The Saints’ Lives of St George – texts and sources

Today is St George’s Day, in England at least, and I found myself wondering what the literary sources were for his legend.  About all I know about him is the story of St George and the Dragon.  So I started looking for some kind of list of the hagiographical sources for his Vita or Saint’s life.  I found very little; so I thought that a post on what I could find would be useful.

As with every popular medieval saint, there is a massive collection of folk tales in written form transmitted in the Greek and Latin medieval manuscripts that have come down to us.  But what, precisely, exists?  And how can we find it?

Let’s start with texts.  St George is commemorated on the 23 April.  The massive collection of Saints’ Lives, the Acta Sanctorum, contains a number of “Lives” in the original language.  The relevant volume is April volume 3; the Paris 19th century reprint of this volume may be found at Archive.org here.  “St George the Megalomartyr” starts on p.101, here.

The introduction tells us, interestingly, that a Life of St George appears in the Decretum Gelasianum, (online here), a 5th century list of books approved and otherwise – as a probable composition by heretics!

The old Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (1909) – online here; there is a later version but I don’t know that this is online – has a section on the Lives of St George, starting on p.93, here; St George, martyr, of Diospolis in Palestine.  Twenty different texts are listed, coded as BHG 670 – BHG 691.

The first of these (BHG 670) is interesting for its early date.  It is preserved in uncial in a 6th century palimpsest (so very early), and edited in facsimile by D. Detlefsen, “Über einen griechischen Palimpsest der k. k. Hofbibliothek mit Bruchstücken einer Legende vom heiligen Georg”, 1858.  Pleasantly it is online in high resolution at the Bavarian State Library here.  There are apparently Latin versions of this particular life, which fill out the lacunae.  But the story itself simply screams its fictional nature.  Among other ineptitudes, apparently St George is put to death and resurrected three times, in one case after being torn to pieces.  Indeed the life of Christ our Lord, with his solitary resurrection, begins to seem like a rather poor and threadbare rehearsal for the glory that is the life of St George![1]  It might be nice to get this life translated; but it may be that we need someone with both Latin and Greek for this.

The contents of the other lives are as yet unknown to me.  I hope to blog further about this.

The standard handbook on all this material, from which I have yet to read more than a page or two, is Hippolyte Delehaye, Les légendes grecques des saints militaires, Paris: Librairie Alphonse Picard, (1909) 45-76.  This is online here, and seems to be the source of all the other discussions of St George that I could find in a Google Books search, such as this one in English from Michael Collins, St George and the Dragons, (2018) here.  The page that I have linked to summarises nicely what Delehaye says about the subject.  There are archaeological remains and inscriptions which indicate that the veneration of St George dates back to the 5th century.

That’s all that I found so far.  It’s a similar sort of situation to the Saints’ Lives of St Nicholas.

Isn’t it interesting that in modern England both St Nicholas and St George are still remembered?

  1. [1]Readers may recognise the allusion to the Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass; repeated here from memory.

7 thoughts on “The Saints’ Lives of St George – texts and sources

  1. Thank you for all this and these!

    I went looking to see what I could find in the Internet Archive of which D.H. Farmer lists in his little bibliography in The Oxford Book of Saints (1979) (q.v.), finding only:

    Karl Kumbacher, ‘Der heilige Georg in der griechischen Überlieferung’

    https://archive.org/details/DerHeiligeGeorgInDerGriechischenberlieferung

    But the attempt also led to:

    E.A. Wallis Budge, The martyrdom and miracles of Saint George of Cappadocia: The Coptic Texts (3 scans, which I have not compared: here’s one):

    https://archive.org/details/StoryOfSt.GerogeB

    And, more popularly:

    E.O. Gordon, Saint George, Champion of Christendom and Patron Saint of England

    https://archive.org/details/saintgeorgechamp00gorduoft

    M.H. Bulley, St. George for Merrie England

    https://archive.org/details/stgeorgeformerri00bull

    For calendar notes in a newsletter, I once wrote:

    George, martyred in Lydda (modern ‘Lod’, in Israel; named ‘Georgiopolis’ after him in the Sixth century), was widely venerated in East and West – including in England by the Seventh century – long before any legend was told about him as a dragon slayer. During the First Crusade, a vision of Sts. George and Demetrius (8 Oct.) as soldier saints preceded the fall of Antioch to the Crusaders and Richard the Lionheart put himself and his army under St. George’s protection. Edward III founded the Order of the Garter under his patronage (with the badge of red cross on white ground associated with him from at least the 14th c.), Henry V invoked him as England’s patron while fighting in France in 1415, and St. George’s Chapel at Windsor was redeveloped by Edward IV, Henry VII, and Henry VIII, repaired at the Restoration, and further developed by Queen Victoria.

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