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In Search of the Wild Man

By David Taylor

Originally published at Beltane 2001

"They have Hercules of monsters conquering; Huge great giants, in a forest, fighting - Oh these be wondrous freyes!" - Joseph Strutt1 1810.

Curiosities of church architecture and medieval manuscripts, the Wildman or woodwose has, like his more famous contemporary the Green Man, been adopted by neo-Pagans as evidence of pre-Christian mythology and beliefs.

Covered from head to toe in hair and occasional greenery and brandishing a club, the wildman first appears in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh where the monstrous Enkidu derives his strength from being part man and part animal.

The ancient writings of Herodotus and Pliny refer to wildmen as creatures who roam with animals, while Pliny's description makes the more fully animal and human2.

It is tempting to take accounts such as Pliny's at face value, and that the woodwose was a form of ancient world Yeti. there are, after all, hundreds if not thousands of modern reports of such man-beasts3. it is also tempting, as many have done, to see the wildman as an extension of the Green Man; both, after all, are seen in a context of woods, vegetation and wild places. But both of these views would be an over simplification of how the wildman was viewed in his golden age - the medieval period.

Commenting on the appearance of the wildman on church misericords and benchends, Juanita Wood writes: "In medieval times, Christianity changed beastly gods to beastly demons, and their strength derived from the supernatural power of the Otherworld."4

In the medieval world the wildman appears to have been used as an romantic version of madness. Heroic figures such as all Lancelot, along with Biblical or Christian figures like St Francis and John the Baptist, were often compared by some to wildmen. His lurking in the dark woods with the animals made him a liminal figure, only partly human. Professor Ronald Hutton notes: "His function in the medieval imagination was to be a bogey in a world obsessed with religious and social order, an awful warning of the consequences of a lack of either. Thus, although he was based on ancient models, he was essentially a figure of the Christian Middle Ages."5

But as with everything else, fear gave way to conventional, as Juanita Wood observes: "In the Middle Ages, the wildman remained a tantalising, sometimes curious, sometimes romanticised, figure who eventually became institutionalised as a stock character in Medieval celebrations."

During the Middle Ages, the wildman was admired by nobility and commoner alike. Costumes depicting the wildman were a favorite at court in the 14th century. Records show that the "woodwose" appeared in a court masque in England in 1348. Brandishing his club and with fireworks going off to clear the way, the woodwose would then join hands and dance with the "Wilde Horde" - a circle dance. This custom was not peculiar to England.

In France in 1392 King Charles VI and his nobles dressed as wildmen in suits of "pitch and flax".

That the wildman has an ancient pedigree is not in question, but that the figure we know from the medieval world has undergone many changes from bogeyman to court curio cannnot be in question either.

This all too brief look at the wildman has, I hope, made you want to look a little closer at the wildman in church architecture, mythology and folklore, not to forget historical accounts - because when looking at a medieval bogeyman it is all too easy him through a rose-tinted view of the past.

"To see behind the leaves, you must shift your position, not the leaves" - Felipe Fernandez-Armesto.

References:

  • Sports and Pastimes of the People of England - Joseph Strutt (1810)
  • Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology - Richard Bernheimer (Harvard University Press 1952)
  • The Evidence for Bigfood and Other Man-Beasts - Janet and Colin Bord (Aquarian 1984)
  • Wooden Images: Misericords and Medieval England - Juanita Wood (Ass Uni Press 1993)
  • The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles - R Hutton (Blackwell 1993)

Further Reading:

  • The World Upside Down: English Misericords - Christa Grossinger (Harvey Miller Pub 1997)
  • Life in Medieval England as Portrayed on Church Misericords and Bench Ends - M G Challis (Teamband Ltd 1998)

 

 
     
 
 
 
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