St. George, The Holy Knight

Raffaello, St. George and the dragon (1505)
© National Gallery of Art – Washington

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

There is a figure that more than any other influenced the equestrian imagination: that of St. George, the Holy Knight, who over the centuries became the symbol of chivalrous valor that defeats evil. A curious fact when you consider that, although uncertain and contradictory, the small amount of information that traces his life and his martyrdom between the Third and Fourth centuries, does not mention his exploits on horseback, nor specifically characterizes him as a knight. The legend of his fight with the dragon was, in fact, first diffused in medieval times, then becoming his essential characterization, deeply affecting popular imagination, to the point that he became the patron saint of knights and saddlers (as well as armorers, soldiers, fencers and archers), and orienting almost univocally the subsequent iconography.

The essential information about St. George’s life came to us mainly from the so-called Passio Georgii, an hagiographic work that was, however, already labeled by the Decretum Gelasium of 496 as apocryphal (ie. unreliable because false) and from a few other texts that resemble, often altering, the same essential data. Sources tell us that George was born in Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) from a Persian father and a local mother, and that he was educated to the Christian religion and entered the imperial army. When the Emperor (who according to some sources was Dacianus, emperor of the Persians, but according to others was Diocletian, emperor of the Romans) decided to persecute the Christians, George gave his possessions to the poor and publicly professed his belief. After refusing to offer sacrifices to the gods, he was submitted to martyrdom, but he died and was raised three times, working each time conversions and miracles. The cult of the martyr and of his relics soon began. We know from works such as the De situ terra sanctae, by Theodore Perigeta (of about 530), that in the city of Lydda in Palestine (today Lod, near Tel Aviv), a basilica existed which was built in the time of Constantine over the tomb of the saint and other martyrs of the persecution of Diocletian (303 d. C.).

Jan van der Straet, St. George and the Dragon (1563-1564)
Badia delle Sante Flora e Lucilla
Arezzo (Italy)

It seems instead that the story of the battle with the dragon dates back to the age of the Crusaders and, according to some, would be born from the false interpretation of an image of the Emperor Constantine, portrayed in the act of standing above a pierced monster, seen by Christian knights in Constantinople. From there it would have spread like a folktale to be subsequently drawn on in La vie des Saints of the Norman troubadour Robert Wace (about 1115 to 1183, he was also the author of the Roman de Rou) and especially in the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (1228-1298).

Carlo Crivelli, St. George killing
the Dragon (1470)
© Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

It tells that the population of Silene, in Libya, was terrorized by a dragon who lived in a lake not far from the city, killing anyone he could get hold of with his deadly breath. To placate him, the inhabitants offered him two sheep a day. The animals became scarce, but the terror of the people was such that they resolved to sacrifice a sheep and casted lots for a young boy or girl. After a few days, the name of the king’s daughter came from the lottery. The king tried to save her, offering his treasures in return, but the people who had seen their children die, rose up and, in the end, the princess was offered, crying, to her death. Just then, a young knight, George, was passing by, and, as soon as he knew what was about to happen, he offered to save her. When the dragon appeared from the water, sparking flames and smoke from his mouth, the young man went to meet him, galloping with his lance at his side. The battle was terrible, but the rider was able to pierce the monster, wounding him and knocking him down. George then turned to the girl and inspired her not to be afraid and to fasten her belt around the neck of the beast. Immediately tamed, the dragon began to obediently follow her up to the city. Seeing her arrive, accompanied by the monster, the inhabitants panicked, but George told them not to be afraid, that God had sent him to rescue them. «Be converted to the faith in Christ, he said, and I will slay the dragon». The king and the people did submit to baptism and the knight then beheaded the dragon with his sword.

Giovanni Bellini, Pesaro Altarpiece (about 1471-1483),
© Musei civici, Pesaro (Italy)

The legend has the typical features of an adventure from courtly romances: the noble damsel in distress, the heroism and devotion of the knight, the crucial trial which places the latter against a monstrous incarnation of evil. It is no coincidence that the story spread in the era of the full splendor of chivalric society and of the works that sang it’s deeds with epic tones. In particular, the episode summed up, in an exemplary manner, the mission of defending the unarmed and the Christian religion that was the foundation ideal of medieval chivalry’s spirit. This decreed it’s success and explains how the legend ended up in completely overlapping the life of the saint, imposing on the popular imagination. The same characteristics also explain the huge success that the clash between the holy knight and the dragon received in the visual arts, offering a perfect synthesis between a sacred subject and profane values. It is impossible to list all the artists who, since the Middle Ages, identified themselves with this fundamental image to our civilization. The legend also reflects clearly the influence of the myth of Perseus saving Andromeda from the terrible monster sent by Poseidon to punish the pride of his mother, Cassiopeia. Similarly, it is clear that in the figure of the young warrior who faces, on horseback, a fantastic creature, we find an echo of the myth of Bellerophon and Pegasus’s battle against the Chimera (to which we devoted a previous article in this blog).

Franz Pforr, St. George and the Dragon (about 1811)
© Städelsches Kunstinstitut
Frankfurt (Germany)

The intercession of St. George was considered particularly effective against plague, leprosy, syphilis, poisonous snakes, and diseases of the head. Speaking of horse breeding, in his treatise Razze, disciplina del cavalcare ed altre cose pertinenti ad esercitio così fatto (Races, discipline of riding and other things relevant to this exercise, 1560), Giovanni Battista Ferraro, argued that the window of opportunity for covering the mares began with the feast of St. George (23 April), «that being such a saint the patron of knights, it’s better that this job starts on the day dedicated to him» (Ferraro, 1602, I, p. 6).

Many “sacred mysteries”, ie processions and mystery plays, were dedicated to the celebration of St. George. In the fifteenth century, the so-called Ludus draconis had a certain spread and was later taken up and imitated in many spectacular performances that accompanied the Renaissance jousts.

Vittore Carpaccio, St George and the dragon (detail -1516)
San Giorgio Maggiore
Venice (Italy)

The cult of St. George was particularly widespread in England and was further consolidated after the Norman Conquest (XI cent.). During the Third Crusade, Richard I (1157-1199) claimed to have seen the Saint covered with his shining armor at the head of the Christian troops. His successor, Edward III (1312-1377), introduced the famous battle cry “St. George for England” and founded (around 1349) the Knightly Order of the Garter, in whose vestments the emblems of St. George are essential. Various other orders of knighthood bear his name, such as the Teutonic Order, the Military Order of Calatrava of Aragon, the Sacred Constantinian Order of St. George, etc. Finally, the red cross of St. George on a white field stands still on the English flag.


ANTONUCCI, Giovanni, La leggenda di S. Giorgio e del drago, in “Emporium”, LXXVI (1932), pp. 79-89.

FERRARO, Giovanni Battista, Razze, disciplina del cavalcare ed altre cose pertinenti ad esercitio così fatto, Napoli, appresso Mattio Cancer, 1560 [we quote from the enlarged and revised edition in Pirro Antonio Ferraro, Cavallo frenato, Napoli, Pace, 1602]

Iacopo DA VARAZZE, Legenda aurea, a cura di Alessandro e Lucetta Vitale Brovarone, Torino, Einaudi, 2007.

Horseback riding in the Middle Ages – Jordanus Rufus of Calabria

Miniature of an armed knight of Prato on horseback, attribution to Pacino di Buonaguida, from Convenevole da Prato, Regia Carmina, Italy, Central (Tuscany),
c. 1335-c. 1340

by Giovanni Battista Tomassini

Although the importance of the horse in the medieval European civilization is known and recognized, given it’s central function in the definition of the identity of the dominant classes and the prominent role that the cavalry held in the military until at least the fourteenth century, we unfortunately know little about the equestrian practices in the period from the classical era to the Renaissance. The so-called chivalric literature and chronicles handed down to us by memory, are often cloaked in the misty aura of myth, of innumerable deeds accomplished on horseback, but telling us little or nothing about how medieval knights rode their steeds and how they were tamed, trained and cared for. Yet, as noted by the French historian Nicolas Thouroude (Thouroude, 2007), at least with regard to the late medieval age documents, there is evidence of the existence of a ludic equitation which provided a refined training of the horse. This type of riding found it’s expression in tournaments and jousts which were to celebrate various events involving court rituals and real shows, in addition to combat, in which horses always had a leading role. The equestrian education of the young nobles was indeed considered essential. Ramon Llull in his Livre de l’ordre de chevalerie (1274-1276) recommended that gentlemen insist on instruction for their children on how to ride horses in their very early years, and that during their education, they should also be taught how to care for the animal.

Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye, from Grandes Chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 782), c. 1274

In medieval times, we do not find texts which deal specifically with riding techniques. The theme of the care and breeding of the horse is often discussed in encyclopedic works, such as Geopónica (overall work about agronomy, compiled in Constantinople under the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, in the tenth century), or in the Liber de animalibus by Albert the Great (1206-1280), De rerum proprietatibus by Bartholomew de Glanville, called the English (XIII c.), or the Ruralium Commodorum libri XII (1304) by Pietro de’ Crescenzi (COCO – Gualdo, 2008).

Illustration from the Roman de Tristan
(Musée Condé MS 648, fol. 199r), 1440-1460

In this framework, there is a particular importance given to the treatise by Jordanus Rufus of Calabria, miles in marestalla (that is to say an officer of the second order in the imperial stud farm) in the court of Frederick II. Born around 1200, in Gerace or Monteleone di Calabria, he wrote a work transmitted through a manuscript tradition under various titles Mariscalcia equorumLiber de curis equorumCyrurgia equorum (Ruffo, 1999 e 2002). The text was certainly written in Latin, although there are different versions in the various languages: Tuscan, Sicilian, Catalan, Provençal, French and also in German. A Hebrew version has also been identified, which testifies to it’s widespread diffusion. The work is divided into six parts. The first four books are about breeding, feeding, reproduction, hygiene, taming and training, bits and shoeing, and the physical structure of the horse. The last two are devoted to describing diseases, which are divided into natural (Book V), and accidental (Book VI). It is to the latter that the bulk of the text is devoted: fifty-nine chapters, covering various diseases and their treatment. The chapters devoted to taming and training are quite basic, but they give an idea of the equestrian practices of the time and contain precepts that will be found again in later works (some of which are still in use today).

Henry I battles his enemies, Grandes chroniques de France
(Bibl. Sainte-Geneviève 783, fol. 177v), 14th-15th century

Rufus recommends to keep the horse tethered in the stable, in order to prevent him from hurting his limbs, and to prepare for the night, a straw litter up to his knees. There are also dietetic prescriptions to keep the horse neither too thin, nor too fat. It is also suggested to water him with turbid water, because it is considered more “nutritious” («ideoque efficientur equorum corporibus nutribiliores refectiores ad plenum»). The author advises against riding in the evening because, in the cooler hours of the night, it is more difficult for the sweat dry completely before the animal is brought back to the stable. Similarly, he warns against riding in the hottest months of summer, or in the coldest of winter. Shoeing must be done with light steel horseshoes, but he recommends not to shoe the horse when he is too young, in order to avoid damaging his hooves.

Tournament of the Chastel of Brut,
from Romance of the Round Table
(BNF Fr. 112(1), fol. 181v), c. 1470

At the beginning of the training, Rufus recommends to use the lightest bit possible («frenum debile et levius»), making sure to smear it with honey or some other sweet syrup, to make it more pleasant to the horse. Once harnessed, the horse must be led by hand by a groom until he has learned to follow him obediently. Only then he can be mounted, without saddle or spurs, and accustomed to turn to the left and to the right. After about a month he can be mounted with the saddle and trained gradually to trot on plowed soil, so that he learns to raise his feet well. It is also recommended to train him to turn especially to the right because, it is said, horses naturally tend to turn more easily to the left («quod equus est naturaliter pronior a sinistris»). Once trained to trot, the horse can be ridden at the canter, but keeping a collected gait  («in minore et breviore saltu») and only for short distances, to avoid tiring him. He also recommends, both at the trot and at the canter, to keep contact with the bit, and to bend progressively the horse’s neck, in order to control him better and to let him see where he places his hooves. To accustom him to noise and to crowds, Rufus suggests to often ride the horse inside the city, especially in noisy places (for example, near the forges of the blacksmiths), taking care not to punish him if he is initially scared and unwilling, rather gently encouraging him («blandendo ducatur»), in order to prevent that he will later associate noise and movement with punishment,.

Frontispiece of the French edition of Lorenzo Rusio’s Hippiatria sive Marescalia (Parigi, Christianum Wechelum, 1532). This later work was significantly influenced by Jordanus Rufus’s treatise

Nevertheless, there are also suggestions that today make us shudder. According to Rufus, when the horse has attained his full adult dentition, his four canine teeth (scaglioni) must be pulled out, because they are considered adverse to the mouthpiece («a pluribus nuncupantur freni morsui continui adversantes»). According to the author, this operation would also have the advantage of keeping the horse from getting too fat and, if he is wild, to appease his ardent character. The bit to be used with the colt is the one that, in later periods, will be called “cannon”, consisting of two transversal bars and one in width «ad duas barras extransverso et una per longum composita est»). The author then mentions other stronger bits, with twisted or grooved mouthpieces, or with a shovel that acts on the palate, but he advises not to use them because he considers them too strong and, for this reason, he does not give much attention to them. He stresses that, once the right mouthpiece for the sensibility of the animal is found, it must not be changed with others of different shape, so as to not ruin the horse’s mouth. The horse must be trained to stop and to respect the bit before working him at a faster pace. The canter must be practiced progressively for longer distances, without abuse, to prevent the horse from getting too tired and becoming resistant. Similarly, he must be urged forward frequently to avoid that he becomes lazy.

Horse’s anathomy, from Carlo Ruini, Anatomia del cavallo infermità et suoi rimedii, in Bologna, presso gli heredi di Gio. Rossi, 1598

Rufus’s text had a wide diffusion and has had considerable influence on the chapters devoted to the cure of the horse by Pietro de’ Crescenzi and on the subsequent treatises about the art of farriery1 by Lorenzo Rusio (about 1340) and by the Florentine Dino Dini (1352-1359), up to the Anatomia del cavallo infermita et suoi rimedii ((Anatomy of the horse his infirmity et remedies, 1598), the work of the Renaissance precursor of veterinary medicine Carlo Ruini. 1 It’s important to notice that, at the time, the farrier was not only the horseshoer, but also the veterinarian.


AA.VV. 2011  Cavalli e cavalieri. Guerra, gioco, finzione, edited by F. Cardini and L. Mantelli, Ospedaletto-Pisa.

COCO, Alessandra – GUALDO, Riccardo 2008 Cortesia e cavalleria, la tradizione ippiatrica in volgare nelle corti italiane tra Trecento e Quattrocento, in I saperi nelle corti. Knowledge at the courts, Firenze, Sismel-Edizioni del Galluzzo, (Micrologus XVI), pp. 125-152.

GUALDO, Riccardo 2005  Ippiatria in Enciclopedia Federiciana, Roma, Istituto dell’Enciclopedia Italiana, Vol.  II, pp. 81-86.

LULLO,Raimondo 1994  Libro dell’Ordine della Cavalleria. Italian edition with Catalan parallel text, edited by G. Allegra, Carmagnola, Arktos Edizioni.

RUFFO, Giordano 1999  Nelle scuderie di Federico II imperatore, ovvero L’arte di curare il cavallo, edited by M.A. Causati Vanni, Editrice Vela, Velletri. 2002

Libro della mascalcia, edited by P.Crupi, Soveria Mannelli, Rubettino Editore.

THOUROUDE, Nicolas 2007  Les prémices d’une equitation ludique à l’aube de l’epoque modern (XIVe -XVe siècle), in AA.VV., À cheval! Ècuyers, amazones & cavaliers du XIVe au XXIe siècle, edited by D. Roche and D. Reytier, Paris, Association pour l’académie équestre de Versailles, pp. 33- 47.

You may find a remarkable collection of links to pictures about the Medieval and Reinassance material culture on