Fantastic Beasts: The Monsters of the Medieval World

James Ryan

No Bones About It

It’s a story as old as time: a brave knight, clad in shining armour, on a quest to save the princess. Reaching the castle, he comes face-to-face with a terrifying monster. Vanquishing the beast, he and the princess live happily ever after whilst the creature’s corpse lies limp. The stories of heroes slaying monsters captivate us; from mighty dragons and werewolves, to devilish goblins and trolls. Nowadays we know such creatures never existed, but monsters during the medieval period were not just tall tales. To the people of middle-ages Europe they were very much real animals that had to be feared, often featuring in natural history books called bestiaries alongside modern, mundane animals. But where did these creatures come from? What were the inspirations and possible explanations behind medieval Europe’s favourite monsters? Monster legends have been passed through the centuries and across the world. Some of the most famous of mythical beasts precede the medieval period: it seemed every corner of Mediterranean Europe had its own monster. However, these monster stories seem to have come about when the unexplained was presented to people. In the ancient Greek world, bones belonging to strange creatures were unearthed. One was a huge mammal with large arms and legs, and a tusked skull with an apparent single eyehole. This therefore was obviously the giant one-eyed Cyclops the hero Odysseus slew. Nowadays we know that these mysterious bones belonged to a mammoth: a large prehistoric elephant. The eyehole was in fact where the animal’s long trunk was connected to. Lost in translation also creates monsters. For centuries ancient Greeks, Romans, and medieval scholars wrote of a lion-eagle hybrid known as the griffon. Travellers to the far east and central Asia brought back stories of apparent griffon nests that contained gold, and of strange bones of four legged animals with large dagger-like beaks. In actuality, the real-life truth is far more exciting. Classical folklorist Adrienne Mayor in her book The First Fossil Hunters highlighted the potential source of griffons and where they called home: Mongolia’s Gobi Desert contains hundreds of fossil bones dating to 75 million years ago. Among them is a curious animal that ran on four legs and had a long-curved tail like a lion, and a head with an enormous beak like an eagle. This was protoceratops, an early relative of the famous dinosaur Triceratops. The perfect preservation of these bones means that, to a non-fossil expert, they could be interpreted as belonging to a modern-day animal. In addition, not only does Mongolia churn up protoceratops skeletons, but even nests with eggs! And what else does the Gobi Desert hold? Gold deposits. It’s hard to disprove the possibility that the griffon legend came directly from these fossil remains and the stories created to explain them. The griffon legend carried on well into the late medieval period, appearing not just in bestiaries but also on many coats of arms and insignias.
Fantastic Beasts: The Monsters of the Medieval World
Protoceratops dinosaur skeleton: With a bird-like beak and lion-like body, European travellers may have mistaken these dinosaur skeletons for bones of living “hybrid” animals like the griffon.

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Fantastic Beasts: The Monsters of the Medieval World
St George and the Dragon by Anthony van Dyck: Were stories of Christian Saints slaying serpentine dragons just used to push pro-Christian propaganda during the Medieval period?

Enemies of Christendom

But of all the medieval beasts to appear in insignias and coats of arms, none wear the crown like the dragon. These were giant malevolent reptiles that stalked and killed across medieval Christendom. It’s certainly true that fossil bones of animals could have attributed to the origins of these savage beasts: the skull of the Klagenfurt dragon, found in Vienna in 1335, turned out to belong to an ice-age rhinoceros. However, there also potentially lies a more slithery beginning. In early medieval Britain, dragons took the form of wyrms (from the Norse word ormr) which were large snake-like creatures that could breathe a cornucopia of elemental powers from acid to fire. Wyrms can be found across Britain: in Scotland they haunt Dumfries and Galloway and around Fort William, somewhere in Southern England Saint George slew a serpent-like dragon, whilst in Ireland the legendary Caoránach was said to have been defeated by the giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Wyrms also appear in medieval fiction: one guarding a treasure hoard kills the hero Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon poem of the same name. Interestingly, it seems many early dragons share their slithery, serpentine appearance, and its connection to evil, with a famous figure from the Bible: the serpent that tricks Adam and Eve into committing sin. By making these creatures serpents, it creates a heroic pro-Christian tale of good men triumphing over evil. Outside Christianity, snakes were perceived as holy animals in paganism, whilst in far eastern Asia dragons were seen as more benevolent beings. These stories of slaying dragons therefore could be Christianity asserting its authority over other medieval religions. Could Christianity have been central to the creation of the modern dragon myth? Could these stories be nothing more than propaganda by medieval scholars to push the Christian faith? It’s possible. In Inverness there exists a story of Saint Columba banishing a water monster from the river Ness. Many believers will tell you this tale is proof of a particular Scottish lake monster’s existence, except this story was only recorded in a biography written a century after Columba’s death and based mostly on second-hand testimonials. This biography also contains accounts of Columba summoning water from a stone, raising the dead and calming storms. It seems like many of these stories of Christian Saints and heroes contain merely fictional or grossly over-exaggerated versions of these reptiles to push the case for Christianity during a time when multiple religious faiths struggled to control the medieval world. What’s more, Satan is even referred to as a dragon in the Book of Revelation. As the Middle Ages carried on, dragons continued to evolve. Their snake-like bodies developed lizard-like legs and large bat-like wings, with one of the earliest of these examples appearing in the Harley MS 3224 bestiary (c.1236-1250). These body designs became the quintessential dragon: appearing on coats of arms and flags across the medieval world. But why the change? Could it be that as the medieval world branched outwards it encountered newer and more unknown varieties of monster? Monsters that might otherwise seem perfectly normal to you and I? Mistaken Identities In St Andrews Church in Wormingford, Colchester, one can find an interesting stained glass window. On it is St George slaying a dragon. But this dragon is no wyrm, instead its appearance comes from another legendary tale: Returning from the crusades, King Richard the Lionheart brought a collection of animals for his menagerie in the Tower of London. One of these, a giant reptile, supposedly escaped and terrorised its way towards Wormingford before being killed. This dragon was however not quite the traditional fire breather. As the stained glass window shows, it was a modern-day crocodile. Like previously discussed, when faced with the unknown people speculate and through no fault of their own can exaggerate features. These exaggerations can be built on as the story is told multiple times; and lo a legendary creature is born. Take the basilisk. Far from being the giant snake of the Harry Potter franchise, basilisks also took on the form of bizarre half-reptile/half-cockerel monstrosities. These creatures represented sin and the devil, and staring into its eyes would mean certain death. Only its reflection or a weasel could kill it. How on earth could such a beast be born? Basilisk tales first appear in Northern Africa and the Middle East (with one making an appearance in Austria in the 13th century) and were probably brought back to Europe by crusader knights. To decipher the basilisk’s origin, one should look there first. This area is riddled with a variety of venomous snakes, but one that could prove a viable candidate is the black-necked spitting cobra. This snake can measure up to 2 metres long and today is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, but could very well have existed further north in antiquarian times (since cobras appear in ancient Egyptian artwork). To the untrained eye, the cobra’s hood could resemble leathery wings, whilst the death stare of the basilisk could be attributed to the cobra’s ability to spit venom at threats albeit grossly exaggerated. And its mortal enemy the weasel? A close African relative of the weasel, the mongoose, does kill and eat venomous snakes. Combine these features together and hey presto: mistaken identity and second-hand testimonials have created a new medieval monster. Monster legends do not just exist on the land in medieval times. To the people of the Middle Ages crossing open water was always a hazardous activity. Save the dangers of storm, waves and pirates, down in the deep lurked countless horrible denizens. Sirens, krakens, and mermen are just some of the strange creatures said to lurk in or around water. But of all the legends of the ancient seas, none are perhaps as iconic however as the sea serpent. These were long, snake-like creatures with horse-like heads and large fore flippers. Even to this day, this is still the most common body plan (save for the long-necked dinosaurian design said to haunt places like Loch Ness) to describe water monsters: in particular the legendary Cadborosaurus and the Ogopogo, both said to swim today around the waters in Western Canada. But why? Where could this specific appearance have come from? Daniel Loxton, in his book Abominable Science, has the answer. The real-life descriptions of sea monsters can be traced back to a wholly fictional animal from ancient Greece. This was the Hippocamp, which Loxton described as the ‘grandfather to the great sea serpent’. These were half-horse/half-fish creatures which were always viewed as fantastical and not as real animals. Hippocamps, unlike griffons and basilisks, never had eyewitness reports and existed only in classical art. Even ancient scholars such as Aristotle, who included dragons and mermen in manuscripts about living animals, did not include the hippocamp in any texts. So how could an artistic image become the quintessential sea monster? What the ancient Greeks started, the Romans continued and soon hippocamps began appearing in artwork across the Roman empire including on a mosaic floor in a Roman bath in England. This is significant as hippocamp-like creatures began to appear in places outside the Roman empire shortly afterwards, including Aberlemno in Scotland where one appears on a ninth-century standing stone. It is possible that the story of the fictional hippocamp, crossing borders and cultures, created supposed real horse-like water monsters in Celtic nations and beyond: in Ireland and Scotland, there exists the kelpie. These were predatory horses (or horse-like) creatures that tricked people onto their backs, only for them to drown and devour their victims. By the time we reach the medieval period, hippocamps and their inspirations appear in books such as the Ashmole Bestiary (c.1225-1250) and viewed not as artistic fantasies but as real living animals.
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Hippocamp Goes North

As the hippocamp story spread further afield in the medieval world, it began to take on more and more new forms. By the mid-12th century it reached the far away shores of Iceland. This land of fire and ice has a rich collection of monsters whose origins lie in Norse and Christian folklore. When the hippocamp reached Iceland, it gave rise to a whole family of beasts called the Illhveli, or Evil Whales. This group includes but is not limited to the lyngbakur (ling-back), rauðkembingur (red-crest), and the stökkull (jumper). The main features of these whales included a hostile attitude towards humans, where they actively hunt and kill sailors, and a flesh that was deemed not safe to eat resulting in sickness or death. The most hippocamp-like of these whales is the hrosshvalur, or horse-whale. This was a particularly aggressive creature that was first described in the Konugs Skuggsjá (King’s Mirror), a 12th century text that aimed to instruct new Icelandic kings on how to reign. In this text, the horse-whale is described as: ‘…very voracious and malicious and never grow tired of slaying men. They roam the seas looking for ships, and when they find one they leap up, for in that way they are able to sink and destroy it more quickly.’ So what are the Icelandic people seeing if the hippocamp was never a real animal in the first place? There are a few clues in the Icelandic sagas. To help us out, these creatures were always viewed as whales so we can rule out any other sea creatures. In fact, we don’t have to go any further because chances are the Evil Whales the Icelandic people were seeing were just that: whales, albeit mistaken identity has occurred again. In the Saga of Hjálmþér and Ölvir, a horse-whale is depicted attacking the protagonists, before another illhveli called a skeljungur (or shell whale) joins in to fight the horse-whale. The shell whale was a fish-like whale covered in large sharp scales and attacked with huge pectoral fins. In the real world, there exist viable accounts of orca hunts being interrupted by humpback whales: fighting to save other whale species from becoming prey. In addition, humpback whales not only possess enormous fins, but also have barnacle clad bodies which could give off the impression of armoured plating. In the case of this saga, it’s entirely plausible that what was being recorded was one of these interrupted hunts. But orca and horse-whales have completely different appearances, right? Horse-whale drawings dating to the time of medieval Iceland depict it with a large eye, or eye spot. Orca also possess large white spots close to their eyes on either side of their head. Moreover, later accounts of Evil Whales include a cousin called a sverðhvalur (sword-whale) which possessed a giant sword-like fin on its back. This is something wild orca have as well: the average dorsal fin on an orca can grow to six feet in height. Even the illhveli’s tainted flesh can be explained. The Greylag laws and Older Christain Law of 1122 and 1133 both state the flesh of Evil Whales is unfit for human consumption. This could come from mercury poisoning. Fish consume small quantities of mercury, a toxic chemical, which grows in potency the further up the food chain you go. This process is called bioaccumulation, where at each level of the food chain the level of accumulation of substances increases. This means the top-predator will contain greater quantities of a substance (such as mercury) than their prey. In this case, humans eating whale meat would be consuming larger levels of mercury than the whales did. And where do mercury emissions occur naturally? Volcanoes and geothermal vents, of which Iceland is world famous for. Arguably the most frightening creatures that existed during the Middle Ages were those that most closely resembled God’s perfect creation: humans. There are many monsters depicted with human features: trolls were man-eating humanoids from Norse mythology that turned to stone when exposed to sunlight, whilst the manticore was a man-eater with a lion body and human head. Said to live in India, manticores were described by 13th century scholar Bartholomaeus Anglicus as having a ‘horrible voice … and (the manticore) runneth full swiftly, and eateth man.’ Shape shifters were also viewed as real beings during the Middle Ages. Pagan gods like Wodan and Loki were able to transform into animals. In a world where magic was deemed real, perhaps human monsters could too. One of the more frightening examples of shape shifters, and one of the most iconic, is the werewolf. These were cursed people capable of transforming themselves into predatory animals, usually a wolf. Once in animal form, any sense of humanity was gone and the beast would rampage across the land and kill anyone it came across. Contrary to popular belief, werewolf transformations were not tied to the full moon during the medieval period. A possible explanation behind werewolf legends comes from berserker warriors of the early medieval period. These warriors came from Slavic and Germanic lands and wore animal skins in battle. Said to channel these animal’s spirits, gaining their abilities and strengths, they made themselves a formidable foe; almost as if they transformed into the very animals themselves. This could have led on to the idea that people could become bewitched with the ability to transform into these dangerous creatures. Furthermore, there exists a mental disorder called lycanthropy (from the Greek lykanthropus meaning wolf-man). This psychiatric disorder causes individuals to believe that they are a wolf resulting in sadistic and violent behaviour, including in some cases cannibalism. People unlucky enough to be convicted of being werewolves were burnt alive. Other examples of man-beasts include the fairy folk. These were magical humanoid creatures that could be found all across medieval Europe. Fairies came in multiple forms, including elves and leprechauns, but all were capable of using magic and either giving random acts of kindness or committing hostile punishment onto people. There is not one definitive origin for fairy-like creatures, but their true origins probably lie in pre-Christian beliefs. Regardless they became associated with upholding good behaviour, and crossing the fairy folk was deemed very unwise. Even today in the 21st century, superstition has meant supposed fairy-related locations in places like Ireland and Scandinavia have received protection from developments so as not to receive bad luck. Monsters have existed for the entirety of human history, and this article sadly cannot cover all of them. These strange and exotic creatures come from a time when people were trying to understand the world. Legendary creatures still exist today, but with planet Earth all but completely explored the chances of finding anything as exotic as those in medieval bestiaries is extremely slim. It still does happen, however: tales of large reptiles in Indonesia were disregarded for centuries, until European explorers discovered the Komodo Dragon in 1910. If new monsters aren’t found in the wild, maybe they will be found by scouring old written records from the Middle Ages. It may be juvenile thinking, but it’s a fun idea thinking there may still be monsters as wild as dragons or horse-whales out there somewhere. Maybe it’s time for new legends to be created…
Fantastic Beasts: The Monsters of the Medieval World
Map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius: By the time Hippocamp stories reached Iceland it created an assortment of monsters. The infamous hrosshvalur (horse-whale) can be found on the bottom left of the map.
Fantastic Beasts: The Monsters of the Medieval World

James Ryan

James Ryan lives in Inverness and works at Culloden Battlefield, site of the last pitched battle in Britain, where he works in educating and interpreting the history behind Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite defeat. In his spare time, he can be found either exploring museums or out in the field looking for fossils. His passions lie in both human and natural history; particularly in Scottish history, the golden age of piracy, and Victorian natural history - the latter of which he volunteers in at the Hugh Miller's Birthplace Museum in Cromarty with the museum’s fossil collection.
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