JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Monday, April 23, 2007

Shakespeare and St George

Today is Shakespeare's birthday, and also St George's Day. St George was a real person, but he never visited England, and probably didn't slay a dragon either. He's said to have slain the dragon on a spectacular tabletop hill in an ancient Oxfordshire landscape in the Vale of the White Horse. When my children were small, we re-enacted the scene in situ, amid much hilarity. I can't remember who played the part of the dragon. Probably me.

This picture came off Wikipedia, and shows the bronze age White Horse cut into the hillside on the right, and Dragon Hill in the rising up in middle (you'll probably need a magnifying glass). It's hard to do justice to such a magical place in any photograph - if you're ever anywhere near, it's worth a visit, particularly if you take a picnic (this suggestion may be as close as we get to food today!).

Until the middle ages, England's patron saint was the rather dour St Edmund. But crusaders brought home stories of St George, and at some point a swap was made. (Don't ask me, I'm not a medievalist!) By the time Shakespeare wrote Henry V, George was well established as England's patron saint: "Cry God for Harry, England and St George!" is the rallying cry before the battle of Agincourt. In the autumn we visited the battlefield with our two youngest children, but they - alas - are now too grown-up for in situ re-enactments of dubious historical accuracy (although this one would have been spot on after our visit to the excellent museum at Azincourt).

The whole thing is rather puzzling: what exactly is a patron saint expected to do? Particularly one with strong links to a multiplicity of other places: Palestine, Lebanon, Georgia, Bulgaria, Portugal, Majorca, Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia, Greece, Brazil, India, Moscow, Reggio Calabria (not to mention his links with the freemasons and American boy scouts) - and that's just the basic Wikipedia list. Here's something I read, amazingly, this morning, in Honey from a Weed:

St George, the equestrian knight, was particularly loved by the Venetians, people who valued above everything the horse, and who, in the old days, were quick to translate passion into action. He remains, in spite of the Vatican, the embodiment of a principle close to English hearts, and to the Catalans, the Greeks and the Dalmatians whose patron saint he has long been. The Veneto is the place to ponder his significance: not only in San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice where Carpaccio painted his exploits for the Dalmatian community, but also in San Zeno in Verona where he was depicted by an unknown painter in a beautiful 13th century fresco. The wonder of this active saint must have dawned on the Venetians during their dominion over Dalmatia, Corfu, the Peloponnese and the Cyclades, lasting four centuries, and only brought to an end in Byron's time, by the Turks.

The reference to the Vatican seems to be that successive popes demoted him (third class saint at the lowest point - what on earth does that mean?), but he's back up there with his own special day in the Roman Catholic calendar, and one can only hope that that day is today!

But the key point about George, for me, is that he was a man who stood up to be counted. He was a Christian from Cappadocia, rose to high rank in the Roman army, but refused orders to take part in the persecution of Christians. When he followed this up with criticism of the emporer, Diocletian ordered torture (on a wheel of swords) and execution (beheaded). Brave indeed.

Oh, and there's one other thing about 23rd April - it's DD's birthday. She's my oldest friend, we were at nursery school together decades ago, then both crashed our A levels together. She introduced me to Lucius, and is Eleanor's godmother. Many happy returns of the day - I hope the weather's better in Crete than here!

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