For all their insistence that we must understand medieval dragons as “real,” since our medieval subjects thought they were, our authors can give us frustratingly little to grasp. Faced with the undeniably corporeal nature of beasts that require physical smiting, they resort to euhemerism, with varying degrees of awkwardness and ingenuity. Samantha Riches unenthusiastically offers travelers' tales of “fearsome crocodiles” (140, St George) though most of her examples on 141 seem more like astrological or meteorological phenomena – meteors, comets, ball lightning – than reptiles. (And ball lightning can indeed look stunningly dragon-like, as here: http://bit.ly/1cmkmxb.) In another article, she suggests that some might be read as “metaphors of pre-Christian and heterodox beliefs” (197-198, “Saints”), though she questions Sabine Baring-Gould's contention that one particular wyrm represents “a serpent temple of upright stones” (quoted on 202). Then of course there is Peregrine Horden's serpentine evasion of the fact that his dragons in “Disease, dragons, and saints: the management of epidemics in the Dark Ages” are rather straightforward euhemeristic stand-ins for swamp diseases and other disagreeable features of wild wetlands. Additional explanations not mentioned by our authors include Vikings (with their dragon-prowed ships), Roman legions (with their scaly armor), ancestral memories of human sacrifice, a Naga-worshiping silk merchant (this in a respected publication on a dragon in 3rd century Iran) and, of course, a bevy of living dinosaurs (who said creationists couldn't be creative?). Those who suffered through The Thirteenth Warrior may recall its rather disappointing explanation of no less venerable a dragon than Beowulf's nemesis – a band of cavemen riding ponies and carrying torches.
Adrienne Mayor's concept of “geomythology” is one slightly more convincing evasion. Fossils, she notes, have always been objects of great fascination to humans, and stories have always been told about them. These tales tend to combine attempts at reconstruction (what the animal looked like in life) with an account of extinction (why such an animal is not seen alive any longer). There are certainly dragon stories that fit this template – one particularly notable example is the Dragon of Klagenfurt in Austria, commemorated in a statue that seems to have been based on a wooly rhinoceros skull unearthed nearby in 1335. But geomythology cannot be invoked in every case – and even where it can, evidence often suggests that bones supplemented existing tales rather than shaping them entirely.
The problem with all of these ideas, much as we raised in class, is that both simplistic euhemerism and simplistic symbolism is that they assume a code that scholars can and should break to read the truth. Any story that fails the litmus test of modern scientific rationalism is not a fundamentally different type of tale, but rather a simple historico-cultural fact hidden behind a scaly cipher. Medieval monks, in this paradigm, become tricky obfuscators whose meanings are only made intelligible when we understand that by “dragon” they meant “pagan,” or any other similar solution.
But the cases in which these equations are most direct, the bestiaries, complicate rather than clarify the picture. The bestiary dragons at first seem rather straightforward – they are exaggerated accounts of pythons, dwelling in distant Africa and Nubia, and they symbolize the Devil. But what is striking is that almost none of the bestiary authors or commentators seem to have linked these exotic creatures to the local legends and phenomena that they called by the same name and pictured in roughly similar reptilian guise (Bartholomaeus Anglicus, in a rare exception, does include a brief note about sea dragons attacking ships – a bit of a different category, in any event). Otherwise, there is no attempt to note that dragons were once a native species, or were still occasionally seen jaunting through the air in times of disaster. Of course, the formulaic and derivative nature of most of these texts discouraged empirical observation and comment even on more easily observable beasts. Yet the conceptual gap remains troubling. The question remains open of how much any one reading of “dragon” was meant to bear upon any other instantiation of the category.
One instructive comparative account might be the tale of the Black Shuck of Bungay. It is early modern (1577) and canine rather than dragonish, but still useful. A contemporary clergyman named Abraham Fleming described how, in the midst of a fierce thunderstorm, a monstrous black dog (“or the divel in such a linenesse”) ran down the aisle of a Suffolk church, leaving scorch marks, structural damage, and two slain parishioners in its wake. The setting and result make it fairly clear that Fleming is describing a powerful lightning strike, an event that, while awe-inspiring, neither resembles a hellhound nor dispatches its victims in a similar fashion.
Thunderbolts to black dogs – the folkloric transition defies Horden's careful correspondences. The two share nothing besides the capacity for sudden appearance and grim fatalities. In this case, the logic is not one of direct correspondences but . The Black Shuck story suggests that many monsters, and dragons particularly, are in fact less real beasts than a shape assumed by inexplicable phenomena. Their pattern is drawn partly from the draco serpents of Classical naturalists, but it seems equally true – and here Le Goff may not have been as off-base as Horden makes out – that the quintessential combat of knight and dragon derives from the Chaoskampf motif present in a vast range of Indo-European and Middle Eastern mythologies. Many of the major traditions out of which medieval European culture grew – Biblical, Classical, Germanic – contain similar accounts of snaky primordial chaos driven into retreat by divine power (YHWH and Leviathan, Zeus and Typhon, and Thor and Jormungandr, respectively). From this perspective, St. George and St. Marcellus are participants in an age-old iconographic tradition, and while they may have earned their place in it by killing a crocodile or draining a malarial swamp, there is no particular reason to assume that their deeds needed to involve anything with traditionally dragonish features. Slaying a dragon makes sense of the world, and in order for such a process to be effective, dragons must be impossible creatures, twisting from rather than inviting interpretation.