There be dragons: research outside my expertise

I’m doing some reading on St George, a (probably mythical) Roman martyred for his Christianity in the third or early fourth century, eventually patron saint of England, as well as lots of other countries. This is not my usual field of research. But new projects take you in surprising directions. I’m working on what it meant to be a man in England from 1750 to 1918 and without actively looking I have been noticing images of St George appearing in my sources. This might be because I am a great fan of a man in armour.

St George c 1500 German engraving

Wikimedia Commons German Engraving c 1500

Yet, more pertinently, I’ve arrived at that stage of analysing lots of data where I’ve begun to see some wood for the trees. I’m detecting what values made up the concept of ‘manliness’. And guess what? St George seems to embody lots of the features I’m identifying. This might not surprise anyone who is familiar with the late Victorian and Edwardian period who thinks of a chivalric style of muscular Christianity as shaping masculinity. Although my impression was that no-one had really unpicked the association. Furthermore, it is important for my overarching research in the long run, because I’m coming to think that manliness was the way people thought about being a man much earlier than the later nineteenth century.

In the short term, however, I’m preparing a symposium paper. You see, when I was asked to speak I happened to be thinking about St George and the Dragon and so I suggested this theme for the paper. Thus, now I have to pin down some nebulous thoughts, provide the historiography, gather some evidence, construct an argument and write the paper! I’m writing about the process of doing this for a couple of reasons. It is partly to force myself to write about a topic which is scaring me off because it leads in several directions away from my comfort zones. It is also in order to share what I do as an academic with others. I have already written a post on the theoretical framework which I need to address – that is always the most difficult bit for me, so I did it first here.

Now I am turning to the patron saint himself. Like most of us I imagine, my initial stage of research is to Google – so I googled St George. Then I did some searching on Historical Abstracts, and Bibliography of British and Irish History to see what historians have published on him. This showed a fairly limited set of works devoted (ha, ‘cult’ joke there) to St George. On reading this secondary literature, I felt reasonably confident that my first instinct was correct and that not much has been published on St George and masculine identities, although there is fascinating analysis of the medieval cult and St George’s role in national identity formation.

Jonathan Good’s book The Cult of St George in Medieval England (2009) for example traces St George’s meaning and popularity from his origins and arrival in England to the late medieval period, with a particularly useful last chapter (for me) on his history after the Reformation. I’ve learned that the saint’s military qualities appealed to English medieval monarchs (Edward I to Henry VII) who used him to cement their authority, justify war with parts of the British Isles, and support crusades. In fact, with striking (and unexpected) resonance for me given my focus on the ‘intimate public sphere,’ Jonathan Bengston’s article ‘St George and the Formation of English nationalism’ argues that by making George ‘a divine national hero’ the monarchy deployed his cult to establish ‘an intimacy with the people which it could not otherwise have easily achieved’ (p. 317). Indeed, as Good demonstrates, guilds dedicated to the saint suggest that his cult was popular with a much wider section of society until the eighteenth century.


Wikimedia Commons, The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon, artist unknown.

In many respects it is St George’s famous association with chivalry that interests me with regards to manliness. This was in place from early in his history as national patron, encompassed in his image as warrior and knight, but cemented – of course – by his association with the dragon (date of this is debated) enabling him to become the rescuer. It was perhaps George’s chivalric associations that help explain his decline in popularity in the long eighteenth century and rise in the nineteenth, alongside a more general enthusiasm for an imagined chivalric past, as described in Mark Girouard’s book The Return to Camelot (1985)

Okay, so far so good. Last week I was still congratulating myself on the novelty of linking St George more explicitly with masculinity; a connection that seems only to have been identified in passing in the scholarship I’d come across, including Joseph Kestner’s Masculinities in Victorian Painting (1995). My Googling had even paid off by alerting me that Sam Riches, a historian of art has written about St George, via her electronic review of Good’s book.

Next day: bump. Down to earth; for my final stage in considering St George as a marker of masculine identity came along. This one which always strikes me at some point when entering the uncharted lands of another era/topic/approach. I found a publication whose title suggests someone else has been there and got the t-shirt. Scanning Good’s bibliography I saw: ‘The Pre-Raphaelites, St George and the construction of masculinity’ by Joseph Kestner in Collecting the Pre-Raphaelites: the Anglo-American Enchantment edited by Margaretta Watson (1997).

Why hadn’t I seen this on the bibliographic databases? Don’t know. I don’t think I missed it, and I wonder if it is because Kestner is categorised as art history. Anyway – crappity crap-crap.


Wikimedia Commons, Edward Burne Jones, The fight: St George kills the dragon VI 1866 (gorgeous isn’t it?)

Okay, so I have confirmed again that I have no new ideas. But I steeled myself and while waiting for my son while he had his hair cut on Saturday, I read the chapter. Thankfully, it is short and it is focused. Kestner states that St George was ‘a central tenet of the construction of masculinity (with all the attendant allied virtues of courage, valour, loyalty, comradeship)’ (p. 150), thereby summing up much of what I was delighted at noticing – except nearly twenty years earlier. And yet, yet; I realise I can still go somewhere with this.

I want to explore these manly values far more explicitly. They are too often taken for granted by historians, perceived to be ‘obvious’ later Victorian and Edwardian symbols of masculine identity. The longevity of St George helps me think more about this chronology, which is something I’m already doing more generally with manliness. Kestner is interested in what painting the subject of St George did to reinforce the masculinity and status of the Pre-Raphaelite artists themselves. Rightly or wrongly I want to look at the way the imagining of the appearance of the Saint evoked changing styles of manliness. Also, Kestner frames his consideration of St George in the theoretical framework of a curious (for me) focus on the phallus as representing hegemonic patriarchy. This has little appeal for me as a historian. Instead, I want to think about the imagery as a way to gain insights into a wider cultural understanding of masculine identities in the context of a more nuanced approach to hegemonic masculinity. Thanks to the theme of the symposium at which I’m first airing this, I am using a theoretical framework of intimacy, power and authority.

The next tasks in writing this paper (and ones I’d better get on with ASAP) are (1) figure out a bit about how St George fits with ideas about manliness and (2) put that together with the theme of intimacy, power, and authority. That’s all.

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