Viper
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Source: Museum Meermanno - MMW, 10 B 25 facsimile Copyright 2004 Museum Meermanno Manuscript description Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25, Folio 40r


 

Viper

Latin name: Vipera

Other names: Adder, Guivre, Vuivre, Wivre, Woutre

The young of the viper eat their way out of their mother's side

 

 
General Attributes

The female viper conceives by taking the male's head in her mouth. She then bites off his head and he dies. When the young are ready to be born, they bite through their mother's side, and she dies.


Allegory/Moral

The Aberdeen Bestiary uses the story of the male viper mating with a female lamprey for a long sermon on conjugal rights. It urges women to "put up with the behaviour" of their men: "Let him be harsh, deceitful, uncouth, unreliable, drunken: are any of these things worse than the poison from which the lamprey, in intercourse, does not shrink? When she is invited, she is not found wanting and embraces the slimy snake with sincere affection. The man puts up with your mischief and your feminine tendency towards triviality. Can you, o woman, not stand by your man?" The man also gets a lesson: "But you too, O man, for we can also bring you into the discussion, set aside the passion in your heart and the roughness of your manner when your loving wife comes to meet you, get rid of your ill-humour when your wife sweetly rouses you to express your love. You are not her master but her husband; you have gained not a maidservant but a wife. God wished you to govern the weaker sex, not rule it absolutely. Return her care with attention; return her love with grace. The viper pours out its poison; can you not get rid of your harsh attitude?"


Sources (chronological order)

Herodotus [5th century BCE] (History, book 3): It is found that when the male and female come together, at the very moment of impregnation, the female seizes the male by the neck, and having once fastened, cannot be brought to leave go till she has bit the neck entirely through. And so the male perishes; but after a while he is revenged upon the female by means of the young, which, while still unborn, gnaw a passage through the womb, and then through the belly of their mother, and so make their entrance into the world. (The History of Herodotus (London, 1858/1997) Rawlinson translation)

Pliny the Elder [1st century CE] (Natural History, Book 10, 82): In mating, the male viper puts his head in the female's mouth, and she in her ecstacy bites it off. The female bears the eggs inside her until they hatch; she then gives birth to one of them a day. Since she may bear up to twenty young, the ones not yet born become impatient and burst out of her sides, killing her.

Physiologus [c. 3rd century CE] (Y version): The male viper resembles a man, and the female resembles a woman to the waist, but below the waist she has a crocodile's tail; this is the reason the female must conceive through the mouth, and also why the young must come out through her side.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 4:10-11): The viper is so called because it gives birth by force (vi-pariat). When the viper is near to giving birth, her young do not wait for the loosening of nature but bite through her sides and burst out, killing their mother. In mating, the male inserts his head into the mouth of the female and spits out his semen; the female, driven mad by lust, bites off his head. Thus both parents die, the male in mating, the female giving birth.

Aberdeen Bestiary [c. 1200 CE): adds a peculiar twist to the story, in order to use it for the basis of a sermon. Quoting Ambrose, it says of the viper: "When it feels the desire for intercourse, it goes in search of a lamprey [muraena] already known to it or prepares to copulate with a new partner. It goes to the shore and makes its presence known with a hiss, inviting her to its conjugal embrace. The lamprey, once invited, does not demur and shares with the poisonous snake the union it seeks." Cambridge University Library, MS Ii. 4. 26 also has this story.

Bartholomaeus Anglicus [13th century CE] (De proprietatibus rerum, book 7): To heal or to hide leprosy, best is a red adder with a white womb, if the venom be away, and the tail and the head smitten off, and the body sod with leeks, if it be oft taken and eaten. And this medicine helpeth in many evils; as appeareth by the blind man, to whom his wife gave an adder with garlick instead of an eel, that it might slay him, and he ate it, and after that by much sweat, he recovered his sight again. ... (Book 18): And such lie in await for them that sleep: and if they find the mouth open of them or of other beasts, then they creep in: for they love heat and humour that they find here. But against such adders a little beast fighteth that hight Saura, as it were a little ewt, and some men mean that it is a lizard; for when this beast is aware that this serpent is present, then he leapeth upon his face that sleepeth, and scratcheth with his feet to wake him, and to warn him of the serpent. And when this little beast waxeth old, his eyen wax blind, and then he goeth into an hole of a wall against the east, and openeth his eyen afterward when the sun is risen, and then his eyen heat and take light. This slaying adder and venomous hath wit to love and affection, and loveth his mate as it were by love of wedlock, and liveth not well without company. Therefore if the one is slain, the other pursueth him that slew that other with so busy wreak and vengeance, that passeth weening. And knoweth the slayer, and reseth on him, be he in never so great company of men and of people, and busieth to slay him, and passeth all difficulties and spaces of ways, and with wreak of the said death of his mate. And is not let, ne put off, but it be by swift flight, or by waters or rivers. Marcianus saith that the asp grieveth not men of Africa or Moors; for they take their children that they have suspect, and put them to these adders: and if the children be of their kind, this adder grieveth them not, and if they be of other kind, anon they die by venom of the adder.(Mediaeval Lore from Bartholomew Anglicus (London, 1893/1905) Steele edition of 1905)

Pierre de Beauvais [13th century CE) (Bestiaire): The viper will flee from a naked man but attack one who is clothed (a behavior normally attributed to the snake).


Illustration

The illustrations of the viper almost always show its reproductive methods. Where only the mating is depicted, the female is shown biting the male's head, or taking his entire head in her mouth; when only the birth is shown, the heads of the young vipers come out of the mother's side. Some manuscripts show both, either as two seperate drawings, as in British Library, Royal MS 2 B. vii (f. 126v & 127r), or together in one scene, as in Kongelige Bibliotek, Gl. kgl. S. 1633 4 (f. 51v). The form of the viper is highly varied, from the furry, two-legged, long eared creatures of Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KB, KA 16 (f. 128r) to the winged, dragon-like beasts of Museum Meermanno, MMW, 10 B 25 (f. 40r).


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