St George: patron saint of manliness

I’m writing a book on the history of masculinities from 1750 to 1918. One of things that I’m investigating is men’s interaction with objects that conveyed ideas about manliness. One of the most striking ‘objects’ that I have noticed is St George and the Dragon, patron saint of England, whose idealised form embodied many prized qualities of male behaviour.

Wikimedia St._George_and_the_Dragon

St George was and is very popular across the globe and is patron saint of several nations, towns and groups. In England he evolved from religious cult in late antiquity to national icon and from the early nineteenth century took prominence as a romantic, chivalric, and patriotic figure. St George was also a symbol of manliness as numerous Victorian depictions of the saint illustrate. The art historian Joseph Kestner declares him ‘a central tenet of the construction of masculinity (with all the attendant allied virtues of courage, valour, loyalty, comradeship).’ In particular St George represented the manly qualities of courage, self-sacrifice, strength, and virtue. I’ve talked about St George on this blog before here, and this post gathers together some of my thoughts on the way the figure of St George helps explain how ideas about manliness were communicated to men through visual and material culture. I think that he acted as an emotional catalyst in disseminating values to men.

The depiction of St George is fairly consistent – the ‘classic’ St George and the dragon: mounted with one arm raised, spearing the monster. The horse is either rearing or treading foursquare on the dragon with the whole forming almost a circular composition. This is his most distilled emblematic form. As a military saint the attributes of the warrior are his most obvious link to manliness. He had long standing appeal to soldiers from at least the Crusades to the First World War. St George was thus a useful cultural motif to call upon in times of war to inspire and persuade men to fulfill social expectations to fight. Nonetheless, his martial qualities were as central to manliness in the age of enlightenment as militarism for courage was always valued as an attribute of the manly man.

The look of St George was significant too. The male body was central to the concept of manliness throughout the period studied though its idealised form changed considerably over the 170 years. At mid-eighteenth century, the ideal manly body was dexterous and graceful, strong, but not necessarily rugged or burly. By the end of the nineteenth century, idealised representations of men were large, robust, and overtly muscular. Interestingly there are often two types of St George depicted in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One emphasises a very dynamic, forceful, muscularly poised body closely engaged with the dragon, which is generally large. He was mature, often indicated by bigger size – more bulk and heft, or by being bearded, or shorter haired, or wearing a visored or partly visored helmet. My impression is that the larger St Georges were popular in the later nineteenth century, when the more rugged masculine physical form was the standard and health and exercise actively promoted.

The other type was youthful, un-bearded, often combined with long hair or un-helmeted head. When associated with youth, St George is more slender and often languid; his apotheosis is in Burne-Jones’ images which are less about power and almost dreamily passive. The youthful depictions of St George particularly conveyed the allure of manly purity. St George was representative of virtue – most obviously because as a Christian Saint slaying the dragon he represented the mastery of good over evil. Generally chastity was a feature of the Saint – in the sense of mastery of body and emotions. But virtue was not confined to saints. Virtuous manliness was about correct deportment through bodily and emotional control and the regulation of appetite. Indeed, self-control was a feature of both the youthful and mature versions.

I think that St George’s continued association with pious and virtuous manliness helps explain why he was deemed suitable as a role model for youths in the late 19th c/early 20th. In his Scouting for Boys Baden Powell made St George ‘the patron saint of cavalry and scouts all over Europe’. Indeed he remains so to this day. The Scouts website currently explains that Baden-Powell chose him as patron because ‘St. George epitomised the qualities of selflessness and both moral and physical courage which he saw as being among the aims of Scouting’. In short, St George was an emblem who not only personified piety and patriotism; he modeled manly values like courage, strength and virtue. Thus the Saint was a vessel for a number of values associated with masculine identity. St George was a object to be produced, consumed, and circulated.

After all, the materiality of St George was fairly ubiquitous in so far as any form of cultural production can be. Men encountered his form in many places. He is seen in many churches and was also acted out in civic and folk performances. He was also an object to be handled and worn, worn on jewellery and as badges for hats (for example regiment pins which continued into the20th century), he decorated ceramics and was painted onto furniture. St George was also part of print culture from its inception in book frontispieces, antiquarian collections of passions, legends, and ballads, intellectual treatises, and children’s books.

His fairly widespread visibility is not alone sufficient to explain how the manliness he represented might be communicated and sought after. I think the emotive power of his materiality offers some clues into the successful circulation of his manly qualities. I’m suggesting that men – typically within but sometimes across social groups – shared a world view and emotional knowledge that they derived from a broadly common historical experience. Thus St George was a ‘thing’ that men who shared emotional knowledge consumed. For men encountering him, he served as an intimate devotional icon producing the male self. Effectively, men could interact with his image in very individual ways, responding to his beauty, his bravery, his self-sacrifice, his excitement, but shaped by their shared knowledge of gender constructions.

I think that this was powerful because St George evoked certain emotions crucial to this process. He served as an emblem or an idea stimulating emotions, such as love (for country, for God) and pride (for guild, for England); in war, aggression and self-sacrifice. He also served as a model of which [unmanly] emotions to restrain: fear, anxiety, grief, passion. The emotions he evoked are evident in the legends of his appearances to support the Christian or English on battlefields in the crusades, at Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, and most startlingly at Mons in 1914, an entirely fictional appearance which nonetheless stimulated considerable feelings amongst soldiers and citizens alike. As an emotional catalyst, it is, therefore, perhaps no surprise that he was used in memorials for the fallen in the Boer War and Great War, both in sculpture and stained glass window. Not only was St George a traditional figure deployed to lend meaning to large scale loss and a cult to promote the martyrdom of the fallen, in such memorials, he embodied the best of manliness cut-off in its prime; his use was intended to provoke profound feelings in those individuals affected – such as grief and resignation, pride and sorrow; but also was so recognisable he could not be forgotten.

St George was a vessel of specific manly values which were circulated through his form to be shared by men – and women who of course were involved in constructing manliness. As a form of material culture St George was an emotional catalyst. His connection with men was forged through various emotions, which thereby created a bond with specific manly qualities, and embedded them more firmly in men’s minds as a way to construct a self, and to access the power that manliness conveyed, although it was a power that was not without penalties, as the use of St George in war memorials demonstrates.

Image: Study of Carpaccio’s St. George and the Dragon. 1870-72 From “Ruskin, Turner and the pre-Raphaelites”, by Robert Hewison, 2000. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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.