1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/George, Saint
GEORGE, SAINT (d. 303), the patron saint of England, Aragon and Portugal. According to the legend given by Metaphrastes the Byzantine hagiologist, and substantially repeated in the Roman Acta sanctorum and in the Spanish breviary, he was born in Cappadocia of noble Christian parents, from whom he received a careful religious training. Other accounts place his birth at Lydda, but preserve his Cappadocian parentage. Having embraced the profession of a soldier, he rapidly rose under Diocletian to high military rank. In Persian Armenia he organized and energized the Christian community at Urmi (Urumiah), and even visited Britain on an imperial expedition. When Diocletian had begun to manifest a pronounced hostility towards Christianity, George sought a personal interview with him, in which he made deliberate profession of his faith, and, earnestly remonstrating against the persecution which had begun, resigned his commission. He was immediately laid under arrest, and after various tortures, finally put to death at Nicomedia (his body being afterwards taken to Lydda) on the 23rd of April 303. His festival is observed on that anniversary by the entire Roman Catholic Church as a semi-duplex, and by the Spanish Catholics as a duplex of the first class with an octave. The day is also celebrated as a principal feast in the Orthodox Eastern Church, where the saint is distinguished by the titles μεγαλόμαρτυρ and τροπαιοφόρος.
The historical basis of the tradition is particularly unsound, there being two claimants to the name and honour. Eusebius, Hist. eccl. viii. 5, writes: “Immediately on the promulgation of the edict (of Diocletian) a certain man of no mean origin, but highly esteemed for his temporal dignities, as soon as the decree was published against the churches in Nicomedia, stimulated by a divine zeal and excited by an ardent faith, took it as it was openly placed and posted up for public inspection, and tore it to shreds as a most profane and wicked act. This, too, was done when the two Caesars were in the city, the first of whom was the eldest and chief of all and the other held fourth grade of the imperial dignity after him. But this man, as the first that was distinguished there in this manner, after enduring what was likely to follow an act so daring, preserved his mind, calm and serene, until the moment when his spirit fled.” Rivalling this anonymous martyr, who is often supposed to have been St George, is an earlier martyr briefly mentioned in the Chronicon Pascale: “In the year 225 of the Ascension of our Lord a persecution of the Christians took place, and many suffered martyrdom, among whom also the Holy George was martyred.”
Two Syrian church inscriptions bearing the name, one at Ezr’a and the other at Shaka, found by Burckhardt and Porter, and discussed by J. Hogg in the Transactions of the Royal Literary Society, may with some probability be assigned to the middle of the 4th century. Calvin impugned the saint’s existence altogether, and Edward Reynolds (1599–1676), bishop of Norwich, like Edward Gibbon a century later, made him one with George of Laodicea, called “the Cappadocian,” the Arian bishop of Alexandria (see George of Laodicea).
Modern criticism, while rejecting this identification, is not unwilling to accept the main fact that an officer named Georgios, of high rank in the army, suffered martyrdom probably under Diocletian. In the canon of Pope Gelasius (494) George is mentioned in a list of those “whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God,” a statement which implies that legends had already grown up around his name. The caution of Gelasius was not long preserved; Gregory of Tours, for example, asserts that the saint’s relics actually existed in the French village of Le Maine, where many miracles were wrought by means of them; and Bede, while still explaining that the Gesta Georgii are reckoned apocryphal, commits himself to the statement that the martyr was beheaded under Dacian, king of Persia, whose wife Alexandra, however, adhered to the Christian faith. The great fame of George, who is reverenced alike by Eastern and Western Christendom and by Mahommedans, is due to many causes. He was martyred on the eve of the triumph of Christianity, his shrine was reared near the scene of a great Greek legend (Perseus and Andromeda), and his relics when removed from Lydda, where many pilgrims had visited them, to Zorava in the Hauran served to impress his fame not only on the Syrian population, but on their Moslem conquerors, and again on the Crusaders, who in grateful memory of the saint’s intervention on their behalf at Antioch built a new cathedral at Lydda to take the place of the church destroyed by the Saracens. This cathedral was in turn destroyed by Saladin.
The connexion of St George with a dragon, familiar since the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, can be traced to the close of the 6th century. At Arsuf or Joppa—neither of them far from Lydda—Perseus had slain the sea-monster that threatened the virgin Andromeda, and George, like many another Christian saint, entered into the inheritance of veneration previously enjoyed by a pagan hero. The exploit thus attaches itself to the very common Aryan myth of the sun-god as the conqueror of the powers of darkness.
The popularity of St George in England has never reached the height attained by St Andrew in Scotland, St David in Wales or St Patrick in Ireland. The council of Oxford in 1222 ordered that his feast should be kept as a national festival; but it was not until the time of Edward III. that he was made patron of the kingdom. The republics of Genoa and Venice were also under his protection.
See P. Heylin, The History of ... S. George of Cappadocia (1631); S. Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages; Fr. Görres, “Der Ritter St Georg in der Geschichte, Legende und Kunst” (Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie, xxx., 1887, Heft i.); E. A. W. Budge, The Martyrdom and Miracles of St George of Cappadocia: the Coptic texts edited with an English translation (1888); Bolland, Acta Sancti, iii. 101; E. O. Gordon, Saint George (1907); M. H. Bulley, St George for Merrie England (1908).
- G. A. Smith (Hist. Geog. of Holy Land, p. 164) points out another coincidence. “The Mahommedans who usually identify St George with the prophet Elijah, at Lydda confound his legend with one about Christ himself. Their name for Antichrist is Dajjal, and they have a tradition that Jesus will slay Antichrist by the gate of Lydda. The notion sprang from an ancient bas-relief of George and the Dragon on the Lydda church. But Dajjal may be derived, by a very common confusion between n and l, from Dagon, whose name two neighbouring villages bear to this day, while one of the gates of Lydda used to be called the Gate of Dagon. It is a curious process by which the monster that symbolized heathenism conquered by Christianity has been evolved out of the first great rival of the God of Israel.