Initially titled simply Legenda Sanctorum, Latin for "Readings on the Saints," its popularity gained it the title by which it is best known. More than a thousand manuscript copies of the work survive, and when printing was invented in the 1450s, editions appeared quickly, not only in Latin, but also in every major European language. It is said that no book other than the Bible was so widely read during the late Middle Ages. It was one of the first books William Caxton printed in the English language; Caxton's version appeared in 1483.
The book sought to compile traditional lore about all of the saints which were officially held up for veneration at the time of its compilation. More than 130 sources have been identified for the lore within its pages. De Voragine typically begins with a fanciful etymology for the saint's name, then moves on to the saint's life, compiled with reference to the readings from the Roman Catholic Church's liturgy commemorating that saint; then embellishes the biography with supernatural tales of incidents involving the saint's life from less reliable sources, and concludes with miracle tales and similar wonderlore from accounts of those who called upon that saint for aid or used the saint's relics.
Written in simple, readable Latin, the book was read in its day for its stories; any one of which will be well told, but in mass they tend to become monotonous and blur together, with their repetitious accounts of martyrdoms and miracles. The book is the closest thing we have to an encyclopedia of the lore of the saints in the late Middle Ages; as such it is invaluable to art historians and mediŠvalists who seek to identify saints depicted in art by their deeds and attributes. Its repetitious nature is probably explained by the fact that de Voragine meant to write a compendium of saintly lore for sermons, not the popular entertainment it became.
A modern English translation of the Golden Legend has been published by William Granger Ryan, ISBN 0-691-00153-7 and ISBN 0-691-00154-5 (2 volumes).