Friday, April 23
George the Victorious (and Bacon)
In honor of the great warrior-saint, protector of England, Greece, Catalonia, Aragon, Canada, Cappadocia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia, the cities of Amersfoort, Arcole, Appignano del Tronto, Beirut, Fakiha, Bteghrine, Cáceres, Ferrara, Freiburg, Genoa, Ljubljana, Milan, Pomorie, Preston, Salford, Qormi, Rio de Janeiro, Lod, Barcelona, Moscow and the Maltese island of Gozo, patron invoked against leprosy, against plague, against skin diseases, against skin rashes, of agricultural workers, archers, armorers, Boy Scouts, butchers, cavalry, chivalry, Crusaders, farmers, horses, knights, saddlers, the Romanian Army, sheep and shepherds, Teutonic knights and fieldhands, I will repost this piece I did on the subject back in May 2004. I have added a few comments in brackets. It's one of my favorite posts:
A Bedtime Story for the Eve of St. George's Day
from the Shrine's Resident Knight-Errant
The historian Gibbon, with his usual lack of charity and clarity, calls him a corrupt bacon salesman and Arian bishop of Cappadocia. However, as much as the dark side in our consciences enjoys tripping up the occasional sanctoral legend, St. George's martyrial crown is here to stay. We know that for certain. Any other identifications (whether knight, martyred deacon or heretic bishop) are spurious.
Apart from the historical fact of his martyrdom, we have little else save for a decidedly fictitious Acta condemned by the Council of Nicaea for being too weird for words. His legend is, unsurprisingly, full of blood and wonder, with all sorts of apocryphal embroideries that tell of his four martyrdoms--cut-to-pieces, buried alive, consumed by fire, decapitated--his conversion of the Empress (and subsequent saint) Alexandra, timbers bursting into leaf, and the miraculous flow of milk from his severed neck. Despite all the well-meaning attempts by the medievals to remove any trace of credulity from the story of St. George [though, of course, today we too easily shout "legend," more so than our ancestors might shout "miracle." --MGA, 2010], he nonetheless survived the pruning of the calendar in 1969, and he still remains today one of the most beloved of saints. Admitted, the fairytale dragon and the beautiful princess perhaps helps his mythic appeal, but the reality of his ancient veneration is undisputable.
The early pilgrims record his shrine as well-established by as early as the sixth century, at Lydda or Diospolis, and one church dedication under his name at Thessalonica may go back as early as the 300s. San Giorgio in Velabro at Rome is another ancient dedication, while a monastery under his protection was founded by King Clovis in France in 512. A cultus like this doesn't spring up out of whole cloth. We're not talking about a sketchy old wive's tale like, say, St. Wilgefortis (the bearded lady of hagiography) or an incongruous Buddhist import like Barlaam and Josaphat.
But who was he?
Certainly that wonderfully odious foe, the dragon, bulks large in our minds. Sometimes it is spiky and Gothic and maddeningly insectoid, as in the Bosch-like fantasies of Swedish woodcarvers, while in canvases and panels from England to Greece (Ghiorghios ho megalomartyr), this red-cross knight in his meteor-black armor thrusts his lance down the gullet of everything from jeweled lion-headed bats to comical snail-like serpents looking like armored lengths of green intestine.
It's a rather late addition to the story, an apocalyptic Johannine pun on Diocletian or Dadianus, persecutors given the epithet of ho bythios drakon at their serpentine crimes. Some people prefer to see his dragon-slaying work as the mark of a Christianized Perseus, but his reputation as martyr, and even as martyr and knight, long predates the emergence of his legendary combat in folklore. [Which is a rather lazy trick of folklorists, one has to say, as if the Christian imagination could not put forth such flourishes on its own. --MGA, 2010].
Still, it's a story worth telling, even if Mother Church, tucking us into our beds, smiles and tells us not to fear, that there are no such things as dragons. Flesh-and-blood ones, anyway. Caxton, in his quaintly Englished version of Blessed Jacobus's Legenda Aurea Sanctorem popularized it in among the already Georgeophile English populace, adding the stunning green serpent to the pre-existing stark red and white cross of the British heraldic imagination.
(But on his breast a bloody Cross he bore,
The dear remembrance of his dying Lord,
For whose sweet sake that glorious badge we wore
And dead (as living) ever he adored. Thus Spenser.)
So, once upon a time, in illo tempore, a vicious dragon was terrorizing the country around Silene in the land of Libya, and the townspeople offered up to this beast two sheep to hold him at bay every day. And after a time, naturally the people discovered they were running low on sheep and sent a man and a sheep for the worm to gorge himself upon. So it happened that each time they offered a man, he would be chosen by lot, whether he be gentle or rude, rich or poor. This system also had some problems, as the King discovered when the lot chanced to fall on his beauteous daughter.
The king planned to backslide, but when a large number of his subjects showed up at the drawbridge of his castle with Where-is-the-evil-Dr.-Frankenstein torches and pitchforks and threatened to burn the place down, he reconsidered and sent his only child out into the slithering clutches of the great monster, garbed in the pure dress of a bride. This latter detail was something of a cruel joke, as the King had wept to think he'd never see his girl settle down with some nice fellow from Cyrenica and have enormous quantities of grandchildren for him to spoil.
Now, as this sorry state of affairs was about to pass, a young knight named George happened to be cantering by on his white palfry. His white charger was being led along behind him by his squire, no point in wasting a good horse on the road. His shining armor, as well, was packed up and he was simply dressed, as any sensible warrior would be on the road between jousts.
George, it being his vocation in life to save damsels in distress and also wondering why on earth someone would be tramping through the mud wearing a wedding dress, asked the girl what was going on and told her not to fear. She explained her sad predicament, while George suddenly exclaimed "Fair daughter, doubt ye no thing hereof for I shall help thee in the name of Jesu Christ!" And then she, being resigned to her fate to being flame-broiled, shot back, "For God's sake, good knight, go your way, and abide not with me, for ye may not deliver me."
While they were arguing about whether she would allow him to save her or not (she was, I presume, a very modern princess), the dragon prompty showed up and cut the conversation short. St. George, being Action Man, lept on his white charger and took up his sword and, as the Blessed Jacobus puts it, "garnished him with the Sign of the Cross." He then did some serious smoting with his lance and finally knocked the great beast to the ground.
The girl, being female and thus practical, suggested he should tie the beast up with her girdle, which the knight gallantly did. The dragon followed her, and was, in medieval-speak, "a meek beast and debonair." (To which St. George muttered to himself, "What is it with you people and that word 'debonair'? First Trajan is debonair, then St. Gregory is, and...oh, never mind.")
She led the beast in on her lead to her father's city and the townspeople naturally went nuts. St. George said, in his usual chivalric grand manner, which a knight is perfectly entitled to, "Ne doubt ye no thing, without more, believe ye in God, Jesu Christ, and do ye to be baptized and I shall slay the dragon!" And he did, lopping the beast's head off with one stroke. Ta da!
The darned thing was so big it took four carts to haul it out of the city, and doubtlessly the farmer whose land it was dumped on was uniquely annoyed. Though I am told on the best auctoritates that dragons make good fertilizer.
So, then, the King had a church built and dedicated to Our Lady and St. George (to which St. George murmured, "I'm not martyred yet, your Majesty") and a fountain of healing water sprung up in that place and many were cured of their sickness. While some people, like Mr. Spenser, like to say he got the girl in the end, like any good melodrama, I'd like to believe what Bishop Jacobus said. That he gave the King a few bits of good advice to follow as a newly-made Christian. Maybe he even got a rewarding (and chaste) kiss from the Princess (saying the Greek equivalent of "I'll never strigil this cheek again"), And so he rode off into the Libyan desert sunset in the grand tradition of the Western.
Then, of course, he ended up being martyred, but that's another story.
And what is the moral of all this, anyway, if it's just a bedtime story? The fantasist in me would like to believe that maybe, just maybe, there were dragons once, just as there were once giants in the earth, or ghosts, or longaevi like the centaurs [The story is a late addition to his biography, and hardly an essential part, but given how in every part of the world there are scores of tales of serpents and worms and dragons, one does wonder, just a little bit. Someone ring the cryptozoology squad... --MGA, 2010], but the truth is there are worse things out there than dragons, like the ancient serpent whose head was crushed by Our Lady and Her Child.
[In this day and age, though, I am frankly more worried about those who seem to scoff at the existence of knights-in-shining-armor; and as for evil dragons, we probably are more dangerously inclined to excuse their failings than deny their existence. --MGA, 2010]
And there are plenty of brides needing rescuing these days, menaced by serpents. Our Mother Church sticks out as the most important candidate at the moment, but there are plenty of others, like Lady Poverty, like Temperance, like Fortitude and Chastity, Justice and Peace. They're all cute, by the way, and are looking for husbands to live happily ever after with.
We may not know that much about St. George besides his undisputed historical existence. As Pope Gelasius put it in 495, he is one of those holy men "whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose actions are only known to God." But why do we call him the Great Martyr (ho megalomartyr) and dedicate every cause and country to him from Greece, to Spain, to Boy Scouts and Catalans, to England (and always)?
The fact he slayed the dragon of sin in his martyrdom is alone enough to merit that crown. He is the Unknown Soldier of Christianity, the parfait gentil knight through his meekness, through his bending his neck to the executioner's sword, even if he never wielded a blade himself. We are all called to spiritual knighthood of some sort, whether as Knights of the Immaculate, as Legionaries of Mary or Christ, or a footsoldier in the forgotten Blue Army. The spiritual battle is even fiercer than the material battle, even in these days of missiles and terrorism.
Also, ladies, a word in your beautiful ears. St. Joan, dear, dear, practical, sensible, ornery little St. Joan (4'10" according to one source) has shown you can take care of yourself in good stead and are spiritual knights yourselves. But every now and then, will you let a gentleman in shining armor rescue you? We're good at that sort of thing. That and opening mason jars.