Gower Bibliography

The Carbuncle in the Adder's Head

Henkin, Leo J. "The Carbuncle in the Adder's Head." Modern Language Notes 58.1 (1943), pp. 34-39.


Henkin investigates the folkloric background to the story of "Aspidis the Serpent" told in Book 1 of the CA. The story tells of a snake whose forehead is studded with a carbuncle, and who protects itself against snake charmers by shutting its ears. Macaulay had noted that the story is based on Psalm 58 (and its interpretation by Augustine and Isidore of Seville), but Henkin asks where the detail of the carbuncle originates. He suggests a source in the folk and lapidary lore about the jewel "dracontides," a stone thought to be found in the brain of dragons. After a detailed survey of this myth, ranging from Socatus and Pliny to a variety of medieval lapidaries, Henkin notes that in two of the medieval texts on the subject, the Alphabetical Lapidary and its likely transcription in English, the Peterborough Lapidary, the dracontides is specifically identified as a carbuncle. It is thus apparent that the passage in Gower is "either a confusion or a conscious combining of two legends, one dealing with a snake in whose head is embedded a carbuncle, the other with a snake with a trick to nullify a charmer's incantations" (38). The possibility of an intentional conflation is strengthened by the dramatic function of the carbuncle in providing motivation for the conjurers' attempt to enchant the serpent. [CvD]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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