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Response to Review of The Cult of St George in Medieval England

I thank Dr Riches for her thorough review of my book, in which she raises a number of key issues. The most important one, it seems, is the debate over how much St. George really counted as a ‘national’ saint in the late Middle Ages. Her perspective, as expressed in her path breaking St George: Hero, Martyr, Myth, and reiterated in her review, is that elites often employed the figure of St. George to cement their place over and against their social inferiors, necessarily limiting his appeal and undermining his status as a national saint, at least as far as a modern conception of the nation might go. The main point in The Cult of St. George in Medieval England, however, was that St George was a national saint in that he was clearly venerated as an English patron by more than the court, upper nobility, or parliament (i.e. the approximately 2 per cent of people who comprised the national political community). This is not a treatment that any other putative national saint, such as Edward the Confessor or Edmund of East Anglia, ever got. The fact that urban corporate guilds were so often dedicated to St George, and even when they were not, that urban corporations would sponsor ridings of St George on 23 April, and that he was so often designated ‘England’s patron’ in these contexts, suggests to me that the provincial ‘middling sort’ felt that they were exercising on a local level an authority that devolved from the king, or even that they were claiming a place on the national stage. Whether people below them in the social hierarchy felt any investment in St George as a national figure is another question, of course, but I repeat my observations that St George was a patron for all levels of the English army, and not just its leaders, a situation that may have found a parallel in civilian life, and that all medieval conceptions of community involved some notion of hierarchy. Historians have a long tradition of focusing on the ‘social control’ of the ‘proletariat’ by their ‘betters’ (and the concomitant ‘resistance’ to this control), but it is also true to say that, for the 15th century, the ideas of social harmony, unity, and deference were widely shared and just as powerful. Furthermore, there is a  fundamental difference between ordering people to show up for a St George’s day procession, and enticing them to come with free wine: one strategy represents the stick, the other the carrot, and suggests that at least in Chichester the burgesses wanted to make sure that there was something in it for everyone. Similarly, if we are to argue that only the affluent could afford to sponsor statues, stained glass windows, or mural paintings (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people of modest means regularly pooled their resources to fund such things), this situation would apply to all depictions of saints within a church building – why is this proposition only significant when it concerns an image of St George? I accept that the guild of St George in Norwich may have been fairly exclusive, but other guilds of St George were much less so, such as one at Lynn, whose members were expected to contribute all of ½ d. to the guild’s common purse on St George’s Day, and at any funerals of guild members. Certainly the lack of males named George before the Hanoverian era cannot be taken as evidence for St George’s lack of popularity among commoners, for the English were rather unimaginative in their choice of male names. A study by Joel Rosenthal of 1151 English jurors during the reign of Henry IV reveals that John, William, Thomas, Robert and Richard comprised a full 80 per cent of the group, and that Nicholas, Henry, Walter, Roger, Simon, Ralph, Hugh, Stephen, and Adam made up much of the rest.(1) Some of these names are those of well-known saints, others not: the English, it seems, preferred to express their veneration in other ways than through personal nomenclature.

Did St George’s veneration elsewhere in Christendom undermine his Englishness? I do not think so. D. A. L. Morgan has written about how Edward III’s choice of St George as a patron saint of the Garter was nationalist even as it was ‘cosmopolitan’ – the king, in choosing such a well-known saint, was demanding for himself a place in the European political order. Many symbols are shared by several polities, and it is no more an issue than for the university football teams of Clemson, Auburn, Princeton, and Louisiana State all to be nicknamed ‘tigers’. That St George’s martyrdom was more important than his dragon slaying is simply untrue: cycles of his legend, including the numerous tortures he suffered, may be seen at Stamford, St. Neot’s, and a few other places, but the vast majority of stained glass and mural paintings of St. George show him killing a dragon, or at least dressed as a knight. And St George’s post-Reformation reinvention as an Englishman I interpret mostly as an artefact of the de-Catholicisation of English society. English writers were no longer constrained to follow hagiographic tradition (as established by such writers as Jacobus de Voragine, John Mirk, or Alexander Barclay), so why not make him even more English?

As for the syncretism of St George with figures from other religions, I follow Ronald Hutton in being highly skeptical of most theories of ‘pagan holdover’ in Christianity (mummers’ plays, for instance, cannot be traced before the 18th century, and are certainly not celebrations of the renewed cycle of the year). It is true that an interfaith shrine to St George and the Islamic figure of Al Khidr exists at Beit Jala outside Jerusalem, and perhaps at other places throughout the Middle East, and if this phenomenon means that the figures are interchangeable it would be wonderful if such an example of sharing could be extended to England. However, saints’ cults mean different things in different places, and when one reads headlines like ‘English Cross of St George flag deemed offensive to Muslims’ or ‘Police told fan to hide “racist” St George flag’, it points to an unfortunate problem with the revived cult of St George in England today.

Notes

  1. Joel T. Rosenthal, ‘Names and naming patterns: an introduction’, in Studies on the Personal Name in Later Medieval England and Wales, ed. Joel T. Rosenthal and Dave Postles (Kalamazoo, MI, 2006), 1–6, at 5.Back to (1)