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.
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.
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.)
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 helle in drakes liche, so grislich that everyone was horrified at the sight of the evil creature, who was glistinde all over as though he were gilded.
His lockes and his longe berd gleamed all over with gold, and his grisly teð had the appearance of swart irn. His twa eyes shone brighter than the steoren or ȝimstanes, broad as basins in his horned heaued on either side of his high, hooked nease.
Out of his speatewile mouth fire sparkled, and from his nease-ϸurles issued a smothering smoke, the forcuðest vapour. His tunge darted out, so long that he swong it abuten his swire, and it seemed as though a scharp sweord shot out of his muð, glistnede like lightning and leitede with flame.
That place became permeated by a strong, intense stench, and all schimmede and schan in the schadewe of the schucke.
 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]