Thursday, April 19, 2012

GUEST POST: Knight and pages
How St. George's feast became the "Day of the Book"

A guest post by WILLIAM NEWTON

It's appropriate that my friend Dawn Eden's book launch for her latest work, entitled My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, will be taking place April 23, 6:30 p.m., at Washington's Catholic Information Center. Since 1995, April 23 has been marked by UNESCO as the International Day of the Book, to encourage reading around the world. However I suspect most readers of this post may be unaware that this particular occasion has its roots in a custom which arose in the city of Barcelona in the Middle Ages, which came to be combined with a recognition of literary history.

Many of us are familiar with the medieval legend of St. George and the Dragon, in which the valiant Roman soldier and convert to Christianity saves a princess from a demonic monster that liked to feast on human flesh. It has been the subject of countless works of art for many centuries, firing the imaginations of artists such as Raphael, Rubens, and Dali. The popularity of the saint led to his being adopted as a patron by many countries and communities across Europe, one of which was the city of Barcelona, in the then-kingdom of Catalonia (now part of Spain). The Catalans adopted St. George's standard of a red cross on a white field as part of the city's flag and coat-of-arms, and he is first mentioned as being one of the patron saints of the city as early as the 8th century, though he did not become chief among them for several centuries after that.

Various versions of the St. George legends exist, placing the action of the story in present-day Libya. However in the Catalan version, the scene is the beautiful walled town of Montblanc, located in a mountainous region west of Barcelona. This retelling of the legend says that when the Dragon was dispatched by St. George, it spewed blood, and from that blood a miraculous rosebush sprouted and burst into bloom. St. George then selected the choicest flower from among these roses, and presented it to the princess whom he had rescued, as a token of his favor.

This action might seem rather superfluous of course, given that he had just saved her life. However this was precisely the type of fantasy and romanticism, designed to teach the listener about virtues such as bravery, chivalry, and faith, which characterized many of the tales and songs of the Middle Ages. In fact, the town of Montblanc still re-enacts the legend of St. George and the Dragon every year in an elaborate, costumed play, as the highlight of two weeks of revels celebrating St. George and the town's history.

As for the magic rose in the story, it soon became a popular custom for a man to give a rose to the woman he loved on St. George's Day, in imitation of the saintly knight's chivalrous act. Medieval merchants soon realized the commercial possibilities of this custom, and so a Rose Fair began to be held in Barcelona every year on St. George's Day. The first written account of such an annual fair dates from about the time that St. George was declared the patron of the city in the 1400s.

On the day itself, in a tradition which continues to this day, officials and dignitaries would gather in the chapel of the Generalitat, the palace of the Catalan government, to hear Mass in the palace's Chapel of St. George. After the liturgy, the doors to the palace would be thrown open to the public, who were allowed open access this one day a year to visit the building and admire its courtyards, reception rooms, and gardens. Men would then escort their ladies through the stalls in the surrounding streets, selecting their tokens of love from the Rose Fair merchants, in homage to the legendary acts of the chivalric knight.

However St. George is not the only person associated with April 23. Arguably the two greatest writers of their respective countries, William Shakespeare and the Miguel de Cervantes, died on the same day, April 23, 1616. Noting this coincidence between The Bard and the author of Don Quixote, back in the 1920s Barcelona's publishing houses began to hold an annual book festival called "The Day of the Book" on St. George's Day. Stalls and kiosks are set up in the center of town to hold sales of new and re-issued titles, and to host lectures and readings by popular authors. The "Day of the Book" gradually became the most important publishing day of the year for the book trade in Barcelona, since it was the largest center for book-publishing in both Spanish and Catalan in the world.

Because the "Day of the Book" fell on St. George's Day, it eventually became conflated with the medieval tradition of presenting a rose to a favored lady. Thus, while a Catalan lady might expect a rose from her suitor, he in turn might expect to receive a volume chosen by her, especially for him—perhaps a book of romantic poetry, epic adventure stories, or a play about star-crossed lovers. One might argue that the man had the easier and less-expensive task in this, but then again perhaps this is rather appropriate: after all we men ought not to complain about the fact that women are so often capable of going above and beyond what we ourselves are capable of doing. Today, the Catalan way of marking St. George's Day has not only been recognized by UNESCO, but parallel celebrations take place around the world through cooperative agreements between the cultural authorities of the Catalan government and their counterparts in cities like London, Paris, Tokyo, and New York, where participants can exchange books and roses with one another.

The fact that Dawn Eden's new book is premiering in the nation's capital on this day, therefore, is wholly appropriate in and of itself. As a Catholic writer, and a woman who loves books, Dawn could have no better patron for the success of her latest work than a knight who saves ladies from monsters, gives roses, and watches over the publishing world. Yet it is also appropriate that the example of St. George speaks to the subject matter of Dawn's book itself.

In My Peace I Give You, Dawn looks at the lives of the saints and how they provided her with hope and with healing as she examined her personal trauma of childhood sexual abuse—something that is one of the great monsters of our time, more fearsome in its harsh reality than any mythical dragon. The men and women whose lives she recounts in the course of her journey through the pages of this book suffered sexual abuse themselves, or from great temptations and mistreatment. In their respective examples, she is able to consider how God's love for all of His children can help them to overcome the pain and suffering which they have been through.

The story of St. George and his efforts to defend the princess and restore her to herself and to her family is something which certainly parallels the journeys which survivors of abuse must make. Acting as God's instrument in the story, St. George not only defeats evil, but he also rewards the young woman who has had to suffer the tortures of that evil—and does so in a chivalrous, pure way. Fairy tale it may be, but perhaps our medieval ancestors were not so wrong in perceiving how much we have to learn from St. George and his battle with the dragon, after all.