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You’ve probably heard of Butler’s ‘Lives of the Saints.’ But who was Butler?


Courtesy: Mary Evans Picture Library

Ray Cavanaugh - published on 09/04/17

A profile of the profiler ... He read at meals, during walks, and reportedly even while on horseback.

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Alban Butler, the author of Lives of the Saints, is about the most prominent hagiographer — a word with Greek roots, meaning “biographer of the holy” — in all of Catholicism. But despite his well-known connection to all the saintly lives he profiled, few know anything about his life. Indeed, there was a man behind the saintly profiles.

The son of lawyer Simon Butler, Alban Butler was born in October 1710 in Northamptonshire in central England. His once highly distinguished family was in decline by the time of his birth.

According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia (2nd edition), Butler’s earliest schooling took place at the Ladywell School in Lancashire in northwest England, but he soon transferred to the English college at Douai in northern France.

Not long into his tenure at Douai, his parents died in quick succession. Shortly before her death, Butler’s mother, Ann, sent him a letter that said, “I beg of you to make constant resolutions, rather to die a thousand times, if possible, than quit your faith.”

Heartfelt as it was, her deathbed exhortation was not necessary, for Butler never gave any indication of straying from his faith. A noble character was also evident, and a fellow student in ill health recalled him in particular for his kindness, in addition to his voracious reading. He read at meals, during walks, and reportedly even while on horseback.

Butler was ordained a priest in 1734, after which point he became a professor of philosophy and theology. As an educator, he found the works of some philosophers irreconcilable with the Catholic faith, and he used great caution with what he chose to include in his teachings. He was also opposed to the theater, believing that stage entertainments had evil tendencies.

One pursuit of which he clearly approved was writing. At Douai, he embarked on The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints (more conveniently referred to as Butler’s Lives of the Saints, or even more conveniently just Butler’s Lives). His expertise in ancient and modern languages was conducive to this massive undertaking, to which he devoted his time when permitted. Though his compositional endeavors would often hinder his socializing, he never allowed them to impinge on his religious duties.

In 1745, he toured France and Italy with the Earl of Shrewsbury and his brothers (who ultimately became bishops). On return from his travels, he resumed teaching at Douai until 1749, when he was dispatched to serve as a priest in Staffordshire, England. He would have preferred an appointment to London, which offered much better libraries and opportunities to interact with other writers. And he tried, without success, to get his appointment switched to London.

After serving at various parishes in England, he was appointed as chaplain to the Duke of Norfolk. In this capacity, he also tutored the duke’s nephew, who succumbed to a brief illness when the two were visiting Paris. Though the early death of his student was unfortunate, it did enable Butler to devote more time to his magnum hagiographic opus, which he completed in Paris. His Lives, consisting of more than 1,600 entries arranged chronologically, first saw publication in four volumes, issued in London from 1756-1759.

Many sources contend that Butler spent 30 years on the preparation for his masterwork. This would mean that his research commenced in his mid-teens, which seems unlikely at first consideration. However, even in his youth he was enamored by the biographies of saints, so it actually is likely that his research began at such a young age.

After all the effort devoted to Lives, the work was published anonymously. It was regarded as a massive achievement from the beginning. A French translation appeared during Butler’s lifetime, and he was not a huge fan of it. Aside from disapproving of the prose style, he felt that the translators were too liberal in their interpretations and had stripped the work of its devotional aspect, according to An Account of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Alban Butler, written by his nephew Charles Butler.

Administrative affairs tied up much of Alban Butler’s time in his later years, especially after 1766, when he was appointed president of the English College at Saint-Omer in northern France. While serving as a college president, other Church authorities so frequently sought his advice that he was unable to devote nearly as much time to research and writing.

Butler enjoyed good physical health for most of his life but suffered a stroke that impacted his speech shortly before his death on May 15, 1773, at age 62.

Among his other written works is Life of Mary of the Holy Cross, which appeared in 1767. His Moveable Feasts and Fasts and Meditations and Discourses on Sublime Truths were published posthumously. Of course, his saintly profiles were what made his name immortal, even though his life has gone much-overlooked.

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