Species Mentioned: Folklore originally attached to various medieval fictional serpents but now attached (falsely) to all British earthworms.
Source: Most medieval Bestiaries.
Date: Bestiary tradition most popular in Britain c.1150-1450.
Highlights: The source attests that snakes can be chopped into pieces and still try to kill you like an ineffective cartoon supervillain. Many people in Britain sometimes still believe this about worms, the modern descendants of poisonous “wyrms” to this day. Are we really any less gullible than our predecessors?
People today often remark that thanks to the popularity of animal documentaries on television, children are more familiar with the ecology of animals like lions (P. leo) and African elephants (Loxodonta sp.) than they are with the animals they might find in their gardens. Certainly African wildlife seems to have a more significant and exciting presence in popular culture than local wildlife from Lego toys to Hollywood movies and computer games. If true, this might help explain why native wildlife is often so feared and neglected by many adults in Britain.
But large African wildlife has been well known in Britain for thousands of years. Lions, leopards (P. pardus), hyaenas (H. hyaena) and poisonous snakes were popularised by the Bestiary tradition, based mainly on Mediterranean and North African wildlife of the first millennium A.D.
The Bestiary tradition was one of the most popular genres of literature in Europe throughout the medieval period. It was a kind of encyclopaedia of animals and monsters, often describing creatures which the readers (and sometimes authors) had never seen but had only heard about. The genre was strongly influenced by Pliny’s ‘Naturalis Historia’ (c.77 A.D), by the ‘Physiologus’ (c.200 A.D., but edited across Europe for centuries later) and by Isidore of Seville’s ‘Etymologiae’ (c.600 A.D.). The Bestiary tradition becomes truly important in Britain c.1150 A.D., although some English and Latin authors (although not Welsh authors) were inspired by the Bestiary tradition before that.
It is probably more appropriate to call the Bestiaries a textual tradition rather than a single text. There are thousands of different Bestiary texts, each covering different animals and different folklore about these animals. At the same time though, none of these texts was a complete re-writing. Each text recycled information from a previous Bestiary. Comparing an entry about the same animal from different Bestiaries may find many differences but the core of the text will be the same. In Britain the Welsh ‘Bestiary of Love’ translated from French (c.1300-1400) and the popular early Latin ‘Book of Beasts’ from Cambridge University Library li.4.26. (c.1100-1200) both contain descriptions of the lion which are nearly identical.
It is fair to say that the Bestiary tradition provided a standard authoritative animal-lore for medieval Europe. The texts were so widely disseminated and translated into local languages that anyone with any education could be expected to be familiar with the ideas in the texts. This is unfortunate for scholars of medieval animals because it means that closeted monks and urban scribes are more likely to portray animals in the way they are described in the Bestiary than following any native tradition. Some medieval people must have been familiar with native species of wildlife, but their observations are obscured by the overwhelming number of derivative accounts of Bestiary animals. Although the Bestiary tradition is useful as an indicator of how textual transmission affected medieval literature, it is a disappointing barrier for animal scholars looking to answer basic ecological questions.
Some Bestiaries distinguish more than a dozen different snakes, and it would not be useful to give the whole tradition here. However there is one very interesting element of medieval snake folklore in particular which is worth sharing here:
It is believed, so Pliny says, that if a snake can get away with only two finger’s length of body attached to the head, it will survive. This is why it presents its whole body foremost, in front of its head, when a person goes to hit it. (White trans., 1954, p.189)
Here we have a reference to the way many snakes rear up when facing other animals. However more interesting than that is the fallacious idea that snakes can regenerate themselves as long as the head is intact. Although some snakes can survive losing the very end of their tails, and several lizards (including slow worms (A. fragilis)) can regrow their tails to some degree, no species can regrow its whole body. However the idea that even if a huge serpent is chopped in half it might regenerate or become many smaller serpents was a mainstay of medieval belief.
The reason this is so interesting is that the idea was so resilient. It is still believed in Britain today, but no longer about snakes. People in the countryside will often tell you that if you cut earthworms (e.g. Lumbricus sp.) in half they will regrow into two worms, or at least the worm will regrow to full size. This is just as false as the idea that snakes can regrow themselves.
Could the folklore really have been recycled from one species to another? This sort of recycling is possible, and it is actually relatively common. The names of animals that become rare are frequently transferred to surviving common animals, and the same thing happens quite frequently with animal folklore. Today people in Britain will often identify grey herons (A. cinerea) as types of crane, and this has been happening since the previously common crane (G. grus) started to go extinct in the country (Gurney, 1921, p.168). Folklore does not exclusively move from rarer to more common species. I have previously suggested that the modern Cornish folklore that King Arthur turned into chough (P. pyrrhocorax) may have originally applied to the raven (C. corax) (Ramsay, 2012).
The modern belief about worms regrowing or multiplying when cut could easily have been recycled from medieval snake folklore together with the name. The term ‘worm’ comes from Latin ‘vermis’ (vermin) by way of O.E. ‘wyrm’. Today the term only usually refers to the earthworm in English but in the medieval period it could refer to any kind of reptile or amphibian including dragons (great-wyrms). We might even still recognise the term in this archaic context today in places like J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit when Smaug is called a worm.
All this is a very longwinded way of saying that the reason your toddler hacks worms to pieces, expecting them to grow back, is that worms are a type of dragon. Or more accurately, dragons are a type of worm, and all worms can regenerate themselves. This belief about worms therefore has more in common with The Lord of the Rings and the Game of Thrones that it does with actual observations of real animals.
This is just another example of how the Bestiary tradition influenced our perception of animals across Europe. People in Britain today believe worms can magically regenerate because their predecessors read too much fantasy. The Bestiary tradition was at the heart of medieval fantasy and in many ways it still has more influence on how people view animals today than modern science does.
Stories about animals are really powerful, and help explain why we have such great love for certain species like dogs (C. lupus familiaris) and dolphins (Delphinidae sp.). Even portrayals of animals which the Bestiary feared like monstrous large whales have only helped drive eco-tourism, and the portrayal of amphibians and reptiles as #DragonsInYourGarden has led many in Britain to create badly needed garden ponds which have significantly slowed the decline of populations at a national level (ARC, 2009, Beebee & Griffiths, 2000, p.216).
However where the medieval portrayals are fallacious, negative and paranoid they can be damaging. Scared humans can inflict significant damage on natural ecosystems. Although earthworm populations are not likely to be threatened by toddlers attacking individual earthworms, when adults are scared of large predators they can hamper efforts to restore the UK’s ecology. Most British birds of prey were exterminated between 1600-1939 just like most of Britain’s predatory mammals were lost c.900-1600. This has led to millions of pounds of damage and an ecosystem which is dangerously unbalanced. Red kites were nearly hunted to extinction in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries because sheep farmers were so scared that they would attack sheep, despite the fact that kites are carrion birds and do not attack live prey (Lovegrove, 1990, p.109). In 2012 there were 208 shootings and 78 poisonings of birds of prey in Britain (RSPB, 2013).
The UK remains one of the most unfriendly places in Europe for predatory wildlife, and this is due more to the vilification of certain species than any rational fears of the real impact of wildlife on human interests. But this cycle is not yet irreversible. Despite the continued decline of most species in the twentieth century, some of the hardest-pressed like the pine marten and otter made good recoveries. If people in the twenty-first century continue to educate themselves and their children about real wildlife, this century may yet be the first when wildlife declines are reversed across the board. The well-developed concept of sustainable development means that there are ways for humans and animals to live in harmony. All we need are some new stories. Sir David Attenborough may yet save the world.
ARC (Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust) (2009) Dragons in your Garden. (ARC-Trust, Bournemouth)
Beebee T & Griffiths R (2000) Amphibians an Reptiles. (The New Naturalist, London)
Gurney J (1921) Early Annals of Ornithology. H.F. & G Witherby, London.
Lovegrove R (1990), The Kite’s Tale: The story of the red kite in Wales. RSPCB Press, Sandy.
Ramsay L (2012) Was Arthur once a Raven? The Legend of ‘Arthur as a Chough. Old Cornwall. 14:19-27
RSPB (2013) Birdcrime 2012. RSPB Press, Sandy.
White T (trans. 1954) The Book of Beasts. 1984 ed. Dover, New York.