Catalogue of Serpents in Metham’s Amoryus and Cleopes

A jaculus in Oxford, Bodleian Library Bodley MS 764, f. 98v
© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

by Amanda Gerber

John Metham’s Amoryus and Cleopes is a fifteenth-century romance loosely based on Ovid’s “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a tale perhaps better known as the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The romance bears few resemblances to its Ovidian source or Shakespearean counterpart, not least of all because Metham adds to the love story a battle with a dragon as well as a postmortem resurrection and Christian conversion. In addition to these idiosyncrasies, the only extant copy of the romance appears in a manuscript otherwise devoted to scientific treatises, the only other texts that Metham seems to have written.[1] The work has merited little scholastic acclaim. Derek Pearsall, for instance, has called the poem almost unreadable because of its nearly indecipherable meter, not to mention Metham’s tendency to digress—which he does not only to chase dragons, but also to classify them.[2] One particular section of the poem combines both of these seemingly desultory interests in the form of a catalogue for all the types of serpents supposedly known in the Middle Ages, a catalogue that veers from factual to fanciful, narrative to encyclopedic, and from abstract to diagnostic. This post explores Metham’s catalogue of serpents as an intersection between its manuscript’s poetic and scientific contents. Although based on serpent classifications, Metham’s catalogue challenges its very principles of classification, blurring the boundaries between science and romance and even the concept that lists as a genre reinforce categorical boundaries.

The catalogue in question appears as part of a speech by the titular heroine, Cleopes, who offers instructions to Amoryus on the eve of his battle with a dragon. Cleopes explains that knowing the type of dragon Amoryus will face will help him prepare, considering that armor is supposedly useless against the dragon’s venom. The list becomes serpentine in more than one sense, with a seemingly meandering course through descriptions of serpents, a medieval genus for a wide range of snake-like species that included dragons. Cleopes explains that some are easier to fight than others and that they all have different names, natures, and remedies against them; moreover, some can supposedly kill with a glance

As thise cokatrycys; and yit reemdyi ys ther, perdé.
For with a wesyl men yt destroye be kindly nature
And the serpent clepyd draconia—that more ys in qwantyté
Than ony best on erthe, thow he be noght venymmus—
Mervulus dragonnys and monstrys also;
Wyth the venym of a tode or of arany,
They sone yt slee; and the serpent namyd jaculus—in hys flight
Qwat that he upon fallyth so venymusly, he doth yt smyght
And beside thise, ther ys a dragon huge and cumbrous,
Namyd aspys, most to be feryd for hys sotelté;
For enchauntement ner sleyght mos ingenyus
Can noght bring hym fro hys den for no necessyté;
And beside thise rehersyd, ther be in the see
As thise chyldrynys, ydrys, and yptoamys ther be,
Hos bytyngs be curyd with the egetyon of bolys; and odyr mo
Dragunnys on erth ther be, but one in special most foo
To alle lyvyng thing—but to man most in special—
The qwychean hundred fote ys long, tayle and alle.
And serra cornuta yt ys namyd be clerkys. (1251–54, 1258–60, 1269–72, 1289–95)

[Such as these Cockatrices, and yet there is a remedy, by God. For men destroy it with a weasel, by the law of nature, and the serpent called Draconia, of which there are more on earth than any beast, although it is not venomous […] They quickly kill it with the venom of a toad or of a spider; and the serpent named Jaculus—it smites what it falls upon so venomously in its flight […] And besides these, there is a huge and burdensome dragon named Asp, which is to be feared most for its ingenuity; for no enchantment or most cunning trick can bring it out of its den for any necessity; […] And in addition to these recited, there are marvelous dragons and other monsters in the sea; as there are these Chyldrynys, Hydra, and Ypotamys, whose bites are cured with the dung of bulls; and there are more other types of dragons on earth, but one in particular is the greatest foe to all living things—but especially to man—that which is one hundred feet long, tail and all. And it is named by clerks “Serra Cornuta.”]

Cleopes’s lengthy instructions about the nature of different species of serpents detail the damage they cause and their cures, such as using a weasel to dispose of the cockatrice, which is sometimes associated with the basilisk.[3] The information results in a type of catalogue that picks up speed by the end as she turns to the monstrous chyldrynys (water adder), yrdys (hydra), and ypotamys (sea horse with dragon-like scales). The monstrous collection at the end offers a prelude for the serpentine opponent that Amoryus will actually face, the serra cornuta, which is technically a winged sea monster, but Metham makes it terrestrial, horned, and poisonous with fiery-like breath. In this regard, Cleopes’s list proceeds in complexity from the seemingly mundane cockatrice, defeated by an even more mundane weasel, to the magically monstrous serra cornuta.

The organization deviates from all Metham’s potential sources, which are mostly encyclopedic collections, such as John Trevisa’s English translation of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon and some sort of bestiary, which is a collection of encyclopedic entries about animals. The jaculus, for instance, appears in bestiaries as a flying serpent that perches in trees waiting to jump down on approaching prey, which Metham reiterates when referring to the jaculus’s venomous flight.[4] However, the organization seems distinctly Metham’s own, including the organization of domestic to monstrous serpents as well as its complete break from narrative action. In general, even encyclopedias insert these serpentine classifications in relation to classical narratives. For example, the bestiary preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley MS 764 attributes the jaculus reference to Lucan’s classical Latin epic, the Pharsalia, turning attention back to a classical Latin narrative, not unlike the Ovidian framework for Cleopes’s catalogue.[5] Additionally, Trevisa tends to integrate his serpent information into his historical accounts, such as noting how Hercules slew the serpent Hydra in the Lerna before describing the Hydra’s nine heads.[6] In other words, even the most encyclopedic of medieval texts proved less encyclopedic in presentation than Cleopes’s diagnostic catalogue, which classifies its contents to identify both the nature of Amoryus’s opponent and its cure.

Cleopes’s catalogue proves to interrupt Amoryus and Cleopes in more than one regard: it forestalls the classically inspired narrative to classify serpents, deviating even further from the Ovidian tale of star-crossed lovers. The tale often served as a type of writing prompt in the Middle Ages, an exercise that resulted in multiple adaptations of “Pyramus and Thisbe” throughout the Middle Ages and then two during the Renaissance by Shakespeare alone (the aforementioned Romeo and Juliet and the play within a play of A Midsummer Night’s Dream).[7] Metham’s version of the exercise seems to play with the genre of writing itself, essentially using the standard Ovidian myth to build a pseudo-scientific investigation of the creatures found in such classical myths. The resulting catalogue becomes as much of a diagnostic of mythic sources as it does of the potential serpents Amoryus might face. As part of a manuscript primarily devoted to scientific investigation, Cleopes’s catalogue of serpents offers a point of intersection, where classical tale and science intersect, offering an opportunity to anatomize Metham’s mythic source just as he dissects subjects like astronomy elsewhere in the manuscript. Nevertheless, the serpent catalogue, unlike the manuscript’s purely scientific treatises, ends up dismantling the very items it classifies. Only the final serpent, the serra cornuta, proves relevant for the narrative, making this section a guide more to other myths or even encyclopedias than to the poem within which it is housed.

[1] Metham’s romance and scientific treatises were all copied  in 1449 into Princeton, Princeton University Library, MS Garrett 141.

[2] Derek Pearsall, “The English Romance in the Fifteenth Century,” Essays and Studies 29 (1976): 56–83.

[3] For the basilisk connection, see especially John Trevisa, Polychronicon, 2:1153–54.

[4] See, for example, Richard Barber’s translation of the bestiary in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764. Richard Barber, Bestiary MS Bodley 764 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1999), 192.

[5] See, for example, Richard Barber’s translation of the bestiary in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 764. Richard Barber, BestiaryMS Bodley 764 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1999), 192.

[6] (Book II, p. 357 & 359)

[7] See especially Glending Olson, ; E. H. Alton and D. E. W. Wormell, “Ovid in the Medieval Classroom,” Hermathena 94–95 (1960–1961): 21 –38, 67–82. And for examples of the product of these adaptation exercises, see especially Raymond Cormier, ed. and trans., “Piramus et Tisbé,” Three Ovidian Tales of Love (New York: Garland, 1986), 3–83; and the French moralized commentary version in C. de Boer, ed. “Pyramus et Thisbé,” Ovide Moralisé: Poème du Commencement du Quatorizème Siècle 5 vols. (Amsterdam: 1915–1938), 2:18–41.


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