Suddenly a light shines – something at last on the Martyrdom of St George!

I’ve been trudging through Krumbacher and another heavy old German tome, running the text into English and looking for pointers to understand the mass of literature about the Passio or Martyrdom of St George.  While these give a great deal of detail, the beginner would often be grateful for a roadmap.

Today, quite by accident, I came across an article in two parts which illuminated a great deal.  A google search introduced me to two articles in the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, (list of volumes online here), in vol. 17 (1903) and vol. 18 (1904).  This is John E. Matzke, “Contributions to the History of the Legend of Saint George, with Special Reference to the Sources of the French, German and Anglo-Saxon Metrical Versions”.  Not all older US literature is worth reading; but these are gold.  They also publish various versions of the Passio.

But their real value is in allowing us to understand what happened to the legend.

The various editions of the Passio can be distinguished by variations in the story.  In particular the name of the emperor who is in charge at the start of the text varies; and varies over time.

The earliest form known to us is a mention in the Decretum Gelasianum, in which a passio of St George is condemned roundly as a disreputable heretic forgery.  It seems that we may have this version.  In the earliest texts, the emperor is called “Datianus” or “Dacianus”.  The trial takes place in Egypt, and the emperor summons a sorcerer named – what else? – Athanasius – to cast wicked spells against the miracles of St George.  Finally the passio is attributed to George of Cappadocia.

Now the real George of Cappadocia was a rather dubious Arian, who got himself appointed as fake-bishop of Alexandria while the real Athanasius was in exile, only to get lynched by the Alexandrian mob in the times of Julian the Apostate.  So any “martyrdom of George of Cappadocia” is likely to be Arian.  The name of Athanasius as a villain is likewise an Arian thing.  Finally we may consider that throughout the 5th century the church writers inveigh against Arianism as the worst of heresies; no doubt influenced by their fear of the Arian Goths then taking over the empire.

Matzke’s theory, then, is that this text is extant, in various forms, and the name of Dacian is the fingerprint for it.  This he calls the “apocryphal version”, and it was clearly popular.

He suggests that a “canonical version” was produced by some educated man who made the emperor into Diocletian – someone who actually existed! – and otherwise revised it.  This then underwent further editions and revisions.

But the apocryphal version still existed, albeit in various forms, especially in the west.  One edition changed the name from Dacian to Decius; in one version the name change only appears in the opening sections of the work, and reverts to Dacian later on.

All this I got from a quick read of part 1 this afternoon in the office while waiting for a long build to finish.  I suspect part 2 might deal with the vernacular, and be less interesting.

I can’t say if this is correct.  But if so, it makes for an interesting view of how the text evolved!  I need to read more.

I must say that I am surprised by the lack of references to modern scholarship on St George.  They must exist, surely?


7 thoughts on “Suddenly a light shines – something at last on the Martyrdom of St George!

  1. Thank you! (Also, in that I think this is the first time I hear volumes of PMLA are in the Internet Archive.) Matzke says, with considerable brevity and no documentation, on p. 481 of vol. 17, “There is sufficient evidence to show that George had early become one of the most popular saints of the church.” How early and what evidence?

    Dr. Farmer, in the corrected 1979 reprint of the 1978 ed. of The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, writes, “The cult was both ancient and widespread” noting “he occurs in the Martyrology of Jerome and the Gregorian Sacramentary. The record and the cult of George considerably precede [italicized] the Acts”.

    Would both be suggesting that there was very probably a martyr named George, well before the 360s, about whom no details had been passed down, which lacuna was met by the (polemical) concoction of an account?

  2. Hmm… no luck chasing down the ref. on p. 481 of vol. 17, footnote 1, to Heinzel in Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur – amongst the 249 items Internet Archive yields when I search for the journal title…

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