- Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, dragons were accepted as real but rare beasts. The Bible mentions fiery serpents in Exodus, and a great dragon symbolizes the Devil in Revelations 12; many writers on natural history also described various strange reptiles, including winged serpents, on the authority of Pliny, Aristotle, and others. Myths, hero legends, saints' legends, and heraldry all exploited the concept of this dramatic monster. Pre-Conquest heroic dragon legends are lost, apart from that in *Beowulf. Religious ones are more common, the most influential being that of *St George. In Church art and writings, dragons always stood for evil, but in the secular world they also symbolized ferocity in battle, and hence were often adopted as heraldic crests. Model dragons were a fairly common feature of religious and civic pageantry in late medieval and Tudor/Stuart times, of which only *Snap at Norwich survives. Civic account books at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in April 1510 record the purchase of twelve yards of canvas, nails, spars, and straps for building a dragon (presumably for *St George's Day), and payments for building it, painting it, and 'going with' it; also the purchase of thick twine and candlewax - perhaps to give it glowing eyes and jaws. The Midsummer Show at Chester, a large and spectacular affair, is known to have included a two-man fiery dragon in 1564 and again in 1610 when it pursued *Green Men, spat fire, and 'died' dramatically. Although the hero of the *mumming play is often St (or King) George, it is extremely rare for a dragon to appear among his adversaries there.Dragon-slaying is a theme in several English *local legends, for example at Brent Pelham (Hertfordshire), *Mordiford (Herefordshire), *Lambton (County Durham), Lyminster (Sussex). Only twice does St George appear as the hero: once at Dragon Hill beside the White Horse of *Uffington, and once at Brinsop (Herefordshire), where the church is dedicated to him and boasts a fine carving of his feat. More often, the hero is alleged to be the founder, or an early member, of some important landowning family nearby, who was rewarded with a title or great estates, for example Sir John *Lambton, or Sir Piers Shonks at Brent Pelham. Often the heroes are sturdy working men, who do not usually kill their dragon in open combat, but by cunning tricks. Among the devices used are poisoned or indigestible food, hiding inside a spiked barrel, or using a spiked dummy as decoy (the dragon wounds himself by attacking it); rolling a large stone into the beast's open jaws; kicking it in the vent. Again, the hero's reward is practical, not romantic; treasure hoards and endangered maidens are absent in this genre. Local place-names, church carvings, and ornate medieval tombstones may be used as 'proofs' of the story, but the attitude towards it is often humorous. One Yorkshire tale is now known only through an anonymous farcical poem, 'The Dragon of Wantley', printed in 1699 (Simpson, 1980).
A Dictionary of English folklore. Jacqueline Simpson & Steve Roud. 2014.
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