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The Martyrdom of St. George: Introduction


1 For the "soldier-saints" as a group, in addition to the classic study by Delehaye, Les légendes grècques des saints militaires, see the excellent website on "Military Martyrs" by David Woods at

2 See Lapidge, "A Tenth-Century Metrical Calendar from Ramsey," p. 331. Among recent accounts of the archeological evidence for the cult of George in the Near East and the development of the legend is that of Haubrichs, Georgslied und Georgslegende im frühen Mittelalter, pp. 224-42, 305-27. See also Walter, "The Origins of the Cult of St. George," especially pp. 314-26, who criticizes some of Haubrichs' data. On the cult in Anglo-Saxon England, see Hill, "Saint George before the Conquest." On the iconographical tradition, see the entry for George in Kirschbaum and Bandmann, eds., Lexikon der christlichen Ikonographie, 6.365-90, and Rochelle, Post-Biblical Saints Art Index, pp. 115-22. See also the recent study of some medieval English images of St. George by Samantha J. E. Riches, "St George as a Male Virgin Martyr," in Riches and Salih, pp. 65-85.

3 The Greek tradition of George's legend is examined by Krumbacher, Der heilige Georg in der griechischen Überlieferung. The earliest extant Latin versions are represented by BHL 3363 and 3367. On the development of the Latin tradition, see the work of Matzke, to which we are much indebted: "Contributions to the History of the Legend of St. George" and "The Legend of St. George: Its Development into a Roman d'Aventure."

4 In the older Greek and Latin versions of the legend, George's persecutor is Dacian, a Persian ruler (BHL 3363) who then becomes more vaguely a "king of the pagans" (BHL 3367, 3376); in others, the persecutor is the Roman emperor Decius (BHL 3384) or a Roman judge, Dacian, under the emperor Diocletian (BHL 3386, etc.).

5 Robertson, The Medieval Saints' Lives, pp. 44-46.

6 For summary of and references to older scholarship of this sort, see Fontenrose, Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins, p. 519.

7 See Brown, The Cult of the Saints, pp. 72-85; Bynum, The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, passim, but see especially pp. 59-114.

8 Baudrillart, Meyer, Aubert et al., eds., Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 20.633.

9 See von Dobschütz, ed., Das Decretum Gelasianum, pp. 9 and 13; the relevant passage is quoted and translated by Robertson, The Medieval Saints' Lives, pp. 44-45.

10 An Old English Martyrology, ed. Herzfeld, with facing translation; critically edited by Kotzor, Das altenglische Martyrologium. On the sources of the entry see Cross, "Saints' Lives in Old English," pp. 45-51.

11 Among the manuscripts that seem to constitute an "English" family of Z-type texts are: Dublin, Trinity College MS 171; London, Gray's Inn MS 3, British Library MSS Cotton Nero E. i, pt. 1 and Cotton Tiberius D. iii (burnt); and Salisbury Cathedral Library MS 221. The most complete assessment and presentation of the textual transmission of the Latin tradition is that of Haubrichs (cited above, n. 2), who has considerably revised the stemma of redactions, but Matzke's work (cited above, n. 3) forms a sufficient background for preliminary study of the legend in its Middle English context.

12 Ælfric of Eynsham, Ælfric's Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, 1.307-19. On Ælfric's putative source, represented by MS Cotton Nero E.i, see Hill, "Ælfric, Gelasius, and St. George," p. 3.

13 The feast day, April 23, was of the second highest rank, just below that of the feasts of Christ (Christmas, Easter, etc.) and of the Apostles, the Virgin Mary, and certain special Western saints such as Benedict, Martin of Tours, and Gregory the Great. Equal to George's feast were those of other major saints such as Agnes, Cecilia, Maurice and the Theban Legion, Sebastian, and so on. For some medieval calendars listing George's feast day, see Wormald, ed., English Kalendars before A.D. 1100, and English Benedictine Kalendars after 1100. The dismemberment of George's body in his passio is paralleled by the dispersal of his relics. For one of several English communities that claimed to possess parts of his body, see Conner, Anglo-Saxon Exeter, pp. 180, 194, where an early-eleventh-century relics list includes Of sanctes Georgies banum þæs mæran Cristes cempan & martyres ("[some] of the bones of St George, the great champion and martyr of Christ").

14 See II(b), below, St. George and the Dragon, Introduction.

15 Laborderie, "Richard the Lionheart."

16 Chambers, The English Folk-Play, pp. 170-85 (to be used with caution).

17 On the guild processions and the secularization of the feast day, and for further bibliography on St. George's day observances, see McClendon, "A Moveable Feast." On the continued political significance of St. George's feast day in colonial America, see Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan, pp. 334-38.

18 LA, ch. LVI (BHL 3395), ed. Maggioni, pp. 391-98, trans. Ryan, 1.238-42 (ch. 58 in the older edition of Graesse).

19 Görlach, Textual Tradition, p. 161.

20 The Sarum Breviary skips the episode of Athanasius the magician, passing directly from George's scourging, salting, and rubbing with haircloths to the bronze wheel torture, while the Exeter Ordinal more closely follows the Z-type Latin passio and positions the saint's contest with the magician before George's torture on the wheel: Breviarium ad usum insignis ecclesiae Sarum, ed. Procter and Wordsworth, 3.257-260 and Ordinale Exon., ed. Dalton and Doble, 3.231.

21 "More important than . . . narrative presentation and setting is the entirely new tone and atmosphere in the [SEL]. The mood of compassion and warm human participation in the description of the lives of saints . . . which permeates the entire collection is the result of a more 'realistic' and purposely heightened depiction of the sufferings and joys of the protagonists and of the direct appeal to the emotions and empathy of the audience [often by means of the narrator's emphatic exclamations]. This is . . . the truly important contribution of the [SEL] to English literature," Jankofsky, "Entertainment," pp. 710-11.

22 See, e.g., the humorous variant reading in line 13.

23 Görlach, Textual Tradition, p. 57. In addition to Görlach's description of the manuscript and its affiliations (pp. 77-79), see also that in DM, 3.4-5.
The Cult and Legend of St. George (feast day, April 23)

The image of George most familiar to us today, the saint dressed in a white tunic bedecked with a red cross, astride his stallion, and skewering a dragon as he rescues a fair maiden, depends more on a late medieval and Renaissance ideal of this miles Christi (knight of Christ) than on his legend in its earlier forms, in which the dragon and the maiden play no part and George's role is one of verbal jousting and violent suffering rather than knightly derring-do. George the martyr was allegedly born in the region of Cappadocia (now central Turkey) and executed by the Persians or Romans (traditions differ) in Diospolis (Lydda), on the road from Jerusalem to Joppa (later Jaffa, now Tel Aviv-Yafo), in the early fourth century. Unlike many other saints in this collection, however, nothing truly historical is known of George and the figure in the legends may be a composite of more than one original saint; only the archeological certainty of an early cult suggests that there probably was a martyr of this name, who was perhaps a soldier.1 Among this early archeological evidence is the church in Shaqrā, Syria, west of the Sea of Galilee, dedicated to St. George by a Bishop Tiberinus; it is dated by some in the mid-fourth century but by others in the sixth. Certainly by the sixth century the cult's influence had spread not only into Syria, Arabia, Egypt, and Byzantium, but also as far as southern Gaul. By this time, Diospolis/Lydda was the focal point of the cult since the church there claimed to have the saint's relics. Various pilgrims from the early sixth century on recorded their visits to the site, among them the Frankish bishop Arculf, who visited in the late seventh century, according to the Irish hagiographer Adomnan in his De locis sanctis, a guide for pilgrims to the Holy Land written near the end of the century. Although Bede knew Adomnan's book well, he and his contemporary Aldhelm are strangely silent about George in their hagiographic writings and elsewhere, perhaps because it was not until the middle of the eighth century, when Pope Zacharias (741-52) transferred what was believed to be George's head from the church of St. John Lateran to the church of St. George in Velabro, that the saint began to be culted in Rome and the saint's feast found a permanent place in the Roman service books and their northern offspring. He is celebrated with a couplet in the York metrical calendar, composed probably during the time of Archbishop Ecgberht (754-66).2

The Greek legend accompanying the early diffusion of George's cult dates back to the fifth century, and a Latin version of this was apparently circulating in the West by the early sixth century. This version sensationally pushes the genre of the martyr's passio to limits even medieval clerics apparently found hard to swallow, for in both Greek and Latin it was subjected to much abridging and revising over the centuries. Our Middle English version of George's martyrdom is based on one of these later abridgements, but it is worth summarizing the earliest form of the legend to give some sense of its bizarrely epic quality, far exceeding the simpler pattern of interrogation, imprisonment, sentencing, and martyrdom that we have observed in the passio of St. Andrew.3

George, a military leader under Dacian, "king of the Persians,"4 inaugurates his seven years of torture by boldly coming forward to confess his belief in Christ, as Dacian is preparing to persecute Christians in the area. At Dacian's order, George is stretched out on the rack and ripped to shreds with flesh hooks, harnessed to machines that draw him apart, and then beaten, after which salt is poured into his wounds, which are rubbed with a haircloth. He is then pressed into a box pierced with nails, impaled on sharp stakes, plunged into boiling water, and has his head crushed by a hammer. All to no avail. God comforts George in prison and informs him that he will die three deaths before entering Paradise. Dacian, confounded, summons the magician Athanasius who shows his mettle by splitting an ox in half and having each half return to life whole. Undaunted, George gulps down two portions of the magician's poison, at which point the magician confesses Christ and is summarily executed by the Persian ruler and George is returned to prison. The next day he is lacerated on a wheel of swords, cut into ten pieces, and thrown into a well that is sealed with a stone. God appears with the archangel Michael to resurrect the saint, at which point the officer in charge, Anatholius, is converted with nearly 1,100 soldiers and one woman, all of whom are immediately executed. Dacian then redoubles his efforts: George is tied to an iron bed, molten lead is poured into his mouth and eyes after which sixty nails are driven into his skull, he is hung upside down over a fire with a stone tied around his neck, and he is shut into the revolving belly of a metal ox which is filled with swords and nails. Yet again at the end of the day the saint goes back to prison. To die his second death, George is sawed in two, boiled to bits, and just before he is buried, God, good to his word, resuscitates him after five days.

In addition to his own resilience, George's miracles include changing thrones into trees, reviving oxen, healing a sick boy, and resurrecting and baptizing men, women, and children who have been dead for centuries.

Despite fastening a glowing iron helmet to the prisoner's head, tearing and burning his body some more, and executing George a third time, Dacian fails to move the saint to sacrifice to Apollo and tries verbal persuasion instead. When George appears to consent, the delighted king invites him to the palace for the night during which the saint surreptitiously converts Dacian's wife Alexandra, who is later executed as a result. George in the meantime goes to the temple of Apollo, whose statue promptly leaves the temple and confesses his fraudulence. The saint stamps his foot, and the ground swallows up the false god. Exasperated, Dacian pronounces George's death sentence yet again. Before his execution, though, George prays and intercedes for those who remember his name and feast day. Having survived seven years of torture and three deaths, he is finally decapitated and gratefully ascends to Heaven.

Such a summary of the legend's gruesome array of tortures is apt to conceal its considerable didactic content. Duncan Robertson has recently described the legend, with its many speeches and prayers incorporating numerous echoes of the gospels and other scriptural texts, as a kind of liturgical dialogue between the reader and the "priest-hero" George, reconstructing the gospel narrative and the redemptive process with each performance of the passio.5 Earlier scholars have scrutinized the spectacular events of the narrative in the light of comparative religion and mythology, and have seen in the chamber of horrors reflections of ancient Near Eastern fertility cults, in which the yearly death and resurrection of gods such as Attis, Thammuz, and Osiris were prominent.6 Whatever the origins of such narrative forms might be, their obsessive focus on the reintegration and survival of the physical body, and on its triumph over various processes of dismemberment and destruction, reflects perhaps the pervading anxiety among early Christians over the natural fate of the physical body. Recent cultural studies by historians such as Peter Brown and Caroline Bynum have explored the links between these concerns and the rise of cults of martyrs' relics in which the doctrine of the resurrection apparently found dramatic confirmation. The miracles of healing believed to be worked by the fragmentary remains of the martyrs must have appeared as reassuring proof that faith in the Judeo-Christian God, and in His death and resurrection, could bestow upon His faithful the power to overcome the effects of natural physical decay, since in order to perform miracles each particle of the saint's body must in itself be, in a mysterious but real sense, the whole saint.7 Thus what R. Aubert has called the "fantasmagories"8 of violent miracles of dissolution and reintegration in the St. George legend may have been a narrative attempt to relieve this underlying anxiety and affirm the faith in Christianity's power to overcome physical change and assure continuity. It is perhaps no coincidence that the cult of relics, and the narrative genre represented here, began to develop while the administrative and economic unity of the Roman empire was itself on the verge of collapse.

Not all Christians were as enamored of the cult of relics as were Jerome and, in his old age, Augustine of Hippo. Some were apparently troubled by the rise of the literary genre which catered so effusively to a hunger for stories of the miraculous triumphs of God's saints over the trials of the flesh. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the early legend of George was condemned as heretical in an early-sixth-century document purporting to be a papal decree of the late fifth century.9 Precisely what was considered heretical about the George legend we do not know, but possibly the dualistic strains detected by modern scholars were also sensed by some vigilant early Christians, who might have associated them with various heresies of the time. While the decree did little to stem the growing popularity of George's cult and the multiplication of copies of the legend, it may perhaps have helped spur a series of attempts to revise the legend by simplifying and abridging it in various ways, and attempting to "correct" some of its more blatant anachronisms. The textual history of the legend is too complicated to explain here in detail, but we should note that what is today regarded as the first, more sensational type of the legend emerged as the accepted form in the Latin West, although considerably abridged in many of its recensions.

Two main families of Latin manuscripts, Y and Z, were initially identified by modern scholars (notably John E. Matzke) as descended from a translation of an early Greek version of the legend. Of these, the longer and probably older Y version was known in England by the ninth century: for example to the author of the Old English Martyrology, a unique compilation of Old English prose summaries of or extracts from Latin saints' legends, which contains entries for George (April 23) and for the Empress Alexandria (April 27) and includes part of the martyr's elaborate final prayer for his devotees.10 The significantly reduced form of the legend, labeled Z by Matzke, held sway in England in the later Anglo-Saxon period and thereafter. This Z-recension omits most of the saint's wildly exaggerated tortures, except for the flesh hooks, the brass wheel (which now breaks apart when George is cast upon it), the cauldron of molten lead, and George's decollation. All George's other miracles, including the conversions - most notably the Empress Alexandria's - and his multiple deaths and spectacular resurrections, are missed out.11 Retained, however, are George's victories over the magician Athanasius and the god Apollo and his worshipers, as examples of George's favor with God. The final intercessory prayer, for those who remember him and his feast day, is preserved, but in shortened form. This reduced version of the legend is the one rendered into Old English rhythmic prose by Ælfric, monk of Cerne Abbey in Dorset (later abbot of Eynsham), in the late tenth century for his Lives of the Saints,12 and after the Norman Conquest it continued to be used to provide lessons to be read in churches on the saint's feast day, as well as for devotional reading among English monastics.13

While important throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages, George's cult was further promoted by the crusader knights of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.14 However, the oft-repeated claim that George's cult in England was particularly fostered by King Richard the Lionheart during and after the Third Crusade (1191) is no longer to be credited.15 The special popularity of the cult in England belongs, rather, to the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, and beyond, owing to the adoption of George as patron saint by a later generation of warlike English kings, notably Edward III, who founded the chivalric Order of the Garter under the patronage of St. George in 1344-48, and Henry V, under whose influence the feast day was elevated to the first rank (1415) and celebrated as a national holiday. In this late medieval period processions in George's honor and mock battles with the dragon were a common feature of the feast day, as were the curious folk-plays that bear his name, dating from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, some of which were still being performed in the nineteenth century.16 Not only were many late medieval parish churches dedicated to the saint, but he was also adopted as patron by numerous parish guilds, among the most prominent of which was that in Norwich, founded in 1385. Some of these guilds survived the widespread suppression of saints' cults by Reformation Protestants, although the commemoration of George's cult became progressively more secular and variously political in character.17 In the modern era, six English kings have borne the saint's name, and the official flag of the nation, underlying the Union Jack of the United Kingdom, is to this day the red cross of St. George. The most elaborate literary treatments of his legend are likewise late: those of Alexander Barclay (1515), translated into "rime royal" stanzas from the Latin prose composition of Mantuan scholar Baptista Spagnuoli, and Edmund Spenser's epic poem on George, the "Red Cross Knight" in Book I of The Faerie Queene (1597). The climax of Spenser's story is not, of course, the martyrdom but rather the famous battle with the dragon, which, as we observed earlier, is a late addition to the saint's legend, little known until the late thirteenth century, when it appears in the popular LA. Since it is absent from the main text printed in this chapter, we will discuss the dragon episode later.

SEL Version

By the late thirteenth century, English libraries contained copies of various forms of the George legend, including not only those handed down from the early Middle Ages, but also the influential later abridgements in Vincent of Beauvais' Speculum historiale ("The Mirror of History") and LA. It should be noted that while the former follows a Z-type shortened text for his account of the saint's martyrdom, the latter, besides inserting the late dragon episode (see II[b], below), incorporates more of the original episodes, including the Lord's appearance to George in prison, the saint's attempt to trick Dacian (here the prefect of the emperors Diocletian and Maximian) into visiting the destroyed temple where he might meet the same fate, and Empress Alexandria's conversion and martyrdom; LA also appends, as a posthumous miracle, the story of George's appearance to the Christian armies in Jerusalem.18 But as we have observed earlier, LA does not seem to have been a factor in the composition of the first half of SEL, where George's legend occurs. The account of George in most of the extant manuscripts of SEL is a shortened version of the legend, probably derived for the most part from Matzke's Z tradition. Görlach suggests as a more immediate source the readings for the saint's feast in the widely used thirteenth-century Sarum (Salisbury) Breviary, with which the SEL version does show some affinity in its wording and narrative order.19 Not only does it parallel the Z texts in its omission of all the more sensational torture sequences, but like the breviary it also omits the Athanasius episode and the saint's destruction of the pagan temple. However, the Middle English poet provides an expanded version of the final intercessory prayer, lacking in both LA and the English breviaries, which suggests that he also had access to a text from the Y tradition of the Latin legend.20

The SEL version thus parallels the Sarum Breviary (or some similarly abridged version) in drastically omitting episodes from the Z tradition that demonstrate the saint's role as pious trickster and agent of divine vengeance (e.g., when George personally wills the destruction of the temple of Apollo, which kills all the priests and worshipers inside it, and when God destroys Dacian and his ministers with fire immediately after the saint's execution). SEL presents us instead with a saint who is aggressively uncompromising in his speech, but essentially passive and pacifist in his actions. In keeping with the tone of the SEL collection as a whole, the George narrative plays up the verbal jousting between the saint and his persecutor by adding more colloquial and humorous overtones (see lines 27-30), and it is also peppered with the narrator's affective responses to the saint's grievous suffering and martyrdom (see lines 43-46, 71-72).21 Also apparently original in the Middle English version are Dacian's almost demonic anger at George in the beginning of the narrative and his comical grumbling at Mohammed's idleness toward the end (see lines 15-16, 74-75). In general, with its emphasis on the qualities of patience and non-violence, and its homely, down-to-earth exchanges, this version of the legend seems quite compatible with the Franciscan cultural milieu that has been proposed for the original composition of SEL. At the same time, it remains untouched by the chivalric and nationalist associations that would later overwhelm the saint's English image.

SEL Texts of George

Of the twenty-four major SEL manuscripts identified by Görlach, nineteen contain the legend of St. George, including Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108, which is generally regarded as representing the earliest form of the text. Although there are dozens of minor variants among the manuscript copies, some rearrangement of lines, and some shortening of the narrative by a few couplets, there is little substantive variation until the text was expanded in the East Midlands in the late fourteenth century to incorporate the dragon episode (printed separately below in II[b]) from LA. For the passio or martyrdom proper we have adopted the version printed by D'Evelyn and Mill from an early-fourteenth-century manuscript, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 145, rather than the somewhat later Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43, which is our preference in most other SEL selections in this volume. In addition to offering an example of a slightly earlier form of English, and a somewhat different dialect from Ashmole 43, the Corpus text displays some interesting scribal variants resulting from apparent corruptions and emendations in an earlier exemplar.22 From dialectal evidence, it has been suggested that the manuscript was copied in the western part of the county of Berkshire (somewhat to the east and south of Ashmole 43's provenance in Gloucester), probably in a large scriptorium like that of the priory of the Augustinian canons at Osney, near Oxford, where Chaucer's carpenter John in The Miller's Tale had business to attend to. By the end of the fourteenth century the manuscript traveled to the East Midlands, where a later scribe, in addition to making some dialectical corrections, added a table of contents and a Life of St. Guthlac at the end of the volume; from there it moved to the Southwest again in the early fifteenth century, to the Augustinian priory at Southwick in Hampshire (where a scribe added the Lives of Judas and Pilate, as well as a conclusion to the Life of St. Thomas of Canterbury). If Görlach's suggestion regarding Osney as the original provenance is correct, this manuscript may have been intended for devotional reading or as a preaching aid for the "black canons" who lived in quasi-monastic communities but also served as pastors in lay society.23

Language of the Corpus Manuscript

The Corpus manuscript (C) exhibits typical features of the Middle English speech of the Southwest Midlands in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The language is very similar to that of Ashmole 43 (A), as described in our introduction to the SEL Martyrdom of St. Andrew the Apostle (I[a]), except that the scribe of C has the expected Southwestern form of OE siþþen ("afterwards/after"), namely suththe, whereas A, surprisingly, has the form more typical of the Southeastern dialects, seththe. C occasionally preserves the distinctive eo spellings, typical of the Southwest in early Middle English, supposedly representing a rounded /ö/ sound that developed from the OE eo diphthong (e.g., theos, line 12; beoth, line 13; eoly, line 36; weol, line 53). But this form may already have been somewhat archaic for the C scribe, who frequently uses simply e, forcing D'Evelyn and Mill's textual emendations (lines 27, 37-38, 71-72, 87-88, 92), which we have not retained. The sh sound is represented with ss, not sc, as in ssame (line 38, "shame"), vleiss (line 46, "flesh").

As in the SEL Martyrdom of St. Andrew in I(a), above, we have silently emended instances of is to his.

Indexed in

IMEV 2095.


Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 145, fols. 59r-60r.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 43 (SC 6924), fols. 59r-60v.

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 108 (SC 1486), fols. 130r-131r.

Previous editions

The South English Legendary. Ed. D'Evelyn and Mill. 1.155-59. [Based on CCCC 145.]

The Early South-English Legendary, or, Lives of Saints. Ed. Horstmann. Pp. 294-96. [Based on Laud Misc. 108.]

Sperk. Medieval Saints' Legends. Pp. 107-09. [Based on CCCC 145.]

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