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?
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.