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Why Dragons were the Dominant Medieval Monstrosities

The dragon resting on its golden hoard. The gallant knight charging to rescue the maiden from the scaly beast. These are images long associated with the European Middle Ages, yet most (all) medieval people went their whole lives without meeting even a single winged, fire-breathing behemoth. Dragons and other monsters, nights dark and full of terror, lurked largely in the domain of stories—tales, filtered through the intervening centuries and our own interests, that remain with us today.

As Halloween approaches, we’re naturally thinking about scary stories. Though horror today is most often about entertainment—the thrill of the jump scare or the suspense of the thriller—it hasn’t always been that way. In the European Middle Ages, monster stories served as religious teaching tools, offering examples of what not to do, manifestations of the threats posed by the supernatural and the diabolical, and metaphors for the evil humans do to one another.

Medieval people told tales about all kinds of monsters, including ghostswerewolves and women who turned into serpents on Saturdays. But dragons held a special place in both the modern imagination and the medieval one. As historian Scott Bruce, editor of the newly released Penguin Book of Dragons, explains, dragons in the medieval mindset stood “as the enemies of humankind, against which we measure the prowess of our heroes.” As such, they were neatly and easily folded into Christian tradition, “often cast … as agents of the devil or demons in disguise.”

Over the past few years, Bruce, a historian at Fordham University, has developed wide-ranging expertise in how medieval people talked about monsters. In 2016, he published The Penguin Book of the Undead, and in 2018, The Penguin Book of Hell. Collections of texts from the ancient, medieval and early modern worlds, these books allow readers to see for themselves how people from the past thought about things that went bump in the night. According to Bruce, one of the reasons he collaborated with Penguin on the series is that he wanted to make “these fascinating themes … accessible to general readers,” demonstrating that monsters of the past are not the same as modern ones.

Though they sometimes appeared as foes to be overcome in valiant single combat, dragons in the European Middle Ages more often figured in accounts about the lives of saints and religious figures than stories of heists and adventures. In the sixth century, for example, French bishop and poet Venantius Fortunatus wrote about a bishop of Paris named Marcellus, who, in front of the gathered citizens of the city, drove off a dragon that had devoured a sinful noblewoman’s corpse. The bishop bonked the dragon on the head three times, led it through Paris on a leash, then banished it back to the forest so it would never trouble the city again.

Similarly, the Byzantine historian Michael Psellos wrote in the 11th century of a dragon that tormented Saint Marina. Thrown in jail and tortured by a Roman official who wanted to sexually violate her, Marina encountered a demon in the form of a dragon. The monster threatened her, ignored her prayers and swallowed her whole. Undeterred, writes Bruce, Marina “made the sign of holy Christ, and, as this sign went down ahead of the rest of her, they ruptured the dragon’s innards. … [H]e was split asunder and died.”

Read entire article at Smithsonian