Memories, emotions and writing history

I’ve been frantically writing a paper on representations of St George and the Dragon and what they reveal about manliness. This has prompted a few thoughts on the problems of writing cultural history.[i] Cultural history is sometimes attacked because it is based on fairly diverse sources which can be seen as rather marginal, unrepresentative, and even eccentric. Methodology is tricky too. It is very difficult to demonstrate concrete links between the meanings that an image, text, or object seems to convey and people actually interacting with that meaning. I don’t necessarily have a solution to this, though I have adopted research software to try and make my analysis as rigorous as possible. If  nothing else, I hope that by acknowledging the issues, I can look for ways to ameliorate them. Still, they arise with every new project!

For example, with St George, I want to argue that his form can stir profound emotions which might have helped convey to men the manly values that he represented. By being associated with the positive emotions inspired by St George: love and pride, for instance, men might have accepted the aspects of manliness more easily and deeply.The thing is – it is quite tricky to get evidence of emotions being felt by individuals. It is even more difficult to track down groups displaying similar emotions. What follows, however, seems to be an example of just this.

One of the sensational stories about St George involves his role in rescuing the retreating British soldiers on the Battlefield at Mons in 1914 by slaying Germans. Just when all was almost lost:

“World without end. Amen,” said one of the British soldiers with some irrelevance as he took aim and fired. And then he remembered–he says he cannot think why or wherefore–a queer vegetarian restaurant in London where he had once or twice eaten eccentric dishes of cutlets made of lentils and nuts that pretended to be steak. On all the plates in this restaurant there was printed a figure of St. George in blue, with the motto, ‘Adsit Anglis Sanctus Geogius’–May St. George be a present help to the English. This soldier happened to know Latin and other useless things, and now, as he fired at his man in the grey advancing mass–300 yards away–he uttered the pious vegetarian motto. He went on firing to the end, and at last Bill on his right had to clout him cheerfully over the head to make him stop, pointing out as he did so that the King’s ammunition cost money and was not lightly to be wasted in drilling funny patterns into dead Germans.

For as the Latin scholar uttered his invocation he felt something between a shudder and an electric shock pass through his body. The roar of the battle died down in his ears to a gentle murmur; instead of it, he says, he heard a great voice and a shout louder than a thunder-peal crying, “Array, array, array!”

His heart grew hot as a burning coal, it grew cold as ice within him, as it seemed to him that a tumult of voices answered to his summons. He heard, or seemed to hear, thousands shouting: “St. George! St. George!”

“Ha! messire; ha! sweet Saint, grant us good deliverance!”

“St. George for merry England!”

“Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St. George, succour us.”

“Ha! St. George! Ha! St. George! a long bow and a strong bow.”

“Heaven’s Knight, aid us!”

And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.

These arrows killed the Germans in their thousands.

Now many of you may know that this tale was the Great War equivalent of an urban myth. Alfred Machen wrote the supernatural tale and published it in a newspaper in September 1914. Soon after, however, it was taken up with vigour by people convinced it was true; witnesses to the ‘event’ even came forward. Even when he published the story in a book in 1915, explaining it was fiction, the legend continued.

Bowman, cover Machen

I’m very interested in this since it shows the emotional power of the image of St George. Machen wrote the story knowing that the saint would stir a number of emotions rooted in shared memories. This stirring tale drew on the legend of St George appearing on the battlefields in the Crusades to help Christians, and even more directly his similar intervention to assist the English in winning the Battle of Agincourt. Perhaps less consciously – these emotions may well have been attached to the rather laconic style of brave English manliness being celebrated. It may, even, at a push, show that people shared the emotional tug of the story since readers did – and have continued – to respond fairly dramatically to it.

As a footnote to this rumination on emotion, memory and the transmission of values, it is only while writing my paper that I remembered that in my childhood my mum had a brooch of St George and the Dragon. I also recalled being very fond of it. She retrieved it for me, and here it is!


She also told me that my father bought it for her when I was small. Apparently I was transfixed by it and had a tantrum because I wanted it. My dad tried to appease me by buying me a fox brooch, in a similar style, which I now treasure. But still, I do remember hankering after the St George. Now, did the memory and emotions attached to that brooch trigger my inclination to write St George into my history of manliness? Sometimes you don’t even realise how personal research and writing history can be!

[i] Peter Mandler, ‘The problem with cultural history’, Cultural and Social History 1, 2004, 94-117; Wahrman, D. (2008), ‘Change and the Corporeal in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Gender History: Or, Can Cultural History Be Rigorous?’. Gender & History, 20: 584–602.


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