Having contemplated ideas about wilderness and “the wild” this semester, both for a seminar as well as my own research, I have been pleasantly forced to contemplate the figure of the wolf as well. My academic leanings toward medieval literature predisposed certain wonderings as to how premodern texts might speak to current concerns of the wolf. I write the lines below even as a lone, male wolf makes his way to within howling distance of California––soon to become the first “wild” wolf to enter the state in 87 years.
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There probably isn’t another living creature that represents the wild any more so than does the wolf. It is, all at once, graceful, mysterious, beautiful and violent. And yet, at the same time, it shares many features with its human neighbors: “[wolves] are smart, curious, cooperative, loyal and adaptable.” It seems unfortunate, then, that our relationships with wolves are often troublesome, and they have been as such since at least the Middle Ages. If we were to follow Chaucer’s lead for a moment, believing it is true that “out of old books comes all this new knowledge that men learn,” perhaps we might then allow premodern texts to add their voices to the current discourse, with the hope to, as Douglas Chadwick suggests must happen, “formulate better answers to the questions posed by the return of wolves––not the wolves in our minds but the real wolves watching from the mountainsides.”
And wolves, indeed, were a concern in the Middle Ages. Yi-Fu Tuan describes several violent encounters between humans and wolves in his Landscapes of Fear, including the following episode recorded in 1233:
…the wolves gathered together in mighty multitudes round the city moats, howling dismally for exceeding anguish of hunger; and they crept into the cities by night and devoured men and women and children….at times they would even break through the house-walls and strangle the children in their cradles.
In Romance of the Rose, the threat is actually extended to other large predators, implying that, were they given speech and reason, “bears, wolves, lions, leopards, and boars would all be glad to strangle [a human].”
Perhaps most interesting in human/wolf encounters from the Middle Ages is the difficulty the medieval mind seemed to have, as Tuan suggests, in “decid[ing] where to draw the line between animals and humans.” Historical documents have shown that “offending wolves…were tried in courts, given sentences, and executed.” This practice is echoed in Alain de Lille’s The Plaint of Nature. In that text, the wolf, just one of many creatures appearing on the goddess Nature’s dress, is described as follows: “adopting the role of the highwayman, by lying in hiding, [the wolf] deserved to swing aloft on gallows row.” This, despite Nature’s proclamation later in the text that “my bounteous power does not shine forth in you alone individually but also universally in all things.”
This egalitarian predisposition of Nature towards all “things,” while simultaneously maintaining power over the human might seem to imply a medieval ecology of sorts. This supposition, however, is quite complicated as Sarah Stanbury suggests in “Ecochaucer: Green Ethics and Medieval Literature.” Stanbury argues that “giv[ing] nature power over human affairs….may have had dire historical consequences for land use by exonerating her human subjects from custodial responsibilities.” Yet, The Plaint of Nature does seem to mourn humankind’s negative impact upon the works of nature, as when the goddess states: “Man…has all but drained the entire treasury of my riches….” And Romance of the Rose, too, features a frustrated Nature exclaiming, “only man, I say, causes me more distress than any wolf-cub.”
Yet if anything, the real wolf cub, Canis lupus, rather than the imagined wolf of fiction, shows the greatest promise in easing the distress on nature. According to Chadwick, “Scientists are documenting ecological changes tied to this top predator’s return that may hold the potential to repair out-of-balance wildlands, making them more stable and biologically diverse.” He goes on to suggest that, “The question is no longer how to get rid of wolves but how to coexist with them.” Coexisting with wolves certainly brings up questions of land use, a concern evident as early as The Plaint of Nature, which decried the need for “an approved plan of management” with which to maintain order. Management and the wolf, however, are historically strange bedfellows.
All but exterminated in the lower 48 states by the 1930s, wolves are only beginning to make a comeback in the United States, and not entirely based upon human intervention as the headlines often suggest. The reappearance of the gray wolf, “the planet’s most widespread large land mammal after humans and their livestock,” has “triggered…an eruption of hope, fear, resentment, lawsuits, and headline news.” Surprisingly, a medieval technique derived from 15th century Poland, called fladry, “stringing wire with bright flags along its length,” shows promise in lowering wolf attacks, which account for 1% of all cattle and sheep deaths.
While not providing direct answers to the wolf/human questions, premodern texts might indeed provide us with new ways of thinking about these often similar, often different creatures. Like Chaucer, I too, “hope so to read that some day I shall meet with something of which I shall fare the better,” something of which all creatures shall fare the better. Yes, even wolves.