Joseph of Arimathea: From Biblical Obscurity to New Age Fame

  • Charles T. Wood
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Joseph of Arimathea receives no more than brief mention in the canonical Gospels, primarily as the person who took down and buried the body of Christ.1 By the mid-thirteenth century, however, various subsequent works had elaborated on his remarkable post-Crucifixion career, one that started with lengthy imprisonment by Herod and ended with missionary success as the apostle to Britain. Over time, knowledge of this Joseph spread from England to Europe and, ultimately, the rest of the world, but a key step in this process surely came around 1250 when, at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, an interpolation was added to a copy of William of Malmesbury’s De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae, an interpolation claiming that Joseph had founded the monastery.2 At that point, and for almost a century and a half thereafter, Joseph remained a saint recognized mainly in the West Country, but during the conciliar period he found himself both nationalized and internationalized as the English delegations to the Councils of Pisa, Constance, Siena, and Basle sought precedence for themselves by demonstrating that Joseph had brought the light of Christianity to Britain well in advance of its apostolic arrival in other nations. A generation ago, Valerie Lagorio dealt brilliantly with most of these developments, but because she saw Joseph’s legend as inherently medieval, she failed to explore some of its most extravagant claims, ones that took shape remarkably recently, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even today, in fact, Joseph seems to retain remarkable myth-making potential.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 2.
    Valerie M. Lagorio, “The Evolving Legend of St. Joseph of Glastonbury,” Speculum 46 (1971): 215–16.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Charles T. Wood, “Fraud and Its Consequences: Savaric of Bath and the Reform of Glastonbury Abbey,” in The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey: Essays in Honour of the ninetieth birthday of C.A. Ralegh Radford, ed. Lesley Abrams and James P Carley (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1991), pp. 273–76.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    See in particular, Charles T. Wood, “Guenevere at Glastonbury: A Problem in Translation(s),” Arthurian Literature 16 (1998): 27–29.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    Jonathan Sumption, The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003), p. 61.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Matthew Paris, The Illustrated Chronicles of Matthew Paris: Observations of the Thirteenth-Century Life, ed. and trans. Richard Vaughan (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton, 1993), pp. 37–38.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    see H. Oskar Sommer, ed., The Vulgate Version of the Arthurian Romances, 8 vols. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1908–1916), 1.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Robert de Boron, Joseph d’Arimathie: A Critical Edition of the Verse and Prose Versions, ed. Richard O’Gorman (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1995).Google Scholar
  8. 23.
    As translated in J. Armitage Robinson, Two Glastonbury Legends: King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathea (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1926), p. 64.Google Scholar
  9. 25.
    Martin Biddle and Sally Badham, King Arthur’s Round Table: An Archaeological Investigation (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2000), pp. 399–403.Google Scholar
  10. 27.
    see Walter W. Skeat, ed., Joseph of Arimathie: Otherwise called The romance of the Seint Graal, or Holy Grail: an alliterative poem written about A.D. 1350, and now first printed from the unique copy in the Vernon MS at Oxford, EETS O.S. 44 (London: Trübner, 1871).Google Scholar
  11. 33.
    Louise R. Loomis, The Council of Constance (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), p. 343.Google Scholar
  12. 38.
    John Hardyng, The Chronicle of lohn Hardyng, ed. Henry Ellis (London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1812), p. 84.Google Scholar
  13. 41.
    Thomas Fuller, The Church History of Britain: From the Birth of Jesus Christ until the Year 1648, ed. J.S. Brewer, 6 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1845), 2:447–48.Google Scholar
  14. 43.
    Sir William Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum: a history of the abbies and other monasteries, hospitals, frieries, and cathedral and collegiate churches, with their dependencies, in England and Wales; also of all such Scotch, Irish and French monasteries, as were in manner connected with religious houses in England, ed. John Caley, Henry Ellis, and Bulkeley Bandinel, 6 vols. (London: T.G. March, 1849), 1:1.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Stephanie Hayes-Healy 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles T. Wood

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations