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Jul 27, 2011

Medieval Mondays: Wild men in Medieval folklore

Medieval folklore is filled with monsters, from dragons to unicorns to goblins. One enduring creature is the wild man. This fellow is generally depicted as unclothed, covered in hair, of immense strength, and living on the edge of human habitation. He (and sometimes she) appears frequently in illuminated manuscripts, heraldry, and even coins. Some wild men are shown as giants, another favorite creature of the medieval bestiary.

Medieval Europeans were fascinated by what anthropologists call "liminal zones", areas crossing from one state of existence to another, in this case from civilization to wilderness. There was a lot of wilderness in medieval Europe, and since most people didn't travel, this wilderness was looked upon with wonder and fear. Who knew what might be living in that primeval forest? At the edge of human habitation there certainly were some strange people: bandits, hermits, madmen, so perhaps there were monsters too.

Medieval society was a strict and hierarchical one. Everyone had their place and they better stick to it. In the more rural areas, though, the church and state had less of an iron grip, and people could get away with more. Time and again in the historical record there are reports of rural people engaging in rituals that look like pagan survivals or revivals. These were dangerous but exciting, and medieval people looked upon these remote regions with a guilty thrill. The wild man is a projection of this.
Images of wild men are so frequent that some have argued that they may have been real. Some say there may have been primitive tribes living in the more remote regions, or even surviving Neanderthals. There's no evidence for this. I think there probably were a few wild men, people who left society either by choice or by force, who lived a semi-wild life in the woods, wearing uncured pelts as clothing. They may have been a danger to farmers living on the edge of civilization, stealing livestock or women and children as is often depicted in wild men imagery. In the weird, wonderful world of the Middle Ages, it's not unlikely.

[All images courtesy Wikimedia Commons]


  1. Interesting.
    This post early? I had one go early today. Hate it when that happens.

  2. I think quite possible to have existed not only in Europe! In Central Asia, reports similar creatures that may have little time to extinquido or even exist yet. I refer to Almasty and the story of Zana.

  3. When is the penny going to drop? Woman, children, livestock being taken? They were sometimes referred to as giants?? Do a little digging and you'll discover that every single north American first nations tribes tell similar stories of their 'hairy men'... The same for the yowie in the Australia. Cracking little article though, enjoyed it. x

  4. Go to Oberstdorf, Germany and they've got a statue just outside the train station. Go in 2015 and you can see some in person, sort of.

    Scroll to the bottom for a photo:

    They're covered with tassels or something from evergreen trees. My wife's mother made some costumes a few times, I think, and didn't care much for it.

  5. We have some really good "wild man" artworks at my work by the amazing Martin Schongauer. You can see them here:

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