May 13, 2020
Big Al at the Winchester says wolves can't look backwards.
Discover other strange medieval folk beliefs and attitudes towards wolves based on folk tales, fables and medieval bestiaries.
The Wolf and the Lamb
A wolf saw a lamb straying from
the flock. Unusually, he felt somewhat guilty about taking the life
of such a helpless creature without some plausible excuse. So he
cast about in his mind for some believable
At last the wolf said to the lamb, ‘I remember you. Last year you grossly insulted me.’
That’s impossible, cried that lamb, I hadn’t even been born then!
Well then, said the wolf, you feed on the grass on my land.
That’s not right, said the lamb, I have never tasted grass.
You drink from my spring then, continued the wolf.
Not me, squeaked the lamb,I have never drunk anything but milk,
Well, anyhow, replied the wolf, I am not going without my dinner. And he sprang upon the lamb and devoured it without more ado.
Hello, welcome to History and Folklore, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs have shaped people’s perceptions of nature through time. Today we’re looking at wolves and because that’s a huge subject in folklore we’re going to focus it down just to early medieval England. I might widen this out to talk about perceptions of wolves in different countries in a future episode, if people are interested.
Wolves were once actually pretty
common in medieval England, and would have been a familiar sight to
many people travelling through the countryside of living in
villages or town outskirts. Their prevalence is reflected in the
use of wolf hides as tribute among kings and nobility, with King
Edwin, in 953 AD, demanding a tribute of three hundred wolf skins
per year. Wolf hides have also been discovered at burial sites,
suggesting they were associated with power, status and
Possibly because of their prevalence, wolves were seen as a pest, and a threat to livestock. As early as 300BC Celtic tribes in England bred wolfhounds to hunt wolves. A thousand years later the monk and scholar Bede claimed that the entire month of January was originally known as ‘wolf month’ as it was devoted to the slaughter of wolves. This attitude of seeing wolves as a harmful menace to be exterminated continued into the medieval period, culminating in King Edward I hiring a man called Peter Corbet in 1281 to ‘take and destroy all the wolves he could find.’ Peter Corbett was apparently successful, and along with the destruction of a lot of their natural habitat for agriculture, wolves became increasingly rare. The last mention of them in England was in 1305 when it was recorded that they killed eight cattle in the forest of Lancaster. redo
Authors of encyclopedias in the Medieval era such as Isidore of Seville, in the 7th century, and Bartholomaeus Anglicus, in the 13th century, argued that the Latin word for wolf, lupus, was most likely to have come from the Greek ‘lukos’ as it, apparently, ‘indicates the morals of wolves’, which ‘rapaciously kill whatever they encounter and always desire blood’ and slaughter whatever they found in a ‘frenzy of violence.’ As a result of this Isidore placed wolves within the category of ‘beasts.’ According to him all animals in this group could be identified as they shared particular characteristics. Most notable of these was that they would attack forcefully with their mouth or claws, but also that they had wildness and freedom, and an ability to ‘wander wherever their spirit leads.’ As with a lot of ideas in Medieval England, these seem to go back to Ancient Greek authors with Pliny referring to wolves as ‘cruel and fierce’ and Aristotle claiming they were ‘wild and untameable.’
The apparent violent and bloodthirsty nature of wolves is one that was obviously feared by the majority of people and was strongly imprinted upon their conscious.The majority of images of wolves from this era depicts them sneaking up to the sheepfolds to destroy livestock. This experience of wolves would have been the one that affected the majority of people in rural England, and wolves would have been seen at best as a nuisance and at worse as direct competition for food, particularly true during times of dearth.
There was also a common fear in medieval society of man-eating wolves, which was expressed through popular folklore. There was a belief that when a wolf was attacked by a group of people, he would remember who threw the first stone and kill that person if he was harmed.
Strangely, it was believed that if a wolf saw a man before he was spotted, the man would lose his voice, causing him to be unable to cry out for help. If this happened it was said that the solution would be for the man to strip and hit rocks together to prevent the wolf from attacking, which I guess must have made some sort of sense at the time. If a person was in a group and suddenly lost his voice, an onlooker was to say ‘lupus in fabula’,translated as ‘wolf in the story’ in order to restore the person’s voice. If, however, a man saw a wolf first then it was believed that the wolf would lose his fury and would not attack.
However, there were also some positive attributes associated with the wolf in folklore. For example it was said to be good luck for travellers to approach a wolf, but only if they were approaching from the right, the wolf was barring their way and the wolf was eating large mouthfuls of dirt, which seems so specific as to be nearly useless, as I doubt it would have been a situation that occurred all that often. Pliny is also quoted by medieval writers such as Bartholomaeus, as saying that wolves had a love potion in a tuft in the tip of their tails, which had to be taken while the wolf was alive, and which the wolf would bite off if there was a danger of it being trapped by humans.
Wolves also seem to be very connected to sheep in the mind of the average medieval person. They were seen as being so detrimental to sheep that the wool of a sheep attacked by a wolf would become lousy and infected, while the sheep gut strings on a harp would become corrupt if a string made of wolf gut was added.
Wolves’ position within popular stories are also generally quite negative. Aesop’s fables, popular during this period, include such tales as the wolf and the lamb, read at the beginning of this episode, in which the wolf tries to use a false excuse to kill the lamb before just eating him anyway and the ‘wolf and the shepherd’, where the wolf gains the trust of a shepherd before attacking his sheep. Both of these reflect the widespread mistrust and fear of wolves as dishonest and violent.
On the other hand, wolves could also play a humorous role, for example in the stories of ‘Reynard the Fox’ the wolf, Isegrim, was known for being strong, but greedy and stupid. Ultimately Reynard manages to outwit and kill Isegrim in a fight by distracting him by talking just as Isegrim is about to make the winning blow. In these tales wolves were chosen for the moral they could teach the audience. However, it is also possible that their comic portrayal may have been an attempt to diminish fear through humour, or may have dated from a period when wolves were perceived as less of a threat due to their scarcity.
This negative attitude towards wolves also reflected in the religious sphere of medieval life. It was generally believed during this time that animals were granted their characteristics by God as an example of proper conduct for humans to imitate, or to reinforce the teachings of the Bible. In these teachings, used by priests in sermons to convey a moral message to their congregation, wolves were often portrayed as the devil prowling outside the sheep-fold of the faithful.
Bestiary and encyclopedic literature was particularly good at reinforcing these connections. The Aberdeen bestiary claims that wolves have eyes that shine in the dark because, like the works of the devil, they appear beautiful to foolish people, leading them astray. Bartholomaeus and Isidore stated that another possible origin for ‘lupus’ was from the Greek ‘leo-pos’, meaning ‘lion-footed’ as it was widely believed that the wolf’s strength, like the lion, was in its feet and the front of its body, the head, neck shoulders and chest. This was interpreted as being a reminder from God that the devil was first an angel in heaven and then turned apostate. These interpretations are obviously intended to prompt the reader to look at nature, remember that it was made by god, and interpret the message that God was communicating.
Wolves also appear to have a strong connection with thunder. It was believed in the early medieval period that there were only twelve days in the year that wolves would mate and that they would then give birth in May, when it thundered, as this was reminiscent of the devil falling from heaven. It was also widely believed that the wolf was unable to turn its neck to look behind it, apart from in May, as ‘like the devil, it can never turn towards the correction of penitence.’
The story that seems to encapsulate the medieval attitude to wolves is one told about St Francis of Assisi. In this story a town being terrorized by a wolf, to the extent that the inhabitants were afraid to leave the city walls. This associates the wolf firmly as part of the wilderness, being outside of society and therefore an entity to be feared and avoided. The fact that St Francis manages to tame the wolf, and construct an agreement between the wolf and townspeople seems to reflect the power of God over evil, while the phrase he speaks to the wolf ‘all men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies’, reflects the expected relationship between wolves and humans during this period.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode I would really appreciate it if you could follow me on Facebook at History and Folklore Podcast or Instagram at history and folklore, where you will be notified of future episodes and also discover lots or random history and folklore facts.You can also get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for listening, and I hope to see you for the next episode.
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