Wednesday, June 21, 2006

And you thought the Middle Ages were over

Paul Halsall, the scholar who put together the Internet Medieval Sourcebook (and a number of other sourcebooks online), has drawn attention in his English Eclectic blog to a Nike ad (which you can see in a number of places, such as the Sun Online, but which I cannot duplicate here); it features Wayne Rooney, England's striker in the ongoing World Cup.

The ad shows Rooney in a cross-like pose, daubed with a cross in blood-red.

This is the cross usually called "the Cross of St. George" and represents England when taken separately from the rest of Great Britain or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (The Union flag or Union Jack is a British symbol, not an English one; the various British countries compete separately in international football (soccer)).

As Paul Halsall points out in his blog, the Cross is actually not George's, but Christ's "Cross of the Resurrection," which George carries as Christ's champion. So this is a real "crusading" symbol in the literal sense of the term. Christ himself is shown with the banner in a variety of paintings, such as this one by Piero de la Francesca that Halsall cites.

Further, St. George can't be claimed as a unique English figure. For one thing, he was a late Roman figure from the eastern part of the Roman Empire in the 3rd cenury. The story goes that he was a soldier who defied the emperor Diocletian when the latter, a pagan, was purging his army of Christians. George was killed as a martyr.

During the later Middle Ages, George became the "soldier's saint" and as a result he became the patron of a number of belligerent communities, including several Italian cities, England and Georgia in the Caucasus. Georgia (called Sakartvelo in the Georgian language) is apparently not named after the saint, but is called that by foreigners from a Persian designation Gurg.

When I see a "coincidence" like that, I suspect a joke or a pun is behind it. I visualize medieval Georgians (who were mainly Christians, and had lots of Muslim neighbors) saying "if those infidels want to call us Gurg, we'll give them George." Nothing is more powerful than a timely smart remark. Look up the origin of "OK" if you don't believe me.

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