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Ascalon F [weap:sword] [English Romance]/[Christian_Saints]

Ascalon, Askalon [Seven Champions]; Askelon [Percy's ballads]
etymology: name of a city in Palestine, strategically occupied by the Crusades.
The sword of ST. GEORGE (martyred ca. 303 A.D.) the patron saint of England and one of the seven champions of Christendom; so whimsically named by Richard Johnson (1573-1659?), whose romance makes the saint out to be an true-born son of English gentry.

St. George's sword plays some role, but is not named, in the popular version of the saint's deed found in the "Golden Legend". Or for that matter, the princess rescued by him goes unnamed in the Latin *1.
    *1 Thus in the Dictionary of Christian Biography, the article "Georgius (43)" written by the Rev. G. T. Stokes is misleading in seeming to attribute the mention of "Sabra" to the Golden Legend:
. .The earliest trace we can now find of the full-grown legend of St. George and the dragon, and the king's daughter Sabra, whom he delivered, is in the Historia Lombardica, popularly called the Golden Legend, of Jacobus de Voragine, archbp. of Genoa, A.D. 1280, and in the breviary service for St. George's Day, till revised by pope Clement VIII. Thence it became the foundation of the story as told in Johnson's Historie of the Seven Champions of Christendom, and the old ballad of St. George and the Dragon, reprinted in the third volume of Percy's Reliques, many features of which Spenser reproduces in his Faëry Queen.

§ The Golden Legend (13th c.),

The Legenda Aurea or "Golden Legend" *1 of Jacobus, de Voragine (ca. 1229-1298) devotes a chapter on the saint (Historia de Sancto Georgio) which can be also be read in English in an early Caxton translation (The Golden Legend: St. George)*2 .

The Golden Legend remains silent on the name of the princess saved from the maws of the dragon, who merely refers to her as the daughter of the king (filia regis) in the city of Silene in Libya (provinciam Libyae in civitatem, quae dicitur Silena).

In the Latin text, the tearful king expresses his sentiment of having wanted to witness his daughter in nuptials, and wonders what kind of a send-off he can give to his daughter going off to certain death, but doesn't really say he decked her out like a bride-to-be (conf. "Then did the king do array his daughter like as she should be wedded"[Caxton tr.])(+).

After the princess is taken to the pond or lake where the dragon lurks, We find Georgius as a meddlesome passerby. He keeps pecking at the distressed damsel with questions. After being pressed, the princess explains her entire situation, but repeatedly tells the good knight to flee(+) .

When the dragon appears, Georgius, mounted on his horse and "protected himself with the cross" (cruce se muniens ). In the Latin text it doesn't say he brandished a sword to cross himself although in the English version we read "[He] drew out his sword and garnished him with the sign of the cross" [Caxton tr.](corr.) .

Georgius then smote the dragon with the spear (lancea), and had the girl collar the dragon up with her girdle (zonus ζώνη). Though he employs the sword (gladio ῥομφαία) later to publicly execute the dragon, the sword remains unnamed in this hagiography.

*1 There are also Greek manuscripts which record essentially the "Golden Legend" version of the legend. The text(s) (Codex Angelicus, 46, s. XII, fol. 189- [Bibl. Angelica in Rome] mainly, with critical comparisons) are edited in Aufhauser, Johannes B., Das Drachenwunder des Heiligen Georg: nach der meist verbreiteten griechischen Rezension (1911). There, the city is called Lasia (Λασία) and the king is named Selbios (Σέλβιος). The king's daughter is not named so she is just referred to as the "girl" κόρη, etc.

*2 First edition 1483? by William Caxton (1422-91), translator and printer. The online text hyperlinked here uses normalized spelling.

§ Seven Champions of Christendom (1596),

All indications are that the name "Ascalon" for the name of St. George's sword and the name "Sabra" for the name of the princess in distress are the invention of Richard Johnson's The Most Famous History of the Seauen Champions of Christendome (1596) *4. What follows is a synopsis of the opening chapters.

George is the son of Lord Albert, High Steward and the king's daughter (claiming descent from Aeneas and Brutus). He was born holding a bloody crosse on his right hand and and on his left leg a golden garter. His mother did not survive childbirth, and the newborn was immediately snatched off by an enchantress named Kalyb. As George came of age (twice seven years), the enchantress fell in love with the youth, and showered him with gifts. Her first present was a steed named Bayard*2 which she promised will make the mounted knight invincible. She then buckled on his breast the " strongest Corslet from her Armorie" and laced on a helm (later to be described as a burgonet "grauen with the Armes of England"). The armor was of the "purest Lidian steele that neyther weapon can pearce, nor Battailaxe bruse." She dressed him in rich caparison (i.e., knight-like finery)(corr.).

Then she, "fetching forth a mighty fauchion", goes on to describe her gifts as follows(updated.):

—the unique copy of Huntington Library /
image taken from EEBO project.

.. thy steed is of such force and inuincible power, that whilst
thou art mounted on hys backe, there can be no Knight in
all the world so hardy as to conquere thee: Thy Armour
of the purest Lidian steele, that neyther weapon can pearce,
nor Battail axe bruse, thy sword which is called Ascalon is
framed of such excellent mettle by the curious workman-
ship of the Ciclops, that it will separate and cut the hardest
flint, and hew in sunder the strongest steele, for in the pum-
mell lies such pretious vertue, that neyther treason, witch-
crafts, nor any violence can bee proffered thee, so long as
thou wearest it.
The Most famous History of the
Seauen Champions of Christendome:..
Part I (1596), Ch. I, p.9.
* [In plainer English] Your sword which is called Ascalon is fashioned from such excellent metal by the curious workmanship of the Cyclops, that it will separate and cut the hardest flint, and hew asunder the strongest steel, [and] it contains in the pommel [at the butt of the sword's hilt] a precious ability, which prevents treason, witchcrafts, or any violence from falling upon [the sword's] wearer.

And last but not least the enchantress relinquishes control of her magical "siluer wand" to him, but this proves her doom, because George uses it to trap her inside a rock where she had hidden the bodies of countless suckling babes she murdered. George now liberates the six other co-prisoners who happened to be: St. Anthony of Italy, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. David of Wales, St. Patrick of Ireland, St. Denis of France and St. James of Spain.

Each of the saints go on to carry on an adventure each of his own. George of course saves a princess from the dragon (Part I, Ch.III), and eventually takes her for wife, which is certainly not the situation presented in the Golden Legend. The setting has also been shifted to Egypt ("Egipt"). The King of Egypt was being forced to give up his daughter as sacrifice to the dragon, and offers her hand in marriage and his crown after his death to whoever can deliver them from the monster. George decides to take up the challenge and reassuringly sends back the princess back to the palace. She was dressed in "Arabian silk" [* which is an embellishment to the following description given in the Golden Legend:"Thenne dyd the Kyng doo araye his doughter lyke as she shold be wedded." (Caxton tr.)] Not until later is it revealed that her name is Sabra*3, and that she already has a suitor by the name of "Almidor the blacke King of Moroco")

The dragon measured fifty feet from shoulder to tail, had silver scales harder than brass and a great golden belly "more bigger than a Tun". George, mounted on his steed, thrust his spear but it "shiuerd in a thousand peeces" upon contact. The dragon smote back with his tail so that both man and horse fell to ground and George received two bruised ribs. George ducked under the cover of an an "Orringe tree"*4 which was of such virtue that no worm dared to come within seven feet of the branches. The respite gave him recovery, and he struck the dragon under "yellow burnisht bellie" with Askalon*5 but such abundance of venom sprinkled on his armor that it burst in twain (so much for the armor made from Lydian steel that no sword could cut). Luckily, the fruit of the orange was of such virtue that "whosoeur tasted thereof [was] cured of all manner of diseases and infirmities." George, after resuming the combat, managed to strike the dragon on the tender spot under the wing that was not covered by scales, and with the use of Askalon skewered his vital organs, blood and bone, and out came much purple gore. George decapitated the dragon with Askalon and stuck the head upon the "trunchion of a speare".
*1 The text has been recently published as The Seven Champions of Christendom, 1596-7 ed. Jennifer Fellows, (Ashgate Pub Co 2003). (corrected 2009.10.31) [preview]
A reediting of the earliest printed texts of the first and second part (but not the third part, which is an enlargement added in 1686 way after the original author's death.)
Base texts are thus This contains 1596 is represented by a unique surviving copy is housed at the
  • The most famous history of the seauen champions of Christendome: : Saint George of England, ..Shewing their honorable battailes by sea .. (1st Part, 1596) [STC 2nd ed. 14677]
  • The second part of the famous history of the seauen champions of Christendome: Likevvise shevving the princely provvesse of Saint Georges three sonnes, the liuely sparke of nobilitie. VVith many other memorial atchiuements worthy the golden spurres of knighthood [STC 2nd ed. 14678]
    These texts were originally printed in blackletter, with Roman letters used for proper names. Fellows uses the convention of representing them as unitalicized vs. italicized lettering. She abbreviates the work as 7ch in her commentary.

  • The renowned history of the seven champions of Christendom, St. George of England (London, J. F. Dove 1824) [books.google] This is a handy edition containing Parts I, II, III. (end of correction)

        * 2 In Benjamin Tabart's chapbook edition the horse is called Bucephalus, Kalyb is called Calyba and the sword is unnamed. This Tabart chapbook The seven champions of Christendom: A tale for the nursery (1804) is viewable in facsimile format at the The Hocklifffe Project.
    Also on view there is a Wilson, Spence and Mawman chapbook The British champion; or honour rewarded (c.1797?) in which the enchanteress is "Calyt".

    I've not tracked all the textual differences in all the chapbooks but you can see illustrations of dragon-slaying at The Elizabeth Nesbitt Room Chapbook Collection for 2 chapbook specimens, W. S. Fortey : Bloomsbury History of the Seven Champions of Christendom (no date) and J. Marks : London edition The Surprising Adventures of the Seven Champions of Christendom (no date).

    There is also T. Norris/ A. Bettesworth edition The Illustrious and Renown'd History of the Seven Famous Champions of Christendom (1719)

        *3 The reader is reminded that in the Golden Legend, the damsel was an unnamed princess of Silene, Libya. Other accounts have invented for her names different from Sabra. Cleodolinda apparently originates from Liber Notitiae Sanctorum Mediolanii "book of the notable saints of Milan" (1290) by Goffredo da Bussero, in an Italian version where San Giorgio performs the dragon-slaying in the Brianza region of Italy. Of Alcyone, I am not certain.

        *4 Johnson adapted the older story of Sir Bevis' fight with his dragon, in which a spring where a virgin maid has bathed has curative effects similar to the orange tree here. The power of orange against dragon-poison I would guess derives from the power of rue (a weed/herb of the orange family) against the basilisk, which is mentioned in Bulfinch's mythology, Ch. 36, etc. The ultimate source is likely Pliny who in NH 20.51 mentions the rue as effective against venoms, including that of serpents (serpentium); that weasels (mustelae) eat the herb to counter the poison; NH 8.33 (Latin 8.36) that basilisk is a kind of serpent (basilisci serpentis est).

        *5 Here in Chapter III, we see a spelling that differs from Chapter I.
  • § Redcrosse Knight -- Book 1 of the Færie Queene (16th c.),

    From a similar period in England, we have Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (1590), but the figure of Redcrosse Knight (identifiable with St. George) does not wield a named sword*9.
        *9 Even though in Book V, Canto I we see Sir Artegal(Arthegal, Arthgallo, Artegall), a hero who stood for justice wielding a sword called Chrysaor which was fromerly used by Jove(Jupiter) against the titans.

    § Percy's Ballads (18th c.),

    The sword Ascalon has hence been incorporated into balladry.

    The example is a selection in the ballad collection by the Bishop Percy (Thomas Percy 1729-1811), Reliques of ancient English poetry*10.
    Percy files it under "St. George for England: The second Part" (Reliques, Volume III, Book iii. 15.), but was originally entitled The British Heroes: A New Poem in honour of St. George (1688) and composed by one John Grubb (1645-97). The concluding couplet *11 and refrain goes:
    But George he shav'd the dragon's beard,
    And Askelon was his razor.
    St.George he was for England; St. Dennis was for France;
    Sing, Honi soit qui mal y pense.
        *10 The book is available in the form of a a facsimile reprint of the 1866 edition, printed by Elibron (ISBN 1402173792 paperback $15.95 / ISBN 1402127626 hardcover $25.95). The website has a partial table of contents and preview pages (pdf format). They used to have the complete TOC for Book I and II and I created a Book III TOC page to supplement them.
    @(+) Lately, Percy's Reliques has become digitally available for viewing and text-searching at Books Google. The J. V. Prichard co-edited version of 1876, the work has been reorganized so that XV. St George for England appears under "Book the Ninth".

        *11 Also quoted in Brewer's Readers Guide, entry under "St. George" (may need to navigate to page 3 by clicking )

    § Acts and Martyrdom of St. George

    In early tellings (5-7c.), St. George was a trained soldier but did not fight a dragon as such (i.e. any nonhuman monster), instead suffering persecution from a pre-Constantine heathen tyrant Diocletian and a "Persian king/governor" named Dacianus/Dadianus(corr.) nicknamed "the dragon" for his "draconian laws" banning the Christian religion. (see ⇒St. George and "the dragon" —early hagiographies )


    § Ascalon the city

    Ascalon is a city in Palestine (see map), but it does not have a particular bond with Georgiôs. The cities he is most closely connected with the saint are Melitene and Diospolis (aka Lydda; see map) .

    Melitene (in eastern Cappadocia, beyond map) was apparently where the saint's father Anastasius was rooted, and conceivably Georgiôs referred to himself as being "of Melitene" or "of Cappadocia" merely because those were the place of origin for his paterfamilias. Even if Georgiôs was indeed born in Cappadocia, he didn't spend more than his infancy there, as the family soon moved to Palestine, that is to say, to the city of Diospolis where his mother's side of the family hails from, and which comes to be described as Georgiôs's home and final resting ground.

    The fates of Ascalon and of Lydda do converge during the Third Crusade.

    § The Crusades

    [* It seems info on the Crusades and St. George can be found plentifully in webspace; so I won't flesh out this section for the time being.]

    St. George appeared in a vision to the christian army of the First Crusade (1095-99). ..

    It is believed that the late 12th century, the epoch of the Third Crusade, is coinicident with the circulation of the dragon-slaying tales of St. George in Europe.
    Map of the historic cities, superimposed on modern Israel (in green, with occupied West Bank in tan, and Gaza strip in pink). St. George's home was Lydda (called Diospolis in Greek).    

    § Miscellaneous tidbits

  • The knight of the fountain (first husband of Laudine slain by Yvain) whose name is later revealed to be "Esclados the Red (Esclados li Rous)" in Chrétien de Troye's tale has been renamed Askalon by Hartmann von Aue in his Middle High German Iwein. Cf. ⇒«Lunete's ring».
  • "Ascalon" is the etymological root of the word "scallion" or green onion. Mentioned by Pliny NH 19 (Alium. . cepae genera apud. . Ascalonia, ab oppido Iudaeae nominata)
    The word is listed in Old English Épinal-Erfurt glossary: "ascolonium = hynnilaec" "ascalonium = ynnilec" where hynnilaec (ynni-) is Old English for 'onion-leek."

  • Sources:


  • Saint George in English History is a comprehensive source. Surveys the early importation of the St. George cult into England before the Norman Conquest (and the Crusades).

  • Catholic Encyclopedia:

  • Mor Gewargis Sahdo (St. George the Martyr) at the Syriac Orthodox Resources website.

    St. George appeared in a vision to the christian army of the First Crusade (1095-99). He reappeared in a vision to Richard Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189 - 1192). As for who made George the martyr patron saint of England, some credit Richard I, and others say Edward III who instituted the Order of the Garter. Formerly the patron saint (and the name invoked in the English battle cry) was Saint Edward the Confessor.
    There are numerous portrayals of St. George in arts and crafts, and cataloguing them would be a huge project unto its own. For starters, the book St. George for Merrie England (London, 1908) lists quite a number of them, with plates ( The text part is a bit problematic: in the Golden Legend chapter it quotes from Caxton's translation, but grafts on the name Cleodolinda for the rescured princess.)

    * Straparola's Le piacevoli notti (1551) (tr. The Nights of Straparola 1894) has a story about "Cesarino and the dragon". See illustration in Rackham's Fairy Tale Illustrations in Full Color (Dover $12.95)]

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