Traditional or undocumented genre of story about famous people, commonly religious in character and frequently posing problems of authenticity. Legends are typically narrative, in the form of verse or prose novella, although more complex forms, such as drama or ballad, are possible. It is typical for legends to avoid a strict documentary account in favour of a more poetic and religious interpretation of reality. The epic poem Beowulf is the most important Old English legend. The story of Robin Hood has been a popular legend since the 15th century.
The term was originally applied to the books of readings designed for use in Christian religious service, and was extended to the stories of saints' lives read in monasteries.
Topics included the ‘passions’ of martyrs, confessors of all periods from the desert fathers onwards, as well as non-canonical accounts of biblical figures. A collection of such stories was the 13th-century Legenda Aurea/Golden Legend by the Dominican friar Jacobus de Voragine (1230–98), later Archbishop of Genoa. This remained popular for 3 centuries, although scholarship since the Renaissance has shown its unreliability as a historical document. Since 1643, the Belgian Jesuit Bollandists, editors of the Acta Sanctorum, the standard collection of saints lives, have furthered the critical study of early religious tradition.
The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (c. 700) is the only complete surviving example of Germanic folk epic. Legendary tales of the British king Arthur and his knights, along with their quest for the Holy Grail, have been developed since the 12th century.
The term legend, in the strict etymological (account of the development and origin of the word) sense of the Latin legenda ‘to be read’, is used by armorialists in connection with coats of arms, by numismatists for inscriptions or mottoes on coins or medals, by printers for the caption or descriptive matter accompanying an illustration, and by cartographers to explain the manner in which the symbols used on a map are to be interpreted.