THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

23 April 2014

The Anatomy of a Dragon

Happy St George’s Day, everyone!   For some images of this patron saint of England, Portugal, Russia, and many other nations, please see our post from last year.  Today, though, we thought we would turn our attention to St George’s famous opponent, the dragon.

A detail from the Beaufort or Beauchamp Hours, showing an illustration of St George and the dragon.
Detail of a miniature of St George and the dragon, from the Beaufort/Beauchamp Hours, England (London) and Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1401, Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 5v

Dragons are near-ubiquitious in medieval manuscripts.  They take pride of place in bestiaries and herbals, books of history and legend, and Apocalypse texts, to name a few.  They serve as symbols, heraldic devices, and even as ‘just’ decoration, and their physical characteristics can vary widely. Cinematic and literary depictions of dragons today are fairly consistent; they are almost always shown as reptilian, winged, fire-breathing creatures (in a word, Smaug).  But this was by no means constant in the medieval period.

Let’s have a look at a very common medieval trope – of the dragon as the nemesis of a saint or angel.  Below we can see dragons facing off against St George (again), St Margaret, and the Archangel Michael.  All these examples are drawn from late 15th century manuscripts, but their dragons are very different, and range from a lizard-y animal with duck-like feet to a winged leonine creature and a demon.

A page from the Huth Hours, showing an illustration of St George and the dragon.
Miniature of St George and a lizard-like dragon, from the Huth Hours, Netherlands, c. 1480, Add MS 38126, f. 139v

A detail from a 15th-century Book of Hours, showing an illustration of St Margaret emerging from the side of a dragon.
Detail of a miniature of St Margaret emerging from the side of a lion-like dragon, from a Book of Hours, Use of Sarum, Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 2985, f. 37v

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of the Archangel Michael fighting a dragon.
Detail of a miniature of the Archangel Michael fighting a demon-like dragon, from Francisco de Ximenez’s Livre des anges, France (Tours), c. 1480, Sloane MS 3049, f. 115r

Even within a single manuscript it is possible to find a multiplicity of dragon sub-species.  One notable example is a French copy of the Life of Alexander the Great, in which this famous king is squaring off against three different kinds of dragon (our favourite, of course is the last).

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Alexander the Great and his army fighting dragons.
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against winged dragons with emeralds in their foreheads, from Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre, France (Paris), c. 1420 – c. 1425, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 73r

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Alexander the Great and his army fighting horned dragons.
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against winged horned dragons, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

A detail from a 15th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of Alexander the Great and his army fighting two-headed dragons.
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great battling against two-headed, eight-legged, crowned dragons with multiple eyes along their torsos, Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 78v

The idea of the dragon as a fearsome foe for all godly and righteous beings stretches back to the late-antique source material that later developed into the 12th and 13th century text of the bestiary.  The book of beasts tells us that the dragon is a variety of serpent, is ‘larger than all other animals in the world’, lives in caves, and possesses great strength in its tail.  Nothing, ‘not even the elephant’, is safe from the dragon, which lies in wait and then suffocates the captured elephant within its coils.  The ominously-curled tail of the dragon is often shown to great advantage in the miniatures illustrating this passage (see particularly the first image below).

A detail from a bestiary, showing an illustration of a dragon fighting an elephant.
Detail of a miniature of a dragon attacking and suffocating an elephant, from a bestiary with theological texts, England, c. 1200 – c. 1210, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r

A detail from the Queen Mary Psalter, showing an illustration of an elephant giving birth in water, with a dragon overhead.
Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a mother elephant giving birth in water to avoid the dragon circling overhead, from the Queen Mary Psalter, England (London?), 1310 – 1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 188v

The bestiary text also makes explicit the connection between the dragon and the devil, aligning the fantastical creature with evil, deception, ‘vainglory and human pleasures’.  We see this connection repeated again and again in medieval manuscripts, particularly those concerned with describing and explaining evil. 

A detail from a 14th-century Apocalypse, showing an illustration of men worshipping a dragon.
Detail of a miniature of men worshipping a dragon and the beast of the Apocalypse, from an Apocalypse with commentary in French prose, England (London?), c. 1325 – 1330, Add MS 38842, f. 5r

A detail from the Welles Apocalypse, showing an illustration of the Woman and a seven-headed, ten-horned dragon.
Detail of a miniature of the Woman and the seven-headed, ten-horned dragon-beast of the Apocalypse, from the Welles Apocalypse, England, c. 1310, Royal MS 15 D II, f. 153r

A page from a 15th-century manuscript, showing an illustration of a Satanic dragon with a human head.
Detail of a miniature of a human-headed satanic dragon, representing the papacy of Urban VI whose election was contested and resulted in the appointment of the anti-pope Clement VII, from Joachim de Fiore’s Vaticinia de Pontificibus, Italy (Florence), 2nd quarter of the 15th century, Harley MS 1340, f. 8r

It would be too simplistic, though, to claim that dragons were universally objects of horror and loathing.  They were not even always enemies.  Dragons make appearances in discussions of astronomy and natural history, as elements of decoration, and even within the Tudor coat of arms.

A detail from an astrological miscellany, showing an illustration of the constellation Draco.
Detail of a miniature of the constellation ‘Draco’, from an astrological compilation with political prophecies, England (London?), 1490, Arundel MS 66, f. 33v

A detail from a Hebrew festival prayerbook, showing an illustration of a dragon.
Detail of a dragon with its tail circling a caption, from a Hebrew festival prayer book, Italian rite, Italy, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, Add MS 16577, f. 44v

A cutting from a 15th-century Gradual, showing a historiated initial S made from two intertwining dragons.
Detail of a historiated initial ‘S’ of the Pentecost, with the body of the initial formed by two intertwining dragons, Italy (Lombardy), 3rd quarter of the 15th century,  Add MS 39636, f. 28r

A detail from Magister Sampson's Motets for Henry VIII, showing an illustration of a red dragon, a lion, and a white greyhound.
Detail of an allegorical miniature about the Tudor rose with a red dragon, lion, and white greyhound, from Magister Sampson’s Motets for Henry VIII, Netherlands (Antwerp), 1516, Royal MS 11 E XI, f. 2r

We’ll be tweeting more fabulous British Library dragons over the next day or so; as always, please let us know your favourites.  And have a wonderful St George’s Day!

Sarah J Biggs

Comments

Wonderful stuff!! Your posts are glorious - quite the best and always astonishing.

A comment from Anon:

"By comparing the anatomy of European dragons with that of Oriental dragons, we discover lots of similarities, e.g. reptilian body, demons’ eyes, lizard tongue, fire-breathing mouth, winged creatures. The universality of dragon in both European medieval Mss and in Oriental literature makes one wonder if it was once an existing animal rather than a mythical creature. Could it be possible that the depictions of dragons come from the actual sightings of dinosaurs and pterosaurs (winged reptiles) before their extinction? As we know, Komodo Dragon of Indonesia is a variant descendant of dinosaur. This poses the question whether dinosaurs’ extinction happened much later than what is commonly believed."

The comments to this entry are closed.