Review: Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends

Stratis Papaioannou, Saints at the Limits: Seven Byzantine Popular Legends (Dumbarton Oaks medieval library 78), Harvard (2023).  ISBN 9780674290792.  $35.  Introduction online hereBuy at here.

The medieval religious folk-stories known as the “Lives of the Saints” are an under-studied form of medieval literature.  The stories themselves often arise from the people, and are expressed in popular language.  They reach us in medieval handwritten copies, like everything else, but these are not literary texts.  The story, rather than the text, is what is important, and so the actual words are freely modified.  Several versions usually exist.  Thankfully we have the index of the Bibliotheca Hagiographica Graeca (= BHG; online here), which  assigns numbers to the various texts.  Students often find it difficult to work out how to relate to this material, but the urban legend is perhaps the nearest modern equivalent.

There has been an increase in interest in hagiography in recent years.  Yet even now few of the source texts have been critically edited, and still fewer have been translated into any modern language.  One obstacle to doing so is that most of these texts are shorter than book length.  Each would make an edition and translation suitable for publication as a journal article, and indeed we find that, a century ago, scholars such as François Nau routinely published texts in this way.  If necessary, they split them over multiple issues.  But it is doubtful that a modern journal editor would print such an article.  It would be declined on the grounds that it is “not research.”

Instead the only way to publish such translations is to collect together a number of texts, and publish them in book form, with some kind of connecting link.  Sadly there are no obvious series of translations into which such a book would naturally fall without some wrestling.  What is needed is a series made up of translations of Saints’ Lives, rather like the New City translations of all of Augustine.  But this perhaps must await a renewal of interest in medievalism in the wider public, for otherwise who would buy them?

Thankfully the excellent Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series has produced this volume, and they have kindly sent me a review copy.  The physical book is well made and manufactured, and sold at a very modest price.  It is a true hardback, sewn rather than glued.  There is even a sewn-in book mark, so this is quality indeed.

The volume contains seven texts in Greek, with fluent English translations on facing pages.  These seemingly disparate texts are linked together by the editor in his introduction in a reasonably convincing way.  The introductory discussion may be read on here.  This is very well done, and well-referenced.  The discussion is perhaps a little dense for anyone new to hagiography.  Unfortunately the footnotes have been banished to the end of the introduction, which makes it hard to use them.

What makes this volume truly invaluable is the translations.  As knowledge of ancient languages diminishes, the translations make these texts more accessible than ever.   It seems likely that all these texts will attract more scholarly interest over the next few years.  The texts included, and the BHG number for each, are:

  • 1) Boniphatios of Tarsus (BHG 279-280);
  • 2) Alexios the Man of God (BHG 51n);
  • 3) Markos the Athenian (BHG 1039-1041);
  • 4) Makarios the Roman (BHG 1005);
  • 5) Christopher, the Cynocephalus (BHG 309);
  • 6) George the Great Martyr (BHG 670a), together with the miracles about his slaying the Dragon (BHG 687) and capturing the Demon (BHG 687k);
  • 7) Niketas, son of Maximian (redaction related to BHG 1346d)

All these texts appear in English for the first time.  Each is given with a Greek text and English translation on facing pages, in the format familiar to readers of the Loeb series.  This is really praiseworthy.  The Greek font chosen is very readable, and the reader of the English translation may well find his eye stray across the page to the Greek to see just what English word lies behind this or that wording.  Even someone with little Greek can spell out a word or two, and look it up online; and the format positively encourages such activity.  The text has been well paragraphed, which assists this useful opportunity for those with little Greek of learning more.

Words quoted from the scriptures are placed in italics.  This works well in the English, without the need for obtrusive footnotes.  Curiously it looks a bit strange in the Greek text, however.  At first I wondered if my eyes were having trouble!

The translation given of each text is very readable, which is absolutely right and proper.  At points it drops into colloquialisms, such as the use of “you’re” instead of “you are”.  This is a bit of a shock – we’re all used to formal language -, but it will hardly deter the reader.  The effort involved in producing the first English translation of any text is considerable, and usually underrated except by those who have done it.  This is a fine effort.  Translationese has been avoided, and the result is impressive.  Dr Papaioannou tells us in the preface that he got the translation read by native English speakers.  It is a very difficult task to make a satisfactory translation into any language that is not your mother-tongue, even for those really fluent. So he did wisely, and I hope his statement here will encourage others to do the same.

One oddity about the book, which may mislead the reader, is that the information about the Greek text that has been printed is found, not before the text itself, but instead at the back, on pages 281 f., and the critical notes following that, as endnotes, on p.293 f.  The casual reader of the book is very likely to miss this invaluable material, as I did initially.  This is especially so for a reader interested only in a single text – which will be quite often the case.   I can only presume that this arrangement, adding in the extra material, was an afterthought; but if so, it was a happy one.   The editor first indicates the principles of his edition.  In general he has tried to retrieve an early version of the legend, and print something not otherwise available.  Faced with such a mass of hagiographical material, this seems like the only possible approach for any editor to take.  He then lists the manuscripts and existing editions that he used.  Everything in the bibliography is useful, and it could well have been longer.

The version of the legend of St George translated here (BHG 670a, summary of story at CSLA here) is very similar to the Latin text which I translated elsewhere on this site, and therefore is also likely to be a very early form of the legend.  St George dies four times, at the hands of an increasingly angry but non-existent emperor Dadianus.  Later revisions of the legend tended to correct the name, and reduce the legend to a somewhat more believable form.  The evil magician introduced has the name of Athanasius, which naturally leads the reader to wonder whether the text was produced as a satire by a 5th century Arian.  A useful addition is a translation of two of the miracle stories.  The ones chosen are major ones: St George and the Dragon, and St George and the Demon.

The Passion of Nicetas son of Maximian (a version related to BHG 1346d) – two other Nicetas’ are mentioned in the BHG – references the emperor Dadianus, so shows knowledge of the St George legend. Portions of this are rather comic: the demon Beelzebub appears, and, tortured by the saint, he explains just how he leads the faithful astray and foments arguments.  Later he reappears, encounters Nicetas again, and “when the demon saw the saint staring at him, he said, “Oh dear!  He wants to catch me again!” And vanishes at once.

In this legend, I must mention my one gripe about the book.  Native English readers will wince at the use of the barbarous-looking “Niketas,” rather than the usual Nicetas.  While “Niketas” is bearable, the usage becomes absurd on p.251 where a woman’s name is given as “Iouliane”.  This collection of vowels did make me rub my eyes a bit, until I realised that the name is simply “Juliana”, an ordinary Latin name, given in the text in its Greek version – naturally -, and transliterated rather than translated back.   I am aware that an elitist fad has arisen lately for transliteration rather than translation.  But editors need to resist this trend, in the interests of everybody.  Nobody needs to mentally retranslate words.  Readers need no barriers to understanding.  We need Greek legends made more accessible, rather than filled with strange and uncouth words.

I have nothing special to say about the other texts, although it is wonderful to have them.  The Life of Macarius the Roman (BHG 1005) is a very different text for these two: an imaginary journey into darkest Africa!  The Passion of Boniphatios (or Boniface, in English) is a straightforward story of a dissolute man who is sent to the Greek East to collect some relics of the martyrs for his mistress, but is converted and martyred himself.  The ease of the translation is particularly notable here.

All in all, this is a very valuable volume to have.  If this was the first book on hagiography that a novice reader came to consult, he would most certainly know a great deal more than he did at the beginning, and would have a good solid feel for hagiographical texts.  Recommended.


St George, 5th century “Passio” – English translation now online

The earliest account of the martyrdom of St George is palpably fictional, and probably Arian in origin.  It was composed in Greek, probably by an Arian.  It was a rather embarrassing work, and later versions remove much of the rubbish.  For this reason Matzke, who reviewed the tradition, referred confusingly to the original as the “apocryphal version” and the revised version as the “canonical version”.

Only a few leaves of the Greek of the original version exist in palimpsest.  A Latin translation of the whole does exist, however, dating from the 5th century.  An English translation of this has now been prepared.  Here it is:

The files are also available from here.

As usual, the file is public domain.  Make whatever use of it you like, whether personal, educational or commercial.


From my diary

I have now got all the way through the 5th century Latin “Passecrates” Life of St George, as edited by Arndt, and I have prepared an English translation of every sentence.

What a mess the text is in!  The editor, Arndt, plainly had trouble reading the manuscript at all.  At points it makes no sense.  You get readings like “deus Christianorum”, where the sense plainly calls for “genus Christianorum”.

Fortunately a collection of five Latin Lives of St George, printed by Huber, contains a version which is very close indeed to the Arndt Life.  It does help, in working out the meaning of the text.  Indeed in the above example Huber’s text does read “genus”.

Next, I need to resolve a couple of issues, and check whether the translation makes sense and has continuity: to move away from the focus on individual sentences to paragraphs and the text as a whole.  At one point St George tells the wicked emperor that he has put St George to death three times – as you do.  It would be good to check whether the text has actually done this!

The “miracles” seem over to the top to squeamish moderns like me.  But they must have seemed over the top to those in the Dark Ages too, because all of them tone it down!

I have started to wonder whether the text is actually intended satirically, to mock the credulity of Catholics in the 5th century.  The author definitely mocks this same group, by giving a villain the name of “Athanasius”.  Maybe I shall say something like this in a note.



St George and the Crusaders

Today is St George’s Day. April 23rd is the feast day of the Patron Saint of England, adopted as such during the crusader period.  So I thought that I would collect a few early sources connecting the crusaders and St George.  This is not comprehensive: merely whatever comes to hand.

In the Latin Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolymytanorum, ch.15, written 1100-1101, St George is accompanied by St Demetrius and St Mercurius:[1]

The squadrons began to go forth from both sides and to surround our men on all sides, hurling, shooting, and wounding them. There came out from the mountains, also, countless armies with white horses, whose standards were all white. And so, when our leaders saw this army, they were entirely ignorant as to what it was, and who they were, until they recognized the aid of Christ, whose leaders were St. George, Mercurius, and Demetrius. This is to be believed, for many of our men saw it. However, when the Turks who were stationed on the side toward the sea saw that that they could hold out no longer, they set fire to the grass, so that, upon seeing it, those who were in the tents might flee.

There was celebrated Pentecost on the third day of outgoing May. Then we came to Ramlah, which through fear of the Franks the Saracens had left empty. Near it was the famous church in which rested the most precious body of St. George, since for the name of Christ he there happily received martyrdom from the treacherous pagans. There our leaders held a council to choose a bishop who should have charge of this place and erect a church.

The shrine of St George was that at Lydda.

In the Chanson d’Antioche, to which I have no access, I gather that St George is also accompanied by St Maurice.[2]

The Golden Legend reads:[3]

We read in the History of Antioch that during the Crusades, when the Christian hosts were about to lay siege to Jerusalem, a passing fair young man appeared to a priest. He told him that he was St George, the captain of the Christian armies; and that if the crusaders carried his relics to Jerusalem, he would be with them. And when the Crusaders, during the siege of Jerusalem, feared to scale the walls because of the Saracens who were mounted thereon. Saint George appeared to them, accoutred in white armour adorned with the red cross. He signed to them to follow him without fear in the assault of the walls: and they, encouraged by his leadership, repulsed the Saracens and took the city.

In the history of Richard of Devizes,[4] we find many references to “St George” – i.e. Lydda – as a town, a mile from Ramleh, and Richard the Lionheart and his men basing themselves there.

It would be nice to see a proper collection of sources.  (I’m currently busy with a new job, so I can’t do anything at the moment!)

Happy St George’s Day!

  1. [1]
  2. [2]See Susan B. Edgington, “Romance and Reality in the sources for the sieges of Antioch, 1097-8”, in:  Porphyrogenita: Essays on the History and Literature of Byzantium and the Latin East in Honour of Julian Chrysostomides, Ashgate (2003), p.37-8, 44.
  3. [3]Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, transl. and adapted from the Latin by Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (New York. 1969). pp. 237-8)
  4. [4]1848, p.253. Online here.

More on “Magganum” and St George

Following yesterday’s post, a kind correspondent wrote to tell me of a Greek word in wiktionary that seems relevant, μάγγανο.  This noun may be a form of war machine, but also a type of crane, or a windlass.  The email continued:

The -um endings in Latin coincide with the Greek ending -on, hence, “magganon”.

It is a byzantine war machine like a catapult, but also a windlass or a winch.   I looked into the biographies of Saint George, and one of the tortures he was made to suffer by the relentless persecuter Diocletian was a wheel, to which he was strapped, and as it was turned (by a windlass?) his body was slashed by various sharp objects.

This is an icon of that torture:

St George on the wheel

Another tidbit, regarding the term “magganon”: a modern, composite Greek word for the instrument used for drawing water out of a well (πηγάδι) = μάγγανο-πήγαδο.

The icon is very helpful.  It shows George, tied to the wheel with rope, and the swords positioned underneath to injure him.

Now this does indeed look like the right approach.  There are mentions in the Life of daggers, right next to the references to “maggana”.  It works!


What does “magganum” mean? Looking for the Commentator Cruquianus of Horace

While working on the Life of St George, I came across an unusual word, “magganum”.  Whatever it was, it was being used during the tortures inflicted on the saint.  The dictionaries were really not very helpful!  Gaffiot thought it could mean “wine barrel”, but also pointed me to “maganum” which Du Cange thought meant “war machine”.  Unhappily Arndt’s text of the Life is essentially a transcript of a medieval manuscript, so the spellings cannot be relied on; while a similar Passio was printed by Huber, but Huber didn’t know what the word meant either!

This evening I had a go with Google.  A site called Dicolatin knew of the word, but suggested that it simply meant “wooden barrel”.  Another site seemingly based on LSJ suggested that it meant “a wine-vessel made of wood, Schol. Cruq. ad Hor. C. 1, 9, 8.”

What on earth was that reference, tho?  Luckily the same page expanded this a bit, “Schol. Cruq. u. Acro Hor. carm. 1, 9, 8.”, and a bit of googling revealed the meaning.  This gnomic phrase indicates the scholia from Cruquius on the “carmina” of Horace, book 1, poem 9, line 8.

But who is Cruquius?  And where can I find his scholia?

Cruquius turns out to be an old editor of Horace, who printed an edition in 1578 in Antwerp, reprint 1579.  Cruquius had had access to four manuscripts from a Dutch monastery, all destroyed a decade earlier during the wars of religion.  These contained interesting comments on the text, explaining individual words.  These scholia were ancient, and contained in no other manuscript.  For lack of a better term, the unknown ancient author of the scholia is known as the “Commentator Cruquianus”.  This, then, is what I needed to access.

But where on earth could these scholia be found?

It turns out that there are several sets of ancient scholia on Horace.  There are scholia from the 3rd century AD by Porphyrio;[1] other scholia by pseudo-Acronis.[2]  Any search for “Commentum in Horatium” brings up endless editions of both in  There is also a four volume Scholia in Horatium, by H. J. Botschuyver, Amsterdam 1935-42.  But this was inaccessible to me.

But I was unable to establish if anyone had ever reprinted the scholia from Cruquius.  Nor could I locate his edition in Google Books.

Eventually I had a lucky break: I found a reprint of Cruquius, from 1579.  It’s online here at Google Books.

On page 28 is the text of the Commentator Cruquianus on Carmen I.9, line 8.  It reads:

diota. vas еst vinarium duas ansas habens, quasi duas auriculas, unde nomen habet: aliud еst quod Magganum dicitur, vas vinarium ex ligno confectum.

This is an explanation of the word “diota” in the line of Horace: “a vessel is a wine-container having two handles, like two ears, from which it gets its name: otherwise it is what is called “magganum”, a wine-container vessel made out of wood.”

Which is what I was looking for.  Is it the right meaning for St George?  Well, I shall now have to go back and look at the context.  But it was interesting to find these ancient scholia!

UPDATE: The meaning in the Life of St George is in fact “windlass” – see my next post!

  1. [1]Meyer, Pomponii Porphrionis Commentum in Horatium, 1894. Online here.
  2. [2]Keller, Pseudacronis scholia in Horatium vetustiora, 1902. Vol. 1 online here; vol 2 here.

From my diary

A couple of things have held my attention in the last few weeks.  Firstly I have been working on the QuickLatin codebase.  The migration to dotNet is complete, and it is now a question of firing stuff at it and finding why it breaks!  I’ve also updated the dictionaries to the latest version.

Basically I can now enhance it as I like; which was the purpose behind doing all this in the first place.  It might be an idea to merge into it some translation tools that I have created over the years.  The main user of this will undoubtedly be me, so I may as well make myself comfortable.

The other piece of work is the ongoing translation of the very ancient Life of St George.  This is in 21 chapters.  The translator has done a draft of chapters 1-12, which I have revised and made ready for release.  I have in turn prepared a draft of chapters 18-21, which I have sent to the translator for comment.  I am now working on chapter 17, and using bits from it to test out QuickLatin.  The completed translation will of course be released online as public domain once it is done.

Easter is now behind us.  I had meant to do an Easter post, but somehow I got distracted.  I spent quite a bit of my downtime on Twitter fighting the “Easter is pagan” jeer that is circulated every year by the malicious and their innocent dupes.  This year the fight really got some traction behind it, and a number of people were patrolling and posting corrective links.  Alas it is probably an unwinnable battle, at least while the false story is agreeable to a certain sort of influential person; but it is something to have tried.

I have enquired about access to the Ipswich Museum files in Suffolk Record Office, in order to locate the survey of the Roman fort by the 1969 sub-aqua expedition.  The archivist has now looked at these, and found nothing.  It looks very much as if the report has been mislaid in the last 20 years.  However I can’t even go and look at the files; I’m told that permission to view the items must be obtained from Ipswich Museum, and their response time is six weeks (!)  I have written of course.  But it is a forlorn hope.

We must always be grateful for the internet and the ready availability of research materials on the web.  I certainly am!


From my diary

I was able to sit at my computer this evening for the first time and work a little on the translation of chapter 11 of the Vita of St George.  So I am clearly improving.  But I still can’t really walk, or leave the house, and I must keep my foot elevated most of the time.  So it will be a while yet.  Another chapter (12) of the vita has come in, in very rough draft, so I will have to look at that some time.

I received an email yesterday from Suffolk Record Office, suggesting strongly that the report on the sub-aqua survey of Felixstowe / Walton Roman fort has been lost.  It looks as if the archivist only looked at a catalogue, however, so there is still hope that it may just be  mislaid and might be found on examination.  This will have to wait until I am mobile again, however.

A rather large number of items have arrived in the last week or so which I have placed in my “things to blog about” folder.  One day perhaps I will get to them!


From my diary

I’ve had rather a busy week, ending with a rather splendid college reunion.  But of course everything else has gone out of the window, and I also have rather a large sleep debt to pay off.

Today brings another chunk of translation of an early Latin Vita of St George.  Chapters 9 and 11 are in my inbox now.  The version is a very rough draft. The only difficulty is that the translator doesn’t read my emails with feedback, so makes the same mistakes every time.  This means that I shall have to correct and finish it myself.  I hope to do the job on these chunks this week.  The translation is going forward nicely, tho; some 8 chapters still to do.

Today also brought a welcome email from the Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service with unwelcome news.  In 1969 a team of divers surveyed the ruins of a Roman fort in the sea off Felixstowe, known locally as Walton Castle.  A report was filed with the museum, and was accessible a decade ago.  The email today tells me that they cannot locate it now.  I have written therefore to the sub-aqua club, who may have it in their files.  Another email went to the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, who published the article mentioning the survey, to see if I can get in contact with the author in case he has a copy.  We tend to think of museums and archives as safe repositories.  But the truth is that history is vanishing before our eyes.  So it has always been.

Last week I was working industriously on the new QuickLatin.  This is going well, and crude errors are disappearing.  I must get a version released online, as a base version for further work.

My backlog of interesting topics to blog about continues to increase.  So much to do!


From my diary

This evening I spent some time looking at Huber’s article, Zur Georgslegende (1906).  I’d not looked at this before, so it was time to do so.  It contains five Latin versions of the Life of St George.

I also OCR’d the article, so that I could pass the German introduction through Google Translate, to see if it contained anything useful.  It was indeed very waffly and poorly structured, as is often the case at that period.  There was a lot of criticism of Papebroch, the Bollandist editor, for not printing much of the Latin versions.

But I learned from it that Arndt’s edition of the “Passicrates” Life that I am currently working on is indeed every bit as bad as I had thought.  Huber suggests that the text itself probably suffered, both from a bad translator, when it was created from Greek; and then from errors in transmission by copying.  He queries whether it has been significantly interpolated.  He also makes clear that Arndt isn’t a critical edition.  He gives as his third Passio another recension of the “Passicrates” life, which isn’t as old but is much easier to read.  My thanks to the kind correspondent who drew my attention to this.  But on the whole Huber achieves little in the pages he devotes to the question.

I came away from the exercise feeling even more strongly that a scholar needs to dedicate himself to sorting out the hagiography of St George, and write a definitive monograph.  It really can’t be that hard to list the versions, compare the texts within them, and do a proper analysis for both Latin and Greek.

My next task was to look at the possible meanings of “separo”, which usually means “separate”.  This appears at various points in Arndt’s text, in contexts where this meaning does not make sense.  Possibly “sever” will cover most of the choices.

However it is becoming clear that I ought to prepare a Word document containing the Latin, if only to use for searching through.  This will probably be my next task.  I have OCR’d and corrected chapters 12-21 already, but the rest should be done too.

Something that distracted me this evening was the tools that I am working with.  I’m using my old QuickLatin product for quick morphologies, which it does perfectly well.  But I find that I am using other PDFs and online dictionaries.  Surely these could be integrated somehow?

The problem is that it was written in Visual Basic 6, which is now some twenty years old, and only runs on Windows 10 by a special miracle.  Another tool that I use, to interleave Latin and English text, was written in VB.Net 2008, which replaced it.  This too is now more than ten years old.  Microsoft have been terrible at keeping their development tools working, and compatible, and I have complained before about their current offering, Visual Studio Community Edition, as nearly unusable by anyone but a professional.

My eye was caught by the old Delphi product, which I downloaded and played with a bit.  I always liked Pascal, the language it used.  It would be a bonus to be able to generate Android and iPhone apps.  Why can’t you do that from Visual Studio?  But of course my code is all in VB.  I have to work on this stuff in odd moments, unlike the way a professional works.  There is no way that I will ever port all this to Delphi; which is, in any case, nearly a dead tool itself.

Eventually I decided to leave that task for another time.  I was slightly nervous today that I might get a call about a job, and need to put everything to one side.  Whatever I do, it has to survive the call to go and earn a living, and to drop everything else in the mean time.  That is quite a demand of any project.

I’d better settle down and work up a text for chapters 1-11.

Update: I have just discovered, to my utter astonishment, that Arndt prints his corrections to the text, sometimes in the text with the manuscript reading in the footnote; and sometimes in the footnote, leaving the (unintelligible) manuscript reading in the text!  Generally “corr. minimos” means that minimos is what he thinks it should be.  “se. cod.” means that he has corrected it, but the ms. read “se”.

Less clear is “seccabo prius, corr. rad.” where he has printed “secabo” in the text.  The latter is the normal spelling.  But what is “prius”? Not the manuscript?  and what is “rad.” short for?  Some of his “corrections” in the footnotes don’t even make sense.

Incredible rubbish.  Both he and his editor should have been shot.

Update: An even worse example. Footnote reads: “corr. inest” on “inextimabiles”. By this he means we should read “inestimabiles”.  Good grief.  Fortunately after the first few pages he settles down.  But clearly his editor never read any of this.

Update: A commenter has pointed out that the mistake is mine! that “corr.” indicates a feature of the manuscript, changes introduced by a “corrector”.  “rad” is for “radendo”, “scraped away”.  Thank you!