On Serpents and Sinners

The date is August 1614, and the anonymous author of an in-credible tale relaying the discovery of a dragon in the heart of Sussex is aware that you may not believe him. Let’s face it: this is seventeenth-century England, not The Land of Make Believe. You believe many things – that the old crone living next door has cursed you, perhaps, or that a king by the name of Prester John rules a lost tribe of Christians somewhere in the far-east. But a dragon in Sussex? You’re rightly sceptical. The author knows it, and prefaces his book by trying to turn your critical mind to his advantage. The story he will tell you is ‘strange’, he accepts, but ‘it were more then imprudence to forge a lie so near home’, he reasonably argues. If you give him a chance, ‘thou wilt not doubt of one, but believe there are many Serpents in England’. You have two choices: you can either believe it or not. But, by now, you’re interested enough to buy the pamphlet – it’ll just cost a couple of pence, and it’s only eighteen pages long anyway. It’s been printed in a nice, easy-to-read English Black-Letter font: far simpler than than that new-fangled Roman typeface all the high-end treatises are printed in. Besides, there’s a marvellous woodcut of a fire-breathing dragon on the cover.

Is it breathing fire or spitting poison?

The first clue that all is not as it seems comes within the few first pages. They are devoted not to a description of this marvellous and terrifying beast, nor any witness statements, nor are they setting the scene of an idyllic and quiet pre-serpentine Sussex. Instead, there is an extended introduction to the Book of Genesis and providential theology (God’s intervention in the world). Before the fall of man, ‘all things were at the first created good’. The serpent was, at one time, ‘familiar to Eve’ and ‘serviceable to man’s use’, but now it is ‘a deadly and fatall enemy to all his posterity’ (that’s us). The author is smart, and knows the more complex ideas underpinning providential theory. Moreover, he is seeking to educate his readership, who in one place are likened to ‘shoemakers’ in social status – the middling sorts. We are told that ‘God by his word erected all things sensible and insensible’, but warned quite plainly not to take this to mean that God is the author of sin: ‘God is not the author of any evill…since evill sprung from the ill of Eve’. If there are any nasty serpents lurking in our midst, in other words, we have only ourselves to blame. The groundwork  for this fabulous tale is then laid with some historical matter: Dragons and Serpents have plagued Nero, Telephus of Greek mythology (who committed incest with his mother) and, more recently, the King of France in 1543. Once more, we are encouraged to recognise that while God may have created serpents originally, they terrorise us now not as a result of His fickle-mindedness, but as a just punishment for our own evil ways.

We then come to the reason we likely bought this pamphlet in the first place: the Dragon in Sussex. It is the size of a cart, we are told, thicker in the middle and thinner at either end of its body. It has a distinctive white ring of scales, but those nearer its back end appear to be blackened (which end does the fire come out of?) The underbelly seems to be stained red (perhaps the blood of its many victims?), but it is impossible to add much detail: ‘comming too neare it, hath already been too dearely payde for!” It’s definitely a dragon though, since it has large feet. If you come close, it will rear its head as a warning to back off. Worryingly, it appears to only be a juvenile, since the two bundles either side of its body (about the size of a ‘large foote-ball’) will, in all likelihood, one day unfurl to reveal ginormous wings. We know the damage it can already do, since the bodies of a man and a woman, ‘being poysoned and very much sweld’, have been found nearby. It’s also no use trying to hunt it: one man tried, but both his mastiffs were killed and he had to return a failure, to save his own skin. The dragon is said to live in St Leonard’s Forest, near Horsham.

We are rightly terrified at this point, but thankfully there’s a rational explanation, albeit one which surely will have come as a let-down to the early-modern rubberneckers who just wanted a cheap thrill when they handed over their money for this pamphlet. This serpent is ‘not literall to be received (in my opinion)’, says the author. Though dragons certainly exist, England is a ‘temperate’ country, and unlikely to be a hospitable place for them to live! Rather, it is a prodigious (in both senses of the word) warning from God to mend our ways. As such, the author likens it to a comet or eclipse. A similar thing (it’s claimed), once happened in Chipping Norton, but the people there corrected and amended their sins, and were freed from the terror of serpents. To hammer this allegorical point home, a groan-inducing pun – ‘serpentine sinnes’ – is constructed and deployed (he’s talking about covetousness by this point).

Yes, that’s right – it’s another cheap providence narrative of the kind produced and consumed in their thousands, to educate the multitude about the mysteries of God’s ways, and the errors of their own. I apologise to any (I doubt there are many) who thought that there really was a dragon stalking the forests of seventeenth-century Sussex. Nevertheless, this pamphlet is instructive in a number of ways: the relative sophistication of the theology for one, and the misleading but seductive use of headlines, prefaces, and woodcuts for another. Behind it lies a genuine effort to inform the population about the basics of protestant thought, though one which skips through the many tangles of providential theology. It clearly has a target audience. Whether this true and wonderfull discourse will have succeeded in educating the masses is a matter of considerable doubt. I suspect that its sneaky format will have ensured that more people will have taken home the message that dragons haunt the Sussex woods than will have been enlightened on the protestant understanding of providence! Perhaps, though, they were sceptical enough not to buy it in the first place.

The Source:

A discourse relating a strange and wonderful Serpent (or Dragon)… (London, 1614), Bodleian Library, Oxford, STC II, 2nd ed., 20569.

Further reading:

Ian Green, Print and Protestantism in early modern England (Oxford, 2000)

Alexandra Walsham, Providence in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2001)

Peter Lake with Michael Questier, The Anti-Christ’s Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (New Haven, 2002)

 

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