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.