BUTLER'S Lives of the Saints is not quite large enough to make wallpaper in a room redundant, like Migne's unending rows of Greek and Latin patrology. Nor does it cost hundreds of pounds, like the new Grove's Dictionary of Music.
But it is a wonder it has survived at all, to be issued in four handsome volumes by the revitalised Burns and Oates*. Butler's name has remained attached to his magnum ofms longer than Johnson's to his dictionary. In its present form, the work is' much shorter than Butler's (a tenth of the last edition), but it holds nearly twice as mans saints (2,565 against Butler's 1.486) and (to tell the truth) is far more interesting.
This is principally because Butler thought that while he was on to a good thing. it would be foolish to stop short. To his saints' lives he added daily exhortations of which the editor of the current edition. Donald Attwater, wrote: "While recognising and welcoming the solid, unfanciful, scriptural character of Butler's homilies — so characteristic of eighteenth-century English Catholicism — it must also be recognised that they were often excessively repetitious and monotonous." Quite.
It is a pity that some of the obscure or uncertainly-venerated saints have had to be omitted in some months, but as a counter weight we now get many of those canonised since Butler's death, and even some that escaped his net.
Christopher Howse reviews Butler's Lives of the Saints
The idea of a calendar of saints' lives is not new. Aeffric had a splendid time 800 years before, writing slightly metrical homilies, containing the most remarkable details, He tells of the wolf that guarded the head of the martyred St Edmund through the night.
Butler was not credulous. 4ie was one of those dry-as-dust Catholic scholars who sprang up in the unpromising ground of the 18th Century Lnglish enlightenment. at a time when priests were still being imprisoned for life. He was a contemporary of Bishop Challoner. and Dr Johnson, and managed to die before the insults of the Gordon Riots.
Though not such a man of action as Challoner, he ended up the head of' St Omer's college. having himself been sent away to be educated abroad at an early age — though not as young as the rather unreliable memoir by his nephew Charles would have us believe. He was 14, not eight. when he accompanied his brother to France. .
Alban Butler was born in 1710, and his brother and he were soon left orphans. A frighteningly serious letter survives from their mother to her children when she knew she was dying: "My dear Children. Since it pleases Almighty God to take me out of this world. as no doubt wisely forseeing I am no longer a useful parent 'to you (for no person ought to be thought necessary in this world, when God thinks proper to take them out), so, I hope, you will offer the loss of me with a resignation suitable to the religion you are of. and offer yourselves. He who makes you orphans so young, without a parent to take care of you, will take you into His protection and fatherly care if you do live and serve Him who is the author of all goodness," and so on. The Butlers were made of stern stuff.
Fr Herbert Thurston Si. editor of the 1920's issue of Butler's Lives, wrote: "Alban Butler as a man, a priest and a scholar, leaves, to my thinking, a far more favourable impression than in his character of a writer of English.'" And yet, according to nephew Charles: "Our Author's style is peculiar to himself: it partakes more of the style of the last century than that of the style of the present age. it possesses great merits. but sometimes is negligent and loose. Mr (Decline and Fall) Gibbon mentioned it to me in warm terms of commendation." It is possible that Gibbon was being polite, or simply joking.
When Butler was ling in England on his return from ordination at Douay, he almost fell foul of the law, when any common informer could endanger a priest. but was saved by his friends. One Protestant admirer told the story thus:
"This gentleman Mr Alban Butler, going upon a mission to Norwich, had directed his portmanteau by the carrier to be left at the Palace for him in that cito It seems the Duke of Norfolk's house is called 'the Palace'. As he %sus utterly unknown at Norwich, and as there was a Doctor Butler at that time as a visitor with Bishop Hayter. the portmanteau was carried by mistake to the Bishop's Palace, and was opened by Dr
Butler. s ho, finding therein a hair-shirt. disciplines, indulgences, missals, etc, the mistake was soon found out, and as soon communicated to the Bishop. who began to make a stir about it. But by the mediation of the Duke of Norfolk, the affair was hushed up. and Mr Butler had his box or portmanteau restored to him."
This same Mr Cole wrote appreciatively of his entertain ment by Butler when he became President of St Omers. By then he was 55 and ageing. His life's work had already been published in English and was soon translated into French.
Butler died on May 15, 1 773, in his 63rd year. A Mrs Paston, then resident in St Omers, wrote in tribute: "1 have met with a severe trial which has greatly desordered me by the Death of that great and good Man Dear Mr Butler, he died like a Saint and when his speech failed him ye tears of Devotion streamed down his face with his Eyes Lifted up to Heaven he quited this miserable World. it
seems as if he foresaw his Death as he settled all his ternporall
affairs so short a time bcfore his illness; he desired to be buried in a Church yard ye nearest am, English house where his Death might happen but ye Heads of ye Church here would not consent to that."
*Butler Liie% of the Saints, Edited by Herbert J. Mullion, SJ. and Donald Attwatet. 'Aid? a Foreword by Cardinal Hume (Burns and Oato. 4 rob, £(0).