Thursday, April 23, 2015

George the "Saintly" pork salesman?

Cry "God for Harry! England and Saint George!"
Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 3, Scene 1.
April 23rd: St George's Day.  Depending on who you choose to believe, George is variously thought to be a martyr who defied the Emperor Diocletian’s “persecution” of the Christians, an early Christian Bishop, or a disgraced supplier of dodgy pork to the Roman Army.  Yet, very little, if anything, is known about the real “St George”.  His links with England are decidedly tenuous and there is no evidence at all of him being the slayer of any dragon.  Yet, as the patron saint of England, George is popularly identified with English ideals of honour, bravery and gallantry - even if he was not actually English at all.  So, being unhappy to unquestioningly accept popular beliefs as fact, perhaps we should ask: “What, if any, is the historical truth behind this well known character?”

Evidence for George?  Working backwards through centuries of popular myth, we find the “knightly” George was brought to England by returning crusaders in the 12th/13th centuries and was subsequently popularised in print by William Caxton.  Even earlier, in the 8th century, it was believed that George had visited Caerleon and Glastonbury while serving as a member of Emperor Constantine's staff.  Yet in the 5th century we find that neither the Syrian list of saints nor the so-called Hieronymian Martyrologium commemorate a St George at all.  About this time, however, Pope Gelasius records that St George was among those saints “whose names are justly reverenced among men but whose actions are only known to God”.

Despite a dearth of facts, the spirit of the times ensured a great many “apocryphal acts” of St George were in circulation.  These presented, at great length, not a dragon-slayer but an early Christian martyr.  The supposed passion of St George involved an endless variety of tortures which the saint had endured and miraculously survived.  These legendary “acts” echo an earlier blend of Ethiopic, Syriac and Coptic tradition, all derived from an unknown Greek original.  The 4th or 5th century Coptic texts managed at one and the same time to relate George to the Governor of Cappadocia, to the Count of Lydda in Palestine and to Joseph of Arimathea!  Incongruously, these tales were not condemned by the Catholic church for their implausibility but because they were the work of “heretical” Arians who controlled these early churches and who challenged the Catholic contention of the divinity of Jesus.  This “civil war” between Arianism and Catholicism catalysed Pope Gelasius to outlaw the Acta Sancti Georgii in AD 496.

As the years passed Catholic attitudes softened and an approved legend rescued George from the heretics and placed him in the reign of Diocletian, a favourite villain of the early Christian authors.  George was given a noble birth in Cappadocia (in today's Turkey) in the 3rd century AD to parents with a tenacious commitment to the Christian faith.  When his father died, George's mother returned to her native Palestine, taking George with her.  George reportedly enlisted in the Roman army rising to the rank of Tribunus.  In about AD 303, however, George is said to have objected to Emperor Diocletian’s campaign against the Christians (see opposite), resigning his military post in protest of this “persecution”.  George allegedly tore up the Imperial order against the Christians, infuriating Diocletian, and was duly imprisoned.  Under torture George is said to have refused to deny his faith.  Eventually he was dragged through the streets of Diospolis (now Lydda) in Palestine and beheaded.  Later Christian authors wrote that Diocletian's wife was so impressed by George's resilience that she converted to the faith and was later executed for her beliefs.

A brief episode recorded in the early 4th century history of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea and propagandist for Emperor Constantine, may have seeded this yarn of George.  Eusebius wrote of "numerous martyrdoms" from shortly before his own time, although rather conveniently for later apologists, most of the faithful were unnamed.  One in particular, a martyr of "greatest distinction", may have influenced the later "history" of George:

"Immediately on the publication of the decree against the churches in Nicomedia, a certain man, not obscure but very highly honoured with distinguished temporal dignities, moved with zeal toward God, and incited with ardent faith, seized the edict as it was posted openly and publicly, and tore it to pieces as a profane and impious thing; and this was done while two of the sovereigns were in the same city - the oldest of all, and the one who held the fourth place in the government after him.  But this man, first in that place, after distinguishing himself in such a manner suffered those things which are likely to follow such daring, and kept his spirit cheerful and undisturbed till death."
– Eusebius, History of the Church, 8.5.

Eusebius avoided naming this "high placed martyr" but he did identify the two sovereigns: Diocletian and Galerius.  Thus, when the legend of St George began to take shape, sometime in the late 4th or early 5th century AD, the most consistent refrain in a story otherwise notable for its variations, was that George had "stood up to" the dastardly Diocletian.  The earliest extant evidence we have for the legend (not George himself!) are fragments from a reused parchment (or "palimpsest") dated to the 5th century - the so-called Decretum Gelasianum.

A Glorious Death.  Much of the passion ascribed to George was actually modelled on that of Christ himself, and it was for that reason that the Feast of St George was celebrated near to Easter (18 and 23 April).  In the legend, George does not go quietly to meet his maker.  In fact, he is brutally tortured to death being, for example, forced to swallow poison, crushed between two spiked wheels and boiled in a cauldron of molten lead.  Amazingly, none of these tortures killed him as his wounds were healed overnight by Christ himself.  To save himself George was told his life would be spared if he would offer sacrifice to the Roman gods.  As the story goes, the people assembled to see him do so but the wilful George instead prayed to the Christian God.  Immediately, fire shot from heaven, an earthquake shook the ground, and priests, idols, and the temple buildings were destroyed.  In an ironic twist of fate that George clearly did not see coming, God then willed that the "Saint" should die for his faith - George was beheaded without further trouble!

Stories of this nature abounded about pagan and Christian figures in the early Middle Ages.  People would have expected their heroes to have undergone such experiences and in an age when many things seemed mystical, few were sceptical about such tales.  According to one of the innumerable tales, St George endured no less than seven years of torture!

In the late 4th century AD the political value of “saint’s bones” had been pioneered by Bishop Ambrose of Milan as a weapon in his power struggle with the Empress Justina.  The exploitation of “religious relics” may explain how it was that by the 8th century at least five different “heads of St George” were being venerated.  One such trophy was produced by Pope Zacharias (AD 741-52), last of the Greek popes.  Zacharias amazed and delighted the credulous denizens of Rome by "finding" a head of St George in the decaying Lateran palace.  The head was carried ceremoniously through what was left of the city and placed in triumph in the suitably renamed San Sebastiano, San Giorgio in Velabro.  Perhaps it is more than just coincidence that, at the time of Zacharias' “find”, the Pope was locked in bitter conflict with the Byzantine Emperors Leo III (AD 717-41) and Constantine V (AD 741-75) over their fierce iconoclastic policy.  As rapidly as cultic imagery was being destroyed in the East, it was being created in the West.
The Real George.  If the mention of an unnamed martyr of Nicomedia by Eusebius seeded the idea of a martial saint battling the forces of paganism, the reference was all too brief for a full blown legend.  Inspiration had to come from elsewhere.  Fortuitously, there was just such a character.

The “real” George was a rather different character from the paragon of Christian tradition.  As Edward Gibbon and others made clear, “St. George” was a legendary accretion around a notorious 4th century bishop, George of Cappadocia.  Even the Catholic Encyclopaedia concedes that it is “not improbable that the apocryphal Acts have borrowed some incidents from the story of the Arian bishop.”

George, the future archbishop of Alexandria, began his career as a humble cloth worker in Cilicia (now southern Turkey).  By “assiduous flattery” or other means he acquired the contract to supply the Roman army with bacon.  As Gibbon says:

"His employment was mean; he rendered it infamous. He accumulated wealth by the basest arts of fraud and corruption; but his malversations were so notorious, that George was compelled to escape from the pursuits of justice."

Making his way to Palestine, George set himself up in the religion business at Diospolis (Lydda), where he became a profane grandee of the ruling Arian Christians.  As a wealthy and influential opponent of the Catholic Athanasius he was well-placed to take the bishop’s chair in Alexandria when Athanasius was driven into exile.
In his new lofty station George gave free reign to his greed and cruelty, establishing several commercial monopolies and pillaging the ancient temples.  "The tyrant…oppressed with an impartial hand the various inhabitants of his extensive diocese," notes Gibbon.  So incensed were the inhabitants that on at least one occasion George was expelled from Alexandria by a mob and troops had to be deployed to get him back into the bishop’s palace.
His end came with the elevation of Emperor Julian to the purple.  The angry “pagans” of Alexandria (possibly aided by Catholics) took their revenge on George by throttling him and dumping his body in the sea.  It seems highly probable that some supporters of the murdered bishop recovered what they claimed to be his erstwhile remains and made off with them to the nearest centre of Arianism, Lydda in Palestine.  Emperor Julian himself sequestered the extensive library which George had acquired.
Post-Mortem Success.  Yet the notorious prelate was to achieve a nobility in death which had been denied to him in life.  George’s family built him a tomb and a church to house it at Lydda, which as a shrine soon attracted a profitable traffic in pilgrims.  At the same time, in the middle years of the 4th century AD, the hierarchy of the church had been seriously alarmed by the apostasy of Emperor Julian (AD 360-363) and a resurgent paganism.  His brief reign had threatened their recently gained temporal power and the hierarchs desired every possible device to prevent such a calamity again.
The Catholic Church was more than prepared to overlook George's heretical and criminal past.  The “official” legend of St George would symbolise the complete and irreversible victory of Christianity over paganism.  Hence the image of St. George as a fearless warrior, defeating enemies of the faith by Christian forbearance, no matter what trials were to be overcome.  In many of the “traditions” the climax of the story actually has George smashing pagan idols.
Evidently the George cult spread outwards from Palestine.  In the late 19th century two churches were identified in Syria with inscriptions indicating the veneration of a martyr called "Georgios".  One was the ruins of a church at Shaqr (Shakka, Maximianopolis) dedicated by a Bishop Tiberinus; the other was an erstwhile pagan temple at Ezra (Azra/Zorava), where a re-dedication plaque had been found.  The inscriptions are dated to the early-6th century AD.
St George, a Dragon and England.  The familiar image of “the saint dressed in a white tunic bedecked with a red cross, astride his stallion, and skewering a dragon as he rescues a fair maiden, depends more on a late medieval and Renaissance ideal of this miles Christi (knight of Christ) than on his legend in its earlier forms”[1].
The earliest known British reference to St George, however, occurs in an account by St. Adamnan, the 7th century AD Abbot of lona.  He is believed to have heard the story from Arcuif, a French bishop who had travelled to Jerusalem and other holy places in Palestine.  The saint is also mentioned in the writings of the Venerable Bede.  As already mentioned, George's reputation grew with the returning crusaders.  A miracle appearance, when it was claimed that he appeared to lead crusaders into battle, is recorded in stone over the South door of a church at Fordington in Dorset.  This still exists and is the earliest known church in England to be dedicated to St George.  It was not until AD 1222 that the Council of Oxford named April 23rd as St George's Day.
His story only achieved mass circulation when it was first printed in 1483 by William Caxton in The Golden Legend.  This book was a translation of a work by Jacques de Voragine, a French bishop, which incorporated fantastic details of Saints' lives.  St George was adopted in England because the story in the Golden Legend was identifiable with a similar, popular Anglo-Saxon legend.  He was quickly incorporated into miracle plays adapted from pagan sources and is a prime figure in Spenser's famous epic poem The Fairie Queen.  George's popularity faded, however, as religious beliefs changed with the Reformation.  He also lost ground as gunpowder became the primary weapon of war and protection, making the lance and sword less significant.  In 1778 St George's Day was demoted to a simple day of devotion for Catholics in England for whom the venality of George's real life had either been forgotten or merely white-washed.
Thanks to successive creative writers, George’s name as  been attached to a colourful story of piety, fortitude, divine deliverance and - ultimately - a princess and a dragon.  As Gibbon famously records:
"This odious stranger disguising every circumstance of time and place, assumed the mask of a martyr, a saint, and a Christian hero, and the infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St. George of England, the patron of arms, of chivalry, and of the Garter."
Quite a success story for an unmitigated rogue - and a dodgy bacon salesman!

1.  The Martyrdom of St. George in The South English Legendary, ed. E. Gordon Whatley

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Asparagus patina

Following a recent post about the BBC series "Kew on a Plate", and in particular the recipe for an asparagus patina, I thought it best to check whether my understanding of this classical recipe matched the one recreated for the programme.

As with most recipes, the ingredients and method of cooking will differ, perhaps only slightly, as each chef produces their own interpretation.  In the case of the surviving texts from classical antiquity, there are further complications for interpretation.  Firstly, the recipes themselves are not usually presented in a form familiar to modern cooks.  In fact the "cookbook" format we're most likely to recognise was introduced by Isabella Beeton (b: March 12th, 1836; d: February 6th, 1865) who first listed a recipe's ingredients, with quantities, and the mode (method) of cooking complete with timings.  Yet in ancient texts from the classical period of Greece and Rome, for example the collections known to us as "Apicius", what survives is essentially a list of ingredients for the cook to combine in accordance with their taste and experience.

With quantities and cooking times omitted it means getting the balance of ingredients, textures and flavours "right" for the modern palate becomes the task for those of us who would recreate these classical dishes.  To complicate matters further, the recipes, such as they are, usually have had to be translated from the author's original language. The very transmission and copying of ancient texts through the ages is fraught with dangers for today's interpretor.  Missing bits of text, translation mistakes, spelling and typographical errors, both in the past and now, can change the meaning or leave significant gaps in our understanding.  It is only by experimenting with these recipes that one can hope to recreate something of the original author's intent.

The asparagus patina reproduced by Ruth Goodman in the BBC's "Kew on a Plate" series is a case in point. It is one of the few Apicius recipes (Apicius 4.2.5 & 6) that actually records quantities, and the patina can be cooked as a custard, or as a frittata or omelette. While recreating this particular recipe, a common mistake was broadcast. The original text does not require the asparagus to be cooked. Instead it is supposed to be pounded and soaked in wine so that the extracted juice can be used. The asparagus is actually discarded.

I'm sure that what resulted tasted absolutely fine, but if you fancy having a go at making the "original" Roman style recipe, then try the following, extracted from Sally Grainger's superb "Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today":

"Cooking Apicius: Roman Recipes for Today" by Sally Grainger (2006), Prospect Books, ISBN 978-1903018446)

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: The Tomato

The tomato is the edible, often red fruit/berry of the nightshade Solanum lycopersicum, commonly known as a tomato plant.  The species originated in the South American Andes and its use as a food began in Mexico, spreading throughout the world following the Spanish colonisation of the Americas.

Aztecs and other peoples in Mesoamerica used the fruit in their cooking. The exact date of domestication is unknown: by 500 BC, it was already being cultivated in southern Mexico and probably other areas.  The large, lumpy variety of tomato, a mutation from a smoother, smaller fruit, originated in Mesoamerica, and may be the direct ancestor of some modern cultivated tomatoes.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first to transfer the small yellow tomato to Europe after he captured the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City, in 1521, although Christopher Columbus, a Genoese working for the Spanish monarchy, may have taken them back as early as 1493.  The earliest discussion of the tomato in European literature appeared in an herbal written in 1544 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, an Italian physician and botanist, who suggested that a new type of eggplant had been brought to Italy that was blood red or golden colour when mature and could be divided into segments and eaten like an eggplant - that is, cooked and seasoned with salt, black pepper, and oil.  It was not until ten years later, however, that tomatoes were named in print by Mattioli as pomi d’oro, or "golden apple".

Despite arriving in Europe shortly after their discovery in the New World, it took some time for the tomato to be considered edible.  Being a member of the nightshade family rumours persisted that tomatoes were poisonous.  It took until the mid-19th century (1839) for the first pasta recipe with tomatoes to be documented.  Shortly thereafter tomato eating became all the rage, especially in the south of Italy, and the rest is delicious history[1].


1.  Demetri, J. (2019), History of Pasta,  in Food and Wine, retrieved May 9th, 2020.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Kew on a Plate

Kew on a PlateI don't know about you but I've been avidly catching up with BBC Two's series "Kew on a Plate", presented by Raymond Blanc and Kate Humble.  They spent last year at Kew Gardens in London growing heritage produce and cooking delicious seasonal recipes, all the while discovering the history behind our favourite fruits and vegetables.  The series so far has been incredibly interesting.  If you'll excuse the pun, it has given me "much food for thought" (I did warn you!) especially on the origins of foods.  There are a couple of things I'm unsure about and intend to follow up.  One, for example, was a recipe from Apicius for a patina of asparagus which, when I've made it, results in a tasty omelette-like dish.  That said, having already tried a couple of the accompanying recipes, they are definitely worth trying.

More programme information can be found here:

Thursday, April 02, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: The Potato

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.
Cultivated potatoes all belong to one botanical species, Solanum tuberosum, but this includes hundreds, if not thousands, of different varieties.  The 200 wild potato species originated in the South American Andes inhabiting a range that extends from high cold mountains and plateaus into warmer valleys and subtropical forests and drier semi-arid regions and coastal valleys.

According to "The Cambridge World History Of Food" (edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, and published in two volumes by Cambridge University Press in 2000) it was Spanish explorers who first encountered the potato in Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador in the 16th century.  They compared the unfamiliar tuber to truffles, and adopted the Quechua name “papa”.

The first specimens probably reached Spain around AD 1570.  Sailors returning from the Andes to Spain with silver presumably carried maize and potatoes for their own food on the trip.  It is speculated, therefore, that leftover tubers (and maize) were carried ashore and planted.  From there, the potato spread via herbalists and farmers to Italy, the Low Countries and England.  There was likely a second introduction of the potato to England sometime in the following twenty years.  On Sir Francis Drake's round-the-world voyage (1577 to 1580), for example, his first encounter with potatoes was recorded in 1578 off the Chilean coast.  Despite British folklore crediting Drake with the introduction of the potato to Britain, this could not have been the case as it is highly unlikely that the tubers would have survived a further two years at sea.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A Brief History of Foods: The Carrot

"A Brief History of Foods" is mostly aimed at improving my knowledge on the origins of the foodstuffs commonly eaten in Britain throughout its long history.  Over the years I have been surprised to learn how few of our commonly used ingredients are actually native to these shores, and just how many were introduced, when and by whom.  Perhaps you too might discover something new and quite interesting.  Our story begins with the humble carrot...

The wild carrot (Daucus carota) is a root vegetable now native in Europe and southwestern Asia.  It most likely originated in Persia, regions of which form the modern countries of Iran and Afghanistan.  The first mention of the carrot in classical sources occurs during the 1st century AD, where the Romans ate a root vegetable called pastinaca, which may have been either the carrot or the closely related parsnip.  The plant was introduced into Spain by the Moors during the 8th century AD, and by the 10th century AD, the carrot had spread to the rest of Europe and appeared in such locations as West Asia and India.  Cultivated carrots eventually appeared in China in the 14th century, and in Japan in the 18th century.

The domesticated form, Daucus carota sativus, was first cultivated for its leaves and seeds.  Some close relatives of the carrot, such as parsley, fennel, dill and cumin, are still grown purely for their leaves and seeds.  Although the carrot’s greens are sometimes consumed, today it is the greatly enlarged, more palatable taproot that is most commonly eaten.  Indeed, over the centuries the wild carrot was selectively bred to lessen its bitterness, increase its sweetness and reduce the woody texture of its taproot.

The taproots of the “original” carrots were purple, but black, red, white, yellow and orange cultivars exist.  Temple drawings from Egypt show a plant believed to be a purple carrot dating back to 2,000 BC.  By the 12th century the Arab agriculturist Ibn al-‘Awwam described both red and yellow carrots being cultivated in Andalusia, Spain.
It is often said that carrots were bred to be orange in the 17th century when patriotic Dutch growers favoured the colour used on their national flag.  This is just a popular belief, with little evidence to support it.  The orange colour in the domesticated cultivars results from the abundant carotenes that aid photosynthesis.
Although it is the familiar orange carrot that still dominates there is a small but developing trend to re-introduce its purple forebear to a more mainstream audience.  Outwardly purple carrots, still orange on the inside, were sold in British stores beginning in 2002, since when white and yellow varieties have joined them.