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St. George and the Dragon: Introduction


1 Matzke, "Contributions," pp. 147-58. See also Robertson, The Medieval Saints' Lives, pp. 45-46, for a translated extract from the Old French Chanson d'Antioch; for the ladders incident, see LA, trans. Ryan, 1.242.

2 Loomis, White Magic, p. 65 and, for references to other dragon-saint encounters, notes 111-17. To Loomis's list might be added the stories of Martha (see below, note on line 108), and Silvester, which is vigorously summarized (from a fifth-century version of the Actus Silvestri) by the early English writer, Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury (639-709), in his De Virginitate (see Aldhelm: The Prose Works, pp. 82-83). On dragons and saints, see now Rauer, Beowulf and the Dragon.

3 See Cabrol and Leclercq, "Georges (Saint)" in Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 6.1.636-37, and Hulst, St. George of Cappadocia, pp. 15-17 and 17-22; a concise survey, rich in references and insights, is that of Fontenrose, Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins, Appendix 4, pp. 515-20.

4 On the earliest eastern text and images (from eleventh-century Georgia), see Walter, "The Origins of the Cult of St. George," 295-326, at pp. 320-22. It has also been suggested that the dragon motif was transferred to the George legend from that of his fellow soldier-saint, Theodore Tiro (Robertson, The Medieval Saints' Lives, pp. 51-52).

5 For the earliest Latin account (BHL 3386), see Aufhauser, Das Drachenwunder.

6 E.g., the well-known representations by Albrecht Dürer, Vittore Carpaccio, and Raphaël. For a recent, copiously illustrated study of the dragon episode in art, see Didi-Huberman et al., Saint Georges et le dragon. For the version in LA, see Maggioni's edition, pp. 391-98, and Ryan's translation, 1.238-42.

7 For convenient editions of the Mirk and Caxton versions, see Sperk, ed., Medieval English Saints' Legends, pp. 110-12, 118-24; for the GiL version, see the edition of Hamer, Three Lives from the Gilte Legende, pp. 65-74.

8 Our text of the dragon episode is based on a fresh collation of the Minnesota manuscript. Previous editions are by Parker, "A Northern Fragment of The Life of St. George," and Görlach, East Midland Revision, pp. 33-35.

9 The Northern Homily Cycle, ed. Nevanlinna. For more on NHC, see below, chapter IV.

10 Görlach, East Midland Revision, pp. 38-45. See also his "Middle English Legends," in Philippart, 1994-, 1.429-85, at p. 457. As Görlach points out (East Midland Revision, p. 32), it is not absolutely certain that the Minnesota St. George legend is the work of the East Midland reviser of SEL, but the evidence is strong.

11 LA, chapter II, ed. Maggioni, pp. 25-26, trans. Ryan, 1.13-14; for the expanded SEL legend of St. Andrew, see Görlach, East Midland Revision, pp. 55-62.

12 Görlach, East Midland Revision, pp. 31-35, who also prints the text, supposes (p. 32n23) that no more than ten lines have been lost between the dragon episode and the remainder of George's martyrdom as printed above. Görlach assumes that the East Midland author/scribe would preserve the SEL legend of St. George rather than taking pains to rework it to match the LA account.

13 LA, ed. Maggioni, p. 393; trans. Ryan, 1.239.

14 Fode, "food," is used here in the sense "what is fed/a child." See OED, food, 6. The formulaic phrase frely fode also occurs in Barbour's Bruce 3.578. It is not confined to Northern usage: compare the legend of St. Kenelm, line 143: "Alas mi child, mi swete fode, þat ic habbe forþ ibro3t" (DM, 1.284).

15 See LA, ed. Maggioni, p. 393: . . . de te filios in regali gremio nutrire credebam ("I thought I would see sons nursing at your royal breast" - trans. Ryan, 1.239).
The Dragon Episode in the St. George Legend

The crusading knights of the late eleventh century believed that St. George, with his fellow "soldier-saints," Demetrius, Maurice, and Theodore, had fought alongside them in their battles against the Saracens at places such as Antioch and Jerusalem in 1098-99. Wearing the crusaders' red cross on his white armor, George is said to have been the first to mount the scaling ladders placed against the walls of Jerusalem, promising the Christian solders they had nothing to fear if they followed him as their captain.1

It is generally assumed today that it was the crusaders who brought back with them to the West the knightly tale of George and the dragon. Stories of saints encountering and subduing dragons are common enough in Christian hagiography, and it has been suggested that in many of them the conquest of the dragon symbolizes the suppression of a pagan cult.2 Evidence for this possibility in the present legend includes the emphasis on animal and human sacrifices and the wholesale conversions of the Silenians to Christianity after the dragon's public execution. The underlying story of hero, maiden, and monster, however, may well have its origins deep in the pre-Christian combat myths of Egypt and Greece: for example, in the myth of the Golden Fleece, where the magician Medea helps Jason by using drugs to subdue the dragon guarding the Fleece in its shrine at Colchis; in the myth of Horus, the Egyptian god of good and light, who battles Seth-Typhon, god of evil and darkness (represented in one fifth-century Egyptian bas-relief as a crocodile); and in the myth of Perseus, son of Zeus and destroyer of Medusa, who saves King Cepheus' daughter Andromeda from the jaws of a sea monster to which she has been offered as a sacrifice in order to stop his ravaging of Ethiopia.3 But when or by whom Horus/Perseus was transformed into George, or Medea "displaced" into the helpless princess, is obscure. The earliest known depiction of the medieval story is from the early eleventh century (Cappadocia in Syria), while the first known narrative version survives in an eleventh-century Georgian text.4 The dragon episode did not appear in the West until the twelfth century5 and was not widely known there until it was combined with the standard Passio Georgii in Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum historale and Jacobus de Voragine's LA, which guaranteed its popularity in the later Middle Ages as a literary and pictorial subject.6

The Dragon Episode in the East Midland Revision of SEL

We have seen earlier that the traditional George legend in SEL was composed before LA was available. What is surprising is how little impact the LA version, with its colorful chivalric addition, had on the later development of the SEL version of the George legend. Most of the numerous fourteenth-century manuscripts of SEL and even those of the fifteenth century, when George's secular cult was already in vogue in England, continue to recopy the original thirteen-century poem, sans dragon; only one manuscript (discussed below) preserves a text, itself fragmentary, of a revision influenced by the LA version. Other Middle English collections were less conservative, however: LA, with its dragon episode, is the main source (via a French intermediary) of the George legend in the Middle English prose Gilte Legende (c. 1438) and William Caxton's Golden Legend (1478), along with a verse life in the Scottish Legendary (c. 1400), and the prose summary in John Mirk's Festial (early fifteenth century).7

The fragmentary SEL episode of St. George and the Dragon, printed here, is found in University of Minnesota MS Z.822. N.81 (fols. 215v-216v),8 about whose medieval provenance little is known, except that it was written in the first half of the fifteenth century in the dialect of South Yorkshire (just north of Hull). It comprises a partial copy of NHC,9 a stanzaic version of the life of St. Anne, and the SEL legends of St. Bartholomew and St. George. Görlach argues that these two are representatives of what he calls the "East Midland Revision" of SEL, partially preserved in a mid-fifteenth-century manuscript (Cambridge University Library MS Additional 3039), but produced originally around 1400 by a writer who modernized the language somewhat and adapted it to the dialect of the East Midlands (chiefly corresponding to modern Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, and Lincolnshire). He also rewrote sections of some of the SEL legends (especially of November/December saints), amplifying them with passages translated closely and rather stiffly from LA.10 For example, he expanded the SEL legend of St. Andrew by inserting forty-three verses summarizing two episodes from the apostle's early adventures prior to his arrival in Achaia.11 The longest addition of this kind, however, is the dragon episode in the legend of St. George, which has unfortunately been lost from Addit. 3039 (along with all the legends for March-April), but which is incompletely preserved in the Minnesota manuscript.

The text begins with lines corresponding to SEL Martyrdom of St. George 1-4, after which follows a 126-line rendering of the dragon episode closely following LA. The text breaks off on the last folio at the point shortly before the narrative would have rejoined the original SEL version at line 5.12 In comparison with the original SEL-poet and the early reviser, the East Midland reviser is at times an uninspired, even lazy versifier (e.g., the phrase hayly man is used three times in lines 1-5; see also lines 14 and 16 for the repetition of many a man), but occasionally he manages to respond more creatively to the story and to recapture something of the energy and emotive power of the older SEL-poet. An example is his rendering of the hapless king's first lament at the prospect of sacrificing his daughter to the dragon, which in the Latin of the LA is merely as follows: "My dearest child, what have I done to you? Or what shall I say? Am I never to see your wedding?"13 Compare the English version:
"Allas, my frely fode,
That a fowl dragon sall drynke thi gentyll blode!
What sall I do or say, or what tyme sall I se
That thou to kynge, or kynges son, sulde rychly spowsed be?" (lines 49-52)
noble child (lit., sustenance)

The king's alliterative formulaic epithet for his daughter, frely fode, defining childhood in terms of nutrition,14 appears to provoke a complex series of punning associations, playing sadly with the double meaning of the word fode here, and also linking the blood sacrifice, demanded by the dragon, with the king's deep emotional stake in his own blood line, as is evident a few lines later also (64-75), when he has her dressed royally to be sweloghede (line 70) by the dragon, and reflects sadly on how he had expected to have brought up (norischethe) her children (knyghtes) in his palace: I wende hafe norischethe in my hall knyghtes of thi body (line 64). Apart from this interesting development (which is partly anticipated in the Latin source),15 the East Midland SEL dragon episode sticks closely to LA. The Minnesota rendering is significant not for its poetics, but mainly as the earliest extant English vernacular version of what became such a popular story, and as a rare exception to the relative stability of the SEL textual tradition after the fourteenth century.

Language of the Minnesota Manuscript

The dragon episode differs linguistically from the C manuscript's Southwest Midland version of the Martyrdom of St. George (II[a]) in various ways, displaying features typical of the East Midland dialect (that of the poet who revised SEL), and occasionally of a more Northern dialect (that of the Yorkshire scribe of the Minnesota manuscript). For example, many of the present tense verbs in the text exhibit the Midland and Northern -es suffix, which would eventually spread to the London area and replace the Southern ME -eth suffix in the third-person singular. The -es suffix is commonly used in the Minnesota manuscript in the second and third singular (spekys, line 43; gretes, line 77; bydes, line 80; lokes, line 85), but it also occurs twice in the plural imperative (lettys, line 40; turnes, line 119), where the Midland as well as Southern dialects would more usually have -eth. The present participle suffix in this text, -ande (as in rennand, line 8; gretand, line 63; rydande, line 75), was the regular form in the North and the Northeast Midlands, instead of the familiar -inge /-ynge of the Central Midlands and South. Among the other morphological traits of the Minnesota manuscript is the third-person singular feminine pronoun, scho, and the third-person plural pronouns, thai, tham, and ther. In fourteenth-century and earlier texts these would be regarded as Northern traits, but by the fifteenth century their usage had become common further south; only the forms scho (for "she") and tham (for "them") are still distinctively Midland or Northern. Note that the adverb of place, "there," is, unambiguously, thor in this text.

Among the characteristic Northern or North Midland phonological features of the Minnesota text is the simplification of the initial sc/sh- fricative (as in suld, "should"; sall, "shall"). Likewise Northern is the occasional retention of OE long a in situations where, further south, this long a had "rounded" to an open o: e. g., hayly ("holy"), ane ("one"), whame ("whom"), wald ("would"), awne ("own"), hald ("hold"). These last examples probably reflect the speech habits of the Minnesota scribe, not his exemplar, since they all occur within the line, while the end-rhyme pairs, which are usually the surest guide to the language of the original composition, invariably show the rounded o (e.g., ston/wone, lines 67-68) that one would expect in an East Midland composition. Another Northern orthographical trait is the practice of indicating a long vowel by means of a following -y or -i: e.g., hayly, boite ("boot," i.e., "remedy"), doyne ("done"), soyne ("soon"), boythe ("both").

The Minnesota text is sprinkled with words, or forms of words, that were apparently common only in the Anglian dialects of Old English (bud, line 24, "behooved"; gange, line 60, "walk"; gretand, line 63, "weeping"; mekyll, line 42, "much/great"; tyll, line 29, "to"; nerhand, line 9, "near") or that originated in the native speech of the ninth- and tenth-century Scandinavian settlers in the East Midland region (gerte, line 62, "caused"; foyne, line 35, "few"; uggely, line 11, "ugly"; kavell, line 29, "cavel/lot"; caste, line 29, "cast/throw").

Indexed in

IMEV 2904.


University of Minnesota MS Z.822. N.81, fols. 215v-216v.

Previous editions

East Midland Revision. Ed. Gorlach. Pp. 33-35.

Parker. "A Northern Fragment of The Life of St. George."

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