April 23: St George and Shakespeare

It's a saintly week this week, so this is just to keep you going until the 27th!

'Farewell, my masters; to my task will I;
Bonfires in France forthwith I am to make,
To keep our great Saint George's feast withal:'

Henry VI Act I, Scene (i) by William Shakespeare (23 April 1564 - 23 April 1616)

The English have a strange relationship with their Patron Saint George. Before 1530 there were numerous local feasts and processions in his name; St George however might have been able to vanquish the dragon, but not the Reformation. In 1538 Henry VIII condemned the use of saintly images in processions, so banners were banned. The lone survivor of this celebration (featuring a dragon called ‘Old Snap’) was in Norwich, where it was incorporated into the Lord Mayor’s procession and went on until the 1830s. In 1961 the Catholics themselves abandoned St George leaving him, as Ron Hutton says in ‘The Stations of the Sun’, with impeccably Anglican qualifications. The Duke of Bedford in Henry VI above is referring to the English festivities and saying that if he goes to fight the French in St George’s name then the bonfires he makes will celebrate the saint there. Shakespeare would certainly have known about the St George Feasts of his parents’ generation.

The Scots have managed to make a national celebration out of their greatest poet’s birthday and providence has smiled by giving William Shakespeare the same anniversary as St George, but we still don’t get it. The English lack modesty in so many other things, but in giving themselves an excuse to celebrate their own history and culture they seem to lack confidence. Our history may not always have been glorious but our language is, surely? My scholarly friend Mary reminds me that Shakespeare was a Taurean, and as he gets Sir Toby to say in ‘Twelfth Night’ ‘Were we not born under Taurus?’ – indeed he was. So it has to be beef doesn’t it?

The French habit of referring to the British as ‘rosbifs’ is not just to do with our predilection for large joints of meat, but with our way of cooking it, to the extent that in French a ‘rosbif’ can be of any roasted joint of meat, not just beef. As an insulting way of referring to the English, ‘rosbif’ was not firmly established until the middle of the nineteenth century, whereas the use of the term ‘frog’ dates back to at least five hundred years before then.

Shakespeare often refers to the English and their beef habit, here’s what the Constable of France says in Henry V (Act 3 scene 7)

'….. the men do sympathize with the
mastiffs in robustious and rough coming on, leaving
their wits with their wives: and then give them
great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will
eat like wolves and fight like devils.'
I like the idea of the women having the wits and the men having the beef.

The Big Chop

I’m going to cook what my Mother calls 'The Big Chop'. This is a single rib of beef suitable for two or three people to share. Season the meat well and dust it with flour and dry mustard. Seal in a frying pan over a high flame then put in a roasting tray and roast at a high temperature for about 40 minutes or so if you like it rare, a little more for a just-pink centre. We had it with Yorkshire puddings as you can see, new potatoes and broccolli with lemon crumbs.

Do you remembering the chap who used to walk up Oxford St with a placard saying ‘Less Lust, By Less Protein’? Here’s the wonderfully funny Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night.

Methinks sometimes I have no more wit
than a Christian or an ordinary man has:
but I am a great eater of beef
and I believe that does harm to my wit.

Twelfth Night Act 1 Scene 3


pebbledash said...

I remember the man with his placard on Oxford Street very well...!

sprhoyle said...

I remember him too. I also read an interview with him, where I cannot recall, in which he said he lived on what he earned by selling his pamphlets (which were about reducing lust by eating less protein...). Hard to credit, even though beans are cheap.... Btw, your beef chop looks delicious!

Liz said...

He was called Stanley Green (sounds like a place) and he has an entry on Wikipedia!!