Monday, 23 April 2007

St George's Day.

St George's day - and the campaign to have a patron saint's day to match St Patrick's, David's and Andrew's. Because let's face it, if there is one thing that the world needs right now, it's a bit more nationalism.

The campaign ignores the difference between the nationalism of the 'celtic-fringe' nations, denied nationhood and that of one of the largest empires the world has seen. Which is why the flag of St George is associated with the Far Right in this country, whilst on the other hand, the daffodil is not an emblem of Welsh fascists.

Like most aspects of patriotism, the whole St George thing is based pretty much on ignorance. What little that is known of St George is that he was an officer in the army of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD who was martyred for his Christianity. He came from Cappadocia; and so depending on your point of view he was either Turkish or Greek. The whole dragon-slaying thing it goes without saying, is undocumented. Unsurprisingly he is big in Eastern Orthodox countries like Serbia, Georgia and Armenia.

As to why the cult of St George came to England at all - you have to look at the crusades. The idea of a warrior saint was particularly appropriate for that blood thirsty period, and was brought west by returning crusaders who got it from the Byzantines. Before then the patron saint of England had been either Edmund, martyred by the Vikings or Edward the Confessor, the saint-king. The trouble with both of these was that they were unmistakably Anglo-Saxon, and this was politically inconvenient for the new Anglo-Norman monarchs and aristocracy.

Since the reformation the Anglican church, oscillating between Anglo-Catholicism and Protestantism, has been a bit shaky on the status of saints. On the other hand the Catholic church is a bit more vigorous in its dealings. Which is why in 1893 Pope Leo ruled that George fell into the category of saints about whom we didn't have enough evidence and could simply be myths. He was demoted to the second division, and as far as Roman Catholics were concerned, St Peter was made the official patron saint of England.

So what are we left with ? - A Turkish bloke who isn't a proper saint and whose flag has become a rallying point for racists and fascists.

If we want a bank holiday in April, and I'm all for as many public holidays as possible, why not keep April 23rd as Shakespeare's birthday? The date is questionable and he may turn out to really have been Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon, but at least he represents something positive and lasting that England has contributed to the world. And I'd love to see all those red-faced chavs running around in Shakespeare t-shirts getting pissed up and quoting sonnets.

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