A small group of Jesuits in Antwerp, Belgium, organized into a society in the 17th century by Jean Bolland for the critical study and publication of the lives of the saints. Although named after the first of their number, the group got inspiration from the learned Leribert Rosweyde (1569 to 1629), who conceived the idea of purging the lives of the saints of the innumerable apocryphal and legendary details that encumbered them by the publication of a scholarly Acta sanctorum. In a short treatise, Fastes des saints, he explained his intention of dealing with the deeds of the saints whose lives are recorded in the manuscripts collected in Belgian libraries (1607). Rosweyde did not succeed in completing this project, but laid the foundation for the Acta sanctorum by editing the oldest texts of the Lives of the Desert Fathers in his Vitae Patrum (1615). Charged with continuing the work of Rosweyde, Jean Bolland (b. Julémont, Diocese of Liège, Aug. 13, 1596; d. Antwerp, Sept. 12, 1665) modified both the plan and the method. He decided to deal with all the known saints in the Church's calendar, gathering all the information known about each and publishing it with notes and comments. Each volume of the Acta would be furnished with a table of reference and an index. In 1635 Bolland was given Godefroid Henschenius (1601 to 1681), a student of his, as collaborator. Henschenius's suggestions caused him to enlarge the conception of the enterprise, to the extent that he recalled some of his own work that was already in print, and both men turned attention to the saints in the calendar for January. The appearance of the Acta sanctorum for January (1643) and February (1658) elicited the admiration of scholars. In 1659 Daniel van Papenbroek, or Papebroch (b. Anvers, 1628; d. 1714), whom H. Delehaye has called "le bollandist par excellence," joined the group and proved to be one of the most learned men of his time, an indefatigable worker, and great discoverer of documents, who combined a firm judgment with the courage of his scientific opinions and was responsible for the publication of 19 volumes. The munificence of Pope alexander vii made it possible for the first two companions of Bolland to embark on a journey of study and investigation, the first of a long tradition. They discovered many manuscripts in Germany, Italy, and France, copies of which were sent to the Bollandist collection.
Papebroch enlarged the field of interest of the Acta to include both the chronology of the popes and the evaluation of false documents. This latter study, the fruit of a month of forced leisure at Luxemburg, was based on insufficient evidence and brought him into controversy with the Benedictine scholar Jean mabillon, whose representations Papebroch finally accepted. His intellectual honesty and the admirable letter of acquiescence in his opponent's opinion, gained for the Bollandists the friendship of the Benedictine scholar. Since the Bollandists refused to acknowledge the prophet Elijah as founder of the Carmelites, they were savagely attacked by certain members of that order. The Bollandists became the victims of a violent pamphlet warfare, and their work was condemned by the Spanish Inquisition; they had to send Father Janninck to Rome to avoid greater difficulties, and Papebroch himself lost much time in refuting the charge of the Carmelite Sebastian de St. Paul. Although condemnation in Rome was avoided, the Bollandists continued to be victims of malevolent insinuations until Pope bene dict xiv intervened and put an end to the unfortunate quarrel.
The golden age of the society was constituted by Bolland, Henschenius, and Papebroch, whose successors did not always have their scientific competence. Among them, Du Sollier and J. Stilting showed signs of timidity and prolixity.
With the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, the Bollandist Collection, which had arrived at the third volume for October, was subjected to great difficulty; and although volumes four and five were published in Brussels (1780, 1786), and volume 6 in Tongerloo (1794), the work had to be abandoned as the result of the disturbance that followed the French Revolution (1789). The library was dispersed and many of its precious manuscripts lost.
In 1837 the society was reconstituted and began republication of the Acta in 1845. V. de Buck (d. 1876), C. de Smedt (d. 1911), A. Poncelet, and H. delehaye (d.1941) brought to their study the assistance of philology and other subsidiary historical disciplines; Delehaye opened new perspectives, and P. Peeters concentrated attention on the hagiography of the Eastern Churches.
Besides the Acta sanctorum, which now consists of 67 folio volumes (January 1 to November 10), including a Commentary on the Martyrology of St. Jerome (1931) and a Propylaeum ad Acta SS. Decembris dealing with the Roman Martyrology (1940), the Bollandists publish a review, the Analecta Bollandiana, begun in 1882 and completed with a bulletin of hagiographical publications (since 1891). They produce also a collection of Subsidia hagiographica (since 1886) with a control listing of sources for the lives of the saints in alphabetical order, called the Bibliotheca hagiographica latina (BHL), the Bibliotheca hagiographica graeca (BHG), and the Bibliotheca hagiographia orientalis (BHO).
Bibliography: b. de gaiffier, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 2:571–72. h. delehaye, L'Oeuvre des Bollandistes à travers trois siècles (Subsidia hagiographica 13a.2; 2d ed. 1958), with bibliography. p. peeters, Analecta Bollandiana 55 (1937) v–xlix; Figures bollandiennes contemporaines (Brussels 1948); L'Oeuvre des Bollandistes (new ed. Brussels 1961); Analecta Bollandiana 60 (1942) i–lii,fr. delehaye. p. devos, ibid. 69 (1951) i–lix. r. aigrain, L'Hagiographie (Paris 1953) 329–50.