Friday, October 29, 2010

Hunting the Wolf

Today’s discussion about the nobility of hunting really sparked an interest within me to look deeper into the reasons behind the numerous wolf hunts t hat occurred within the Middle Ages. We know from the discussion today that there were several purposes attributed to the hunting of animals. In most cases the purpose of the hunt was the chase in itself, culminating within the equally important kill and ceremonial dismemberment. Sometimes animals were hunted for their meat, i.e. the poachers that we read about for today, or the nobles and huntsmen were just trying to keep the populations down within the deer parks and warrens (culling). Most other hunters justified their hunting activities by stating that they were eliminating other predators, especially the wolf, which is typically personified to be evil amongst society within the Middle Ages. This final observation got me thinking, was it really necessary to hunt and kill all those wolves just on the pretense that they were evil and therefore harmful to others?

Within Pluskowksi’s Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages he specifically mentions within Ch.4 that in places, “Where a wolf population is predominantly reliant on a single wild prey species, and the prey population is seasonally depleted, wolf attacks on livestock may increase.”[1] In that case, it is not really the wolf’s fault that he invaded the human domain in search for food; he was just following his basic animal instincts, the ones that people within the Middle Ages clearly believed all animals followed since they made it quite clear that animals had no free will of their own. Pluskowski also makes it a point to mention to the reader that “whilst the wolf was set in predatory opposition to sheep in Christian thought, in the physical landscape wolves were almost certainly targeting wild ungulates first and livestock second.”[2] Therefore do we still agree with the Middle Age perception of the wolf as being inherently evil, and a nuisance which must be exterminated or do we delve deeper within the past and explore the reasons behind the necessity of the wolf hunt?

Since, this is also a problem that I am trying to explore for my research paper I have been doing a lot of research upon the wolf and the ways in which Middle Age people perceived it and also responded to it. What I have come upon so far was that the wolf was first associated with the Scriptures, specifically within the Old and New Testaments. Donalson states that within the Old Testament “wolves are especially dangerous in the evening, which is suggestive already of their stealth, cunning, treachery, under the cover of darkness (Habakkuk). In fact the very strength of their negative image offers itself in the depiction of leaders who wreak havoc instead of governing justly, leaders who are not above doing harm to their charges that compares to blood-letting (Genesis, Ezekiel and Zephaniah).”[3] He mentions that within the book of Genesis man was first described as having wolf-like characteristics. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; mornings he devours his prey, and evenings he distributes the spoils.”[4] It is clear to the audience that the wolf was a perfect example of insatiable behavior of men and the greed that could ruin them. The New Testament did not improve the perception of the wolf; it actually might have made it worse. This is where the wolf began to clearly be personified as a sign of the agent of Satan. The most famous example of this distinction occurs within Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” [5] Since the Gospel has already solidified the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd who, “will lay down his life for the sheep”[6] , the reader knows that the wolves are clearly the agents of the devil who is conspiring against Christ, just waiting for him to turn away so that it can devour the flock.

The way I see it, is that this general fear inspired by the scriptures and then later more thoroughly developed within bestiaries (in which the wolf was described as being an animal which is “rapacious, craves blood and can deprive a man of the power of speech), beast epics and poems such as Aesop’s Fables, Ysengrimus and Reynard the Fox, (which were all meant to be allegorical and moral stories to warn people of the deceit and greediness of the wolf character whether it was presented as an actual wolf as in the fables or a wolf-monk within Ysengrimus). Early Middle Age literature in general led to this great fear of the wolf, even though Pluskowski makes it quite clear that “there is a general lack of documentary evidence for wolf attacks on people in Medieval Britain and Scandinavia.”[7]

So, if there is little evidence that wolves posed a threat to humans beyond the potential threat to livestock, due to a scarcity in its food supply, was it really necessary to hunt them to extinction within England? In a later chapter, Pluskowski mentions that the wolf may have been as commodity, especially within Scandinavia, France (that actually has records of this) and southern Europe. “Pelts were available from major trading hubs in both northern and southern Europe; the Florentine mercantile agent Francesco Pegolotti, writing in the mid-fourteenth century, mentions that wolf skins could be obtained from Sicily and Majorca.”[8] Despite that, there was not a great market for wolf pelts in general due to the general negative characteristics of the wolf. We also know that wolf meat was considered inedible amongst Christians, and therefore useless. This once again raises the question of the necessity of the wolf hunt.

Middle Age people were not using the wolf meat, they were not reveling in the chase or the ceremonial kill, like they were when hunting other animals, they were not culling, and wolves scarcely if ever attacked humans. The only threat the wolf displayed was to livestock, which it only encroached upon when its own food supply was scarce. In the end, the wolf was not really a predator that necessitated total extermination. The society imposed upon the wolf this image of the evil, greedy being and facilitated this general fear. In reality the wolf was just following its baser nature as all animals fashioned by God do.

What do you think? Is the perception of the wolf a correct one? Was it necessary to exterminate this animal? Take into account that wolves have also been documented as useful parts of spiritual rituals and amulets, and have also been present as artistic examples of heraldry. I will be examining a lot more within my paper, but to me it seems problematic that the wolf was being considered as a less noble animal than any other and hunted using cunning and trickery with nets and snares and pit traps all due to this general perception of it being Satanic and evil.


[1] Pluskowski, Aleksander. Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge NY: The Boydell Press, 2006. Ch.4 pg. 91.
[2] Pluskowski, Aleksander. Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge NY: The Boydell Press, 2006. Ch.4 pg. 93
[3] Donalson, Malcolm Drew. The History of the wolf in Western Civilization: from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.  Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd, 2006. Pg. 11.
[4] Donalson, Malcolm Drew. The History of the wolf in Western Civilization: from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.  Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd, 2006. Pg.5.
[5] Donalson, Malcolm Drew. The History of the wolf in Western Civilization: from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.  Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd, 2006. Pg. 18
[6] Donalson, Malcolm Drew. The History of the wolf in Western Civilization: from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.  Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd, 2006. Pg.21
[7] Pluskowski, Aleksander. Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge NY: The Boydell Press, 2006. Ch. 5 pg. 95.
[8] Pluskowski, Aleksander. Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge NY: The Boydell Press, 2006. Ch. 6 pg. 112.


  1. Poor misunderstood wolves, they got such a bad rap. Although I'm sure wolves are quite voracious eaters of livestock when their own source of wild prey is depleted, it's hard to believe an entire species would be wiped out for a singular threat. I thought I read somewhere that land was granted to those who managed to kill a certain number of wolves, though I can't imagine what one would do with a wolf carcass. Of course wolves are inedible- I suppose, and I don't think their pelts were that valuable because they are so coarse. At any rate, wolves are easy scapegoats and they make good metaphors. I just found out recently that the wolf in "Little Red Riding Hood" represents a rapacious libertine, the tale was meant to be a warning for young girls to beware of licentious rakes (particularly it was aimed at ladies in the terriby profligate court of Louis XIV) The court represented in the story as the woods.

  2. Poor wolves! But, honestly, has our perception of wolves changed much since the Middle Ages? In the U.S. alone, people get very heated up over whether or not we should issue legal protection for wolves. Sarah Palin, once again, stirred up controversy for propsing legislation that would encourage wolf-hunting (in the 50s the Alaskan gov't paid employees and bounty hunters to kill thousands of wolves).

    With the technology at our disposal today, there should be so many alternative methods for preventing wolves from attacking livestock or lurking around human habitation. However, so many people just want the wolves dead, gone. Is it because we associate them with everything morally bad- something we inherited from our medieval ancestors?

  3. The fact that wolves hunted livestock primarily in times of hardship was probably crucial to them developing that bad rap. Wild hawks and dogs also hunted, but they didn't gain the same notoriety. One of the major differences seems to me is that the hawks and dogs were consistent in eating the rabbits and other small game peasants needed -it was a fact of life. Wolves, on the other hand, presented the specter of starvation through the loss of livestock when other sources of food were scarce. This seems to be a much scarier threat.

  4. Yes, I agree with Hannah. I think Prof. Fulton described this briefly, but there is an interesting trend in medieval literature and accounts associating the appearance of wolves with famine, war, disease, and death. The "specter of starvation" may be a good way to characterize this. Also: "seasonally depleted" for wolves would probably mean winter, right?

  5. No, the perception of the wolf hasn't changed over the years and its really sad that people still perceive the wolf as an inherently evil creature. If we knew more about them by observance, instead of just following previous authority, perhaps we would be able to see them in a new light. At least that's what I hope to show in my paper. Also, yes, seasonally depleted refers to winter and also to the general hunting season where hunters killed most of the animals in the forest that the wolves depended upon.


  6. I think that what you're struggling with here is the difference between the symbolic evil of the wolf and the actuality of wolves as predators. Did medieval hunters kill wolves as symbols or as menaces? In other words, given their propensity to think in symbolic terms about nature, were medieval hunters hunting the actual animals or their meaning? I am thinking now of the way in which Victorian big game hunters thought about their quarry. Tigers were real menaces in India, but they were also symbolic of Nature. They were predators but they were also Beasts. I can easily imagine that medieval hunters felt themselves to be hunting not just predators, but Evil when they went after wolves, likewise that the practice of hunting them as Evil went on after they were no longer prevalent as predators. But given that even one wolf attack would come in the context of a tradition of seeing wolves as particularly dangerous, it is also easy to see how hunters might overreact (at least, in our terms). They did not know that wolves were an endangered species. As far as they knew, there would always be wolves out there, just waiting to prey on their livestock and children.