Top 10 Medieval Monsters

Discover the fascinating world of medieval monsters that captivated the imaginations of people during the Middle Ages. From legendary dragons and unicorns to terrifying giants and mermaids, these mythical creatures were integral to medieval folklore and literature. Explore the origins and stories of these top ten monsters, which continue to inspire modern fantasy and storytelling.

The origins of these creatures can be traced back to ancient writings or Biblical references, many of which got expanded upon in medieval bestiaries or works of literature. It is a list that could easily inspire a game of Dungeons and Dragons!


1. Dragons

Sion/Sitten, Médiathèque Valais, S 94, f. 86v – Jean de Mandeville, Von dem gelobten Land [Voyages]. German translation by Michel Velser –
Alixe Bovey, in her book Monsters and Grotesques in Medieval Manuscripts, notes that the Bible features few significant monsters, the first being the serpent who tempts Adam and Eve, often interpreted as the Devil in disguise. This serpent is a prototype for many demonic monsters of the Middle Ages, symbolizing opportunistic cunning and preying on human weaknesses like pride and greed.

The dragon, the ultimate form of the serpent, appears in many medieval tales. Bestiaries describe their most powerful weapon as their tail, used to squeeze and suffocate prey. Dragons’ mortal enemies are said to be elephants, but several saints also battled these fearsome creatures.


2. Unicorns

Unicorn in the Rochester Bestiary, 13th century, British Library, Royal MS 12 F XIII

Ancient Greek writers first described unicorns as beasts with a long horn, placing them in India—likely inspired by the rhinoceros. In the Middle Ages, these creatures gained a richer mythical background. Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century writer, described the unicorn as a strong, single-horned beast capable of piercing anything it attacks. It fights elephants and can only be captured by a trick: a virgin girl baring her breast to the unicorn, calming it enough to be caught.

3. Manticores

Detail of a miniature of a manticore, a creature with the body of a lion, the head of a man, and the tail of a scorpion – Image from British Library Royal 12 F.XIII, f.24v

Manticores, hybrids of various animals and humans, were favourites among ancient and medieval writers. Typically described as having the head of a man, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion, these beasts were both fascinating and terrifying.

4. Blemmyae

A Blemmyae from Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

Blemmyae were common monstrous figures in medieval manuscripts, characterized by having no head, with faces located on their torsos. Some writers placed these people in Africa, beyond Ethiopia. The English travel writer John Mandeville wrote of them inhabiting fifty-four large islands in South Asia, what might be the Andaman Islands, describing their unique features such as eyes on their shoulders or backs, and mouths located in unconventional places.

5. Cynocephali

Cynocephali in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. 15th century. British Library, London. MS Harley 3954, fol 40v

Dog-headed people, or Cynocephali, were another popular subject for medieval writers. Paul the Deacon, in The History of the Lombards, tells of a Lombard strategy to intimidate a more powerful enemy by spreading rumours that their camps housed Cynocephali, fierce warriors who drank human blood. The enemy, terrified by this prospect, decided to avoid the Lombards.


6. Skiapodes

Sciapod protecting himself from the sun by the shade of his foot. In margin of “Heures à l’usage des Antonins”, 15th century. Attributed to the “Maître du Prince de Piémont”.

Known for having one leg with a very large foot, the Skiapodes were described by Pliny the Elder as people who “lie on their backs during extreme heat and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet.” This depiction remained consistent throughout the Middle Ages, often showing them with one foot raised.

7. Giants

Detail of a miniature of a giant being burnt to death on Alexander’s orders. Image from British Library

From the tale of David and Goliath to countless medieval legends, giants often inhabited wastelands and mountains beyond human reach. Geoffrey of Monmouth, a twelfth-century writer, described how ancient Britons nearly exterminated giants, leaving only one named Goëmagot. In this dramatic episode, the hero Corineus takes on the giant:

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.


8. Melusine

Melusine discovered – BNF MS Français 24383, fol. 19

Before becoming the Starbucks logo, Melusine was a half-woman, half-serpent figure in medieval folklore. The most famous story, penned by Jean d’Arras in the late 14th century, tells of her marriage that lasted until her husband saw her true form on a Saturday.

9. Mermaids


A group of mermaids or sirens in water, by a ship. MS Bodleian 764

Half-human, half-fish creatures, mermaids appeared in the folklore of many medieval cultures, including those in the Middle East and Asia. They had mixed reputations: some stories depicted them helping people, while others warned of their attempts to lure men into the water to drown them.

See also: Leprechauns, mermaids, were the descendants of Cain, according to medieval Irish text

10. Grendel and Grendel’s Mother

These two characters appear only in the Old English poem Beowulf, as the main antagonists of the hero. Descendants of the Biblical character Cain, they are portrayed as hideous monsters who eat men. Scholars debate their exact nature, and popular media portrays them as anything from beasts to seductive figures.

These monsters, blending ancient lore and medieval imagination, reflect the fears and creativity of their time. They continue to fascinate us today, inspiring literature, art, and games.


See also: Demons, Djinns, and Devils of the Medieval Islamic World