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.

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.

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