Sant Jordi: Conquest, A Book And A Rose

On this day 403 years ago, William Shakespeare died. Also on this day in 1616 Miguel de Cervantes was buried. He had died the day before. One thousand, three hundred and thirteen years earlier on the twenty-third of April, Saint George was beheaded. The coincidence of the passing of two of the greatest figures in European literary history and the execution of Saint George on the orders of the Emperor Diocletian provide the context for today - Diada de Sant Jordi, Día de San Jorge.

World Book Day has been celebrated since 1995. Unesco introduced World Book and Copyright Day by taking the lead from the Spanish. In 1923 the first day of the book was held. It was in honour of Cervantes and Shakespeare and was a marketing device to sell books. It was, moreover, an embellishment of what was the approximate equivalent of Valentine's Day.

In mediaeval days of yore, knights would give their beloveds a red rose on Saint George's Day. It took a number of centuries for there to be some form of gift reciprocation, and when there finally was, the gift was a book. Today is really the day of the book and the rose.

The deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare were therefore later arrivals for a celebration dating from the Middle Ages and which was based on the legend of George and the Dragon. In Catalan terms, Jordi slew the dragon in the village of Montblanc in the province of Tarragona. For many years, the dragon had been terrorising the surrounding areas of the village. It had devoured so many animals that the villagers' existence was threatened. The village itself and its inhabitants had become potential targets. In order to stop the dragon directly attacking Montblanc, the village elders decided to sacrifice one of the people. A draw was to be made, and the unlucky winner was to be sent out of the village and to a fateful encounter with the dragon.

No one was excluded from this draw. It included the royal family. As things were to turn out, the beautiful daughter of the king was selected. However, fortune was to intervene. When she was on the point of being gobbled up by the dragon, a knight appeared on the scene - Sant Jordi. He thrust his lance into the dragon and, as it died, it spewed out blood. At the spot where the dragon's blood was spilled, a rosebush grew with red roses. A tradition for Saint George's Day was thus established.

While the tradition is nowadays the pretext for book markets, the presentation of new books, storytelling and reasonably brisk trade at flower stalls and florists, there is Sant Jordi himself and the elevated status he attained following the appalling end that Diocletian had arranged for him. Once upon a time, his feast day was one of the most significant events in the calendar. This was due to the intimate association between Jordi and the conquest of 1229.

The Aragon shield, as now is, features the Cross of Saint George. As was related in Jaume I's Llibre dels fets, the chronicle of Jaume, the first of the four great chronicles of the Crown of Aragon, the Saracens were to say that during the conquest of Majorca they saw a white knight with "bladed weapons". It was Jordi. According to the chronicle, the saint was to be seen at many battles against the Saracens. This was the case when Jaume conquered Valencia. "Saint George appeared with many knights from paradise, who helped win the battle, in which no Christian was killed."

Jordi was therefore the guardian saint for Jaume's armies in their confrontations with the Muslims. As a result, he was for some time the patron saint of Majorca. That was why the day of Saint George was such an important feast. A mark of his significance can be found in a painting from 1468 by Pere Niçard. He was from Nice, which is sometimes referred to as being the capital of País Niçard and is in Occitania, with its clear links to Catalan culture. Niçard was an itinerant artist who was active in Majorca around the time that he painted his Sant Jordi. The saint is shown slaying the dragon against a background of the Ciutat de Mallorca, i.e. Palma.

Because of these old associations, it is perhaps surprising that Sant Jordi doesn't nowadays have a more prominent place in the Majorcan annual calendar. Diada de Sant Jordi is more about the book and the rose than the saint's protection during the conquest and his links with Aragon and Catalonia.

Back to list

Back to top