People in the Middle Ages, just like today, could imagine a very strange monster! They created tales and stories about fantastical beasts, some of whom lived in far-off lands, while others could lurk much closer, offering an ever-present threat to medieval man.
The origins of these creatures sometimes came from ancient writers, such as Pliny the Elder (AD 23 – 79) who wrote of various strange peoples who lived in other parts of the world. Medieval writers such as John Mandeville would add new details to these creatures. Other monsters came from Biblical references, with Christianity invoking them as the enemies of God and threats to humanity.
Here is our list of the top ten monsters of the Middle Ages (it also sounds like a list of that could be used for Dungeons and Dragons!)
Dragons – In her book Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts, Alixe Bovey explains “the monsters of the Bible are few, but important: the first is the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, resulting in their expulsion from Paradise. Generally interpreted to be the Devil in disguise, in several ways this serpent is the archetype for demonic monsters of the Middle Ages. Its snaking body a kind of metaphor for opportunistic cunning, the serpent is able to prey on human weaknesses such as pride and greed.”
The dragon is the ultimate form of the serpent and can be found in many medieval tales. In bestiaries it is said that their most powerful weapon is the tail, which could be used to squeeze and suffocate their prey. Elephants are said to be their mortal enemy, but one can also find several saints who do battle with dragons.
Unicorns – Ancient Greek writers were the first to describe a unicorn – a beast with a long horn – and placed them in India (it is thought that they may have based on the rhinoceros). During the Middle Ages these beasts gained a larger mythical background. The seventh-century writer Isidore of Seville, explains “This is a four-footed beast that has a single horn on its forehead; it is very strong and pierces anything it attacks. It fights with elephants and kills them by wounding them in the belly. The unicorn is too strong to be caught by hunters, except by a trick: if a virgin girl is placed in front of a unicorn and she bares her breast to it, all of its fierceness will cease and it will lay its head on her bosom, and thus quieted is easily caught.”
See also: The use of unicorn horn in medicine
Manticores – a favourite type of monster for ancient and medieval writers were those that were hybrids of various animals and even men: to have to head of one creature, the body of another and perhaps the feet or arms of a third. One popular example of this kind of beast was the manticore, which was usually described as having the head of man, the body lion, and the tail of a scorpion.
Blemmyae – one of the common monstrous peoples found in medieval manuscripts were the Blemmyae, who had no head, but would have their face on their torso. Some writers mention these people as living somewhere in Africa, beyond Ethiopia. Mandeville has them inhabiting part of fifty-four large islands in south Asia, somewhere around the Andaman Islands. He writes: “In another part, there are ugly folk without heads, who have eyes in each shoulder; their mouths are round, like a horseshoe, in the middle of their chest. In yet another part there are headless men whose eyes and mouths are on their backs. And there are in another place folk with flat faces, without noses or eyes; but they have two small holes instead of eyes, and a flat lipless mouth.”
Cynocephali – the dogheaded peoples were another favourite of medieval writers. In his work The History of the Lombards Paul the Deacon tells of an early story where the Lombards were facing a more powerful enemy. The Lombards made a plan where “they pretend that they have in their camps Cynocephali, that is, men with dogs’ heads. They spread the rumor among the enemy that these men wage war obstinately, drink human blood and quaff their own gore if they cannot reach the foe. And to give faith to this assertion, the Lombards spread their tents wide and kindle a great many fires in their camp.” The enemy, frightened by this threat, decided not to leave the Lombards alone.
Skiapodes – these people were known for having one leg with a very large foot. The description by the ancient writer Pliny the Elder, that “they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet,” doesn’t seem to have changed much during the Middle Ages, and they are often depicted with their one foot up.
Giants – going back to David and Goliath, countless medieval tales and legends involve giants, who could be often living in the wastelands and mountains beyond human habitation. For example, the 12th century Geoffrey of Monmouth relates how the ancient Britons had wiped out all the giants except for one named Goëmagot. He was challenged to a wrestling match by Corineus:
At the beginning of the encounter, Corineus and the giant, standing, front to front, held each other strongly in their arms, and panted aloud for breath, but Goëmagot presently grasping Corineus with all his might, broke three of his ribs, two on his right side and one on his left. At which Corineus, highly enraged, roused up his whole strength, and snatching him upon his shoulders, ran with him, as fast as the weight would allow him, to the next shore, and there getting upon the top of a high rock, hurled down the savage monster into the sea; where falling on the sides of craggy rocks, he was torn to pieces, and coloured the waves with his blood. The place where he fell, taking its name from the giant’s fall, is called Lam Goëmagot, that is, Goëmagot’s Leap, to this day.
Melusine – before becoming the logo for Starbucks, Melusine was an interesting medieval character. The most famous story about her was written by Jean d’Arras in the late-14th century, where this half-woman/half-serpent gets a husband, at least until he sees her on a Saturday!
Mermaids – another type of half-human/half-monster were mermaids. Like Melusine, they would be a beautiful women from the waist up, but instead of having legs and feet their bottom half would be a fishes tail. Many medieval cultures had folktales about mermaids (or creatures very similar to them) including in the Middle East and Asia, and they had a mixed reputation: in some stories they could be found helping people, but in other cases they were said to try to lure men into the water, where they would drown them.
See also: Women of the Sea, Muses of the Ages
Grendel and Grendel’s Mother
The story of this pair come only in the Old English poem Beowulf, where they are the chief enemies of the hero. Descendants of the the Biblical character Cain, they are portrayed as hideous monsters who eat men. The medieval text is not clear on what exactly they are, and scholars have debated their nature. In popular media, you can find them depicted as beasts or, in the case, of Grendel’s mother, a sexy seductress.