- The Cult of Saint George in Medieval England
Jonathan Good’s book is a case study about a cultural area and about a founding mythology. Its subject is not just the birth of a nation or a culture, a legend, or an orthodox, traditional icon. It is the story of a civilization. The Cult of Saint George in Medieval England is a rich essay about the holy knight, and a deep historical and [End Page 114] anthropological reconstruction of how this figure becomes tradition, rite, symbol, flag, and identity of a nation.
The figure of St. George fighting the dragon is an icon in the Eastern and Western world. The topos of the glorious and sacred image, the saint on horseback with shield and spear, opposing the winged monster, comes from ancient times and places, as a subject of devotion and dedication. From Palestine to England, from the Balkans—according to the sources, George was born in Cappadocia—to Catalonia (San Jordi), the figure of the saint defines, morphologically, one of the most important martyrological cults in the Mediterranean area. The story of George is directly inspired by the medieval hagiographical texts of the martyrs, especially by the Passiones (around the year 1000), the records of the Acta Sanctorum, and especially the tradition of the Legenda Aurea by Jacopo da Varagine (1293).
The epic image of the holy martyr on horseback in the act of defeating the dragon and saving the maiden, with the fortified town standing in the background, has been a recurring iconographic theme since ancient times. Across time and space, many similarities are found in the iconography of Saint Michael (beginning in Gargano, South of Italy, then spreading throughout Europe), Saint Mercurial (or St. Mercurius, of oriental origin), Saint Theodorus (documented in the same Acta Sanctorum), and, going backward, the legend of St. George could recall similar images in the Egyptian cosmogony, such as the solar god Horus stabbing a crocodile, a symbol, like the dragon devil, of the destructive energies of chaos. This figure connected to chaos, the undifferentiated sea, appears in many stories of origins. The dragon, the crocodile, depicting the sea monster in the cosmogony of Phoenician origin, is the enemy, the abyss that the deity can repel during creation. The fight with the dragon, the depiction of evil, brings us back to biblical, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian themes. This image we find, moreover, also in Northern Europe’s sagas, as well as in Indian and Chinese cosmologies. Thus, the icon of Saint George and the Dragon speaks about man and more specifically about human culture, not just about some traditions and devotions randomly scattered in various parts of the world.
George, we have seen, is saint, martyr, and soldier, but his name means “farmer.” He is a farmer, a soldier of Christ, and a cleric devoted to the cultivation of fields. “Culture” comes from colere, the root that designates the act of cultivating and defining the ground to create an enclosed space, a sacred boundary. The morphology of the cult area brings us very close to the triple figure commemorated in George: the farmer’s myth of the soldier of God, bearer of the three fundamental aspects of our culture, presented as an emblem. I refer, of course, to the theory of Georges Dumézil, that the institutions of Indo-European civilization can be subsumed under three major functions: Jupiter, the priest and the saint; Mars, the warrior; and Quirinus, the farmer. The holy knight George unites all three functions in one person, articulating in a single image a composite expression: combat with spear and shield, protection of the ritual function and food production.
Jonathan Good’s book is an appropriate addition to the catalogue of Saint George studies, sustained by a rich bibliography and set of references. The principal aim of the author is to investigate the cult of the saint/knight in medieval England. Good’s opening chapter, “Origins, Development and Arrival in England,” and in particular his commentary on the Council of Oxford of...