the saint’s biography, his Lives and Miracles, and his cult. This decisive improvement had been suggested by Bolland’s first collaborator Godfried Henskens (1601-1681), a fellow Jesuit from Venray (Limburg).
Collecting the sources
Following the enthusiastic reception of the two volumes of January, Bolland and Henskens started preparing the month of February, which appeared in three volumes in 1658; March (1668) and April (1675) followed, each in three volumes. The publication of May, in seven volumes plus a special volume dedicated to the chronology of the popes (1680-88), reflect a huge increase in the materials published. The main reason for this was a journey of two and a half years to Rome via Germany, Italy and France undertaken by Henskens and a new collaborator, Daniel Van Papenbroek. Between July 1660 and December 1662 the two Jesuits visited monasteries, convents, cathedrals and castles, explored their libraries, examined their hagiographic manuscripts and copied innumerable Greek and Latin texts, which complemented Rosweyde’s collection in Antwerp.
From that moment ‘literary travels’ would become traditional, not only for Bolland’s successors but also for other groups dedicated to erudition such as the Maurist Benedictine monks. If such travels made it possible to collect numerous texts at random, some of which would be published more than a century later, the preparation of a volume of the Acta Sanctorum often revealed the lack of some specific documents, which our hagiographers would try to obtain by writing to local scholars. A huge correspondence was thus exchanged between Antwerp and scholars all over Europe.
Researching the truth about saints also has its dangers. More than once the Acta Sanctorum would question the historical foundations of a popular cult or a venerable tradition. The worst incident occurred when Papenbroek expressed his doubts about the Carmelite tradition according to which the prophet Elijah was the founder of their religious Order.
The Carmelites managed to have the Acta Sanctorum condemned by the Spanish Inquisition in 1695. The decree, written in four languages: Spanish, Latin, French and Dutch stated that the Acta contained “… propositions that are erroneous, heretical, smacking of heresy, perilous in matters of faith, scandalous, offensive to pious ears, schismatic, seditious, rash, bold…” The condemnation was lifted by Rome in 1715.
Illustrations appear in the Acta Sanctorum as from the volumes of April (1675). In the course of one century more than 680 of them were published. They represent portraits, monuments, objects, documents, inscriptions and are sometimes our only witnesses of long lost or destroyed buildings and works of art. Numerous copper plates that served for these illustrations are still in our possession.
From their very beginnings the Acta Sanctorum had always been a Jesuit work. Nevertheless, the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773 did not involve the immediate closure of the Bollandist enterprise. The government of the Austrian Low Countries was aware of its historical value and decided that the hagiographers, although they were no longer Jesuits, should complete the publication under some very restrictive conditions. They had to leave the Jesuit residence in Antwerp and transfer to the Coudenberg Abbey in Brussels in 1778.
When that establishment was closed in its turn in 1786, the surviving hagiographers were received by the Norbertine monks of Tongerlo, where volume 6 of October was printed. The French invasion and the consequent suppression of all convents and monasteries in 1796 seemed to put an end to the work. What remained of the library, one of the richest in Europe, was dispersed.
After the Society of Jesus was restored by Pope Pius VII in 1814 and the Belgian province recreated in 1832 (two years after Belgium’s independence), the decision was taken in 1837 to reconstitute a group of hagiographers in order to complete the Acta Sanctorum. Four Jesuits were designated and sent to the college in Brussels. The beginnings were extremely difficult since the library had been dispersed and the tradition interrupted. The personality of Victor De Buck (1817-76), a scholar trained in several disciplines including archaeology and canon law, dominated that period. Under his leadership and thanks to the collaboration of Ivan Martinov, a Russian Jesuit, the Acta Sanctorum extended their range to the saints of the Slavonic countries.
A fundamental renewal came with Charles De Smedt (1833-1911), who was well acquainted with the progress of the historical disciplines in Germany and in France. In order to bring the text editions of the Acta Sanctorum up to a higher critical standard a systematic census of hagiographic manuscripts was undertaken in Europe’s major libraries. Three Bibliothecae hagiographicae or repertories of hagiographic literature were compiled, in which all the Latin, Greek and Oriental texts ever written about saints before 1500 are described. In 1882 the first issue of Analecta Bollandiana, a journal of critical hagiography, was published; it was soon complemented by a series of books, Subsidia hagiographica. In 1905 the Bollandist library was transferred to a purpose-built wing of the new Collège Saint-Michel in Brussels.
It was in these new surroundings that Hippolyte Delehaye (1859-1941) joined the group of hagiographers. A most prominent Bollandist whose work includes the critical editions with commentaries of the Synaxarium of Constantinople, the Hieronymian Martyrology and the Roman Martyrology as well as books about critical methodology in hagiography (Les légendes hagiographiques, 1905), historical syntheses (Les origines du culte des martyrs, 1912; Sanctus. Essai sur le culte des saints dans l’Antiquité, 1927) and monographs about the passions of the martyrs and their cults. His fellow Jesuit Paul Peeters (1870-1950) was a pioneer in the study of the Oriental hagiography. Vol. IV of the Acta Sanctorum of November (1925) reflects his extraordinary linguistic capacities with texts in Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic, Syriac, Armenian and Georgian.
The World Centre of Hagiographic Studies
Volume IV of the Acta Sanctorum of November (1925, 788 pages) included only the saints of two days (9-10). Confronted by the critical standards of the 20th century the formula inherited from the early Bollandists became less and lesssuitable: while Papebroch had seen the publication of five months of Acta Sanctorum during his lifetime, a Bollandist in the 20th century could only hope to see his name associated with four days! For this reason the publication of the Acta Sanctorum was abandoned after 1940. This allowed the Bollandists more freedom in choosing their field of research without having to follow the calendar order. In the second half of the twentieth century the leading Bollandists included Paul Grosjean, a pioneer in the study of Celtic hagiography, Baudouin de Gaiffier, a specialist in the hagiography of Spain, and François Halkin, a tireless editor of Greek texts. From mere editors and publishers of the Acta Sanctorum the Société des Bollandistes had become the world centre of hagiographic studies. Today, more than four centuries later, despite being excommunicated by the Spanish Inquisition, revolutionary turmoil, pillage, expulsions and even our total suppression for some forty years, the Society of Bollandists survived and continue to have a pivotal role in the academic, religious and cultural worlds.
Our present team of five experts, both Jesuit and lay, cover different areas, from the Christian East, Byzantium, the Latin world but also the recent canonisations, and we closely collaborate with several other scholars worldwide. Our Library, expertise and list of scientific projects, make the Société des Bollandistes, simply the best place in the world for hagiographic research.
Please look at our project section for our current activities.