Friday, May 29, 2015

Monsters as Positive Figures in Medieval Thought

                 In class, we discussed medieval conceptions to creatures we know call “fantastic” or “monstrous” especially dragons. We looked at the dragon as a thing of the wilderness and the swamp, a sign of a place inimical to human life. It became very complicated, though, since it was clear that medieval society viewed dragons and other monsters as very real. We eventually learned that most of our conceptions of medieval monsters come from the Early Modern period. The Satanic connotations of the creatures were more a product of the humanists than any other group. So, that left us with the idea that often, the creature was just another creature, created by God to beautify His creation.
                 However, a situation that we didn't discuss is when “monsters” have very positive connotations, instead of being symbolic of disease or personified sins. The primary example of this is Saint Christopher, a holy cynocephalus. His story, as told in the Nowell Codex (the Beowulf manuscript), tells that he was initially unable to speak except in barks, which is supported by the other tales of dog-headed men. However, through baptism, he gained human speech. During his travels, he was captured by a pagan king, Dagnus. After enduring various tortures, including being burned on an iron table and being shot with arrows for an entire day, Saint Christopher reproaches Dagnus’ arrogance by striking him blind. After this, he does die and go to heaven, but by mixing Christopher’s blood with dirt and applying it his eyes, Dagnus was cured of blindness and promptly converting to Christianity (translation of the Old English can be found at
                It seems to me that St. Christopher provides a useful consideration for us looking at medieval attitudes towards monstrous things. It is the human, not the inhuman, which is portrayed as wicked and cruel. In this case, then, it becomes clear that our discussion was on the correct track regarding monstrous things. As long as the individual believes in Christ, they shall be accepted and redeemed by the Church. If the person does not, and seeks to harm and destroy the will of God, then they shall be punished. Dagnus is punished by blindness, but at the moment of conversion, he was redeemed.
                However, there is a complication to the picture. Firstly, while St. Christopher was holy, his kin were not. A different manuscript of the text tells us that cynocephali are “from the country where men devour each other” (translation by George Herzfeld, found at the site listed above). It seems, then, that the pagan monsters are not viewed so favorably. It seems that these can symbolize the all-destroying nature of sin. A “wulfes heafod” is the mark of an outlaw according to Edward the Confessor, and so the rest of the cynocephali are symbolic of how those outlawed from Christ’s society tear each other to shreds, mirroring the self-blinding actions of Dagnus (the Old English claims that the points of two arrows he had fired struck his eyes). St. Christopher, then, is the outlaw redeemed, which certainly would be an encouraging tale for the actual outlaws of England. In that sense, St. Christopher is a positive allegorical figure, despite being a creature quite different from other humans.
                Looking at dragons specifically, Riches mentioned a different sort of positive encounter with the beast. St. Ammon, she writes, “kept two dragons as guards against persistent thieves at his remote monastery” (page 205). This encounter is extremely interesting, as, unlike most cases we discussed in class, this is an instance in which the dragon cooperates with the saint, and serves as a protector rather than an enemy to be driven out. This reverses every understanding other texts give us as dragons as being creatures of wilderness, kept at the edge of society. In this case, in the micro-society of Ammon’s monastery, the people are the creatures kept at bay, and the dragon is an integral part of society. There is no reason to view these dragons as merely symbolic, but as real things protecting the monastery. Admittedly, this monastery is “remote” and is therefore part of the wilderness, bringing Christian faith into the home of these beasts, but it makes it no less odd. St. Marcellus, St. Senan, and many others drive out the beast in order to somehow make the location habitable; Ammon uses the beast to do the same thing. Many of the authors we read suggested that the driving out of the dragon symbolized man controlling nature to suit his own ends. In this suggestion, the preserving of the dragon could symbolize the simplicity of Ammon’s life; he does not need to corral nature, but lives among it. The thieves then serve the role the dragons used to; they are the creatures who stand against society. The wicked nature of humanity must be kept outside of the monastery to preserve its holiness, and the placing of the monastery in the wilderness where these beasts live and are compelled by the power of God to protect it is a way to do this.
                In this case, the role of the dragons is undoubtedly a positive one. They are protectors and guardians, bring security for the monks in Ammon’s monastery. Just like with St. Christopher, the monstrous is not working against humanity, but is preserving it. They are not Satanic, or even “evil”, as Shilton describes Beowulf’s dragon, but beneficial parts of the divine Creation. Sometimes, it is the humans who are the outlaws in need of saving, and those from the margins are those who hold out and destroy sin. So, it is clear that a discussion of whether dragons are primarily symbolic creatures in medieval thought is incomplete without acknowledging that dragons can be positive symbols instead of negative ones. As real things in this world, they cannot be only things of the wilderness, living by rules completely apart from human society, but as cooperators, placed by God as a marker and a tool for the saint to utilize to redeem the world.



  1. I'm so glad you brought up the guard dragons! I had wanted to mention those in class when someone was saying there was no such thing as a "good" dragon, I believe. I like your interpretation as the dragons potentially continuing to symbolize the wild natural world in that case, and Ammon's more "organic" connection with the natural world. I might also suggest that this is the dragons acting in their role as "agents of God," which Riches also mentions as a possibility- God essentially sending dragons as trials for sins, etc., though in that case they are still doing harm.

  2. "As real things in this world, they cannot be only things of the wilderness, living by rules completely apart from human society, but as cooperators, placed by God as a marker and a tool for the saint to utilize to redeem the world." Very nicely put! You have hit on something very important here: medieval people did not think in categories in quite the way we do. We see "monster" and think, "Evil," whereas they saw "monster" and thought "creature, which may through its choices become good or evil." St. Christopher, with or without a dog head, faced the same choice that all human beings do, whether to accept Christ (God) or not. It is not monsters or dragons who are evil, it is those who choose to oppose God by making themselves outlaws. This is clearer in Grendel's case than with the dragon, however. Is it that, from a Christian perspective, even dragons can be good ("guard dragons"), while from a pagan one, they could be only enemies? RLFB

  3. I’m fascinated by the story of St. Ammon and the dragons, especially in light of the reading we’ve had on St. Francis. I found an account of Ammon’s guard dragons online, and was struck by the similarity:

    “he went out and found the thieves half-dead, and coming near and rousing them, he rebuked them, saying, ‘You see how much stubborner you are than these beasts; for they obey us according to God, but you neither fear God nor go blush to disturb the life of God’s servants.’ Nevertheless, bringing them into the cell, he set the table and asked that they take food. Truly, with pricked hearts and their whole minds, they turned away from brutality; in short, they did better than many who began to serve the Lord earlier. For they did such great penance that after a few seasons, they also could do the same signs and the same works of power [as Ammon].”
    (, quoting from St. Rufinus of Aquileia’s Historia Monachorum, chapter 8. (PL 21: 420, 14 – 422, 4.))

    Just like Francis, Ammon uses the obedience of the beasts as a foil against the stubbornness of men who won’t listen to his preaching. The beasts are there as guards and servants, but their primary function seems to be their use by the saint as persuasive examples in order to reach men. Also similar to Francis, we see that power over animals is accomplished through penance and humility.
    Later in the same text, Ammon is able to vanquish a murderous dragon by invoking the name of God. Just like Francis, he is does not claim that the power to command animals is his alone: “Meanwhile, he would promise nothing to those urging him to kill the dragon himself, as if one who could not help them with anything.” He does not expect to be able to command animals, and it is this humility that allows him to invoke God’s power.