St Petroc vs. the dragon – worm

Species: One overgrown snake which grows into a dragon-worm.

Source: The ‘Life of St Petroc I’ a text in Latin probably written in Cornwall, perhaps at Bodmin Priory.

Date: The historical Petroc probably lived in the sixth century A.D. Our text was first written prior to 1177, most likely around the mid-eleventh century, although the only complete manuscript (Paris MS. Lat. 9989) only exists in sixteenth century transcript form. The story itself may well have been known orally before it was first included in the written life (Doble, 1965: 133-4; Orme, 2000: 214-15).

Highlights: Once upon a time an evil villain died. He had a snake pit like most evil villains and after he died no-one was being fed to the snakes (awww). They ate each other until one got so big it came out and turned into a dragon. It happens.

Oh yes, it happens. Grass snake  (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

Oh yes, it happens.
Grass snake (Natrix natrix) photographed by Thomas Browne and shared under CC-BY 2.0 license)

INTRODUCTION

Who is your favourite saint?

Forget far-away George of England and Andrew of Scotland. They were Romans living in today’s Middle East who wouldn’t even have known where Britain was.

Forget busy Patrick of Ireland and David of Wales. The first supposedly drove out snakes from Ireland and the second created a hot spring at Bath. The trouble is that Ireland had been snake free for tens of thousands of years before Patrick was born, and Bath had had mineral hot spring for almost as long.

The saint we need is someone more like Petroc, the patron saint of Devon, south-west England. Let me explain why…

THE SNAKE PIT OF HORRORS

The reason I like Petroc in particular is because parts of his medieval biography are so ridiculous, yet at the same time so original. For example, the dragon fight is a common topos in medieval hagiography. It is therefore not surprising to find the topos in every version of the ‘Life of Petroc’, but it is surprising to find the story told in such a fresh and exciting way.

Here is the beginning of the story from the first ‘Life of Petroc’ (c.1050 AD) according to Doble’s 1965 version. Our text is not available online in English but you can read a modern retelling here:

There reigned at that time Teudur, a cruel and fierce man who, to punish thieves and criminals, had with savage cruelty, caused various serpents and all kinds of noxious worms to be collected in a marshy lake.

At his death, his son, who succeeded him in the kingdom by hereditary right, forbade this kind of torment to be inflicted upon men, and the hungry reptiles turned and destroyed one another by frequent attacks with livid tooth, so that out of so great a number only one remained–a horrible monster of enormous size who tore to pieces cattle and men in fearful fashion with his savage jaws.
(Doble, 1965: 142)

That’s right. The ‘Life of Petroc I’ is such a literary masterpiece that the stereotypical dragon gets a Beowulf-style backstory. It is the last survivor from an illicit and grimy pit of snakey-worms. The ‘Life of Petroc II’ (a rewrite of the original) is even more dramatic. It has three huge snakes fighting together against all the others until they are the last remaining, and then one of them betraying the others.

From an ecological point of view, the amphibian nature of the species in the text is interesting to note. All these snakes and worms have been taken out of a lake, but there is nothing to suggest the pit they are being thrown into is a pond – it appears to be dry. Quite what the term ‘worm’ referred to at this time is unclear. Of our modern native species, only the grass snake is commonly seen swimming, although the others sometimes do take to the water (see: Beebee & Griffiths, 2000, pp.163,170).

Luckily for us Petroc is more than ready for this snake. He is actually just returned from seven years of training with ascetics in India. Riyeff’s modern version suggests that this training helped prepare Petroc to fight the worm, presumably based on the juxtaposition of the two events.

Perhaps Indian snake-charming even came into his training:

Here for seven years he led a contemplative life, in the company of holy men whom he had found there, nourished only by a single fish placed before him from time to time by the divine will at suitable hours. (Doble, 1965: 141-2)

Perhaps not.

Stained glass window showing Petroc the saint in Bodmin Church. Image in public domain.

Its not fair to say Petroc never had any fun, since that sheepy looking thing is probably his tame wolf, but he certainly avoided it. Stained glass window showing Petroc the saint in Bodmin Church. Image in public domain.

Actually the idea of snake charming as a mysterious ability from India only really became famous in the colonial Raj period (Thompson, 1955-8, B391.1, see Nag Panchami).

At last though, it’s dragon-slaying time. Like in many good literary battles, Petroc is joined by super-powered allies in a last minute cross-over. Samson and Wethnoc (Guéthénoc), two other saints appear (or just Wethnoc in the ‘Life of Petroc II’). These two are also associated with the Brittonic speaking world (Wales, Cornwall and especially Brittany) and were popular at the time (Jankulak, 2000: 95-7). The inclusion of these two being led by Petroc would helped cement Petroc’s reputation in the area.

When the news of the peril had reached the man of God, he boldly approached the monster, determined to conquer him, armed with the invincible shield of faith, in conjunction with Wethnoc and Samson.

He bound him with a handkerchief… (Doble, 1965: 142)

There’s our epic battle. Tying a priest’s stole around a dragon is a popular method that saints have to subdue dragons and that is the weapon of choice in the second ‘Life of Petroc’, but not in the ‘Life of Petroc I, which opts for something more pedestrian.

He bound him with a handkerchief and was leading him to the sea, when the man of God met a party of 300 men carrying, amid lamentations, the lifeless body of a prince’s son, to fulfill the rites of burial according to the custom of the country.

They were terrified at the sight of this most hideous monster, and some fell prostrate on the ground like dead men; others, trembling as they stood, were hardly able to carry the bier, so overwhelmed were they with sudden horror and anguish at the sight of the reptile.

The servant of God, therefore, taking pity on the mourners, kneeled and prayed, and having implored the clemency of the Almighty, restored to all their strength and raised to life again the young man whom they had been bearing as a corpse.

Then, while they were rejoicing in the praises of God, the saint commanded the monster which he had bound to hurt no one any more and to depart to solitudes beyond the seas.
(Doble, 1965: 142)

So much for the literary masterpiece theory. We get one phrase to describe the dragon-fight but several long and involved medieval Latin sentences to describe the people the snake scares while on its way down to the beach.

On the other hand, the reaction of the ordinary people stands to confirm that the animal we are talking about here is not an ordinary grass snake but a full-size dragon-worm. The animal then swims away across the sea, because of course, as an overgrown snake it is not capable of flying.

This conception of the monster as a kind of snake is encouraged by the biblical convention that the snake of the Garden of Eden is the same creature as the dragon in Revelations. (The dragon is actually called ‘serpens antiquus’ in Revelations 12:9 and 20:2).

At the same time though, there is something unusual in the normality of the dragon. Later on in the story, Petroc has another dragon approach him because it gets a splinter in its eye. This would not have happened to George, saint of England. Clearly Petroc had a reputation for being soft on dragons. This episode is actually reminiscent of the grateful lion formula inspired by Anthony, a European saint, but having a dragon as the “animal” concerned is less usual. Riyeff (2011) and Riches (2011) tracked the origin of this variant back to the fifth century Greek life of Symeon, the Stylite saint.  Riyeff even points out that the second ‘Life of Petroc’ describes the second dragon as a clean animal after Genesis 7:2. In this story the dragon is healed by God’s will.

SIGNIFICANCE

This story provides a disheartening glimpse of medieval ecological knowledge. The authors and readers of the ‘Life of Petroc I’ around 1050 AD were apparently happy with a dragon story where:

  1. Our monster started life in a pit of hungry semi-aquatic snakes
  2. The snakes became hungry and ate each other
  3. The last remaining snake grew huge and left the pit to hunt humans and livestock.
  4. As an evil worm our snake ate many humans before being subjugated by a saint with the power of God and his handkerchief.
  5. It then swam off in the sea.

Apart from the lack of knowledge of natural history, the most important thing to note here is the suggestion that snakes are naturally untrustworthy species which can naturally grow into dragon-worms if given the opportunity. Dragon-worms are completely natural, if trouble-causing species and they don’t hurt saints.

This text is the first I have found to depict dragons as natural animals and nothing to get upset about. However, at the same time the text emphasises the supernatural and intimidating natural charateristics of ordinary snakes, which can grow this big with no problems. The text casts dragons in a positive light, but snakes in a very negative one. This is contrary to previous views of snakes we have found in medieval texts. This text therefore may still permit the theory that snakes, and perhaps other amphibians and reptiles, were demonised by the influence of Christian culture (see: Lenders & Jannsen, 2014).

REFERENCES

Beebee T & Griffiths R (2000) Amphibians an Reptiles. (The New Naturalist, London)

Doble GH (1965) The Saints of Cornwall, Part 4. (Holywell Press, Oxford)

Jankulak K (2000) The Medieval Cult of St Petroc. Boydell Press, Woodbridge.

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.

Orme N (2000) The Saints of Cornwall. Oxford University Press.

Riches S (2011) Saint and Monster, Saint as Monster. Saints and Sanctity. Studies in Church History 47. Ecclesiastical History Society, Woodbridge: 125-135.

Riyeff J (2011) St Petroc and the Submissive Dragon. Unpublished paper presented at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo.

Riyeff J (2013) The Life of St Petroc. Pilgrim. Accessed: July 13th 2015.

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

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