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Timo Rebschloe, Der Drache in der mittelalterlichen Literatur Europas
by Thomas Honegger

Rebschloe, Timo. Der Drache in der mittelalterlichen Literatur Europas. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014. 430 pp. ISBN: 978-825362058. € 65,00. $60.00 cloth.

The title of Timo Rebschloe’s book suggests a study providing a comprehensive overview of the dissemination of dragons within the literary landscape of Europe. This is not the case. What the reader does find are some general overview-chapters, mostly on the pre-medieval and non-European dragons, but the focus of the main part is firmly on the dragon in Middle High German literature, which need not be a bad thing per se. The bias towards medieval German literature is most likely due to the volume’s origin as a PhD thesis at the department of medieval German literature at the University of Cologne, and the text still contains some features permissible in a PhD, yet which should have been altered for the publication as a monograph.

Thus, the use of letter-spacing for authors of primary and secondary literature gives the many names cited in the text too much prominence. Also, numbering the 2069 footnotes consecutively for the entire book creates footnote-reference monsters with four digits, which disturb the aesthetic coherence in the main body of the text. Furthermore, there are quite a number of typos (a phenomenon that has become widespread ever since the publishers unloaded the burden of proofreading and layouting onto the authors themselves); some bibliographical references are missing in the bibliography (e.g. Quesade on page 124) and we have misleadingly formulated information (e.g. 158 when discussing the date of Beowulf—the dating of the unique manuscript as the one certain piece of information should have been mentioned) and a mistaken identification of a manuscript illustration (162) which certainly does not show Beowulf fighting against the dragon. Again, these are mistakes that are partially to be blamed on the publishers’ refusal to employ copy-editors.

To move to the more serious bits of criticism: Bernd Roling’s monograph Drachen und Sirenen. Die Rationalisierung und Abwicklung der Mythologie an den europäischen Universitäten[1] has not been consulted—it is neither mentioned in the study itself nor listed in the bibliography. This should have been remedied for the publication since serious and substantial academic monographs on dragons are rare and scholars in the field cannot afford to ignore each other’s research. A second point of criticism concerns the overall structure of the study. The author obviously did his homework and read widely on dragons ancient and modern. However, the selection of chapters often remains somewhat arbitrary and I at least would have wished for a more limited or, alternatively, wider but related focus—but more on this below.

With some of the major points of criticism mentioned, I would like to turn to the structure of the study. To start, Rebschloe gives a useful general discussion of the dragon in the earliest texts of the Middle East (Gilgamesh) and Egypt, continues with a succinct outline of dragon in Greek mythology and as a possible archetype. This is followed by an overview of dragons and dragon-like creatures in the biblical tradition and in Christianity in particular—with special consideration of the association and identification of the dragon with the devil. Here Rebschloe succeeds in striking a balance between general overview and exemplary discussion of texts and gives the reader a differentiated and informed view of the dragon’s role within this tradition.

These first two (in my view) introductory sections equip the reader with the necessary background knowledge to understand the ambiguous nature of the dragon in the later texts. A third background section follows in which Rebschloe looks at the dragon in the medieval and early modern “natural science tradition” (physica). The selection of authors (Isidore, Hildegard von Bingen, Albertus Magnus, Konrad von Megenberg, Konrad Gesner, Thomas Browne, Johann Jacob Scheuchzer) and texts guarantees a certain breadth as well as depth, but the selection criteria are not made explicit and I miss, for example, mention of Carl Linnaeus’s (in-)famous early categorization of the dragon (along with the hydra, the satyr and the monoceros etc.) as paradoxa, which would have illustrated beautifully Rebschloe’s general argument of the dragon’s ambiguous status way into the early modern age (139).

After these introductory and more general chapters, Rebschloe gets down to what I consider the main part of his study: the dragon in vernacular literature. The two-hundred pages offer a detailed discussion of roughly a score of (predominantly Middle High German) literary texts. Rebschloe does not, unlike many of the other studies in the field, structure his argument around the different functions of the dragon, but discusses the dragon in the texts of the same genre (heroic epic, Arthurian romance, roman d’antiquité, folk- and fairy-tales). This approach has, on the one hand, the advantage that he compares like with like and, on the other, that the texts per se receive much more attention than in other studies. The latter point is, however, also a disadvantage since the reader is expected to be as interested in the works under discussion as in the dragons they represent—which may not always be the case.

For the epic tradition, Rebschloe includes the Old English Beowulf and some Old Norse texts (the Edda, the Volsunga- and Thidrekssaga) along with Middle High German works, which allows him to compare the function of the dragon in this genre against a wider database. Thus he is able to show that the dragon fulfils different functions even in the heroic-epic tradition. Rebschloe postulates a shift from the truly heroic-epic dragon as the ultimate (and final) opponent in Beowulf to a somewhat diminished figure in the Nibelungenlied where the courtly element grows stronger, and observes even the inclusion of hagiographic elements in a text like the Lied vom hürnen Seyfrid. In general, however, the dragon-fight functions in the heroic-epic tradition as an exceptional event that establishes the protagonist’s heroic status.

There are, of course, limits to a study’s space and to a researcher’s energy and time, so the laudable comparative approach is not continued in the discussion of the other genres where the surviving texts are more numerous. This self-limitation does not devalue the insights gained from a purely Middle High German corpus, but it means that the central part of the book does not live up to the expectations raised by its title. It also means that there is room for researchers from different fields of expertise to test, add to and complement Rebschloe’s findings, since similar phenomena occur in other vernacular literatures. Two examples from the medieval and early modern English era will illustrate my point.

First, Rebschloe rightly highlights that some texts of the heroic-epic tradition contain hagiographic elements (204ff), but does not expand his argument, nor does he add further instances. A look across the Channel shows that a similar, even more pronounced hybridization can be found in the dragon-fight episode of Bevis of Hamtoun, a Middle English romance dating from the early 14th century. Here, too, the poet combines hagiographic elements with secular chivalric ones, so that though Bevis fights the dragon with the weapons of a knight, it is his invocation of the Virgin Mary that finally defeats the monster. This secular-hagiographic episode has no counterpart in the Norman original, yet was most likely the inspiration for Spenser’s depiction of the fight between the Redcrosse knight and the dragon in The Faerie Queene and thus had a lasting impact on later English literature.[2]

My second example from the Middle English romance Sir Degaré supports Rebschloe’s rather tentatively formulated argument that the not-so-heroic death of the eponymous hero of the poem Ortnit contains potential for comedy or parody (229ff). In Sir Degaré, too, we have an obvious subversion of expectations, this time the other way round, and it is the dragon who gets beaten to death by a young and inexperienced hero with nothing but the medieval equivalent of a baseball-bat.

Rebschloe’s analysis of the Arthurian romances, then, concentrates on the numerous Middle High German versions and his combination of textual commentary, general interpretation of the poems discussed and a close reading of the dragon-episodes not only proves insightful on the dragon’s role but also contributes to the overall interpretation of the text analysed. The discussion of the romances suggests that the dragon-fight has lost its exceptional “heroic” status and is merely one among many adventures and challenges a knight-protagonist has to face. As before, the point made by Rebschloe for the Middle High German tradition can be corroborated and complemented by a look across the language-borders. The Old Norse Erex-Saga, for example, has Erec/Erex rescue a nobleman from a dragon—an episode found neither in the French original nor in the Middle High German adaptation, yet which proves the point that the dragon, together with giants and other “uncourtly creatures,” has become one of the “usual suspects” whom a knight has to overcome in order to prove his valour. This is also reflected in the extraordinarily short summary of Gawain’s adventures in the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His fight against dragons deserves merely half a line and is only one among half a dozen clichéd elements in the enumeration of obstacles he has to overcome.

The dragon in the roman d’antiquité rounds off Rebschloe’s tour of Middle High German literature. The dragon seems to occur not so much as a test of the protagonist’s heroic qualities but as part of the exotic fauna or mythological framework. The comparatively short chapters on the dragon in folk- and fairy-tales, in Asian literature (though Rebschloe fails to note Quiguang Zhao’s monograph A Study of Dragons, East and West[3]) and in contemporary art and literature respectively open up the horizon towards other potential areas of investigation. They give some general ideas at best and match neither the introductory parts in their succinctness nor the major part in its depth. Specifically the problem of the influence of the Asian tradition on the European medieval dragon-concept remains to be explored further since we have some tantalizing evidence for contacts, such as the chasuble of the Hofkirche in Lucerne (Switzerland) dating from the late 15th century. It incorporates a piece of silk featuring two Chinese dragons and gave rise to an almost contemporary aetiological tale trying to explain the presence of two dragons (which usually had negative connotations in a Christian context) on a piece of clerical clothing.

Rebschloe’s aim to explore the links between and mutual influence of the three main traditions featuring dragons, namely the Christian, the natural scientific, and the literary traditions, remains rudimentary. A discussion of this aspect would require a more comprehensive study of a greater number of texts and their mutual interdependence—and again a look across the borders may prove helpful. Thus the encyclopaedist Bartholomaeus Anglicus and his translator/adaptor John Trevisa mention that the dragon’s tongue contains a high concentration of poison and contact must therefore be avoided. This is confirmed in the Tristan romance where the eponymous hero, after killing the dragon, cuts out its tongue and stuffs it into his leggings, and soon loses consciousness due to the contact with the poison. Tristan has obviously not read his chapter on dragons in Bartholomaeus Anglicus or John Trevisa (nor has Rebschloe, cf. his interpretation of the “dragon’s tongue episode,” 269), though we can assume that the original audience knew very well the reason for Tristan’s swoon. This short episode illustrates nicely how elements from the physica tradition made their way into courtly romances, yet also that it is not always easy to recognise these elements.

All in all, Rebschloe’s study makes stimulating reading and though the discourse is sometimes rather specialised, it offers reader-friendly summaries and very useful tables enabling a direct comparison of crucial elements discussed. Both the general reader as well as the expert can find many different things of interest. The medieval scholar will value Rebschloe’s detailed and comprehensive discussions of the Middle High German texts, whereas the general reader is likely to find matters of interest in the more general sections.

Thomas Honegger
FSU Jena

[1] Bernd Roling, Drachen und Sirenen. Die Rationalisierung und Abwicklung der Mythologie an den europäischen Universitäten (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010). Mittellateinische Studien und Texte 42.

[2] See for example the detailed discussion of the relationship between the dragon fights in Bevis and The Faerie Queene in Andrew King, The Faerie Queene and Middle English Romance: the Matter of Just Memory (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000, 129-45)

[3] Quiguang Zhao, A Study of Dragons, East and West (New York: Peter Lang, 1992). 


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Cite as:

Thomas Honegger, "Timo Rebschloe, Der Drache in der mittelalterlichen Literatur Europas," Spenser Review 44.3.62 (Winter 2015). Accessed July 18th, 2024.
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