The next story we have to tell is so strange and wild, that it would seem better to befit the cloudy times when history had not yet been disentangled from fable, than the comparatively clear light of the fourteenth century.
It took place in the island of Rhodes. This Greek isle had become the home of the Knights of St. John, or Hospitaliers, an order of sworn brethren who had arisen at the time of the Crusades. At first they had been merely monks, who kept open house for the reception of the poor penniless pilgrims who arrived at Jerusalem in need of shelter, and often of nursing and healing. The good monks not only fed and housed them, but did their best to cure the many diseases that they would catch in the toilsome journey in that feverish climate; and thus it has come to pass that the word hospitium, which in Latin only means an inn, has, in modern languages, given birth, on the one hand, to hotel, or lodging house, on the other, to hospital, or house of healing. The Hospital at Jerusalem was called after St. John the Almoner, a charitable Bishop of old, and the brethren were Hospitaliers. By and by, when the first Crusade was over, and there was a great need of warriors to maintain the Christian cause in Jerusalem, the Hospitaliers thought it a pity that so many strong arms should be prevented from exerting themselves, by the laws that forbade the clergy to do battle, and they obtained permission from the Pope to become warriors as well as monks. They were thus all in one--knights, priests, and nurses; their monasteries were both castles and hospitals; and the sick pilgrim or wounded Crusader was sure of all the best tendance and medical care that the times could afford, as well as of all the ghostly comfort and counsel that he might need, and, if he recovered, he was escorted safely down to the seashore by a party strong enough to protect him from the hordes of robber Arabs. All this was for charity's sake, and without reward. Surely the constitution of the Order was as golden as its badge--the eight-pointed cross--which the brethren wore round their neck. They wore it also in white over their shoulder upon a black mantle. And the knights who had been admitted to the full honors of the Order had a scarlet surcoat, likewise with the white cross, over their armor. The whole brotherhood was under the command of a Grand Master, who was elected in a chapter of all the knights, and to whom all vowed to render implicit obedience.
Good service in all their three capacities had been done by the Order as long as the Crusaders were able to keep a footing in the Holy Land; but they were driven back step by step, and at last, in 1291, their last stronghold at Acre was taken, after much desperate fighting, and the remnant of the Hospitaliers sailed away to the isle of Cyprus, where, after a few years, they recruited their forces, and, in 1307, captured the island of Rhodes, which had been a nest of Greek and Mahometan pirates. Here they remained, hoping for a fresh Crusade to recover the Holy Sepulcher, and in the meantime fulfilling their old mission as the protectors and nurses of the weak. All the Mediterranean Sea was infested by corsairs from the African coast and the Greek isles, and these brave knights, becoming sailors as well as all they had been before, placed their red flag with its white cross at the masthead of many a gallant vessel that guarded the peaceful traveler, hunted down the cruel pirate, and brought home his Christian slave, rescued from laboring at the oar, to the Hospital for rest and tendance. Or their treasures were used in redeeming the captives in the pirate cities. No knight of St. John might offer any ransom for himself save his sword and scarf; but for the redemption of their poor fellow Christians their wealth was ready, and many a captive was released from toiling in Algiers or Tripoli, or still worse, from rowing the pirate vessels, chained to the oar, between the decks, and was restored to health and returned to his friends, blessing the day he had been brought into the curving harbour of Rhodes, with the fine fortified town of churches and monasteries.
Some eighteen years after the conquest of Rhodes, the whole island was filled with dismay by the ravages of an enormous creature, living in a morass at the foot of Mount St. Stephen, about two miles from the city of Rhodes. Tradition calls it a dragon, and whether it were a crocodile or a serpent is uncertain. There is reason to think that the monsters of early creation were slow in becoming extinct, or it is not impossible that either a crocodile or a python might have been brought over by storms or currents from Africa, and have grown to a more formidable size than usual in solitude among the marshes, while the island was changing owners. The reptile, whatever it might be, was the object of extreme dread; it devoured sheep and cattle, when they came down to the water, and even young shepherd boys were missing. And the pilgrimage to the Chapel of St. Stephen, on the hill above its lair, was especially a service of danger, for pilgrims were believed to be snapped up by the dragon before they could mount the hill.
Several knights had gone out to attempt the destruction of the creature, but not one had returned, and at last the Grand Master, Helion de Villeneuve, forbade any further attacks to be made. The dragon is said to have been covered with scales that were perfectly impenetrable either to arrows or any cutting weapon; and the severe loss that encounters with him had cost the Order, convinced the Grand Master that he must be let alone.
However, a young knight, named Dieudonne de Gozon, was by no means willing to acquiesce in the decree; perhaps all the less because it came after he had once gone out in quest of the monster, but had returned, by his own confession, without striking a blow. He requested leave of absence, and went home for a time to his father's castle of Gozon, in Languedoc; and there he caused a model of the monster to be made. He had observed that the scales did not protect the animal's belly, though it was almost impossible to get a blow at it, owing to its tremendous teeth, and the furious strokes of its length of tail. He therefore caused this part of his model to be made hollow, and filled with food, and obtaining two fierce young mastiffs, he trained them to fly at the under side of the monster, while he mounted his warhorse, and endeavored to accustom it likewise to attack the strange shape without swerving.
When he thought the education of horse and dogs complete, he returned to Rhodes; but fearing to be prevented from carrying out his design, he did not land at the city, but on a remote part of the coast, whence he made his way to the chapel of St. Stephen. There, after having recommended himself to God, he left his two French squires, desiring them to return home if he were slain, but to watch and come to him if he killed the dragon, or were only hurt by it. He then rode down the hillside, and towards the haunt of the dragon. It roused itself at his advance, and at first he charged it with his lance, which was perfectly useless against the scales. His horse was quick to perceive the difference between the true and the false monster, and started back, so that he was forced to leap to the ground; but the two dogs were more staunch, and sprang at the animal, whilst their master struck at it with his sword, but still without reaching a vulnerable part, and a blow from the tail had thrown him down, and the dragon was turning upon him, when the movement left the undefended belly exposed. Both mastiffs fastened on it at once, and the knight, regaining his feet, thrust his sword into it. There was a death grapple, and finally the servants, coming down the hill, found their knight lying apparently dead under the carcass of the dragon. When they had extricated him, taken off his helmet, and sprinkled him with water, he recovered, and presently was led into the city amid the ecstatic shouts of the whole populace, who conducted him in triumph to the palace of the Grand Master.
We have seen how Titus Manlius was requited by his father for his breach of discipline. It was somewhat in the same manner that Helion de Villeneuve received Dieudonne. We borrow Schiller's beautiful version of the conversation that took place, as the young knight, pale, with his black mantle rent, his shining armor dinted, his scarlet surcoat stained with blood, came into the Knights' Great Hall.
'Severe and grave was the Master's brow,
Quoth he, 'A hero bold art thou,
By valor 't is that knights are known;
A valiant spirit hast thou shown;
But the first duty of a knight,
Now tell, who vows for CHRIST to fight
And bears the Cross on his coat of mail.'
The listeners all with fear grew pale,
While, bending lowly, spake the knight,
His cheeks with blushes burning,
'He who the Cross would bear aright
Obedience must be learning.'
Even after hearing the account of the conflict, the Grand Master did not abate his displeasure.
'My son, the spoiler of the land
Lies slain by thy victorious hand
Thou art the people's god, but so
Thou art become thine Order's foe;
A deadlier foe thine heart has bred
Than this which by thy hand is dead,
That serpent still the heart defiling
To ruin and to strife beguiling,
It is that spirit rash and bold,
That scorns the bands of order;
Rages against them uncontrolled
Till earth is in disorder.
'Courage by Saracens is shown,
Submission is the Christian's own;
And where our Saviour, high and holy,
Wandered a pilgrim poor and lowly
Upon that ground with mystery fraught,
The fathers of our Order taught
The duty hardest to fulfil
Is to give up your own self-will
Thou art elate with glory vain.
Away then from my sight!
Who can his Saviour's yoke disdain
Bears not his Cross aright.'
'An angry cry burst from the crowd,
The hall rang with their tumult loud;
Each knightly brother prayed for grace.
The victor downward bent his face,
Aside his cloak in silence laid,
Kissed the Grand Master's hand, nor stayed.
The Master watched him from the hall,
Then summoned him with loving call,
'Come to embrace me, noble son,
Thine is the conquest of the soul;
Take up the Cross, now truly won,
By meekness and by self-control.'
The probation of Dieudonne is said to have been somewhat longer than the poem represents, but after the claims of discipline had been established, he became a great favorite with stern old Villeneuve, and the dragon's head was set up over the gate of the city, where Thèvenot professed to have seen it in the seventeenth century, and said that it was larger than that of a horse, with a huge mouth and teeth and very large eyes. The name of Rhodes is said to come from a Phoenician word, meaning a serpent, and the Greeks called this isle of serpents, which is all in favor of the truth of the story. But, on the other hand, such traditions often are prompted by the sight of the fossil skeletons of the dragons of the elder world, and are generally to be met with where such minerals prevail as are found in the northern part of Rhodes. The tale is disbelieved by many, but it is hard to suppose it an entire invention, though the description of the monster may have been exaggerated.
Dieudonne de Gozon was elected to the Grand Mastership after the death of Villeneuve, and is said to have voted for himself. If so, it seems as if he might have had, in his earlier days, an overweening opinion of his own abilities. However, he was an excellent Grand Master, a great soldier, and much beloved by all the poor peasants of the island, to whom he was exceedingly kind. He died in 1353, and his tomb is said to have been the only inscribed with these words, 'Here lies the Dragon Slayer.'
You might also enjoy reading a prose version of the classic poem, St. George and the Dragon.