St George and the Flagon
Today is of course St George’s Day. But what on earth can we drink to celebrate?
Often seen as a slightly abashed almost feeble day, particularly in comparison to the vastly more popular St Patrick’s Day, St George deserves a fair bit more recognition, in my opinion at least. So what to drink? English wine, such as the widely acclaimed sparkling wines of Kent, or the impressive and local to myself wines of Devon and Cornwall? Maybe even just some proper ale, in a proper flagon (may I put in a word for Thornbridge beers?) Or maybe we’re missing the obvious, surely a glass of red Burgundy from the Saint’s own namesake, the French region of Nuit-Saint-George?
Or rather, let’s step away from our deeply Anglo-centric view. St George is not just celebrated in this country, or Western Europe in general. He is a truly international figure. The patron saint of Portugal, Georgia, Malta and of course England. He is celebrated in Brazil, Canada, Russia, Lebanon and a vast many other countries. He is also the patron saint of Syphilis sufferers, scouts, cavalry and the Romani populations of Eastern Europe. From that vast multitude of options, it really is a case of drink what you like and find the connection.
But really, it would be far more suitable to drink something from the Near East. St George, the third century Roman soldier, was born and died in Palestine. With a wine growing history which pre-dates his very existence, indeed thought by many to be the birth place of the vine, a glass of wine from the Levant would be a truly fitting way to commemorate a man who spans centuries and continents. And in his life story there isn’t a dragon in sight.
His real life is perhaps as fascinating as the vast array of historiography which has sprung up surrounding him. Raised as a Christian he was executed on the 23rd of April, 303 AD for refusing to renounce his faith to the then Roman Emperor, Diocletian. His connection to wine comes firstly from his name, Georgias, which means worker of the land (Saint George is also the patron of all field workers). To this day many wineries in the New and Old World have used this connection when naming their wineries, so as well as Burgundy you can buy a St George wine from Jordan, New York or New Zealand to name but a few.
One of the later, Medieval depictions of the Saint have him atop a horse, alongside him also riding is a boy who is holding out a cup of red wine. Wine in the Late Roman Empire was of huge significance as a symbol of hospitality, civilisation and of course Christianity. The wine here is being offered towards some hostages who have been held by the Islamic Saracens. This is all part of the reinvention of St George as a crusader against Paganism or Islam, with wine as his Christian emblem.
Of course the real magic of St George is not in his real life story of an industrious, well renowned Roman centurion. Instead his life has become something more, something not really grounded in history or fact. He is a notional concept, a national identity, a red cross and a date. This is why he can be the patron saint of so many attributes and nations, this is also why I have managed to write an article linking him (slightly tenuously admittedly) to wine. As a figure of myth we can find in the legendary life of St George whatever it is we are searching for, whether you’re a modern day Syphilis sufferer on one side of the globe, or celebrating his feast day in Beirut on the other. Throughout history it’s been the same, he has been the battle cry for the English as far back as the 12th Century, as well as of Medieval crusaders or Portuguese explorers in the New World. I think that is a reason to raise a glass of any kind of drink you fancy, to St George.