Medieval snakes are not always so bad…

Three boys with spotty green snakes coiled around their necks

Part of the Vaughan coat-of-arms at Tretower Court, Brecon Beacons, south-east Wales.

Species: Generic snakey-snake, called an adder (Vipera berus) but has prey constricting habit like smooth snake (Coronella austriaca).

Source: The Vaughan family coat-of-arms and its descriptions (not as boring as it sounds, I promise!)

Date: c.1450 A.D.

Highlights: The Vaughan coat-of-arms shows three boys being strangled by snakes. This was inspired by the legend of a family member being born with a snake around his neck. Boring folklorists  c.1900 interpreted this as an #IHateSnakes moment. They are wrong, it was originally the opposite. The writings of Lewis Glyn Cothi suggest comparing someone to a snake was a compliment.

SNAKES ARE TERRIFYING

Today people usually associate snakes with negative characteristics. They are ‘slippery’ and ‘sinuous’ and ‘poisonous’. To call a person a snake in English is to suggest they are deceptive and potentially a threat (OED sense 2a, 2b). The most famous snake is probably the devil in the fall from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) story, a snake which was so wicked it supposedly brought about the downfall of humanity and all our current problems!

Fear of snakes among humans is very common, and there is even some evidence that babies may be predisposed (although not pre-programmed) to be suspicious of snakes (DeLoache & LoBue, 2008). With all these factors working against them, it is easy to assume that humans have always disliked snakes. We have even previously looked at some evidence that even in the medieval/early modern period, snakes had a bad reputation.

But this is not the full story. Lenders & Jannsen (2014) have recently suggested that the snake was only demonised as part of the Interpretatio Christiana (Christian re-interpretation of pagan ideas). Outside of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, snakes sometimes get a much better deal..

THE LEGENDARY SNAKE

Have you ever visited Llys Tre-Twr (Tretower Court) in the Brecon Beacons, south-east Wales? The castle has been refurbished to reconstruct how it would have looked in the late medieval period, and part of this work involved researching the rich families that owned the place.

If you go there today, you will find yourself surrounded by snakes from the Vaughan family coat-of-arms, like the one at the start of the article.

The inspiration for this coat-of-arms is difficult. To start with, most sources (e.g. James & Bailey, 1909; Hodgdon, 1918) suggest that it was invented by a guy called Moreiddig Warwyn. But that can’t be right: Moreiddig Warwyn (‘Oh-so-jealous White-throat’) was a prince of Breconshire, supposedly living c.1178-1235. Since heraldic devices were not commonly used in Wales until c.1400 A.D. (Siddons, 1991, p.192ff.) he didn’t invent ours. The snake’d boys are most likely to have their origin in the early fifteenth century. The legend which inspired the coat-of-arms may also have been formulated in this time. The story behind the coat-of-arms is also difficult, but we have evidence it might be as old as the arms themselves.

Two manuscripts describe the reason for the snakes:

Drympenock ap Maynarch was father to Moreithig Warwyn, he that was borne w’th the Adder about his necke, for w’ch cause in tyme aftere he forsooke his paternall Coate and gave the 3 Childrens heads w’th adders about theire neckes as his posteritie doe at this daye. (Book of Baglan, c.1600, in: Bradney, 1910: 120)

And…

He was borne with an adder about his neck, the impression of which adder remayned about his neck in circle-wise whyle he lyved, and thereof he was surnamed Warwyn, (Cardiff (DC?) manuscript 12463, in Jones, 1977:180)

Both of these manuscripts seem to be repeating a story which was well known at the time so they do not go into any detail. They both agree that the species involved was an adder (Vipera berus), Britain’s only venomous snake. Even if we overlooked the strangeness of a child being born with a snakey friend, this clinches the naturalism debate. The only British snake to partially constrict its prey before eating is the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca) (Wareham, 2008: 65).

Moreiddig’s mother is not mentioned in either contemporary story. This is interesting because she plays a greater part in modern versions of the legend. One sensationalist modern author painstakingly describes how the snake snuck up to his mother whilst she slept outside and wriggled inside her womb to try and eat the child, only to be prevented by the Christian deity (Hodgdon, 1918: 118). Naturalism is perhaps even less important in the modern stories. Real snakes avoid humans and British snakes are unable to attack prey considerably larger than themselves.

Another modern author suggests the legend was inspired by a slightly more naturalistic story. One morning a young, rich Vaughan boy was eating his milk and bread outside. Around his neck was a snake which was helping him out with the overly large meal he’d been given. This prompted absolute panic in everyone except the boy, who clearly did not know the mortal danger his soul was in (Compton Reade, 1904: 81-2). The lack of naturalism is actually useful in this last story. The idea that snakes like milk was imported during Britain’s colonialist period with the Indian Raj (Thompson, 1955-8, B391.1, see Nag Panchami). Because of this detail we can tell this story is unlikely to have been invented until the modern period, and can be safely discarded.

So modern interpretations make the snakes into a reminder of how the Christian deity protects innocent children from harm, so long as they are rich. But this version of the story probably tells us more about our modern ideas of snakes than the actual historical facts.

Smooth snake

Pictured: A rare, harmless and actually real snake (Coronella austriaca). It doesn’t want your milk.
Picture taken by Christian Fischer and licenced under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

MEDIEVAL SNAKE LOVE

So how was being born with a snake around your neck originally seen? One poem, originally attributed to Lewis Glyn Cothi, provides some evidence, when the poet describes some members of the Vaughan family as though they were actually the snakes on their coat-of-arms.

Pure shining snake, let Christ come to protect you
And your guardian, image of Christ
The snake will be in cheerful cups
Strength of the mighty boar, snake of the tomb of Christ

The snake they call you, from the same wing as the dragon
And will make Cologne sorry
A snake wins with an ash [spear]
A sinless spirit is the old snake
(Lewis Glyn Cothi, ‘Awdl arall i Watcyn Vychan o Dalgarth’, translated from Davies & Jones, 1837: 55, with help from Dylan Foster Evans)

This poem is a song of praise and warning to Watkin Vaughan. It refers to him as snake all the way through, after his heraldry, but the poet sees no contradiction in also praising his purity and holiness. After all, the snake comes from the same family as the noble dragon. The last line on our extract explains that Watkin is in a state of ‘enaid rhydd’ (sinless grace). Watkin is not the only pure Vaughan described by Lewis Glyn Cothi. His nephews are also described:

The three sons of Sir Thomas, [with power] far across the River Aman,
The son of Roger Vaughan
Three snakes of much the same age
Three posts of the kindred of Bran
(‘Awdl i dri meib Syr Thomas ab Rhosser’, translated with help from Dylan Foster Evans)

Again here, being a Vaughan snake is celebrated as a positive thing. The three sons of Thomas Vaughan are all snakes, and the fifteenth century is lucky to have them.

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

The reverent attitude towards snakes, seen in references to the Vaughan family, is occasional rather than regular in Welsh poetry. However, it is very important because it means that humans have not always had an antagonistic relationship with snakes. Despite our current suspicion of the animals, in the past they have been praised as strong, noble and holy creatures. Snakes and people don’t have to be enemies.

In the UK, no human has died of a snake bite for the last 40 years, but dozens of humans have been killed by less intimidating animals like wasps, spiders and dogs (ONS, 2011). We can do better than buy into ancient superstitions about how snakes are deceptive and dangerous. Why can’t we appreciate snakes, like the medieval Welsh poets did?

REFERENCES

Bradney JA (1910) Llyfr Baglan by John Williams.Mitchell Hughes & Clarke, London.

Compton Reade MA (1904) Memorials of Old Herefordshire. Bemrose & Sons Ltd, London.

Davies W & Jones J (1837) Gwaith Lewis Glyn Cothi. Society of the Cymroddorion, Oxford.

DeLoache J & LoBue V (2008) The narrow fellow in the grass. Developmental Science 12:201-7.

Hodgdon G (1918) Reminiscences and Genealogical Record of the Vaughan Family. Genesee Press, Rochester

James T & Bailey J (1909) History of the County of Brecknock, vol. 2. Blissett, Davies &Co. Brecknock.

Jones F (1977) Pontfaen. National Library of Wales Journal: 20(2):177-203

Lenders HJR & Janssen IAW (2014) The Grass Snake and the Basilisk: from pre-Christian Protective House God to the Antichrist. Environment and History. 20:319-346.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2011) The 20th Century Mortality Files, 1901-2000.

Siddons, M. (1991) The Development of Welsh Heraldry. National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

Thompson S (1955-8) Motif-index of Folk Literature. Indiana University Press, Bloomington

Wareham DC (2008) The Reptiles and Amphibians of Dorset. British Herpetological Society, London.

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One response to “Medieval snakes are not always so bad…

  1. This is a great article! As a Vaughan descendant, I value your research on the heraldry. And as my daughter teaches Biology, the snake part is good too. Thanks!

    Like

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