The Return of the Reader and a peculiar little manuscript

According to many medieval writers, dragons sometimes need to sleep. Apparently, wreaking havoc, breathing fire, and hoarding riches is rather exhausting work. Beowulf’s dragon rests for 300 years before bringing disaster to the Geats, and Merlin discovers two sleeping dragons on the land where a certain king wants to build a tower. People, while much smaller and hairier than dragons, also need rest. Writing this blog brings me much joy, but between taking on additional classes, drafting The Dissertation, and practicing my Cajun cooking, I found myself in much need of that deep, rejuvenating slumber dragons are accustomed to.  

Now, though, the Reader of all things reptilian is back with a manuscript in her (digital) hand! I recently stumbled upon and subsequently fell in love with a Carthusian Miscellany in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts from the British Library. This manuscript contains over 30 graphic illustrations focuses on death, demons, and, of course, a dragon. The manuscript contains devotional poems, chronicles, and treatises alongside these large illustrations, and while it does not center on dragons, it also contains a summary of The Travels of John Mandeville, a popular travelogue that features many marvelous creatures, including dragons.

Miscellanies, or collections of various texts (think of modern English “miscellaneous”), are fairly popular in religious orders like that of the Carthusians, a particular group founded as a hermitage in the French Alps. In fact, medieval miscellanies exist in many rare books libraries, demonstrating their prominence in both the Middle Ages and the early Modern period. Likewise, it is not unusual for excerpts of Mandeville’s Travels to exist such manuscript (I guess even monks wanted to dwell in Mandeville’s wondrous landscapes). What I’m struck by, though, is the placement of all the components: religious texts, Travels, and the images.

I love the images in this book. They are not the detailed, awe-inspiring and gold-laced miniatures of French books of hours, but the character and storybook elements win me over. These pictures speak to me in their off-kilter weirdness. They are attention grabbing and surprisingly modern. They do not shy away from the grotesque. The dragon image, I must say, is one of my favorites:

Additional 37049; f. 19v; Man, unicorn and dragon

If you’re like me and have difficult parsing just what is happening in this text, the catalogue entry provides a brief explanation that, somehow, makes it even better:

Emblematic drawing of a man in a tree (man’s life) pursued by a unicorn (death), taking honey (worldly vanities), while a white mouse (day) and a black mouse (night) gnaw at the trunk. Four serpents beneath represent the four elements, and a dragon’s open mouth awaits victims. 

I guess, then, this is a representation of someone’s experience as a living being. The “life tree” (perhaps, specifically, the mice) immediately reminds me of Old Norse cosmology (a sentence I never thought I’d get to write!). In the Old Norse worldview, Yggdrasil, the sacred ash tree, has branches that extend into different realms, and it houses three creature: Ratatoskr, a squirrel who carries messages from Níðhöggr, a serpent gnawing on the roots of the tree, to an eagle perched atop its branches. See the resemblance?

Yggdrasil, with serpents gnawing at her roots. Unfortunately, this representation (from a plate in a mid-19th century translation of the Prose Edda) does not include our squirrel or eagle.

Maybe it’s the Old Norse connection, or maybe it’s just my own feelings about living in the Pandemic Times, 21st century edition, but I think this image and this miscellany are about making sense of the incomprehensible. The British Library puts this Middle English miscellany’s Northern England, dated from 1460-1500. This time marked a particularly intense time in the region’s history. The country was plagued with violence between the Anglo-Scottish Wars and the War of the Roses, and the Protestant Reformation was on the horizon. It’s perhaps unsurprising then, that this miscellany is so full of texts questioning man’s place in the world. In a world full of life, death, worldly vanities, day, night, and the four elements, not to mention mice, serpents, and unicorns, where do we fall? We might boldly portray ourselves at its center to exercise some imaginary control, but in the end, we are just one more figure competing on the page. What might be more worthy of note, then, is that marvels like the dragon are seamlessly integrated into the world order, even if they inhabit a negative space.

Where to read it:

This miscellany is amazing, and I highly recommend taking a gander. The British Library has done a quick summary of the artifact that you can read here, but if you’re interested in the many marvelous images this text houses, try the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Sir Eglamour and the scientific study of dead dragons

If you’re looking for a solid medieval romance where good always triumphs over evil and true love is always rewarded, then Sir Eglamour has you covered. With its dramatic battles and poignant love scenes, it is no wonder that this mid-14th century tale maintained popularity throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and even was adapted into a play (Eglamour and Degrebelle, 1444CE).

The romance follows Sir Eglamour, a “knygt of lyttyll land” (l.64) who falls in love with his lord’s daughter, Cristabelle. Despite his inferior social standing, Eglamour is the picture of knightly grace, and asks to marry the heiress. Cristabelle’s father, the antagonist of the story, agrees to the proposal with the condition that Eglamour completes a few tasks of strength and valor, primarily focusing on the slaying of several beasts. The last task is to slay a dragon in Rome, and while Eglamour is away, Cristabelle bears a son. Her evil father (who has been unsuccessfully trying to kill Eglamour with his ridiculous tests) sends her and her son, Degrebelle. The rest of the tale focuses on the reunification of Eglamour with his lover and child, and involves a magic-griffin, a ship-wreck, almost-incest, and, of course, a happily-ever-after.

British Library, Additional 36880, f. 157. Northern Italy. This image depicts a generic knight on horseback, though we can use it to imagine Eglamour on his way to fight some beasts.

While I think it is incredibly difficult for any reader to NOT be enamored with Eglamour and his poise as a hero, I am also interested in this tale as a guidebook for mythic figures. The knight’s exploits include the slaying of a deer, a boar, a few giants, and a dragon. The dragon here (as elsewhere) serves as the epitome of the Eglamour’s tests of valor; to defeat a dragon who “walled owt of helle” (1. 723) in the heart of Christendom (read: Rome), when so many have failed before him, is the ultimate exemplification of his noble knighthood. It is fitting then, that this episode receives nearly 100 lines of consideration in the 1320 line poem. Throughout their battle, Eglamour cuts out the dragon’s tongue (though in some versions, it’s the dragon’s tale) before eventually dealing a death-blow to its rygge bon [back bone] (l. 734). While there is a lot to parse through within this dragon-battle, I am fascinated by what happens after the serpent is felled. After the dragon’s death, the whole of Rome, including the emperor, flocks to Eglamour in celebration. The city bells chime out, and the princess rushes to heal the wounded knight. And then, the crowd looks on.

They look on at the magnificent and terrifying corpse beyond them:

763       Hys sydys hard as balayne was,

            Hys wynges were grene as any glas,

            Hys hed as fyre was reed.

763       His sides (scales?) were as hard as whale bone,

            His wings were as green as any glass,

            His head was as red as fire.

They looked on as brave souls measured him:

769       They metyd hym, forty fote and mo. [They measured him, over 40 feet.]

They looked on, as men bore the body outside of Rome and buried it, gagging at the stench:

776       Mony men fell in swonyng

            For stynke that from him come.

776       Many men fell, swooning

            From the stench that came from him.

There’s something bizarrely clinical about this scene in the patterns of observation, of measurement, and of burial. The reader’s senses are ignited as they learn of the hard scales, the vibrant colors, the horrific stench, and perhaps an implied silence—or multiple exclamations—as the people of Rome witness this beast still and unmoving. While Harriet Hudson notes in her introduction to the poem that the dragon is the most “unnatural” of the creatures Eglamour takes on, there is something very natural about his description and about his body postmortem. There is also something natural in the way the citizens of Rome approach the corpse, as curious onlookers to a marvelous creation of something beyond themselves. By including such a scene, this text not only describes familial relations and love, but also provides a description of early understandings of the natural world.

British Library, Additional 38842, f.5. South England. While this image depicts worshipping the dragon as a beast of the Apocalypse, I imagine it representing the horror and awe of witnessing Eglamour’s vanquished dragon.

Where to read it:

Sir Eglamour of Artois, ed. by Harriet Hudson, via TEAMS Middle English text series, University of Rochester.

or, try a short summary of the poem in Modern English via the Database of English Romance from the University of York.

Teaching Dragons

While we normally begin every other Friday with a look at a particular dragon within the medieval corpus, today I’m going to take a moment to describe how I integrate medieval dragons into my modern classroom. While medieval peoples likely categorized dragons as real albeit wondrous beasts, my students understand them as fantasy creatures that live in creative tomes like Harry Potter or Game of Thrones. And, in a world that primarily prizes fact over fiction, demonstrating the multi-faceted purposes of fantasy creatures in centuries-old texts is no light challenge.

A few years ago, I developed a course that explored perceptions of the Western dragon in order to highlight the dragon as a creature worth our time and research. My “focus questions” for the course include some of same ones that I attempt in this blog (Why are we fascinated with the dragon? What does it represent?) situated alongside primary texts from Scandinavia, the British Isles, and continental Europe. We explore dragon texts from the Middle Ages to the 21st century, with the primary aim of catalyzing students into questioning the cultural and historical significance of mythic figures and analyzing the historical circumstances and contexts in which these figures both arise and maintain reputation throughout millennia. In short, I want my students to see the same things in dragons that I do: creatures capable of inciting provocative thought and discussion.

“Dragonology,” as I dubbed it, is a course that walks students through three units with related, but different goals. In our first unit, we explore mythic and religious representations of dragons. By thinking through this “source material,” students can track the constant (re)churning of material within dragon texts and attempt to “define the dragon.” Next, we move to eye-witness accounts of dragons in natural histories and medieval travelogues to explore genre: where and why does the literary merge with the historical to create such horrific and lifelike representations? Finally, our last (and longest) unit focuses on modern dragons. Students think through those fantasy dragons that dwell in our popular media, from Game of Thrones to Skyrim. This section also includes a subsection on children’s literature, because somehow dragons have moved from terrifying reptiles of myth into friendly beasts that entertain our children. Assignments throughout my course include short response papers and creative representations; at one point, students become authors and craft their own dragons through short stories, board games, or mockumentaries. While this course has yet to find a home (though I’m hoping Indiana University’s Collins Living Learning Center picks it up), students in my composition and fiction courses are always excited by the prospect. Despite what bystanders may assume, students want to learn about dragons.

Just a few of the texts that inspired and are used in “Dragonology.”

Here’s the thing: dragons are fun. As I explained in my introductory post to this blog project, we love dragons just as much, if not more, than medieval peoples. We loved to be thrilled and terrified. University students are no exception, and a classroom filled with dragons provides them with a fantasy land begging for creativity and critical thinking. Dragons are an entry point for important discussions about genres, beliefs and world-views, intercultural perspectives, and how the medieval becomes the modern. For those who believe more in “fact,” it’s only in this low-stakes fantasy environment that the value of fiction becomes apparent.

Where to read it:

See more about “Dragonology” from my 2021 blog post for the Medieval Studies Institute at Indiana University, or view the whole syllabus via my teaching portfolio.

Alternatively, skim through the Dragonology reading list here.

“The Panther” and the dragon

One of the most widely read and translated texts during the Middle Ages was the Physiologus, a moralized “encyclopedia” that contains descriptions of 49 animals, both real and mythic. These descriptions were paired with Biblical scripture to illustrate a specific Christian teaching, and in some cases the descriptions of the beasts were changed to further exemplify the teaching (who knew the Panther was a friend to ALL animals?). While the original Physiologus was written in Greek sometime around the 2nd century and has been translated into a number of languages (Arabic, Provençal, Old Norse, and Russian just to name a few), today I’ll be looking at the Old English version. The Old English Physiologus is interesting in that it selects only three creatures (the panther, the whale, and the partridge) from the original forty-nine.

Detail of a panther, miniature. Harley 4751, British Library. England S. Late 12th-early 13th century.

Harley 4751 is a medieval bestiary, or a book full of descriptions (both written and visual) of real and mythical beasts. These descriptions often had a moralizing tone, similar to that of Physiologus. In fact, Physiologus is considered a predecessor to and inspiration for medieval bestiaries.

While the Old English Physiologus may not boast a specific poem dedicated to the dragon, this scaly reptile does make its appearance in “The Panther.” The panther is described throughout the poem as a marvelous animal: rare, gleaming, and splendid. He is a friend to all other animals, except the dragon. In fact, the panther works against the dragon and its assumed wickedness. This is fitting, for the end of the poem notes that God himself casts out the dragon:

55 Swā is Dryhten God,   drēama Rǣdend,

eallum ēaðmēde               ōþrum gesceaftum,

duguða gehwylcr             būtan dracan ānum,

āttres ordfruman—           þæt is se ealda fēond

þone hē gesǣlde              in sūsla grund,

and gefetrade                   fȳrnum tēagum,

biþeahte þrēanȳdum;

55 Such was this creature is the Lord our God,

Giver of joys, to all creation kind,              

To men (each and every people) being ant, save alone to him,

The dragon, author of all wickedness (source of poison),

Satan (—), the ancient adversary (enemy) whom,

Fettered with fire, shacked with dire constraint (forced into punishment),

Into the pit (chasm) of torments God cast down.*

*This translation is from Cook’s 2004 edition (see below). The words in parentheses are alternative translations I might use.

Sound familiar? The dragon, here, is often understood to be Satan; Cook even adds the name “Satan” into his translation. The panther, as a gleaming creature fighting against the “ancient enemy” and “source of poison,” is understood as Jesus Christ. I don’t disagree with this understanding (it is a moralized Christian encyclopedia, after all), but I do think the poem’s dragon is interesting to think through alongside other Old English texts.

The dragon figures represented in the Old English corpus are very diverse. For instance, the dragons in Maxims II seem to be part of the natural world, but danger is unmentioned; the dragons in Wonders of the East, however, are most definitely natural and dangerous. The famous fiend in Beowulf displays very animalistic and natural tendencies, but it faces off against a human hero and, like this dragon, has been understood by critics as a representation of Satan himself. While there is a consistent thread amongst these beasts, they differ from text-to-text.

In the Old English Physiologus, specifically, both the panther and the dragon cause their reader to question their own place in the universe. The text is religious in that it is meant to demonstrate Christian values; it thereby supports some heavy self-reflection on how you are (or aren’t) meeting these ideals. Not only that, but both the panther and the dragon are pretty marvelous and fantastic beasts, unlikely to be witnessed by insular audiences. It is miraculous creatures like this that have us questioning the limits of creation.

I also believe this text is one of those magical moments where history and literature converge, a place where the Old English translator referenced natural histories (like Pliny and Isidore, who, in turn, used the original Physiologus as a source for their own works) to endow its dragon (and panther) with a sense of wonder while also negotiating the fragile space between pagan traditions (like those at work in Beowulf) and Christian ones. These authors (and translators) are still answering the age old question: where does science fit into faith?

Where to read it:

The Old English Physiologus: Text and Prose Translation (2004), translated by Albert Stanburrough Cook (Old English and Modern English) via this PDF file.

To compare to another modern English translation, check out Aaron Hostetter’s work at The Old English Poetry Project.

Saint Margaret and mothers

British Library, Additional 24686, detail of a miniature of Margaret and the Dragon. England (London/Westminster).

I believe Saint Margaret of Antioch (sometimes known as Marina) needs to be as popular as Rosie the Riveter when it comes illustrating #girlpower. Her action-packed legend maintained popularity throughout the Middle Ages and appeared frequently in both literature and iconography. While her story exists in many texts including Jacobus de Varagine’s Legenda aurea (c.1259-1266), John Mirk’s Festial (c.1380-1400), and John Lydgate’s The Lyfe of Seynt Margaret (c.1415-1426), one of my favorite versions is the anonymously composed Stanzaic Life of Margaret dating to the second-half of the 13th century.  

I love this version for a number of reasons. Sentimentally, it was my first introduction to medieval hagiography. I also love anything I can read aloud with pizzazz (see Degare and his bat), and this poem contains really fantastic rhymes. Not only are they stylish, but the rhyming verses, as Sherry L. Reames points out in her introduction to the poem, make the poem easy to memorize and fun to listen to, marking this particular edition as a likely comfort for women in the throes of childbirth. The Stanzaic Life of Margaret also gives us a full origin story for Margaret, beginning with her pagan parents and the important actions of her mother. These unique details make the Stanzaic Life worth reading, especially when considering the power of women.

The story of Margaret begins and ends with mothers. Margaret’s parents are happily married pagans expecting a daughter. When her father has a premonition that this daughter will become a Christian, he orders her death. Margaret’s mother, however, saves her babe by sending the girl to be raised in a foreign land, Antioch. In Antioch, Margaret is baptized and, at age 15, inadvertently catches the attention of the pagan lord Olibrius. When the young Margaret refuses Olibrius’ marriage proposal, he imprisons her. In this prison, Margaret encounters a holy angel who supplies her with Christ’s cross, a dragon that swallows her whole, and a threatening demon who preys on vulnerable women. With protection of the cross, Margaret survives each encounter, bursting from the dragon’s stomach unharmed and praying the demon away. When she refuses Olibrius’ proposal again, the lord orders the young girl’s death, an act which is repeatedly thwarted: his men pour burning oil on her, but she is anointed; they try to drown her, but she is baptized; they try to execute her, but the executioner is converted to Christianity by holy angels. Margaret is eventually beheaded by her own request, but before her death, she prays that she be allowed to always help vulnerable women, specifically those in labor.

British Library, Harley 2974, miniature of Margaret of Antioch emerging from the dragon and definitely keeping her cool in a tense situation (France).

The legend of Saint Margaret is one of the few stories where I find the hero more interesting than the dragon. Here’s the dragon episode in the Stanzaic Life:

180       There sche sawe a lothelye dragon in a corner glyde,

            Brennynge as the blake fyre. His mouthe he gaped wyde.

            That mayde wexed alle greene as the gresse in someres tyde.

183       The lowe fleye oute from his tonge as the fyre of brymeston.

That mayde felle to gounde tylle sche craked everye boone.

He toke her up in his mowthe; he swalowed her anoon;

Thorugh virtue of her he braste, that harme hadde sche noon.


180       There she say a loathsome dragon slithering in the corner,

            Burning like pale fire. His mouth he opened wide.

That maid turned all green* as grass in summertime

183       The flame flew out from his tongue like fire from brimstone.

            That maid fell to the ground until she rattled every bone.

            He took her up in his mouth; she swallowed her whole.

            By her virtue, he burst; so that she had not been harmed.

*(the color green was sometimes to used to reference “deathly pale”)

This dragon is exactly what you’d expect: it slithers and breathes fire, and like a snake, it swallows Margaret whole. While this image may be graphic, it definitely follows the formula for demonic serpents. The heroine of this tale, though, is anything but typical. Perhaps because of its connection to coming-of-age masculinity, the dragon’s enemies are, expectedly, men. This dragon slayer is a young girl on the precipice of womanhood, and the legend emphasizes her femininity on multiple occasions. There are multiple references to motherhood (from Margaret’s own mother saving her child to the saint’s request to help women in labor), and Margaret’s martyrdom centers on a marriage proposal and the safekeeping of her virginity. The dragon episode also stresses Margaret’s womanhood: some scholars read the dragon’s swallowing of Margaret as a rape, and it is widely accepted that Margaret’s connection to childbearing comes from her birth-like expulsion from the dragon’s body. Perhaps this is why, in most iconography, Margaret is illustrated alongside the dragon rather than one of her other foes; it is not the dragon’s hideous body which garnered medieval attention, but Margaret’s feminine one opposite it.

No matter the reason for the popularity of the legend, I think it is safe to say that we should all aspire to be like Margaret.   

Where to read it:

The Stanzaic Life of Margaret, edited by Sherry L. Reames from Middle English Legends of Women Saints (2003). It can be found online via the University of Rochester’s TEAMS Middle English Text Series.

Or, try Lydgate’s The Lyfe of Seynt Margarete from the same collection of Middle English Saints’ Lives.

Maxims II and the marvelous middangeard

There’s a fantastic and interesting genre of Old English poetry known as wisdom or gnomic poetry. Written by unknown authors, these poems list small bits of wisdom on everything from human behavior and societal roles to religious expectation to descriptions of flora and fauna. Here are a few of my favorite gems from the so-called Maxims:

Fidelity is typically in a warrior, wisdom is in a man.  (Translated by Stanley Greenfield & Richard Evert)

The tree shall suffer the loss of its leaves upon the earth, and lament its branches. (Translated by W.S. Mackie)

 A shameful man must go in the shadows, the light suits a brighter man. (Translated by Aaron K. Hostetter)

I envision this scribe is surrounded by, and perhaps inspired by, all the creatures around him as he writes (maybe) gnomic verse.

British Library, Arundel 16, f.2. A detail of a historiated initial. Life of Saint Duncan, by Osbern, last quarter of the 11th century or first quarter of the twelfth century. SE England (Canterbury).

There are two famous sets of these Old English wisdom poems, Maxims I (dated to around the 7th or 8th century) and Maxims II (around the 11th century). Despite sharing a name, the two poems are found in completely separate manuscripts and don’t seem to be connected beyond their content—but even that varies. There are, for instance, no dragons in Maxims I.

Maxims II’s dragon appears briefly in a list of where particular things and creatures can be found:

25 …Sweord sceal on bearme,

drihtlic isern.      Draca sceal on hlæwe,

frod, frætwum wlanc.      Fisc sceal on wætere

cynren cennan.      Cyning sceal on healle

beagas dælan… (ll.25b-29a)

  25                     […The sword shall (be) in the breast,

noble iron.         The dragon shall (be) in the barrow,

old, proudly ornamented. Fish shall (be) in the water,

bears his kind.                The king shall (be) in the hall,

bestows rings.]

These are my translations of the Old English, but many other scholars have translated them as well, differing slightly in each rendition. Stanley Greenfield and Richard Evert, for instance, add “typically” in their 1975 translation (as in, “The dragon, old, proudly ornamented, is typically in the barrow”) whereas Albert Cook lyrically translates this line as “The dragon shall dwell on the mound, old, and proud of his treasure” (1902). The verb sculan, which appears in each of the sayings, can mean must or should as well as shall. These different meanings can cause significant differences in how we understand this poem.

No matter how we translate it, though, we have a dragon, which lives in or on some sort of hill, and guards his treasure. This is right on the par with Beowulf’s dragon in the Old English epic, Beowulf: the dragon hides in a mountain, surrounded by its gold, until a thief awakens it and thereby unleashes its wrath. In Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae (c.600-625), dragons (sometimes) live up in the mountains as well. There seems to be a somewhat common belief about these scaly beasts that indicates there’s something simultaneously reachable and unreachable about dragon-inhabited lands. We know where and how to find dragons (on the edges of our maps), but that does not mean the journey will easy.

When I think of a dragon “proudly ornamented” with his hoard, this is what comes to mind: a fierce and fashionable dragon proud of his golden accessories.

In actuality, this is an illumination of the constellation “Draco” from the British Library’s Arundel 66, f. 33. SE England (London), 1490.

This edge-of-the-maps conversation adds to my interest in how Maxims II positions its dragon. In his research into Maxims II and the Menologium as relating to their manuscript companion Orosius, Kazutomo Karasawa suggests that Maxims II may be viewed as “the laws of the natural world and humanity” (borrowing this specific phrase from M.J. Swanton’s work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). If we view the poem from this perspective of natural order, it not only places dragons within our world as real and identifiable beings, but it also might give us insight into how Old English scholars were engaging with the environment in all forms of literature.

Additionally, we might be able to consider the dragon a marvel, comparable to the manmade and natural wonders listed throughout the poem. Wondrously-wrought halls, massive armies, and strong river currents inhabit this poem. Another frightening beast, a þyrs (defined by the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as “a giant, an enchanter, a demon”) is mentioned. All these things sceal exist just as God ordains. By placing these little and big marvels alongside one another, Maxims II manages to highlight the everyday miracles that happen in our fair middangeard (middle-earth, world), including beasts that live on the margins.

Where to read it:

The Old English Poetry Project (under Maxims II) translated into Modern English by Aaron K. Hostetter.  

Select Translations from Old English Poetry (small sections under “Gnomic Verses”) translated into Modern English by Albert Cook (1902) via the Internet Archive.

or, an Old English edition via online by the Internet Sacred Texts Archive.

Fáfnir and the earliest record of chemical warfare (probably)

Today we’re looking at one of the biggest, baddest dragons medieval literature has to offer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dragon Fáfnir hails from the forests of Scandinavia, where he is famously defeated by the Viking hero, Sigurðr (Sigurðr is also mentioned the Old English epic Beowulf). This popular story is found in the Old Norse Vǫlsunga saga (early 13th century), but it also mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Snorra Edda (c. 1275) and the Poetic Edda (manuscript dated to 1270) and appears in pictorial representations on rune stones and early carvings. Like many Old Norse sagas, the story follows the genealogy of a notable family (the Volsungs), and this particular lineage is shrouded in magic, incest, and Karate-Kid-esque training sequences.

Sigurðr slaying Fáfnir. Carved figures in wooden panels at the sides of the entrance to a medieval stave church in Norway.

We first meet the dragon Fáfnir when Sigurðr’s foster-father, Reginn, convinces the hero to kill the beast with the intent of acquiring the dragon’s cursed, golden hoard. Through Reginn, we learn that Fáfnir is Reginn’s brother, literally transformed into a dragon after the two brothers committed patricide to obtain a massive blood-debt paid to their father, Hreiðmarr. Reginn advises Sigurðr to hide in a shallow ditch and stab the serpent from underneath. Sigurðr obeys, but is further advised by the god Óðinn, who appears after Reginn’s cowardly retreat from the lair. Fáfnir approaches, slithering, spewing poison, and shaking the earth. Heeding the advice of Reginn and Óðinn, sneaky Sigurðr successfully deals a death-blow to the dragon who literally does not see him coming. The slayer and the slain then have a conversation filled with prophecy, arcane knowledge, and threats while the dragon thrashes in the throes of death. After Fáfnir dies, Reginn returns and orders Sigurðr to roast Fáfnir’s heart while he drinks the dragon’s blood. Sigurðr agrees, and after testing the juices from the heart, realizes he suddenly understand the language of birds. The birds advise him to decapitate the treacherous Reginn, and Sigurðr does, before packing up the dragon’s cursed hoard and going on his merry way.

This story contains a number of fascinating and bizarre moments (read: the entire eat-the-dragon-and-talk-to-birds scene), but I am most interested in its intermingling of natural and supernatural elements. In being a man transformed into a dragon, Fáfnir resides in an undefined space between man and beast; he is certainly a snakey sort of dragon—he slithers, coils, and thrashes—but he also maintains the ability to speak. In this way, Fáfnir is very different from other dragons in medieval literature; while folks have argued that the Beowulf dragon has human attributes, it certainly does not speak. Adding another level of complexity, Fáfnir’s body is posthumously consumed by Sigurðr, which gives the hero access to hidden secrets of nature (in this case, bird-speak). How might these points complicate our understanding of Fáfnir?

There is also the matter of Fáfnir’s appearance and behavior; while he may look like a giant snake, he certainly possesses something snakes do not: the ability to wreak havoc by spewing poison. While poison is not unheard of in reptilian beasts, they typically don’t use it for mass wreckage. Paul Ackerman analyzes this bit in his scholarly analysis of “Deaths by Dragons” in Old Norse Literature, highlighting Fáfnir’s unusual method of destruction: “he does not inject into victims with fangs like an ordinary viper, but rather blows, breathes, or snorts (the [Old Norse] verbs are blása or fnýsa) in ‘all directions,’ in a sort of chemical warfare.”   

Full stop: Can you imagine if snakes BLEW out their poison like some sort of devious little slither-skunks? Chemical warfare, indeed.

Where to read it:

The Saga of the Volsungs, translated (into Modern English) by Jesse Byock (Penguin Classics, 1990)

or, if you can get your hands on it, try Völsunga saga ok Ragnars saga loðbrókar, edited (in Old Norse) by Magnus Olsen (1906-1908)

Saint Romain and the benefits of live bait

It seems only right that on this Good Friday we turn to a saint. Dragon slaying not only levels up knights, but also a good number of saints (shout out to Middle English Margaret! See you in a few weeks!). While there are saints-a-plenty who slay dragons, today we’ll look at the charming legend of Saint Romain (sometimes called Saint Romanus). The vitae of Saint Romain (d. circa 640AD) exists in a number of hagiographical accounts, but his dragon is not mentioned until 1394—an interesting point I’ll get to later. But first, the legend:

Title page of Histoire due Privilège de Saint Romain by A. Floquet, Rouen, 1833.

France tends to have a bit of a dragon problem in the Middle Ages. Rouen, a city in Northern France along the river Seine, is no exception. According to legend, a dragon called la Gargouille lived in the reeds along the Seine and, every day, made a trip into the local city to satisfy its appetite with men, women, children, animals, and even entire boats. Sometimes it even spewed water, wreaking havoc on the city. Fed up with la Gargouille attacking the town, Saint Romain uses a local prisoner to draw it out of its reedy nest (in some accounts, the condemned criminal is the only one willing to lead him). When the dragon emerges, Saint Romain makes the sign of the cross over it, employs his stole as a giant leash, and drags the beast to the town center where it is burned to death in front of the cathedral, and, in some versions, thrown back into the Seine.

The legend provides us with a few modern takeaways. Firstly, la Gargouille supposedly provides us with our modern-day gargoyle, the grotesque statues positioned on the gutters of Gothic buildings to help with the flow of rainwater. Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the French gargouille has a special relation to the Spanish gargola, which conveys “a special sense of gargouille–throat” (think: modern English “gargle”). This etymology adds up, given la Gargouille’s tendency to spout water and modern gargoyles’ assistance in redirecting rain. The second modern takeaway has to do with that pesky condemned prisoner. Apparently the good King Dagobert (the legend is a little hazy on which good king) was so impressed, he commemorated the day by allowing the bishop to release a prisoner each year. Thus, the Privilege of Saint Romain was established.

modern Gargoyle, photo by John Difool via Flickr Commons

Here’s the tricky thing about this legend: there is no dragon episode in early accounts of Saint Romain’s life. The first time such a beast appears is actually in a royal investigation of the privilege in 1394. At this time, it’s written:

La dit Prévilége fu ainsi ordoné en l’onneur et remembrance des notables et beaux miracles que fist le dit glorieux saint Monseigneur Saint Romain à la cité de Rouen et à tout le païs de environ. Entre les quieulx, par la grâce de Dieu, il prinst et mist en subjection un grant serpent ou draglon qui estoit environ Rouen, et devouroit et destruisoit les gens et bestes du païs, telment que nulz n’osoit converser ne habiter en icelui païs.

Thus, the Privilege was ordained in honor and remembrance of the significant and excellent miracles that the glorious Saint Romain did for the city of Rouen and all around the country. Among the works, by the Grace of God, he took and brought to submission a large serpent or dragon who was around Rouen, and who devoured and destroyed the people and beasts of the country, such that no one dared talk about it or live in that area. (From Histoire du privilège by Floquet (1833)).

Now, despite this being the first mention of the dragon in Saint Romain’s life, I think it is safe to say that this event existed in oral legend or lost documents prior to 1394. There are other French stories, like that of the Tarasque, that rely on fierce water dragons and offer convincing parallels. Some people argue these French water dragons, including la Gargouille are actually dangerous whirlpools, drawing on Isidore of Seville’s (d. circa 636AD) description of the hydra as a fantastic approach to perilous water currents. While this is a likely explanation, I can’t help but lean towards a more marvelous approach. After all, everyone loves a ferocious dragon, and they provide an especially convincing miracle for early saints. 

So, Saint Romain, I believe fully in your dragon exploits, but I have just one question: why the live bait? I initially chalked this up to common themes of suspense, and later, benevolent mercy, but my avid-fisherman husband had a different response: “No smart fish wants a rubber worm.”

Where to read it:

The Story of Rouen, by Andrea Cook (1901), via the HathiTrust Digital Library (English)

or, for a full account of Saint Romain try this post (2013) from the fantastic modern English blog Esoterx.

Sir Degare and his bat

The Middle English Sir Degare honestly reads like an episode of Game of Thrones. This anonymously composed tale of love and chivalry includes not only a young knight slaying a dragon, but also unintentional incest, bizarre weapons, surprising magic, and abusive lovers. Unlike Game of Thrones, though, these characters speak in rhyming couplets, which makes the dark content all the more disturbing. Even more alarming, much like one of Shakespeare’s comedies, everyone ends up married at its conclusion. Frankly, Sir Degare makes me a little queasy. The dragon scene, though, isolated from the rest of this happily-ever-macabre romance, really inverts some of our assumed ideas about the knight-slaying-dragon motif in medieval literature.

Some important backstory for this scene: Degare is an illegitimate child born of rape. He is raised by the sister of a hermit, christened with the name “Degarre” (“lost one”) and educated. At age 20, the “child Degare” (as the text refers to him) leaves home armed with some remnants of his birth and a large wooden bat. That’s when he meets the dragon.

Royal 10 EIV f. 18; a knight slaying a dragon, while a lion waits nearby. Unlike Degare, this knight has a sword.

Than was thar a dragon grim,

Ful of filth and of venim,

With wide throate and teth grete,

350       And wynges bitere with to bete.

As a lyoun he hadde fet,

And his tail was long and gret.

The smoke com out of his nose awai

Ase fer out of a chimenai.  

Then was there a monstrous dragon,

Full of filth and of venom,

With wide throat and huge teeth,

350      And wings bitterly beating.

He had feet like a lion,

And his tail was long and massive.

The smoke came of out his nose away

As fire out of a chimney.

When Degare encounters this fearsome beast, the monster is otherwise engaged, attacking an unnamed earl. With adrenaline pumping through his veins, Degare charges the beast with his bat. The dragon turns to face him, and Degare brings the bat down on the beast’s forehead. The dragon falls “up-so-doun” (upside down), lashing his tail. Degare heaves his bat and continues beating the writhing serpent until the fierce creature is “stille as a ston” (still as a stone).

This scene occurs about one-third of the way through the poem. Afterwards, the earl, thanking Degare for saving his life, knights our bat-toting hero, and provides him with the necessary equipment for the rest of his journey, which will include a few princesses, a Star Wars-esque battle royale, and some magic—but you’ll have to read the rest to find out exactly what happens.  

The dragon, by most scholarship, is understood as Degare’s entry into both adulthood and knighthood. As Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury write in their introduction to the story, “What better initiation into knighthood than to rescue an earl from a fire-breathing dragon, one of the most formidable enemies the medieval imagination could conjure up.” The editors also note that this individual, one-on-one combat mentally prepares Degare for the adventures to come. For the most part, I agree with this idea, but I’d invite us to think more about Degare’s overzealous attack.

First of all, Degare saves not a princess, but a grown man from the dragon. On the one hand, it serves as the ex machina to Degare’s knighthood, but on the other, it convolutes our narrative of knight saving damsel in distress. If Degare is entering into adulthood through slaying the dragon, wouldn’t it make sense for him to save a damsel, signaling his sexual maturity as well? I also wonder about what the dragon is doing in the forest, and why it is attacking the earl. Acts of violence occur in the forest throughout this text; what might that suggest about romantic heroes relationship to the natural world?

My biggest question, though, is how in the world Degare defeated a fierce, fire-breathing dragon with a glorified baseball bat. While there is a surplus of violence within this medieval lay, this scene is particularly brutal. Degare doesn’t really “slay” the dragon in a traditional sense; he bashes it until it stops moving. Part of this is because of his weapon; the bat necessitates vehement force disproportionate to the slicing action of a blade. But–does the level of viciousness in Degare’s attack cause us to respect him all the more, or does it suggest something psychologically unstable in his character? The dragon is certainly horrific in this passage, but it is truly villainous? Or, is that a title reserved for our supposed hero?

Where to read it:

Sir Degare, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury, via TEAMS Middle English text series, University of Rochester. As quoted in this post, Laskaya and Salisbury also provide a modern English introduction, as found here.

The National Library of Scotland also provides a transcription of the text as it appears in the Auchinleck manuscript, accompanied by images. Find it here.

Kyng Alisaunder and the dragonet

The Middle English Dictionary defines “dragonet” as “a young dragon.” I find this word absolutely adorable; if I were to define it myself, I might say “a little dragon,” as the French suffix “ette” typically suggests a smaller form of something (kitchenette, cigarette, etc.) The word has only one quotation listed along with it, from the early 14th century Kyng Alisaunder. This nearly 700-line poem is one of my favorites, and it joins a number of other Middle English texts in describing the marvelous deeds and feats of the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great. The tale begins with the anonymous author getting his audience ready for the wild tales ahead of them, promising that these tales will include “wondres of worme and beest” [wonders of dragons and beasts]. Spoiler alert: he delivers.

At the onset, we meet King Philip of Macedonia who is waging war against the magic-working astrologist, Pharoh Neptanabus. Neptanabus himself escapes the violence and decides the best place to hide is Macedonia itself, where he is struck by the beauty of Philip’s wife, Queen Olympias. Neptanabus sneakily works his way into Olympias’ good graces through his prophetic power, and repeatedly sleeps with her under the guise of the god Jupiter Ammon who appears in the form of—you guessed it—a mighty dragon.

Royal 20 A V f.7. Detail of a miniature of Nectanebus in the form of a dragon, kissing Olympias while she is at the table with Philip. 

Later, when Olympia inevitably becomes pregnant, Philip’s worried advisors contact their king. Ever-clever Neptanabus responds quickly, using spells to send a dream to Philip. In the dream, King Philip is throwing a feast when a grisly dragon appears:

545       For a dragon þere com in fleen,

            Swithe griselich on to seen.

            His tayle was fyve fadem lang;

            Þe fyre at his noseþerles sprang;

            By þre, by foure, myd þe tayle

            To þe grounde he smoot saunz fayle.

545       For a dragon came flying in,

            Very gruesome to see,

            His tail was five fathoms long;

            Fire sprung from his nostrils;

            By three, by four, with his tail

            He smote the ground, without fail.

This dragon wreaks total havoc on the feast and scares every guest in the hall, until he abruptly calms down and, miraculously, turns into an eagle. A host of animals arrive at the hall, including a pheasant that lays an egg. Before Philip’s eyes, the egg hatches and a dragonet crawl out. The little dragon tries to retreat to the safety of the egg, but it has split. With no shelter, the dragon quickly dies. The Philip’s clerk, Antyfon, interprets the dream, claiming that Philip will have a son who will conquer the world, but who will die, poisoned, far from his homeland. A few months later, Alexander is born, his life prophesied before his birth, already full of dragons. 

Alexander will go on to encounter other fearsome draconic beasts as he conquers the world, but I think these particular dragons at the beginning of the text are remarkable. They certainly set the stage for Alexander’s personality: fierce, ruthless, and regal. Even as a child Alexander exhibits these qualities—at one point he even throws Neptanabus into a hole, effectively killing him. The dragons also might draw a direct comparison between Alexander and King Arthur; Merlin also uses dragons in his prophecies, and the oldest version of Kyng Alisaunder appears in the Auchinleck manuscript alongside Of Arthour and Merlin. This link may help connect British heroes with those of ancient lore.   

I’m also interested in the fact that these dragons are used solely for deception; Neptanabus takes on the appearance of a dragon to seduce Olympias and then again uses them in the prophetic dreams he sends Philip. Could the dragons then be linked to the biblical snake of Eden? Or, maybe these creatures force us to consider historical perspectives and their inherent fraudulence. Alexander’s own conception and birth are clearly duplicitous, so how much of Alexander is truly real and how much is illusory myth? What parts of Alexander are real? Does it even matter that he is not a king by birthright? 

These are the questions that ricochet in my mind each time I read these dragons. Though, I suppose the dragons could simply be included to garner the reader’s attention. It really is hard to look away from such griselich beasts and delightful dragonets.

Where to read it:

Kyng Alisaunder, edited by G.V. Smithers (1969), via the HathiTrust Digital Library

or, try a modern English summary from the University of York’s Database of Middle English Romance