The Pearl in the Dragon’s Belly

St. Margaret, identifiable by her dragon in the lower left corner, otherwise resembles a fashionable lady of contemporary European courts, presenting her as an attractive model for the readers of this book of hours, among whom was numbered Anne Boleyn; book of hours, Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1500; BL, King’s MS 9, f. 62v

Hagiography, or the biographies of saints, was one of the most popular genres in the Middle Ages. This was because saints could be valuable moral exemplars: models of virtuous behavior that ordinary people were called on to admire and emulate. But they were also popular because exciting stories of the struggle between good and evil – and the miracles that saints performed – made for rollicking good tales, and vivid illustrations to go along with them. Some of the colorful tales of saints, like Patrick, Christopher, and Catherine, have already found their way into this blog. Today, I’d like to put the spotlight on Margaret of Antioch, one of my personal favorites, both for the dramatic story of her martyrdom, and especially for the beautiful iconography that makes her one of the easiest saints to recognize and identify in medieval art.

Illuminated initial “A” showing Margaret, simultaneously being devoured by the dragon and bursting out unharmed; Wauchier de Denain, Lives of the Saints, France (Paris), 2nd quarter of the 13th century; BL Royal MS D. vi, f. 220r

Margaret, or Marguerite, is, as all Francophiles will know, the French word for “daisy.” In Old French, it could also mean “pearl,” making the name a popular spur to etymological and allegorical puns. The most famous of these in English literature may be the poem Pearl (by the same author as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), whose elegiac dream-vision about a dropped pearl is often read as a lament for the death of a young daughter probably named Margaret. And it is with this etymology – Margaret for pearl – that Jacob de Voraigne, the author of the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), one of the most widely read medieval collections of saints’ lives, began his life of St. Margaret.   Margaret is a “pearl” for her humility, recalling the diminutive size of the jewel, and even more for the whiteness of her virgin purity. She was one of the many virgin martyrs of early Christianity, and her story resembles many others in its general outline.

A servant, bringing Margaret food in prison; Tectino, Life of Margaret of Antioch in verse, Italy, 1st half of the 15th century; BL Harley MS 5347, f. 26v

She was raised by her nurse as a Christian, and grew into a remarkably beautiful young woman. But her beauty would be her downfall, as she caught the eye of the pagan prefect Olybrius. The lustful Roman wanted her for a wife or concubine, and ordered her brought to him. When he found she was a Christian, he demanded she convert, but she – refusing to betray her faith and wishing to maintain her virginity as part of her commitment to Christ – stood her ground. Olybrius ordered her tortured and thrown into prison to induce her to relent.

Margaret being tortured; Queen Mary Psalter, England, 1310-1320; Royal MS 2 B. vii, f. 308v

It is while Margaret was in prison that the narrative takes a distinctive turn. The sort of psychological warfare waged by Olybrius is distressing to Margaret, and so she prays to God for a more tangible opponent in her struggles. He obliges, and a dragon appears in her cell, which devours her whole. Margaret, however, is not so easily defeated – either by lusty pagans or by dragons – and makes the sign of the cross. On this action, the dragon bursts open, and Margaret emerges from his belly, whole and unharmed. It is this violent victory over fanged and fearsome evil that gives rise to the most popular way of depicting Margaret, sometimes in the act of emerging from a dragon’s belly and sometimes more sedately trampling it under her feet or holding it, subdued, by a leash or chain. Interestingly, while the story was the aspect of her tale that most caught artists’ imaginations, it was one that met with skepticism in the Latin hagiographic tradition, and which Jacob de Voraigne himself dismisses as apocryphal. This did not, however, dent its popularity in the vernacular tradition (see Cazelles, 216-217).

Margaret bursts unharmed from the back of the dragon, while a scrap of her garment hangs from the mouth of the greedy beast, still in the process of devouring her; book of hours, Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century; Harley MS 2985, f. 37v

Once Margaret emerges from the dragon, her ordeal is not over. A second demon appears, this one in the shape of a man, described in some versions as hideous and black. He introduces himself as Beelzebub, and asserts that he has come to avenge his brother, the dragon, whom she has just killed (see Cazelles, e.g. 224). But this new foe is no more successful than the last: Margaret seizes him by the hair, and tramples him underfoot, beating him and interrogating him, before banishing him back to hell. Margaret’s physical victory over these demonic foes renders tangible her spiritual victory over her pagan captors – but from these she does not physically escape. After a further round of torture – during which her fortitude and miraculous invulnerability earn thousands of additional converts to Christianity – she is finally beheaded by the frustrated Olybrius.

Three martyrs: above, Thomas Becket; below left, Margaret with both dragon and Beelzebub; below right, Catherine, another virgin saint known for trampling her enemies beneath her feet; Huth Psalter, England, 4th quarter of the 13th century; Add. MS 38116

While Margaret is a virgin saint, and indeed died to remain so, she is, somewhat incongruously, also the patron saint of pregnant women and women in childbirth. In her vita, this is presented as due to her dying prayer that those who invoke her aid might be healed and, specifically, that women who employ a copy of the book as a protective amulet during childbirth will be delivered of a healthy child. The explanation may also perhaps circle back to her association with the pearl, a gem Jacob de Voraigne asserts had medical use in staunching hemorrhaging blood, which could be a principal hazard during labor. Whatever the explanation for this connection, such powerful patronage no doubt contributed to her wide popularity.

Nicole Eddy
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

A midwife holds a swaddled infant, while its mother looks on from a bed following a successful delivery; Passion of Margaret, Italy, 3rd quarter of the 14th century; BL Egerton MS 877, f. 12r

Works Cited

Brigitte Cazelles, The Lady As Saint : A Collection of French Hagiographic Romances of the Thirteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991).

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in Medieval Bestiaries

Dragon and a lion. British Library manuscript Royal 10 E IV f. 80v circa 1275-1325.

Basilisks and dragons and phoenixes, oh my! These fantastic beasts are not creatures you’re likely to see on your next holiday, but in the Middle Ages, they commonly appeared in bestiaries alongside real animals like eagles, lions, badgers and elephants. These magical animals have not faded from the literary imagination and appear frequently in popular culture, like in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s contemporary bestiary, the fictional author Newt Scamander writes:

Astounding though it may seem to many wizards, Muggles [non-magical folk] have not always been ignorant of the magical and monstrous creatures that we have worked so long and hard to hide. A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were then known to be real. The dragon, the griffin, the unicorn, the phoenix, the centaur—these and more are represented in Muggle works of that period, though usually with almost comical inexactitude. (xiv)

Perhaps our medieval counterparts were onto something. While Rowling’s descriptions may not be any more accurate than those of medieval artists, they share some notable similarities, with a few creative innovations.

Basilisk:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 59 circa 1225-1250. Harley 4751 and Bodley 764 are sister manuscripts with very similar illustrations.

Oxford, Bodley MS 764: “The basilisk’s name in Greek (regulus) means little king, because he is the king of creeping things. Those who see him flee, because his scent will kill them. And he will kill a man simply by looking at him…The basilisk is half-a-foot long, with white spots” (Barber 184).

The basilisk is one of the most fearsome mythical creatures found in medieval bestiaries. Rowling’s description incorporates many of the elements common in most medieval descriptions of the basilisk. She retains the scarlet plume (often depicted as a crown in medieval art) and has made the snake green and longer (50 feet). Most versions differ in their descriptions of the size of the snake, but death by sight is an important part of the myth. The scent of the snake appears in some versions but not others.

Phoenix:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 45 circa 1225-1250 depicting a phoenix burning on a pyre.

There are two versions of the phoenix myth, both of which appear in Bodley MS 764.

Bodley 764: The phoenix, “lives for 500 years, and when it feels itself growing old, it collects twigs from aromatic plants and builds itself a pyre, on which it sits and spreads its wings to the rays of sun, setting itself on fire. When it has been consumed a new bird arises the next day out of the ashes” (Barber 141).

Bodley 764: “When [the phoenix] knows that the end of its life is approaching, it builds a chrysalis of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and when it is about to expire it goes into the chrysalis and dies. From its flesh a worm emerges, which gradually grows up” (Barber 142).

Rowling’s phoenix is fire-colored and it has a fairly similar description to those of most bestiaries and that found in the Old English poem “The Phoenix” (a translation/ adaptation of Lactantius’ Latin poem “De Ave Phoenice”). There are multiple versions of how the regeneration happens and its duration, the more common of which involves the pyre. The illustrations often do not depict the phoenix in red and gold, but the immense age and regeneration through fire are quintessential elements of the phoenix myth.

Dragon:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 3244 f. 59 circa 1237-1275 depicting an orange fire-breathing dragon with two pairs of wings.

Bodley 764: “The dragon is larger than all the rest of the serpents and than all other animals in the world…It has a crest, a small mouth and narrow nostrils, through which it breathes, and it puts out its tongue. It’s strength is not in its teeth, but its tail, and it harms more by blows than by force of impact” (Barber 183).

Rowling’s dragons vary by breed, of which she identifies ten. Most of her dragons are fire-breathing and they resemble the dragons usually depicted in contemporary art, film, and literature. Dragon illustrations vary greatly in their portrayal of size, color and characteristics. One of the most famous Old English stories about dragons appears in Beowulf, in which the dragon is slayed. J. R. R. Tolkien famously pays homage to this dragon tale in The Hobbit.

Rowling has crafted an engaging narrative incorporating elements found in medieval bestiaries into her descriptions. She has transformed some of the creatures for plot purposes, but their original origins are very much recognizable. I now leave you with a bit of advice, should you ever encounter a rogue dragon on your travels.

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

(Never tickle a sleeping dragon.)

Maria Fahs
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.

Sources:

Barber, Richard W., trans. Bestiary Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M. S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993. Print.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.

Cook, Albert Stanburrough (ed.). The Old English Elene, Phoenix, and Physiologus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919.

Detailed Record for Harley 3244.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Harley 4751.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Royal 10 E IV.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Newt Scamander. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Print.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973. Print.