St George, Cervantes and Shakespeare

The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the Art Fund 1916

What do William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and St George have in common? They all died on 23 April, with the master dramaturge and literary don arranging well-nigh simultaneous exits in 1616. Of course, we’re slightly less certain about the exact date of St George’s death – the more sceptical among historians doubting the fact of his birth let alone the time of his passing – but that has not stopped Catalans from amalgamating the feast of their patron saint with the celebrations of the two literary lions.

La Diada de Sant Jordi (St George’s day) had been associated since medieval times with lovers, the paramours giving gifts of roses, but in the 1920s the writer Vicent Clavel Andrés proposed marking the birth of Cervantes as a book day. A little tweaking saw the date changed to the more universal 23 April in 1930 and since then the Dia del Libre has gone from strength to strength, with Unesco declaring, in 1995, that 23 April should be World Book and Copyright Day.

Thus this most adaptable and travelled of saints makes his way into the 21st century world of supra-national organisations and officially endorsed culture. George has come a long way from the little town in Cappadocia where he was, possibly, born. Of course, there is no historical source for where he came from, nor for the idea that he was a Roman soldier, and not even that he was martyred. But then, there aren’t that many historical sources at all for obscure 3rd century soldiers. What we do have, however, are traces of a man whose mark in history has been all but obscured by the accumulation of later legends. His cult spread rapidly through the eastern Roman empire and by 494 he was cautiously canonised by Pope Gelasius I as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God’.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the religious mind dislikes a blank canvas, so the story of St George soon began to be filled in. The oldest traditions state that he was a soldier who refused to abjure his religion despite the orders of the Emperor Diocletian, who launched the last great persecution of Christians in 303, and was beheaded on 23 April. George’s sufferings soon underwent inflation, taking in poison drinks, being cut into pieces, molten lead and being sawn into two. If some of these sufferings sound a trifle terminal, don’t worry since George was restored to life three times before finally expiring. Pope Gelasius, while accepting George’s sanctity, was somewhat more skeptical about his invulnerability and forbade the promulgation of these lurid legends.

The cult of St George really took off with the Crusades. The knights that survived brought the Cappadocian home with them, and in the 13th century the best seller of the age, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, featured a new twist to the tale: dragon killing.

George became the emblem of the courtly, chivalric culture of medieval Europe, the ideal to be attempted by the rowdy, licentious but essentially pious nobility and a hero to the peasantry who took every advantage of clerically sanctioned days off. Since St George offered protection to those travelling by sea (as well as soldiers, farmers, horsemen, lepers and shepherds among others – he was a busy saint) port cities like Barcelona, Venice and Genoa adopted him as patron.

The saint, who didn’t get where he got without results, reciprocated. According to Jaume I George helped the Catalans conquer the city of Mallorca, and the soldier saint played his part in a number of the battles of the long Reconquista, including the 1237 victory at Puig that opened the way for the recapture of the province of Valencia.

Despite a dip in popularity during the Enlightenment and the determined assaults of some recent scholars, St George’s recent move into the literary realm suggests that the old warhorse still has some legs in him. This is one old soldier who positively relishes new tricks.


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