Species Mentioned: One non-native fire-proof salamander.
Source: ‘Liber Monstrorum’ (The Book of Monsters), a kind of Latin encyclopaedia of scary beasties.
Date of Source: c.650-750 A.D.
Highlights: The idea of a salamander living in flame isn’t original to this text, but this text lets us know the story had reached Britain by 750 A.D.
TEXT AND DATE
The ‘Liber Monstrorum’ (Book of Monsters) is a Latin text probably written by an English or Irish author. The text is present in five manuscripts, all from the ninth-tenth century (Orchard, 1985, p.86). The authoritative opinion on the text is that of Lapidge who suggests based on linguistic and stylistic similarities that the text is attributable to a colleague or disciple of Aldhelm, and datable to c.650-750 A.D. (Lapidge, 1996, p.282-296)
The text is not a single story but a sort of encyclopaedia describing all the different kinds of monster the author has read about or heard of. The first part of the book describes monstrous humans, the second part beasts (semi-natural animals), and the third part serpents. The description of the salamander comes under the serpent heading, which is not surprising since it was hardly ever described accurately by medieval authors. It compares well with the illustrated salamanders in the Aberdeen Bestiary further down.
The description of the salamander is very short and to the point (III.14):
The salamander is also described as being of such fierceness that no force of flame can harm it, but it is said to be able to live in fire like fish in water. (Orchard, 1985, p.313)
It is important to say from the outset that there is nothing original about this description. The idea that a salamander can put out fires is attested by St. Augustine’s ‘De Civitate Dei’ (21.4) c.410-26 A.D. Our author almost certainly heard the story from Isidore of Seville’s ‘Etymologiae’ (12.4.36) of c.600 A.D.
Actually though, the legend of the salamander is one of the most pervasive myths of the medieval period.
In Britain we have toads, newts, frogs, lizards and snakes but no salamanders (unless you’re classing newts as a kind of salamander). That means most people here don’t seem to know what salamanders are. Unless you know a lot about amphibians you probably imagine the salamander to be a kind of snake or lizard. You have probably even heard of the idea that it can live in fire, even without reading medieval stories about it.
Am I right? Before you read this article, when you imagine the word salamander what do you think of? Let’s compare using the poll below:
The fact you’re reading this might mean you’re likely to be more knowledgeable about these things than the average internet-user, but I have a suspicion that as a whole the audience reading this might be just as confused as the average medieval English reader.
The salamander folklore is interesting in the way that it changed as it spread across Europe. Most Europe-wide myths about animals were plagiarised from Pliny’s ‘De Naturalis Historia’ (10.86 – c.77-79 A.D.). Pliny does describe the salamander, but his description is much more realistic than the later legends. He talks about a poisonous lizard-like creature ‘covered in spots’ and only ever seen on rainy days. The only part of his story which is utterly unreliable (not just exaggerated) is the idea that the salamander is so cold it can put out fires by touching them.
The salamander is a cold blooded amphibian, but of course it cannot live in fires or put them out by touch. In fact they are sensitive to heat and many species in captivity need to be kept at temperatures below 20°C. So what inspired these stories? Three explanations are frequently cited:
- The fire salamander (S. salamandra) is one of the most common and widespread salamanders in Europe and can be distinguished from other members of the salamandra genus by its black and yellow markings. These markings might have associated the animal with fire despite its cold temperature, and may have been part of the inspiration for the folklore (e.g. Sparks, 1982, p.59).
- Salamanders like most amphibians spend most of the day and all of the winter hidden under natural debris, especially logs. Humans building fires may well have used logs with salamanders and other amphibians hidden in or on them. Salamanders in or emerging from a fire might have appeared to have been created by the fire (e.g. Etheridge, 2007, p.65).
- Salamanders are capable of producing a kind of foam to protect themselves from predators. It has been suggested that this foam might have fire-retardant properties (e.g. Slifkin, 2007, pp.290-303).
Of the three, option 1 seems the most reasonable to me. The idea that salamanders can put out fires can probably be discarded as the amount of foam a salamander can create would not be nearly sufficient to extinguish a fire, and there are no hints that salamanders chemically have any special immunity to fire (Russell et al. 1999). Further, salamanders are so slow moving that they would have difficulty escaping any fire large enough to burn logs. However there is no contemporary evidence to support any of the hypotheses, and quite often medieval “salamanders” weren’t even imagined to look like the real animals we know today. We can probably never be sure what inspired the legends.
The content of our text is utterly derivative of earlier stories and the inspiration for the context is very difficult to establish.
But the real significance of our story is in its date. This legend was already being re-told in Britain c.650-750 A.D. As a story it has not gone out of fashion since then, despite the fact that (i) salamanders are not found natively in Britain and (ii) the legend has no basis in truth.
Knowledge of the early arrival of this tradition is useful to us because it is a useful reminder that not every story we find about animals by British authors is original to Britain. But not all the accounts of Britain’s herpetiles (=amphibians and reptiles) are so derivative. When you bring together the sum of medieval British knowledge about the subject and then extract the classical folklore you are still left with a considerable number of native stories.
An eco-sensitive reading of these stories can extract useful information about species range, comparative abundance, behaviour and precedents for human-animal conflicts of the past .I am not aware of any native, non-derivative lore about salamanders but I have previously explored a legend of the adder who killed King Arthur and all his knights. This story suggested that adders were perceived with suspicion even in the medieval period, and this suspicion might have been a root cause of the current irrational antipathy towards the species. There are also plenty of other stories of frogs, toads and newts which do not depend on the pan-European tradition. These need to be told and I’d love to share more of them with you at some point in the near future.
Etheridge K (2007) Loathsome Beasts: Images of Reptiles and Amphibians in Art and Science. French S & Etheridge K (eds) Origins of scientific learning: 63-88. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY.
Lapidge M (1996) Anglo-Latin Literature, 600-899. Hambledon Press, London.
Orchard A (1985) Pride and Prodigies. 2003 ed. University of Toronto Press.
Russell K, Lear D & Guynn D (1999) Prescribed Fire Effects on Herpetofauna. Wildlife Society Bulletin. 27:374-384
Slifkin N (2007) Sacred Monsters. Zoo Torah, Jerusalam.
Sparks J (1982) The Discovery of Animal Behaviour. Collins, London.