All Saints’ Day: Listing in the Service of Infinities


by Martha Rust

Happy November 1st! it’s All Saints’ Day in the Catholic calendar, and thanks to the wondrous, theoretically endless list that gave rise to it, the day might count as a red-letter day in the calendar of lovers of lists as well.[1]As Jacobus de Voragine (1230-1298/99) explains in his extremely popular collection of saints’ biographies The Golden Legend, All Saints’ Day was instituted because of the saints’ sheer multitude: “we could not have feasts for all the saints. For one thing the number of them has multiplied until it is almost infinite.”[2] He goes on to relate that  according to Jerome, “there is not one day except the first of January that could not have five thousand martyrs assigned to it.” For this reason, Voragine concludes, “the Church with good reason has ordered that since we cannot solemnize the saints one by one, we shall at least honor them generally and all together.”[3] But this approach to solving the “problem” of the Church’s abundance of saints still presents a conundrum since honoring them “all together” still entails a multitude of individuals, a multitude, in this case, that is at once too many to count and too many to list by name “one by one.” How, on All Saints’ day, might all the saints be held in mind?

A vision given to the warden of St Peter’s Church in Rome on the holiday’s first anniversary tacitly answers this question and in the process displays the usefulness of the list form even in cases when a list’s contents may not be enumerated. Voragine tells the story of the warden’s vision this way:

 … he saw the King of kings seated on a high throne, surrounded by all the angels. Then the Virgin of virgins came forward, wearing a gleaming diadem and followed by an innumerable multitude of virgins and the continent. The King rose immediately to meet her and placed a throne beside his own for her to be seated. Then came a man clad in camel skins, whom a large number of ancients followed, and after them another man wearing pontifical vestments and accompanied by a chorus of men similarly attired. Next a great army of soldiers advanced, and then a vast throng of men and women of every race….
The angel who was guiding the aforementioned warden now explained the vision to him. The Virgin at the head of the procession, he said, was the mother of God with her train of virgins, the man in camel skins was John the Baptist with the patriarchs and prophets, the one in the robes of a pontiff was Saint Peter with the other apostles, the soldiers were the martyrs, the rest of the crowd, the confessors.[4]

Beyond the list of categories embedded in the angel’s explanation of what the warden sees, the narrative of his vision includes no other lists; there is no attempt, for instance, to enumerate even a short list of any members of the categories of saints by name.

The narrative does, however, make use of several formal features of lists, which together work to enhance a reader’s experience of the saints’ multitudinousness while also keeping them in view as individuals. One such formal feature of a list is a title that includes a number: Seven Lessons from Mr. Rogers, and The Ten Essentials of Hiking are two such lists that we have examined on Listology. There are no cardinal in this narrative, numbers, in keeping with the vast numerousness of the saints; that said, in the manner of a list title, a quantitative term announces each arriving group of them: an “innumerable multitude” of virgins, a “large number” of ancients,  a “chorus” of men in pontifical garb, an “army” of soldiers, and a “vast throng” of diverse folks.[5] Conforming with titles of lists in another way, each of these quantitative terms is linked to a plural noun (virgins, ancients, men, soldiers, people) by the genitive “of,” indicating the type of individual of which the large group is constituted.

Many list titles take this form, in which a list’s items are implicitly contained by a quantitative or collective term. Among the posts on Listology, we find “A Catalogue of Serpents,” and “Two and a Half Tons of Essentials for the Overland Trail,” and we may discover numerous other examples of this pattern by reflecting on the way we commonly refer to lists: a list of books to read, a list of supplies to order, a list of emergency contacts, “a list of foodstuffs needed for the ascent of Everest,” which came to William Gas’s mind in his essay “And.”[6] “Lists are lists of,” Gas asserts there, and as such they are “of” their subjects; in the case of the pseudo-lists in the narrative of the warden’s vision on All Saints’ Day, the subjects are terms for multitudes, which are composed of individual saints. Given the dazzlingly numerous quality of these subjects, might the things they are “of”–the saints themselves–be overshadowed?

Images for All Saints’ Day in medieval Books of Hours often accomplish exactly this result, emphasizing the saints’ “almost infinite” number by depicting a few recognizable saints against a background of overlapping halos seeming to go on forever (see example above, a detail from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Auct. D. inf. 2. 11, f. 58v, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford). But in the narrative of the warden’s vision, the saints do not appear all together at once as a static tableau; instead, they arrive to the throne of the “King of kings” in a sequence of processions: the virgins “follow” the Virgin Mary, after which John the Baptist is “followed” by the prophets and patriarchs. Thereafter, our English translation has St. Peter “accompanied by” the apostles, but in Voragine’s Latin, they too follow their leader, and the soldiers appear in a procession as well.[7] Only the confessors arrive all at once as a crowd ( a “turba … infinita”). In the form of these processions, we may discern a third feature of the list form: the one-by-one enumeration of its contents. An image for All Saints’ Day in Cambridge, Trinity College Library MS B.11.7 (below) appears to depict the processions described in Voragine’s account of the warden of St. Peter’s vision–the King of kings is enthroned in the center, Mary approaches on the left crowned with a “gleaming diadem,” and John the Baptist clad in camel skin comes forward on the right–but it lacks any impression of the saints as a multitude. By contrast, the narrated, list-like processions in Voragine’s text allow a reader to visualize and to worship one-by-one his or her favorite saints as they make towards the heavenly throne in the glorious company of all the saints “all together.”

By breaking down the abstract “almost infinite” number of saints into a series of multitudes linked to types of saints, the narrative of the warden’s vision at once multiplies the saints’ number and makes it more visualizable and therefore at least approaching the comprehensible. At the same time, by depicting each group of saints in the form (if not the individually named content) of an enumeration, the narrative renders those multitudes as an answering series of distinct individuals. In this way, even in the case of infinities beyond listing, the elements of the list form–whether with respect to title, to content framing, or to enumeration–may serve to preserve the ecstatic mystery of the infinite while affording moving glimpses of its sparkling constituents.

Cambridge, Trinity College Library MS B.11.7 f. 37v (detail)

[1] Boniface IV (d. 215) first instituted in the West when he consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to Christian use on May 13 609 or 610. It was celebrated on May 13th until PopeGregory III (d. 741) moved the celebration to November 1st, the day he dedicated a chapel to “All the Saints” in the basilica of St. Peter. See “All Saints’ Day,” in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross, F. L. and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[2] Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, introduction by Eamon Duffy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 659. Duffy notes that The Golden Legend survives “in almost a thousand manuscript copies of the Latin text alone, with another five hundred or so manuscripts containing translations of all or part of the Legenda into one or another of the great European vernaculars” (xi).

[3] Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. Ryan, 659

[4] Voragine, The Golden Legend, 665.

[5] In Voragine’s Latin, some of these quantities are larger than they are in the English translation: the soldiers arrive in an “innumerabilis multitudo,” for instance while the throng of diverse folk appears as a “turba diversarum gentium infinita.” See Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, ed. Th. Graesse (Lipsiae: Impensis Librariae Arnoldianae, 1850), 727.

[6] William Gas, “And,” in Voicelust (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985), 101-25, at 118.

[7] Voragine, Legenda Aurea, ed. Th. Graesse, 727.

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