And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 17. februar 2014

A carol for Saint George

A short while ago I borrowed Greene's book of The Early English Carols (Clarendon Press, 1977), a treasure trove of Middle English lyrics from the later Middle Ages. I was particularly glad to see a small section of carols dedicated to saints, and I found one dedicated to Saint George which I would like to share.

The carol in question is found in British Museum MS. Egerton 3307 and dates to the 15th century. It could be regarded as a war carol, or at least a carol with a strongly bellicose undertone, as it invokes the legendary account of St George hovering over the field at Agincourt and displaying his banner in support of the English. Greene himself puts forth that the reference to a chronicle - the crownecle ye red - suggests a monastic origin for this carol, since a monastery is "the sort of place where a chronicle would be kept and read" (Greene 1977: 419). An alternate understanding of this line, however, is that it is a play on a beloved line often repeated in romances, where the fictitious nature of the story is underlined by "in romance as we rede". In this carol, however, the miraculous appearance of Saint George is not fictitious, at least to the medieval mind, and can therefore be found in a chronicle rather than in a romance.

By the 15th century, St George had been appointed as patron saint of England, and in the course of the Hundred Years War, he was woven into the fabric of English self-representation and became, for all intents and purposes, an English saint - at least to the English mind. He was at the same time an important figure in Italy - as evidenced by the prevalence of the St George motif in Italian Renaissance art - and also in France. I have taken the illustrations for this blogpost from French manuscripts, as a rather snarky nod to the notion that George had a particular fondness for the English during the Hundred Years War.

For more on the early cult of Saint George in England, see this old blogpost. For the late medieval development, see Sarah Peverley's brilliant blogpost on the subject.

The redcrosse knight
Charleville Mézierès BM, MS 0177, Legenda Aurea, 14th century
Courtesy of enluminures

Enfors we vs with all our myght
To loue Seynt Georg, Owr Lady knyght.


Worschip of vertu ys the mede
And sewyth hym ay of ryght;
To worschip George than haue we ned,
Whych is our souereyn Ladys knyght.


He kepyd the mad from dragons dred
And fraid al France and put to fligh[t]
At Agyncourt, the crownecle ye red:
The French hym se formest in fyght.


In hys vertu he wol vs led
gaynys the fend, teh ful wyght,
And with hys banner us ouersprede
Yf we hym love with all our myght.

George and the dragon
Chaumont BM, impr. 3 J 7 Y, Missal, Use of Langres (or from Langres)
Courtesy of enluminures

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