St George

Time to admit that I am not very well up with popular culture (if anybody were in any doubt about this). I have failed to make postings to both Facebook and the arXiv; as Robert just pointed out, I didn’t know that the Harry Potter books are published by Bloomsbury (which makes it perhaps a bit more surprising that, at the book launch I went to recently, the only eats provided were pretzels and nuts).

And I am so old-fashioned that I thought the proper way to celebrate St George’s Day (which also happens to be Shakespeare’s birthday) is to wear a sprig of English oak leaves in one’s clothing. Apparently the correct answer is to paint one’s face red and white and behave badly. It doesn’t look promising for my chances in the “Citizenship Test” if I ever get around to taking it …

Why is St George the patron saint of England? He has no connections with the place at all. He lived in the Levant in the third century, when Christianity was illegal in the Roman empire (under Diocletian), and was martyred for his beliefs. (Actually this may all be completely wrong, nobody knows.) Also, nobody knows how the story of the dragon came to be attached to him; but certainly it did. The Crusaders brought the story to England where he became the patron saint in the time of Edward III (14th century). Of course, he is the patron of many other countries, places and causes as well!

The folksinger Bob Stewart has a theory about why the last step happened. In his book Where is Saint George? (the title is taken from a line in the Padstow May songs), he has traced connections between the words of some ancient folk songs and the pre-Christian religion of Britain. This religion seems to have involved some sort of sacrifice: perhaps the old year is overcome by the new in Spring, or perhaps the earth god Bran was vanquished by the sky or sun god Beli (this may even have reflected the religion of the Celtic invaders supplanting the local religion in pre-Roman times). Anyway, when the kings converted to Christianity, the common people were more conservative, and clung on to their old beliefs. Very often, old gods became Christian saints (Pope Gregory’s letter to Augustine encourages this process), and when the Crusaders brought the story of St George and the dragon, it was very natural that these should be associated with Beli and Bran. Well, it is probably as good as any other theory.

Anyway, this winter has been so long and hard that on St George’s day the oak trees were barely beyond buds (in London, at any event), so it was not really possible to obey the custom. Two days later, the sudden warm spell had brought the leaves out, so I could wear a sprig on a walk from Kingston to Westhumble. It was clear that Spring had arrived, albeit a month or so late; there were carpets of celandines, the wood anemones and bluebells were just coming out, fruit trees were covered in blossom, the blackthorn petals were falling in drifts and the hawthorn was out in leaf (though no sign of flowers yet).

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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