Sunday, May 21, 2017

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - 1607/1608: The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents


The History of Four-footed Beasts and The History of Serpents by Edward Topsell
"Among all the kindes of Serpents, there is none comparable to the Dragon..." (Edward Topsell)
Illustration of some dragons from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658) 
In 1607, Edward Topsell wrote The History of Four-Footed Beasts, shortly followed in 1608 by The History of Serpents. Both volumes were eventually combined in 1658 into The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents after Topsell's death. You can actually find a PDF of the book here at to check it out yourself, but as far as I am aware the 1658 text is identical to the original text of 1607 and 1608.

The purpose of the volumes was to provide an accurate representation of animals that exist in the world, however Topsell relied on other people's accounts on what was real and what was fictional. It is my understanding that everything Topsell wrote, he believed was real:
"The second thing in this discourse which I have promised to affirm, is the truth of the History of Creatures, for the mark of a good Writer is to follow truth and not deceivable Fables."
Topsell wrote several items of note about dragons in his books as if they were real-life animals.
"The remedies or medicines coming from this beast are these: first, the flesh of them eaten, is good against all pains in the small guts, for it dryeth and flayeth the belly. Pliny affirmeth, that the teeth of a Dragon tyed to the sinews of a Hart in a Roes skin , and wore about ones neck, maketh a man to be gracious to his Superiors... I know that the tail of a Dragon tyed to the Nerves of a Hart in a Roes skin, the suet of a Roe with Goose-grease, the marrow of a Hart, and an Onyon, with Rozen, and running Lime, do wonderfully help the falling Evill, (if it be made into a plaifter.)" (Page 92)
There are many other recipes as well which call for "the head and tail of a dragon" or "the fat of a dragon's heart".

But this has to be my favorite account:
"There are Dragons among the Ethiopians, which are thirty yards or paces long, these have no name among the inhabitants but Elephant-killers. And among the Indians also there is as an inbred and native hateful hostility between Dragons and Elephants: for which cause the Dragons being not ignorant that the Elephants feed upon the fruits and leaves of green trees, do secretly convey themselves into them or to the tops of rocks: covering their hinder part with leaves, and letting his head and fore part hang down like a rope, on a suddain when the Elephant comcth to crop the top of the tree, (he leapeth into his face, and diggeth out his eyes, and because that revenge of malice is too little to satisfie a Serpent, (he twineth her gable like body about the throat of the amazed Elephant, and so strangleth him to death."
There are pages and pages about dragons once you get to the "On the Dragon" portion of the text (pages 701-716) if you want to check it out yourselves. But the most important part of the text is the illustrations (for my purposes). The sketches of the dragons in his book (above and below) aren't any better than dragon depictions from any of the previous Medieval works from the 1400's back through the 1100's

Illustration of another dragon from Edward Topsell's The History of Four-footed Beasts and Serpents (1658)
Reading the text, you get why his illustrations resemble previous illustrations of dragons so much. It is because Topsell isn't coming up with any new information himself. He is just taking the information that had been created previously, thinking it is an accurate representation of what there was at the time, and passing it along in the guise of a factual encounter of real-life dragons. 

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