Jean Bolland, a Belgian Jesuit, was born in the dying embers of the 16th Century was an outstanding historian and organiser. He taught in a variety of Jesuit Colleges in Belgium and Holland before being called to Antwerp by the superior of the Flemish province to examine papers left by a recently dead hagiographer Heribert Rosweyde. Realising that Rosweyde had confined his quest of original texts to local libraries Bolland decided to dramatically expand the scope of his work. He made appeals to historians all over Europe, collecting all the information he could find for each saint and his cult. He would then preface each text with a study of its author and its historical value, and to append notes of explanation. It was a historical survey of unprecedented detail, in essence a critical hagiography - the Acta Sanctorum.
It was soon too great for one man and two more Jesuits were assigned to help him, travelling through Germany, France and Italy, searching for old documents in monasteries and libraries. His work was continued after his death in 1665, each volume following the Roman Calendar - e.g. Volume I, Saints that appeared from Jan 1st - to Jan 10th and by the time the final December edition was published there were 67 volumes. The work that spanned 4 centuries is seen as ground breaking in its use of historical criticism. When the Jesuits were suppressed their library was acquired by the Premonstratensians of the Abbey of Tongerlo Abbey near Antwerp , who endeavored to carry on the work. The fifty-third volume was published by the abbot.
In 1836 a hagiographical society was formed in France under the patronage of several bishops and a government minister, and it prioritised the resumption of the work of the Bollandists. This aroused great indignation in the newly formed Kingdom of Belgium (1830) , indignation that a work which had come to be regarded as a national glory should pass into the hands of the French. So today in 1837, Father van Lil, Provincial of the Society in Belgium, agreed to the appointment of a Society of new Bollandists, with their residence at the College of Saint-Michel at Brussels. The proud Belgian government promised an annual subsidy which would continue from year to year under the different governments, both Catholic and Liberal, until 1868. In 1882, a quarterly review on hagiography was established under the title of Analecta Bollandiana, which still exists today and publishes supplements to the Acta.
For the official website of the Bollandists CLICK HERE
For an archive of the different volumes of the Acta Sanctorum CLICK HERE