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"Medieval Times: The Age of Dragons"

 


One of the hallmarks of the Medieval time period was, of course, dragons, and the knights that rode in to slay them. Beowulf was one of the first pieces of literature to present the dragon, along with the now synonymous fire breathing aspect of it. However, long before Beowulf was a gleam in his author's eye, the dragons of the "East" were dominant. The origin of Eastern (or Chinese) dragons is also unknown, like the Western (or European) dragons. Based on the number of fossils that have come out of China and the surrounding regions there is a possibility that they helped to shape the future of what dragons eventually became (New World Encyclopedia).

 

There are as many stories about how the dragon came to be (as you can imagine from a culture where the dragon is as deeply imbedded as the Chinese culture is). Here are just a couple of them:

 

There is a theory that the Eastern Dragon is a conglomeration of many animals into one "super beast". The theory is that six to seven thousand years ago early Chinese people believed that certain animals and plants possessed the power to overcome nature's fury. Different tribes would adopt a different animal, or totem. One tribe, ruled by the legendary Emperor Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), used the snake as their totem and as they conquered other tribes they would acquire their totem and merge them with the snake. Eventually the dragon was born with the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a hare, ears of a bull, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, and paws of a tiger (PrimarySource.org).

 

Another dragon origination theory suggested by the archaeologist Zhou Chongfa was that the initial inspiration for the dragon was lightning. The Chinese pronunciation of the word dragon "long" resembles the natural sound of thunder. This theory combined the early settlers need for water and the relief that the lightning provided as it was intricately linked with the much needed rain (People's Daily).

 

Is there any proof that dinosaur skeletons influenced the historical creation of dragons, No. But the possibility is there. This is something that will never be disproven or proven, the evidence just doesn't exist either way. So I say, let's just have fun with it and explore the "evolution" of the Chinese dragon through time.

 

Chinese dinosaur fossils

The Zigong Dinosaur Museum, Zigong, China (CNN)

 

Disclaimer: Unfortunately trying to find legitimate images of ancient Chinese dragons is near impossible on the internet with the plethora of  Pinterest posts that don't actually link to anything, rampant auction sites with their often dubious claims of authentic dates (and personally I can't condone the selling of ancient pieces of history, "It belongs in a museum!"), or Creationist websites with their own variety of distorting the facts. I tried my best to filter out those images, and only focus on the ones I could determine were seemingly legitimate dragons representations dating to the time periods represented.

 

That being said, let's look at dragons through history:


~3000 BCE (Before the Common Era)

Hongshan Culture

 

Hongshan Culture dragon

 

One of the earliest known physical depictions of a dragon. This Hongshan culture "C" shaped plate of a dragon (showchina.org) looks like many of the early dragon forms which are termed the "pig" dragon. Pig dragons are dragons with pig-like heads and snake bodies, often coiled up in some manner.


1994 BCE - 1766 BCE

Xia Dynasty

 

Xia Turquoise Dragon

One of the earliest dragon sculptures ever found. This dragon sculpture is made of over 2,000 pieces of turquoise from Erlitou, which was possibly the capital of the Xia Dynasty (china.org.cn)


1766 BCE - 1027 BCE

Shang Dynasty

 

Shang Dynasty Dragons

Shang Dynasty "pig" dragons (chaz.org).


1122 BCE - 256 BCE

Zhou Dynasty

 

Zhou Dynasty Dragons

Early Eastern Zhou dragons (chaz.org). In these I feel the dragon shaped head is starting to progress to the stereotypical dragon we know of today.


221 BCE - 206 BCE

Qin Dynasty

Qin Dynasty Dragon

Qin Dynasty bronze dragon design - Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an, China (travelblog.com). Here I feel we have more snake-like representations than many of the previous forms.


206 BCE - 220 AD

Han Dynasty

 

 

 

~800 AD

Of Beowulf and Dragons

Beowulf and the Dragon

Even though there are no illustrations from the period of Beowulf to show what contemporary people thought the dragon would have looked like, here is a 1908 illustration by J. R. Skelton, which is as far removed from any modern interpretations as I could find in reference to Beowulf specifically.

 

"He heeded not the fire, though grievously it scorched his hand, but smote the worm [dragon] underneath, where the skin failed somewhat in hardness."
Beowulf

 

Similar to the gryphon, cyclops, and Amazonians from before, the bones of dinosaurs are thought to be the basis for the dragon mythology. Ancient people would find the bones and build legends around them, much like they did in ancient Rome and Greece. However, in this instance the beasts that were created became dragons, with an ever expanding array of features like fire breathing, armored skin, and wings. Unlike dragons of modern day though, the dragons on the middle ages appeared more "worm-like" as mentioned in the Beowulf text. As we continue on through the middle ages, this will become more pronounced.

 

Dracorex

Dracorex at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, photo by David Orr

 

 

 

 

One fossil find that is even named after dragons because of it's uncanny resemblance to what we know of today as dragons is the pachycephalosaur Dracorex. Although not discovered until 2003, it is unlikely that this specific species of dinosaur was the source of the dragon mythology. But it is not out of the realm of possibility that other similar fossils sparked the medieval imagination.

 

The next few posts will follow the "evolution" of dragons through the Middle Ages to see how they have "evolved" in medieval culture.

 

References

http://shc.stanford.edu/news/research/dinosaurs-and-dragons-oh-my

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dragon_(Beowulf)#/media/File:Beowulf_and_the_dragon.jpg

https://www.flickr.com/photos/anatotitan/5098486930/


1100's AD

Dragons in the Early Medieval Ages

 

I was recently having a conversation about dragons and I was asked if it could honestly be said that dragons evolved through local discoveries of dinosaur bones. And while, it can not be absolutely proven that dragons stem from dinosaurs (it's likely not even possible that scientists could prove one way or the other that they are linked), I think it is a safe assumption that there is some historical linkage between the two.

 

Even though much writing and other information has been lost from the Medieval Ages, there are still some sources available about what people thought about dragons during that time. During this period it is unclear though if the myth of dragons had stemmed from the discovery of more dinosaurs, or had slowly been evolving on its own, building upon itself as time went by. Good websites to find information on Medieval beasts is The Medieval Bestiary and the British Library. These websites have some crossover between them and are a good check on the sources. Images below can be found at this link: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastgallery262.htm#

 

I cannot find many examples of dragons in the 1100's or earlier. But the dragons during this time period are depicted to be rather small. They have a dog-like appearance, however with only hindlimbs (no front limbs) and large wings (compared to their body size).

 

1100's Dragons

1100's dog-like dragons found in the Bodleian Library, MS. Ashmole 1462(De medicina ex animalibus).


1200's AD

Dragons in the Middle Medieval Ages

As time continued into the 1200's, a feature of dragons that was common during this time was their morphological characteristics. More often than not, they were portrayed with large wings, large rear legs, no front limbs at all, and large ears. Their general body shape was elongate/worm like with enlarged torsos. The one thing that has evolved in them since the 1100's is that they are now depicted much larger, often depicted in association with elephants to emphasize this. Their ears and hind legs have also grown in proportion to the body, as compared to the previous century.

 

1200's Dragons

1250's document showing the size similarities of dragons and elephants. This image can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 14429.

 

1200's Dragons

In some myths, the dragon took on the embodiment of Satan, where in this instance the doves are Christians trying to be protected from being devoured. The tree is referred to as a Peridexion tree and can be seen a few times in the literature. The image on the left can be found in the Bibliothèque Municipale de Douai, MS 711 (De Natura animalium) and the one on the right from the British Library, Harley MS 3244.

 

1200's Dragons

Some more dragons near some Peridexion trees. The image on the left can be found in the Bibliothèque Municipale de Lyon, MS P.A. 78 (Bestiaire of Guillaume le Clerc) and the image on the right can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fr. 1444b (Bestiaire of Guillaume le Clerc).

 

1200's Dragons

Another version of the dragon showing the "standard" Medieval morphological features. This image can be found in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 6838B,

 

1200's Dragons

A different version of a dragon with two sets of wings and legs. I assume, based on the preponderance of only legged dragons during this time, that the front set it not meant to represent front limbs, rather another set of hind limbs. This image can be found in the British Library, Harley MS 3244.

 

1200's Dragon

 Another dragon, presented much the same as those above except this one is shown in comparison to an elephant to illustrate its size. This image can be found in the British Library, Sloane MS 278 (Aviarium / Dicta Chrysostomi)

 

1200's Dragons

This image I found to be rather peculiar compared to the previous ones. The hind limbs have almost taken on a front limb characteristic, and the illustration seems to have much more detail and colors than the others. This image can be found in the Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 167


1300's AD

Dragons in the Middle Medieval Ages

 

As mentioned before a good website to find information on Medieval beasts is The Medieval Bestiary.  Another good source is the British Library, which has some crossover between the sources and is a good check on the sources. Images below can be found at this link: http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beastgallery262.htm#

 

1300's Dragons

Dragon's in the 1300's continued along the very familiar lines of the 1200's. Here is depicted a dragon at the base of the Peridexion tree, with the same physical attributes as before. These include the large hind legs, big ears, and wings, although this particular example appears to not have any wings present. This image can be found in the Bodleian Library, MS. Bodley 912.

 

1300's Dragons

More images of dragons from the 1300's. These are interesting in that they appear to have feathers or fur of some variety. In the 1200's some of the dragons appeared to have some feathers on their wings but not to the degree that these show. The left image is of a dragon supposedly licking somebody, although to me it looks like it is vomiting. Both images can found in Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 308

 

1300's Dragon

These dragons also feathers, but only on their bodies. With the feathers they also have bat-like wings. Both images can be found in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16.

 

1300's Dragon

The above image is of a wood carving of a bat with four legs, which is rare but not unheard of from the 1200's. This bat also shows leathery bat wings instead of the bird like wings of the drawings. This carving is from the Cartmel Priory, from Cartmel, England and the image can be found in  Wood Carvings in English Churches: Misericords by Francis Bond (1910).


1400's AD

Dragons in the Late Medieval Ages

 

There is a continued stagnation of dragon development through the end of the Middle Ages, although the drawings do seem to get more detailed.

1400's Dragons

More dragons at the base of the Peridexion tree. The interesting item of note here, is that the dragon on the left appears to have something running down the midline of its back and tail. Hard to tell what they are supposed to represent although they do look like octopus suckers. Perhaps they supposed to be spikes? This isn't a one off occurrence either as can be seen in a dragon illustrated below with the same circle pattern. The image on the left is from the Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º (Bestiarius - Bestiary of Ann Walsh). The image on the right is from the Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25.

 

1400's Dragons

More of the same types of dragons as before, though often in more detail. The dragon on the left does have that circular pattern running down its tail too. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both images are from the same book, the Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4º (Bestiarius - Bestiary of Ann Walsh). The well feather specimen on the right is from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, 72 A 23 (Liber Floridus).

 

1400's Dragons

Here is a leathery dragon with the bat-like wings is from the Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25.

 

1400's Dragons

These carvings (also illustrated in the Wood Carvings in English Churches: Misericords by Francis Bond (1910) like the 1300's Dragon image above) can be found in the Carlisle Cathedral, Carlisle, England. As seen above, these dragons are pictured with more a bat wing appearance, however the other attributes remain the same.


1607/1608 AD

The History of Four-footed Beasts and The History of Serpents

by Edward Topsell

 

"Among all the kindes of Serpents, there is none comparable to the Dragon..." (Edward Topsell)

 

Topsell Dragon Illustration

Illustration of some dragons from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658) 

 

In 1607, Edward Topsell wrote The History of Four-Footed Beasts, shortly followed in 1608 by The History of Serpents. Both volumes were eventually combined in 1658 into The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents after Topsell's death. You can actually find a PDF of the book here at Archive.org to check it out yourself, but as far as I am aware the 1658 text is identical to the original text of 1607 and 1608.

 

The purpose of the volumes was to provide an accurate representation of animals that exist in the world, however Topsell relied on other people's accounts on what was real and what was fictional. It is my understanding that everything Topsell wrote, he believed was real:

"The second thing in this discourse which I have promised to affirm, is the truth of the History of Creatures, for the mark of a good Writer is to follow truth and not deceivable Fables."

Topsell wrote several items of note about dragons in his books as if they were real-life animals.

"The remedies or medicines coming from this beast are these: first, the flesh of them eaten, is good against all pains in the small guts, for it dryeth and flayeth the belly. Pliny affirmeth, that the teeth of a Dragon tyed to the sinews of a Hart in a Roes skin , and wore about ones neck, maketh a man to be gracious to his Superiors... I know that the tail of a Dragon tyed to the Nerves of a Hart in a Roes skin, the suet of a Roe with Goose-grease, the marrow of a Hart, and an Onyon, with Rozen, and running Lime, do wonderfully help the falling Evill, (if it be made into a plaifter.)" (Page 92)

There are many other recipes as well which call for "the head and tail of a dragon" or "the fat of a dragon's heart".

 

But this has to be my favorite account:

"There are Dragons among the Ethiopians, which are thirty yards or paces long, these have no name among the inhabitants but Elephant-killers. And among the Indians also there is as an inbred and native hateful hostility between Dragons and Elephants: for which cause the Dragons being not ignorant that the Elephants feed upon the fruits and leaves of green trees, do secretly convey themselves into them or to the tops of rocks: covering their hinder part with leaves, and letting his head and fore part hang down like a rope, on a suddain when the Elephant comcth to crop the top of the tree, (he leapeth into his face, and diggeth out his eyes, and because that revenge of malice is too little to satisfie a Serpent, (he twineth her gable like body about the throat of the amazed Elephant, and so strangleth him to death."

There are pages and pages about dragons once you get to the "On the Dragon" portion of the text (pages 701-716) if you want to check it out yourselves. But the most important part of the text is the illustrations (for my purposes). The sketches of the dragons in his book (above and below) aren't any better than dragon depictions from any of the previous Medieval works from the 1400's back through the 1100's.

 

Topsell Dragon Illustration

Illustration of another dragon from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658)

 

Reading the text, you get why his illustrations resemble previous illustrations of dragons so much. It is because Topsell isn't coming up with any new information himself. He is just taking the information that had been created previously, thinking it is an accurate representation of what there was at the time, and passing it along in the guise of a factual encounter of real-life dragons.