The Multifaceted Wolves of Early Medieval England

Claude Lévi-Strauss famously stated that ‘animals are good to think with’, capturing the cultural significance of other creatures in the conceptualisation of human concerns. But not all animals are created equal in the human imagination. Throughout history, one particular species has proven to be one of the most productive animals ‘to think with’: the wolf.

Wolves have consistently been ‘thought with’ and ‘thought of’ in an incredibly wide variety of ways. Today, they are seen by some as enemies of humankind, as criminals, or as savage and bloodthirsty creatures; others consider them a symbol of the ever-shrinking ‘wilderness’ and a beacon of hope for crumbling ecosystems, or noble creatures to be admired as successful hunters. Such cultural perceptions of wolves – which, whether consciously or subconsciously, have long determined whether and where they have been allowed to live – are driven largely by the stories told about them. Yet while the ‘big bad’ wolf of fairy tale and folklore has stood the test of time to become one of the most ubiquitous wolves in western culture today, other wolves from the literature of the past, such as those found in Old English and Anglo-Latin texts, are no less deserving of our attention.

Just as a wide variety of meanings and associations are attached to wolves today, the imagined wolves of early medieval England took many forms. One of the most well-known is the wolf as a companion of the outlawed criminal, a figure often compared to the animal by dint of his rapacious crimes and his banishment to the lupine-infested wilderness. This association is found in both Old English and Old Norse literature, with the conceptual similarity between the two beings encoded in the Old Norse term vargr, which meant both ‘wolf’ and ‘outlaw’. Given this, there has been frequent debate as to whether the Old English cognate wearg, which primarily meant ‘criminal’ (though which also sometimes appeared as an adjective meaning ‘accursed’), could have had a secondary meaning of ‘wolf’. The perceived similarity between wolves and outlaws in early medieval England is a highly complex issue, bound up with these difficult word meanings, potential borrowings from Frankish legal codes and Old Norse literature and culture, and several related associations pertaining to the similarity of certain crimes (such as graverobbing) to perceived lupine behaviour. The first chapter of Wolves in Beowulf and Other Old English Texts is dedicated to untangling this notoriously difficult problem.

Unlike this vexed question, a second lupine cultural association has previously gone almost entirely unacknowledged despite its ubiquity in classical and early medieval European literature. This is the superstition that the wolf, should it espy a person before they laid eyes on it, could ‘steal’ their speech. As detailed in the second chapter of Wolves in Beowulf, the texts in which this superstition appears – from Virgil and Pliny to Isidore of Seville, Ambrose, Donatus, and more – were all read and utilised throughout England during the early medieval period. It is thus unsurprising that the superstition appears to have been known to Alcuin of York and also, perhaps, to the anonymous composer of an Old English charm in which it is asserted that a traveller need not fear meeting a wolf on their way if they ‘saw [its] track’ first, a feat that could be achieved if they carried two pieces of the animal’s fur with them on their journey.

Each of these cultural associations appears to find expression in the literature of early medieval England, some of which I analyse in the latter half of Wolves in Beowulf. The notoriously vexing little poem Wulf and Eadwacer, for example, is often interpreted in terms of the association between wolves and outcasts, with the titular Wulf frequently taken as an outlaw. Yet much of the lupine imagery relating to Wulf, his lover (and speaker of the poem), and his child may also be taken literally, such that the poem presents the stories of a group of outlaws and a pack of wolves simultaneously. Two passions of St Edmund written by Abbo of Fleury and Ælfric of Eynsham (the latter of whom adapted Abbo’s Anglo-Latin original into the vernacular), meanwhile, appear to take the speech-stealing wolf superstition as a source. In these texts the superstition is deployed allegorically, to emphasise the importance of maintaining faith in the Word of God even in the face of a speech-stealing, devilish entity. Edmund does not lose his faith despite a group of wolfish Danes torturing and killing him in their attempt to ‘steal’ the Word from within his heart. As reward for his constancy, Edmund’s decapitated head miraculously regains the ability to speak, and is guarded by a speech-protecting wolf made tame by God. In a third text, Beowulf, elements of both the wolf/outlaw association and the superstition of the speech-stealing wolf appear to be combined. In the final chapter of Wolves in Beowulf I examine this poem’s outlawed, lupine monsters as well as the wolfish titular character, culminating in an interpretation of the text that considers the superstition as a possible source.

It’s impossible to do justice to the literary wolves of early medieval England in less than a thousand words. They are vibrant creatures to which a variety of meanings and associations were attached, and reinterpreting texts such as Wulf and Eadwacer, the passiones Eadmundi, and Beowulf through a lupine lens allows for exciting new readings of these narratives in which the wolves within are fully appreciated as complex and nuanced entities. Wolves in Old English literature were not merely Beasts of Battle who haunted the theatre of war in the hope of satiating their penchant for human flesh, but multifaceted and fascinating creatures which the people of early medieval England ‘thought with’ and wrote of in a strikingly diverse number of ways.

This guest post was written by Elizabeth Marshall, who gained her PhD from the University of St Andrews, receiving awards for both her thesis and for her work researching the cultural and sociological issues related to top predator reintroduction to Britain.

Wolves in Beowulf and Other Old English Texts
by Elizabeth Marshall
9781843846406, hardcover, £39/$55.25

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