Species mentioned: One adder (V. berus) who successfully provokes every knight in Britain and brings about the death of King Arthur.
Source: The ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’, the immediate forerunner of Thomas Mallory’s more famous ‘Le Morte dArthur’.
Date of Source: Fourteenth century, probably c.1350.
Highlights: A concerned adder realises that there is a possibility Arthur might reconcile with Mordred, leading to another hundred pages of boring story for poor students to read. It heroically glides (honestly!) from its hiding place and bites someone. This stirs-up a blood bath with 100,000 knights slaughtered, including many of the most angst-ridden ones. Soon afterward the text ends with no chance of a sequel. You’re welcome.
On a more serious ecological note, this text is symptomatic of the antipathy people had for snakes even in the medieval period.
THE TEXT AND ITS DATE (read down for the adder)
The ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’ is a text in Middle English from the mid-fourteenth century (Benson, 1994). As the name suggests it is a poem in stanzas of eight lines which tells the story of the betrayal of Arthur by the Knights of the Round Table. At the end of the story we hear about Arthur’s death at the Battle of Camlann against Mordred, his son.
For the most part the text is a paraphrased translation of the French ‘Mort Artu’ in the ‘Prose-Lancelot’. Our text is preserved in one manuscript, Harley 2252 (fol.86r-133v) from the fourteenth or fifteenth century. The language of the text suggests it was written in the north Midlands (Bruce, 1903, p.xx-xxv).
The adder scene we will be looking at is one of the most important parts of the text. It is not found in the text’s main source (‘Mort Artu’). This has suggested to some that it might have been an innovation invented by the author of our text (Benson 1994). However in another text again, the Gray’s Inn MS 7, Arthur is slain with a spear poisoned with adder venom. This has suggested to Barber (2001, p.111) that there may be a vague reference to an adder causing Arthur’s death in an influential lost Welsh verse.
The ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’ is one of the most important sources of Thomas Mallory’s much more famous 1485 ‘Le Morte dArthur’. ‘Le Morte dArthur’ is the torturously long and boring book which you might have read at school. If you were forced into this then take heart. Our source is much more succinct and exciting. ‘Le Morte dArthur’ also contains the adder scene, but we will consider that on another occasion since the text is a century later.
The adder appears near the end of the text, just before the Battle of Camlann starts. King Arthur has summoned a glorious army to him (Benson, 1992, ll.3307-11):
With brode banners before him borne;
They [g]lemed bright as any leven [flash]
When they sholde meet upon the morn.
There lives no man under heven
A fairer sight hath seen beforn.
But although Arthur’s army was glorious, Mordred’s army was bigger, and neither wanted to fight if they could avoid it. They called for a parley and agreed to meet under a hawthorn tree with fourteen knights each. This was clearly a mistake, as we’ve seen before that hawthorn trees are sinister forces in the landscape (Eberley, 1989). This is the medieval equivalent of agreeing to meet your rival in a graveyard or abandoned warehouse.
Understandably neither of our heroes trusted the other, and both instructed their armies to attack if they saw any weapons being drawn (ll.3322-7):
To yonder traitour have I no trust,
But that he will us falsely betray;
Yif we may not our forwardes faste,
And ye see any wepen drayn,
Presseth forth as princes preste,
That he and all his host be slain.
The two great heroes were all set to meet between their hosts. It seemed there was a chance they could reconcile, but then, enter the adder (ll.3336-51):
Arthur with knightes fully fourteen
To that thorn on foot they founde,
With helme, sheld, and hauberk sheen;
Right so they trotted upon the ground.
But as they accorded sholde have been,
An adder glode forth upon the ground;
He stang a knight, that men might se[e]n
That he was seke [sick] and full unsound.
Out he brayed [drew] with sworde bright;
To kill the adder had he thought.
When Arthur party saw that sight,
Freely they togeder sought;
There was no thing withstand them might;
They wend that tresoun had been wrought;
That day died many a doughty knight,
And many a bold man was brought to nought.
As we shall see, the symptoms of the adder bite given here (vomiting and nausea) although unusual, are consistent with a serious bite. This suggests that the author’s generation in the Midlands of England in the fourteenth century had practical experience on the subject.
The adder in this story has previously been treated as a symbol of treachery and betrayal and a sign that the characters could not trust each other (McCaffrey, 1977). However I do not think this approach is fully justified. It’s true that both sides suspected treachery, but neither Arthur nor Mordred actually planned to betray the other. In the ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’ The Battle of Camlann was a tragedy which neither side wanted.
A more modern interpretation is to treat the adder as an agent in its own right. Adders were classed as beasts in medieval Britain like wolves, eagles and ravens. All medieval beasts in literature seem to have delighted in human warfare and human bloodshed for their own reasons. Eagles, ravens and wolves ate the bodies of the dead, but snakes, toads and other untrustworthy animals seem to have been interested purely because they enjoy stirring war (‘for the lulz’). This depiction is probably ultimately from Genesis 3. Our adder played the part of a modern internet troll. It aimed to stir up a battle between two of the largest hosts ever seen in Britain. Although the adder heroically gave its life, it fully accomplished its task. By the end of the battle, all the knights were dead except four (ll.3368-75):
There was many a spere sprent,
And many a thro [fierce] word they spake;
Many a brand [sword] was bowed and bent,
And many a knightes helm they brake;
Riche helmes they rove and rente;
The riche routes gan togeder raike [rushed],
An hundreth thousand [died] upon the bente [ground];
The boldes ere even[ing] was made right meek.
From the perspective of a modern audience which doesn’t have a deep patriotic love of King Arthur, we have seen that the adder can be understood as an anti-hero in its own right. When things were getting boring and it seemed like the author would go on talking forever, the adder brought the excitement of a huge war to both the ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’ and the even longer and more boring ‘Morte dArthur’. However, this is purely a modern interpretation and sadly the ecological implications of the stories are much more serious.
In our text the Battle of Camlann is regarded as happening at Salisbury, although it was probably situated differently in the earlier tradition. An adder sighting in Salisbury would not be especially significant, even if our text was historical rather than legendary. The fact that the adder is depicted so negatively however is significant. It is symptomatic of the poor regard people had for the snake in medieval Britain.
The adder remains one of the most persecuted species of native wildlife in Britain, and also one of the least liked. Britain has for the most part lost all its potentially dangerous predators over the last 2000 years (brown bear, wolf, lynx, wild boar). British people today are used to being able to visit the countryside with no need to take serious precautions against wildlife. Many people continue to kill adders on sight to this day. The antipathy for this creature can be traced back to the medieval period. If you look at the text you will note that the adder ‘stang’ the knight who killed it. Up until recently, people believed the adder’s forked tongue was its sting and that this carried a deadly poison.
Even recent portrayals of the adder depict its bite as a horrible life-threatening event (e.g. BBC Doc Martin 207), and there is a media frenzy each time anyone is bitten. This is despite the fact that in most cases an adder bite is no worse than a wasp sting (Wareham, 2008, p.85). Statistically and physiologically adders are not a threat to humans. They eat small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians (ibid. p.81). About 100 adder bites are reported by humans in the UK each year (NHS, 2012). However, Reading et al. (1995) estimate that 70% of people get no or only very mild symptoms. They estimate that in Europe 77,000 people were bitten by adders from 1870-2010. Most of these were from men and boys picking the animals up. Of these 77,000 people there were 94 deaths, meaning there is an approximate death rate of 0.122% or 1 in 1,000 of those unlucky or careless enough to get bitten. This may be an overestimate, since many people do not even realise they have been bitten.
To compare, no-one has died of an adder bite in the England and Wales since 1975, but from 1979-2000, 71 people died of the stings of bee, wasps, and hornets; 18 people died of miscellaneous arthropod (insects, spiders etc) attacks and 27 people died of being attacked by dogs. Along the same lines it’s also worth briefly noting no-one died of rats, venomous spiders, scorpions, other snakes or lizards in this time period either (Office for National Statistics, 2011).
This is not intended to undermine the potential seriousness of a bite. It is still important to seek emergency medical attention if you are bitten by an adder as a minority of cases result in much more severe symptoms. Most seriously some people are can undergo an allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Vomiting, shock and general bleeding are common in those hospitalised for observation (Reid, 1976). These symptoms agree with those of the knight in our story. In the medieval period, when adders were more common an before effective anti-venom was developed adder bites were probably more serious for those with allergic reactions.
However the fact remains that adders are not a threat to humans; humans are a threat to adders. Many people are so scared that they kill any adders they see. Given the practically non-existent threat adders pose, this is unnecessary and unjustified. It should be regarded as a cruel tradition perpetuated by the superstitious predecessors of the 21st century British public.
The adder is now as rare as it has ever been in Britain and is still in decline. It is a priority species on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (DEFRA, 2010). The animal is not a serious threat to human safety in modern Britain but if nothing halts the trend, the adder will be lost from the country. The roots of the persecution are lost to history. It is clear from the ‘Stanzaic Morte Arthur’ that even in the fourteenth century the animal was not viewed positively. If the species is to be saved from local extinction, humans need to stop persecuting the animal and destroying local habitats. The extirpation of the species from Britain would be a loss to the next generation as well as to national biodiversity.
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Benson, L. (1994) King Arthur’s Death. Medieval Institute Publications, Kalamazoo.
Bruce, J. (1903) Le Morte Arthur. Early English Text Society, London.
DEFRA, (2010) UK Priority Species, Vipera berus. JNCC.
Eberley, S. (1989) A Thorn among the Lillies. Folklore. 100:41-52.
McCaffrey, P. (1977) The Adder at Mallory’s Battle of Salisbury. Tenessee Studies in Literature: 22:17-27.
NHS, (2012) Snake bites. NHS Choices, (Accessed 1/6/14).
Office for National Statistics, (2011) The 20th Century Mortality Files, 1901-2000.
Reading, C., Buckland, S., Gorzula, S., McGowan, G., Staines, B., (1995) A review of the incidence of adder (Vipus berus) bites in man and domestic animals. Scottish National Heritage, Perth.
Reid, H. (1976) Adder Bites in Britain. British Medical Journal, 2(6028):153-156.
Wareham, D. (2008) The Reptiles and Amphibians of Dorset. The British Herpetological Society, London.