By Cait Stevenson
What’s more medieval than a dragon? From Smaug to Drogon to Dungeons & Dragons, the look, menace, and sheer presence of dragons is one of the most iconic legacies of the western Middle Ages. Not without reason: the easy go-to embodiment for Satan was so popular among medieval people that by the thirteenth century, dragons were nevertheless pressed into service in religious art to represent Jesus. Why were dragons so popular—and what was a dragon in the Middle Ages, anyway? Here are a few things you might not know about medieval dragons:
1. Medieval people understood what a “dragon” was.
I say dragon, and you visualize a giant fire breathing, flying lizard with legs, maybe claws, maybe a voice. I know, and you know. Dragons are that iconic a cultural image. The same was true of the Middle Ages. As Paul Acker showed, Norse sagas spend basically no time describing the physical characteristics of their dragon foes—despite the physical form of the dragon being crucial to the hero’s contest against it and the audience’s ability to follow the battle.
In the thirteenth-century Norse poem Fáfnismál, Sigurd digs himself a pit where he knows the greedy dwarf-turned-dragon Fáfnir will slither. Our hero stabs upwards into the dragon’s belly. This feat makes no sense to an audience expecting a monster who lumbers on legs or takes to the skies. Just like we “know” what a dragon is from general cultural awareness, medieval people knew.
2. Or rather, medieval people understood what dragons, plural, were.
Fáfnir is, for all intents and purposes, a giant snake. He spews clouds and rivers of venom like a giant snake. A frequent attribute of dragons in medieval bestiaries (descriptions of animals and their characteristics meant as moral lessons for people) recounts their ability to kill animals as large as elephants via constriction and suffocation…you know, like a giant snake. But nobody blinks when Chretien de Troyes’ great dragon in Yvain is “so full of evil that fire leapt from its mouth,” or when the Norse adaptation of Chretien’s Arthuriana lets its dragon dispense with the cooking and get right to the eating. Sometimes dragons are specified as flugdrekar—flying dragons—and sometimes simple drekar and ormar (“worms”) are described as taking to flight. What medieval people understood by “dragon” was a much wider range than the color-coding schemes of modern fantasy. Which brings us to the most excellent variety of medieval dragon:
3. Before they acquired the ability to fly, medieval dragons dropped out of trees onto people’s heads.
As Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, an important source for medieval encyclopedic and bestiary writing, has it:
The iaculus throws itself from the branches of trees; dragons are dangerous not only to the feet but also ﬂy like a missile from a catapult.
Isidore of Seville in the early seventh century clarified that the iaculus indeed takes its name from the javelin, and the Norse Rómverja saga draws out this point in excruciating detail:
struck under the cheek that man who was called Paulus and the serpent ﬂew straight into his head and out of his cheek
4. Dragons were the monster that scientists loved to hate.
Dragon mythologies are ancient, ancient, ancient, and seem to span the connected Eurasian world. One of the oldest legends involves the dragon that ate the sky. Dragons appear already in Babylonian and Indian mythology as devouring the sun and the moon to cause eclipses and the phases of the moon. Medieval Muslim and Jewish astronomer-astrologers, even as they drew out diagrams to understand the movements of the heavens naturally (in accord with geocentrism, of course), couldn’t let go of the sky-dragon. In Arabic and Persian astrological illustrations and artistic decoration, the dragon between Sol and Luna is the standard symbolism for the eclipse.
5. Dragons skirted the boundary between natural and supernatural.
How worried was King Edward III that a dragon would actually come attack his castle? Not very. The one consistent feature of medieval dragons is that they are far away—in time, in place, in imagination. The dragons in Ragnars saga delightfully start off their lives small enough to be placed in a wooden jar (before growing up to, you know, eat a building). But for every “natural” description of a dragon, there’s a scribe copying ancient writer Lucan’s assertion that dragons are grown-up snakes from Medusa’s hair, and something about the Libyan desert makes them spontaneously airborne. For medieval people, dragons were just out of reach. Their homegrown saints exorcised demons in the form of dogs and battled Satan in the guise of frogs and beautiful women, but the great dragon-slayer saints came out of the ancient, pagan “East.”
That’s right, dragon-slayer saints, plural. Because:
6. St. George was not the only dragon-slaying saint!
St. George’s conquest of the dragon doesn’t actually show up in manuscripts of his hagiography until the thirteenth century! He is preceded in the dragon-slaying tradition by a surprising number of Greek and Latin saints alike, whose dragon encounters took on a larger and larger role in their legends over the course of the Middle Ages. Constantinople’s St. Elizabeth the Wonderworker was abbess of a financially-hurting convent in the fifth century, as the story goes. The emperor donated her community a parcel of city land to help out—but the district was in ruins, its buildings decayed, all residents long vanished for fear of the dragon that prowled its streets. Elizabeth promptly confronted the dragon and, in proper biblical fashion, trampled it underfoot.
7. St. Margaret of Antioch killed a dragon and become the patron saint of…pregnancy?
The medieval west’s preferred St. Elisabeth was a Hungarian widow, but they had their own dragon-slaying femme fatale. Margaret of Antioch, as the western legend went, had been imprisoned and tortured by pagans for her Christian beliefs like a proper virgin (future) martyr. But more than pagans wanted to torture Margaret. In prison, she was tormented by a dragon…who promptly ate her. But God was with Margaret, of course. She burst out of his stomach, killing the dragon and saving her life (…only to be killed shortly after. Minor details).
For late medieval women, the symbolism was dear and painful. Childbed prayers to Margaret became commonplace in birthing rooms. Among the middle and upper classes, even, scraps of Margaret’s hagiography or pieces of paper with her name on it were even placed in the room with a laboring mother as a quasi-magical amulet for protection. To this day, Margaret of Antioch is the patron saint of nurses, exiles, Malta, peasants—and childbirth.
Paul Acker, “Dragons in the Eddas and in Early Nordic Art,” in Revisiting the Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend, ed. Acker and Carolyne Larrington (New York: Routledge, 2013), 53-75.
Sara Kuehn, The Dragon in Medieval East Christian and Islamic Art (Leiden: Brill, 2011)
Monica White, “The Rise of the Dragon in Middle Byzantine Hagiography,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 32, no. 2 (2008): 149-167
Top Image: Dragon depicted in a 15th century manuscript – British Library MS Additional 16577 f. 44v