The dragon (drake)

The smelly fire-breather with a tongue like lightning

This dragon description comes from the Katherine Group Seinte Margarete, a text written in Middle English in the early 13th century by an anonymous author of the English West Midlands. One of the most popular saints of the late Middle Ages, Margaret is one of my personal favourites because she is always depicted with a dragon, and although this dragon is supposed to be terrifying, sculptors have a tendency to make it adorable.

St Margaret and her dragon, Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Limestone carving made in Troyes (France), 1530-1540. [Photo by Hana Videen]

Margaret, who lived in Antioch (modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century, was the daughter of a pagan priest, but she embraced Christianity at a young age. Margaret, ‘meokest alre milde’ (meekest of the mild), spent her days tending her foster mother’s sheep…but of course her life couldn’t stay that easy, or how would she have become a saint? The description below comes just before Margaret is swallowed by a devil in the form of a dragon.[1]

Miscellany. France, c. 1450. Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, f. 39r. []
But Margaret escapes the fearsome creature’s digestive tract. According to different versions of the story, she either holds a cross or crucifix in her hand or simply makes the sign of the cross. This makes the dragon split in two. Because of this story, Margaret is prayed to for safe childbirth. (You know, a woman coming out of dragon, a baby coming out of woman…there are similarities. Kind of. Hopefully not.)

Dragon from a bestiary. England, third quarter of the 13th century. Bodleian Library, MS Douce 167, f. 7v. []
Translation and glossing by Hana Videen. Hover over words to see how they’re pronounced. More about this project here.

And suddenly there came out of a corner an unwiht of hellea devil from hell in drakes lichea dragon's body, so grislichgrisly that everyone was horrified at the sight of the evil creature, who was glistindeglistening all over as though he were gilded.

Bestiary of Ann Walsh. England, 15th century. Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º, f. 50r. []

His lockeslocks and his longe berdlong beard gleamed all over with gold, and his grisly teðteeth had the appearance of swart irnblack iron. His twatwo eyes shone brighter than the steorenstars or ȝimstanesjewels, broad as basins in his horned heauedhead on either side of his high, hooked neasenose.

A winged dragon from a Franco-Flemish manuscript. France (Flanders?), fourth quarter of the 13th century (after 1277). The J. Paul Getty Museum, MS Ludwig XV 4, f. 94. []

Out of his speatewilehideous mouth fire sparkled, and from his nease-ϸurlesnostrils issued a smothering smoke, the forcuðestmost loathsome vapour. His tungetongue darted out, so longlong that he swongswung it abuten his swirearound his neck, and it seemed as though a scharp sweordsharp sword shot out of his muðmouth, glistnedeglistening like lightning and leitedeblazing with flame.

That place became permeated by a strong, intense stenchstench, and all schimmedeshimmered and schanshone in the schadeweshadow of the schuckedemon.

Dragon from a bestiary. Franco-Flemish, c. 1270. The J. Paul Getty Museum. []


[1] The Middle English text is from Medieval English Prose for Women: From the Katherine Group and ‘Ancrene Wisse’, ed. and trans. by Bella Millett and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 58. The translation included here is my own. [back]

Peraldus’s theological miscellany, including the Summa de vitiis. England, 3rd quarter of the 13th century (after c. 1236). British Library, Harley MS 3244, f. 59r. []

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