I re-read Robert Bartlett’s The Natural and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages today and came across the following:
For there are animals called dragons and these animals fly in the air, swim in the water and walk on land, and sometimes when in the air they become aroused by lust, whence they often emitted semen into springs and rivers and because of this a deadly year ensued. So a remedy was found for this, that a fire should be made of bones and thus the smoke would drive these animals away.
-John Beleth, Summa de ecclesiasticis officiis (12th century), quoted in Bartlett, 71-72.
Medieval bestiaries as well as more “scientific” texts like Isidore of Seville’s early encyclopaedia were filled with monsters both humanlike and bestial. These were not only monsters as we’d term them; the act of defining the natural and the monstrous was a going concern in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Even at the time, there was something preternatural about monsters, something beyond common belief. They dwelt on the edges of God’s creation, filling up the unexplored nooks and crannies of various maps. They were markers of a terrifying unknown and also messengers of hope: when the intelligent monsters at the world’s end converted to Christianity, then so too would the world end and Jesus return to rule a new one.
Alternative Title: The Episode with Dragons in It.
Marie and I survey classic (and not-so-classic) Middle Grade and YA literature that include dragons. Special mention goes to Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing with Dragons, and we also brainstorm the next YA dragon epic that is sure to be a mega-bestseller.
Benedykt Chmielowski’s Nowe Ateny (The New Athens) is one of the stranger books I’ve stumbled across in my research. Printed in four volumes between 1745 and 1746 in Lwów, Poland, it resembles medieval bestiaries and other compendia of natural philosophy from the likes of Isidore of Seville than it does any of the vernacular encyclopaedias coming out of England and France at around the same time. Organized in scattershot fashion, more of a compilation of various anecdotes rather than a cohesive set of descriptions, The New Athens freely mixed together current scientific knowledge with folklore and the occult, offering us a fascinating glimpse into the intellectual atmosphere in the Polish popular audience before the dawn of the Enlightenment. If it reads like a work three centuries too late for Europe’s elite, who were busy applying a systematically more rational approach to the world, it also speaks to a continuing desire for marvels among readers and a keen curiosity on the part of the author, who seemed reluctant to rule out anything. The same human-like creatures who populate The Travels of Sir John Mandeville get their own entries here, and medieval fascination with the cynocephali, the dog-headed humans, remained alive and well in at least one encyclopaedist from the eighteenth century.