It’s a well-known fact that anti-Catholics and anti-historics refuse to see jokes. You can wave them in front of their faces and explain the whole thing, but they won’t get it. They’d rather be shocked and horrified.
So in Poitiers, like many other places in Europe, they had a processional dragon called the Grand’Goule. It had a legend with it, about how good St. Radegonde and her nuns defeated the wicked dragon. St. Radegonde founded St. Croix (Holy Cross) Abbey, so named because they had some relics of the True Cross (courtesy of the Byzantine Empire and St. Radegonde’s aristocratic connections). The legend says that one day, nuns who were sent down to the caves of the wine cellar next to the river weren’t coming back. So armed with either some blessed bread, some holy water, her abbess staff, or the abbey’s bit of the True Cross, St. Radegunde went down the cellar and found that a big female dragon had come in from the Clain River’s spring and made the cellar its den, and was eating all the nuns. (Not just meat, but virgins too, you’ll notice.) So St. Radegonde defeated the dragon, and all was well. There’s a little statue of the Grand’Goule sporting bat wings, eagle feet, a wyvern’s tail, and a snake’s head.
The other thing that people don’t get is that dragons, when representing Ultimate Evil or Death Incarnate or just something scary, are usually portrayed by the medievals as kinda funny critters. The devil and his angels may be dragons, but their wings are stunted and unable to carry them back to heaven. They’re just pests and nuisances and losers. Dragons are usually shown this way, too. They quickly turn into the procession’s comical characters.
OTOH, because of the draco banners’ use in warfare and because dragons guarded things like cities and treasures, the French city’s dragon is something of a patriotic monster. It’s like Godzilla protecting Tokyo from all other monsters. So the processional dragon was popular and loved in its comical menace.
By the 17th century, the little processional draco banner had turned into a big parade float, with the statutory kung-fu action jaws that really opened and shut, and a big bag to hold bread donations to the poor (and the guys who worked hard propelling the float and operating the jaws). So people would throw bread, apple cakes, buns, and cookies* into the Grand’Goule’s mouth, or try to aim flower wreaths at the head as extra decoration.
Then the good Catholic people of Poitiers in the 1600’s thought that it would be funnier to elaborate on this. So when tossing bread, they’d yell, “Bonne sainte vermine, protegez nous!” or even “priez pour nous!”
“Vermine” means vermin, in French. It’s also a pun on “verminus”, little worm or little wyrm/dragon; and on “vermina,” someone who has worms. Finally, it sounds like “St. Firmin” or “Fermin,” the shorter versions of St. Firminus of the famous bulls. So it’s funny several ways, especially if you’re pretending to ask for intercession against worms. It makes a great parody of normal saint processional float behavior, too.
When you give donations to charity, it’s normal for the receivers to pray for the givers. So it’s funny to feed the dragon while asking it to pray for you; but it’s also not a total joke, because the poor and the guys driving the dragon really are going to pray for the donors.
Needless to say, the anti-Catholic English sources of the 19th century take this fun float and turn it into the epitome of ignorant idolatrous ebil. They are all for saying that this proves that Catholics think dragons are saints, that Catholics worship dragons, blah blah blah.
I say that they are party-poopers. And I really, really want me a dragon float.
* The Poitier dragon-feeding cookies were called “casse-museaux,” which means “snout-breaker.” (This pictures St. Radegonde whacking the dragon with blessed bread.) Here are some recipes for today’s casse-museaux, which are probably pretty different from the ones in 1600’s Poitiers, but obviously are still yummy.
Casse-museaux the Ste. Maure de Touraine way, with goat cheese and a lot of alcohol.
Kid in Brassac selling anti-dragon casse-museaux. Here they make them from sheep’s milk. The article describes them as being hard and crisp on the outside, but soft and scrumptious within. Legend says that the inhabitants of Castle Brassac drove a dragon back to the Agout River by smacking him on the nose with some quickly flung casse-museaux. If you have sheep’s milk, here’s a recipe for Brassac casse-museaux.
(Casse-museau can also mean a sort of apple cobbler, chestnut biscuits, or an unsweetened goat cheese cake from Berry.)