St. Marcellus’ Paris Dragon

I found a very interesting article on dragons today!

It was in the Google preview of a book called Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages by Jacques Le Goff. The article is called “Ecclesiastical Culture and Folklore in the Middle Ages: Saint Marcellus of Paris and the Dragon.”

This thing is pretty darned good. He brings up the fifth century bishop of Paris and his Vita by Venantius Fortunatus, which is the first source we have that tells the story of St. Marcellus scaring off a dragon that was attacking tiny pre-medieval Paris. He then goes into all sorts of considerations of dragons in the Fathers, dragons in medieval saints’ legends, Rogation procession dragons, and so on. He points out that dragons often are explicitly a symbol of a particular nation (like the Welsh and Saxon dragons fighting each other, or the Draco Normannicus), or are thought of as just an impressive animal (Romans and medievals believed that dragons were the largest animal in existence, as Mediterranean whales were big but not as big as oceangoing whales), or as a symbol of pagan beliefs or an unjust government. They don’t always represent the Devil, although they often do.

We also learn from Le Goff that in Romanesque art, dragons on bishops’ staffs and croziers were usually portrayed as defeated — either killed or subdued by the Cross — instead of as Moses’ lively snake/dragon staff as was the Eastern style.

In Paris, Notre Dame’s parish used a Rogation dragon made of wicker. This giant basket dragon had gaping jaws and a gullet, into which Parisians threw fruit and cakes as the dragon was marched along the procession route. A reverse pinata! This also happened in Metz and in Troyes, particularly in front of bakeshops, and particularly by customers or the bakers themselves. This may have been a form of collecting alms for the poor, or a gift to the procession walkers (who doubtless were hungry by the end of the day). Rogation Days were days of abstinence, so fruit and bread were things you could eat that day. The dragon may also have represented the temptation to break the fast with meat, so throwing cakes and fruit to a hungry carnivorous dragon was a mockery of the devil’s power to tempt.

So yup, more dragons in Christian symbolism!

Here’s the current St. Marcel’s Church in Paris, which only dates back to 1966. Their parish website does tell you a lot about the previous (much nicer) parish churches and their patron. In late Roman/early medieval times, St. Marcel/St. Marceau was a small village on the road between Paris and Sens. Later it became a Paris suburb, and then part of the city.



Filed under Bad Christian Dragons, Good Christian Dragons

2 responses to “St. Marcellus’ Paris Dragon

  1. I never knew much about this, so you’ve offered me another interesting peak at Medieval Christian culture.

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