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.

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.