When a Knight meets a Dragon Maiden: Human Identity and the Monstrous Animal Other

Detail of ‘Mélusine in the Bath’, illustration to Thüring von Ringoltingen’s Mélusine, 147

When a Knight meets a Dragon Maiden: Human Identity and the Monstrous Animal Other

By Lydia Zeldenrust

July 2011

Part 1: Introduction, Method, and Sources

  1. Of Monsters and Dragon Maidens: An Introduction

  1. Introduction

The amount of research into the field of medieval monsters has been growing within the past few decades, but the monster has not always been accepted as a worthwhile topic of serious study. Although Prof. Tolkien made his famous appeal for the centrality of the monsters in Beowulf as early as 1936, it still took several decades before other scholars decided to undertake any serious studies of monsters. Incidentally, by choosing the word ‘serious’ I mean to refer to a type of study that does not brush aside all medieval monsters and label them as simply ornamental or the result of some strange joke. Nor does a ‘serious’ study view the medieval monster as some kind of unfortunate accident or a silly misinterpretation of strange phenomenon occurring in nature. These interpretations of the medieval monster lack any kind of examination of, for instance, the psychological need of the medieval mind to create such monsters, and they certainly downplay the medieval imagination that allows these monsters space to roam within its world. No, a serious study of the medieval monster takes its central topic seriously and realises that the monster has meaning and that the medieval monster in particular is to be treasured and understood.

Passionate arguments aside, medieval monsters occur across a wide variety of sources and they are also extremely varied, ranging from shape shifting demons to dog-headed cynocephali. The topic of medieval monsters, therefore, is quite broad and too large for this study and needs to be specified even further. According to Isidore of Seville, one of the earliest authors writing about monsters, monstrosity takes the following forms and can be classified accordingly:

(1) hypertrophy of the body, (2) atrophy of the body, (3) excrescence of bodily parts, (4) superfluity of bodily parts, (5) deprivation of parts, (6) mixture of human and animal parts, (7) animal births by human women, (8) mislocation of organs or parts in the body, (9) disturbed growth (being born old), (10) composite beings, (11) hermaphrodites, (12) monstrous races

The focus of this study will be on one of these specific kinds of monsters: Isidore’s number six, or the monster with a mixture of animal and human body parts. The monsters in this group are particularly interesting because their hybrid body forms a strange combination between two groups that, in the medieval world view, are considered to be clearly separate types of being. Those who encounter this hybrid creature are faced with anxieties on where the exact line between the human and the animal lies. This group of monsters, however, is quite large and certainly much too big for this discussion. Therefore, a further selection between different kinds of medieval animal-human hybrid monsters has to be made. Instead of examining some of the familiar monsters, such as the cynocephali or the werewolf, this study will focus on a type of monsters which has generally been overlooked as a group: the medieval dragon maidens. These medieval dragon maidens are particularly interesting because they are a group of ladies that have been turned into draconic creatures but are always described as having human properties. In examining these medieval dragon maidens I will focus on their hybrid form and see what cultural meaning may be derived from it. Ultimately, I wish to examine the relationship between ideas of the boundaries between man and animal, as they are found in both medieval theological and philosophical discourse and the medieval literary chivalric world, and representations of the dragon maiden in medieval literature.


‘Adam Names the Animals’, illustration to folio 5r of the Aberdeen Bestiary . In this image, Adam is wearing clothes, is sitting on a throne, and is depicted as resembling Christ in his ruling over the animals. The animals have been divided into several categories according to the way they can be used by Man. Following the text found in Isidore’s Etymology (XII.II.1-8, and XII.VII.I-9), some animals are designated as beasts of burden, some are raised for food, some may be ridden, whilst others are not so easily dominated by men. Note that the division also makes a hierarchical distinction: lions are put on top, as they are often represented as a symbol of Christ, followed by cattle, and the bottom category features brute beasts.

1.2  Approach

In this study, I will examine the medieval dragon maiden from a perspective that focuses on her monstrous hybrid status as a creature that is both human and animal. These medieval dragon maidens have, to the best of my knowledge, never been examined together as a group, and they have not been studied from this perspective before.

In order to examine this, I will first introduce the dragon maiden and discuss her occurrences within different sources from different historical and cultural backgrounds. What will become clear is that the dragon maiden is a figure that is not necessarily bound by historical or cultural boundaries and that, though the dragon maidens may be presented differently, they all have certain underlying features in common. Then, I will make a selection from this large body of dragon maidens and propose a focus on medieval literary examples.

The main focus of this study will be on the dragon maiden’s animal-human hybrid body and on the way she is treated by those who come across her in this form. To this purpose, I will combine two theories, Monster Theory and Animal Theory, in an examination of her figure and how she is perceived by those who encounter her. I will show some of the main concerns found in these two theories and then explain how they may complement each other in examining how the identity of the dragon maiden and the knight who encounters her are determined by certain ‘degrees of animality’ attributed to them.

Then, I will give an overview of the medieval texts containing examples of dragon maidens. This collection of texts can be further divided into roughly two different types of dragon maidens: those who, in the end, become human and those who, in the end, take on the physical form of the animal. These two groups have distinctly different patterns and traditions, and they also engage with Monster Theory and Animal Theory in different degrees. The works discussed within these two groups will form my main corpus for this study and a comparison between these two groups will, hopefully, yield surprising results.

Next, I will examine the background of medieval theological and philosophical discussions on the differences between humans and animals, and the way in which an identity of ‘the human’ can be established through such a discussion. I will examine some of the arguments used in the debate, but most of all I will look at the themes and questions themselves to show that this debate is, after all, anthropocentric. It is important to understand the place of humans and animals within the medieval worldview and the reasons for their placement since the dragon maiden texts were written within this context.

Furthermore, I will examine the way in which a split between different degrees of humans and animals, or the ‘degrees of animality’, are present in both the medieval worldview and in the chivalric world created within medieval literature. The dragon maiden is found in this literary world and therefore this chapter will provide a useful background to understanding the way in which her figure challenges conventional boundaries between humans and animals.

Then, I will introduce the way monsters may or may not challenge the familiar ideas of the divide between humans and animals within medieval chivalric literature. By comparing the dragon maiden with several conventional monsters, the dragon, the giant, and the werewolf, I will show why she is a special figure even among her own kind.

Finally, I will explore the way in which anthropocentric thinking and conventional ideas of the boundaries between humans and animals is translated into the literary figure of the dragon maiden. For this, I shall focus on the moment where the knight encounters the dragon maiden in person and look at how this situation is resolved. Each text has its own way of dealing with negotiations between aspects of the human and the animal and a different way of solving the monster-problem, but the focus in both groups of texts is on the human and, in the end, finding out who is the most ‘human’ human is of key importance to the story. What will be shown is that the dragon maiden is central to the themes, motifs, purpose, and structure of the texts in which she is found.

(Illustration to folio CXLI of L’Histoire de la Belle Mélusine published by Steinschaber in 1478 , depicting the scene of Remondin’s discovery of his wife’s animal-human hybrid form. The wall has been removed so that the reader, who knows she takes this form once a week, may see what is going on inside. Note that Mélusine is dressed as a noble lady and clearly has both human and animal body parts.)

  1. Main Questions

In the context of this study, I wish to answer the following question:

Which meaning does the medieval dragon maiden’s animal-human hybrid body carry?

In order to answer this main question, I will look at several smaller questions:

  • In what way does the dragon maiden’s animal-human hybrid body reflect medieval ideas about what makes a human and what makes an animal, and how does she play with definitions of the boundaries between the two?
  • In what way does the medieval dragon maiden play with ideas or anxieties about the boundaries between humans and animals as they are found in medieval chivalric literature? Does she challenge or confirm these ideas?
  • Can the medieval dragon maidens found in literature be seen as a group?
  • How does this group of dragon maidens differ from other monsters?
  • How, if at all, do the encounters between a knight and a dragon maiden contribute to the themes, motifs, purpose, and structure of the literary texts in which they feature?

I expect that the medieval dragon maiden found in literary texts carries meaning and that this meaning is related to her being both human and animal. I also think that, even though the encounter between a knight and a dragon maiden may appear to be a randomly insignificant and frivolous little episode occurring within a much more important larger story, the episode in fact occurs at exactly the right moment and contributes to the overall story significantly.

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