Few literary conventions are more useful than quotation of Aristotle when in a pinch. He gives a sheen to what might otherwise pass for inanity, especially when you do not know with perfect assurance what you are talking about. So we invoke his resolution: “It is the mark of an educated man to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible.” Here is the formula for successful historians and unsuccessful politicians.
The maxim came to mind when I, seeking relief from the raucous publicity of another White House scandal, perused the Martyrology of Oengus. That Irish historian is as precise as he can be about the “megalomartyros” St. George, and even more inexact when facts fail. Apparently, more nations, towns, churches, and foundations invoke George as patron than any saint other than the Blessed Lady. By a blessed coincidence, he is my own patron. He is said to have appeared to the first Crusaders when they defeated the Saracens at Antioch. The details of that remain inexact.
What is precisely true is that since the Crusades soldiers have had an affinity for him. There is no evidence that General Custer kept a cult for George, but he bore his name, even as he rode into battle at Little Big Horn, outnumbered by the Sioux almost as greatly as Henry V was outnumbered by the French at Agincourt, though with less fortunate issue. We still thrill at the words of Shakespeare’s king: “Shall not thou and I, between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a boy, half- French, half-English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard?” The bard’s bearded Turk became a reality in the life, or more precisely the death, of Custer. The Battle of Little Big Horn was coincident with the Bashi-Bazouk massacres in Bulgaria. A war correspondent, Januarius Aloysius MacGahan (1844-1870), covered the outrages of those tatterdemalion Turkish Irregulars, but he got little attention, even though the Bashi-Bazouks obliterated thousands and the Sioux scalped only 265, plus George the General.
Two years after the atrocities that MacGahan publicized in vain to excite American indignation, the Bulgarians’ long-time Serbian rivals gained independence from the Turks, along with the Rumanians and Montenegrins. In 1815, to be precise, the governor of central Serbia, Milos Obrenovich (1780-1866) had begun a second revolt against the Turks, apparently unaware that simultaneously in England, the only daughter of the happily hapless George IV was being introduced to her future husband, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Two years later, by a macabre coincidence, Princess Charlotte died in childbirth as Obrenovich was being proclaimed Prince of Serbia by the National Assembly. Charlotte’s grandfather, George III, had lost his American colonies to George Washington, attaching an odd symmetry to Obrenovich’s sobriquet: “the George Washington of Serbia.” The title strains comparison, given Obrenovich’s tendency to murder and pillage, and the way he plotted the assassination of the Serbs’ chosen leader, Karageorge, or Czerny Djordje, which means “Black George.” But so many Georges!
The Serbs are not a people with an unclouded history. On June 11, 1903, the 1600th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint George, inexactly configured, King Aleksander I Obrenovich and his wife Draga were assassinated along with fifty of their retinue. Draga’s first husband was a Czech named Mashin, pronounced “machine” portentously inasmuch as the assassins of 1903 included members of the army corps of engineers. The autocrat Aleksander was succeeded by a grandson of Karageorge, Peter I Karageorgevich, at the same time Prince George of Greece (1867-1957) was serving as High Commissioner of Crete. Prince George died on the quincentenary of the death of King Ladislas of Bohemia, who was succeeded by Jiri (George) of Podebrad (1420-1471).
Aristotle’s philosophical champion in the papal court of the 15th century was George of Trebizond, secretary to Pope Paul II who excommunicated George of Podebrad in 1466 and fomented a crusade against him. Invoking the inexactitude commended by Aristotle, we may say that a lot of incidental Georges cross the chronicles of time, but there is exactly one George grand as he is mysterious. I recently saw an icon of him, several stories high, overlooking Red Square in Moscow where formerly a banner of Lenin had glared at his own tomb. However many other Georges there have been, there is the one who is a soldier, and however endless the dragons may seem, in due time he puts an end to them all.