|By Paolo Uccello, around 1456-1460|
By Kim Rendfeld
Long before Richard the Lionhearted invoked him in the Crusades, before he became England’s patron, Saint George was a popular figure in medieval Christianity.
The basic story is that George was born to noble Christian parents in Cappadocia and moved with his mother to her native Palestine after his father died. He joined the Roman army and was named a tribune. Sometime in his career, he rescued a princess from a dragon in the city of Selena. However, Emperor Diocletian issued an anti-Christian edict. Refusing to renounce his faith, George resigned his commission and complained to the emperor. For his troubles, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded around 303.
Regardless of whether the events are historically accurate, Saint George’s legend captured medieval Christians’ imagination. The saint’s tomb is in Lydda (later Diospolis then Lod in Israel), and after Constantine issued an edict of tolerance in 314, churches were dedicated to George in the region. Perhaps pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land brought the saint’s legend back with them to Europe and the British Isles.
If you’re familiar with the hero’s epic of Beowulf, it’s easy to see why Saint George caught the interest of Christians from warlike Germanic cultures such as the Saxons and the Franks. Like Beowulf, Saint George is a tough guy who killed a monster. The greatest difference is that George makes the ultimate sacrifice for God, while Beowulf dies in a fight for the sake of his people.
On the Continent, the Franks knew about Saint George by the sixth century. After King Clovis was baptized in 496, he founded a monastery at Baralle in George’s honor. Clovis’s wife, Clotilda, who wanted her husband to convert in the first place, also honored George by building an altar and the church at Chelles.
Might Arculf have also told the story of Saint George during his visit? It’s possible. Saint George’s acts were translated into Anglo-Saxon, and churches were dedicated to him before the Norman Conquest. Artwork of George slaying the dragon dates back as early as the seventh century. Perhaps the image of a hero literally driving a lance through a symbol of evil (or paganism) inspired medieval Christians.
To read about the role Saint George’s story played in later centuries and how he became closely tied to English identity, see Helena P. Schrader’s informative post, "England and St. George."
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Herbert Thurston, "St. George." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6, 1909.
Godefroid Kurth, "Clovis." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4, 1908.
William Grattan-Flood, "St. Adamnan." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.
Thomas Walsh, "Arculf." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1, 1907.
Herbert Thurston, "The Venerable Bede." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2, 1907. 14 Jun. 2014
The Edinburgh Review: Or Critical Journal, Volume 177
About Saint George
Saint George was popular among the Franks, whom Kim Rendfeld writes about in her novels: The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid wars and blood feuds, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press), a story of the lengths a mother will go to protect her children. For more about Kim visit her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com or her website, kimrendfeld.com or contact Kim at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.