St George with his banner and palm of martyrdom
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, Roman missal, c.1370
Today is the feast of St George, the patron saint of England since 1350 and famous for his liberation of a city from a man-eating dragon. The historical George, if he ever existed at all, was believed to have been a Roman soldier who met his martyrdom at Lydda in Palestine. His cult was immensely popular in the Middle East, and he became a protector of the Byzantine army, presumably out of some collegial bond. This image of George as an aid in battle, a saint-type called "Schlachtenhelfer" (fight-helper) in modern, German scholarship, also entered into the mythology of the crusades, as is described in this beautiful little blogpost. Through the crusader ideology and its iconography, George acquired his chivalric shape for which he is best know today here in the West and through crusaders he re-entered England as a knight in the twelfth century. As a crusader, or rather as a knight, George became a powerful symbol for soldiers, and thus it was that in the 14th century he was adopted by King Edward III as England's patron, and gained an importance in the national iconography that surpassed even that of Edward the Confessor or Edmund Martyr as figureheads of the English kingdom. I have described this trajectory in greater detail here.
But even though it was the crusades that brought St George as a knight into the English sphere, he had already been known from the early days of British Christianity. George is mentioned in the martyrology of Bede, and he is also included in the Old English Martyrology which was most likely written sometime in the 9th century. This is a text that antedates the chivalric George, and which serves as a nice reminder of some of the other aspects of his legend, especially his martyrdom which tends to be underplayed in favour of his battle with the dragon in much of the iconography. Here follows, therefore, the life of St George as rendered in the Old English Martyrology, translated by Christine Rauer and taken from her edition from 2013.
George slaying the dragon
Auch - BM - ms. 0020, Ruralium commodorum opus by Petrus de Crescentiis, c.1330-1340
On the twenty-third day of the month is the feast of the noble man St George; emperor Datianus forced him for seven years with unspeakable tortures to renounce Christ, but he could never overpower him; and then after seven years he ordered him to be beheaded. When he was being led to the execution, fire came from heaven and burnt the pagan emperor to death, and all those who had earlier tortured the holy man with him. And he, St George, prayed to the Lord and spoke Thus: 'Saviour Christ, receive my spirit. And I ask you that whichever man may celebate my memory on earth, remove then from thisman's dwellings every illness; let no enemy harm him, nor hunger, nor pestilence.And if anyone mentions my name in any danger, either at sea or on a journey, may he obtain your mercy.' And afterwards the powers of this holy man were often made widely known; anyone who reads St Arculf's book will realise that, [namely] that the man who dishonoured George's image was severly punished, and he who sought it for intercession was protected from his enemies in great danger.
- The Old English Martyrology, edited and translated by Christine Rauer, D. S. Brewer, 2013: 85
The martyrdom of St George
Besançon - BM - ms. 0054, Cistercian psalter, c.1260
There are many interesting things to look at here. First of all we see no trace of the famous dragon story, which is presumably a somewhat later addition, or at least belonging to other sources than those accessed by the martyrologist. Christine Rauer herself, in her commentary to the text, refers to De Locis Sanctis by Adomnán as one of the sources, and also draws attention to the George story as rendered in two passion stories, Passio S. Georgii (BHL 3363) and Passio S. Georgii (BHL 3379). Whether these version have provided the martyrologist with material remains unknown.
Another point of interest is the martyrdom itself, whose consummation is elided and whose prologue is summarised as unspeakable. The dramaturgical apex is the death of the Emperor, the non-historical Datianus, who is consumed by a fire intended for the martyr. This is a motif we find early in Christian martyr stories. Already in the Martyrdom of Polycarp (c.200) do we find it, and it reappears with even more force in the legends of St Catherine and St Agnes. In sum, this brief rendition from ninth-century England allows us to catch a glimpse of the legend of St George in its early development, and also to trace parallels - even possible connections - to other martyrs.
Other relevant blogposts can be found here:
St George and Edward the Confessor compared
A carol for St George
St Ladislas of Hungary rendered as St George
Perseus rendered as St George
St George in Odense, Denmark