Medieval Christianity, growing up amid superstitious people without widespread access to Scripture, began worshiping its heroes, the saints of earlier days. God seemed unapproachable. The Almighty Father was feared. The Holy Spirit was neglected. Jesus seemed less threatening, but he, too, was God, and many people thought it wiser to lay their prayers before saints, asking them to present the requests to Christ’s throne. So every day had its saint, and every nation, city, and group its patron.
By the tenth century 25,000 saints had been canonized by the Church. France had St. Denis. St. Bartholomew was patron of tanners, having been skinned alive. St. John was invoked by candlemakers for he had been plunged into a caldron of burning oil. The Council of Oxford in 1222 established April 23 as St. George’s Day to honor the “Protector of the Kingdom of England.”
But who was George? Each year, according to a familiar legend, a swamp-dwelling dragon threatened to poison a nearby village unless a youth, chosen by lot, was given him to eat. By and by, the lot fell to the daughter of the king. Walking toward the swamp, she was intercepted by George. “Fear not,” he said, “I will help you in the name of Christ.” When the dragon emerged, George made the sign of the cross and plunged his lance into the beast.
Years later, in 1189, when English troops under Richard Coeur de Lion went forth in the Crusades, they went under the protection of St. George.
In truth, our knowledge of George is slight. He was evidently born into a noble family in Cappadocia and martyred during the Great Persecution of Emperor Diocletian, reportedly on April 23, c. 304. One version says George was tied to a cross where his skin was scraped with iron combs. But it is his fabled tryst with the dragon for which he is best remembered in the hearts—and in the art—of medieval Christians.
And after all perhaps he did, in a sense, slay the dragon.
Michael and his angels were fighting against the dragon and its angels. But the dragon lost the battle. It and its angels were forced out of their places in heaven and were thrown down to the earth. Yes, that old snake and his angels were thrown out of heaven! That snake, who fools everyone on earth, is known as the devil and Satan. (Revelation 12:7b-9)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Apr. 23.