Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Wolf: A Villain or Victim?

From the “Big Bad Wolf” in the Three Little Pigs or Little Red Riding Hood, wolves are often cast as the antagonist: a character to fear. Throughout Christian cultures, wolves are depicted as sly, evil, and vicious. This trend of portraying wolves as the enemy or adversary has been present since the Middle Ages. In Aleksander Pluskowski’s “Wolves, Game and Livestock: Predation and Conflict,” I learned that medieval Christian literature and art frequently shows a recurring association between the wolf and the lamb. This lamb-wolf relationship is derived form the Bible and is parodied in high medieval beast literature. However, as the article states, “Can its persistence (of showing the lamb-wolf relationship) be attributed to the ecological reality as much as the religious metaphor?” (Aleksander Pluskowski).

Although it is impossible to recreate models with sufficient evidence to satisfy modern ecologists, data suggests, “comparable multi-prey systems appear to have existed in medieval northern Europe” (Pluskowski). In other words, wolves in the Middle Ages preyed on the same animals as wolves today. Thus, for the most part, wolves in the Middle Ages hunted animals like deer, sheep, and dogs. However, unlike today, where people rarely come in contact with wolves, wolves were perceived to be a threat to humans in medieval Britain and Scandinavia. As Pluskowski writes, people in these areas during the Middle Ages feared the wolf and “attacks likely rose from the early to high medieval period…on the basis that people continued to encroach on the wolves habitat and had more frequent contact.” However, the article does hedge this statement by saying that while there are references to people being angry at wolves for harming people and animals, there are few documented accounts of attacks. Therefore, it is hard to distinguish from records whether people’s fear of wolves in the Middle Ages was valid.

While the validity of people’s fear of wolves is questionable, the fear undoubtedly instigated an obvious reaction. People hunted and tried to eliminate the wolves from their lands. Wolves were hunted and trapped to extinction in England by the sixteenth century, but survived in Scotland into the seventeenth century, and on the Scandinavian peninsula until the nineteenth century (Pluskowski). This was particularly interesting to learn since the wolf was also pushed to close extinction in the United States.

Clearly, the wolf has been disliked and feared, but it does seem harsh and problematic to nearly eliminate a species. Not everyone despised the wolf in the Middle Ages. Apparently, some medieval hunters admired the wolf because of its keen hunting skills. Today, more and more people are recognizing the plight of the wolf and admire its impressive traits, such as its keen senses. However, the wolf is still generally regarded as an “undesirable predator” in the same way it was seen as disturbing “the ideal seigniorial paradise populated with wild ungulates” (Pluskowski).

The question of whether wolves are “villains” or “victims” remains today. They wolves were recently reintroduced to Yellowstone Park. The decision was and remains controversial because the wolves kill farmers’ livestock outside the Park but also provide ecological diversity and maintain deer populations. Many urban dwellers I have spoken to view wolves like a mythical creature of fantasy, such as the current werewolf movies, and do not see it as an animal to fear. However, in my home state of Montana, where local media often reports of wolves causing problems by attacking livestock or pets, we see that the wolf is a real threat.

A person will likely see the wolf as a “villain” if they see or hear of wolves attacks, but will feel like they are a “victim” if they are unaware of its predatory skills and see positive references to it--which did not exist in the Middle Ages but are starting to exist now. Also, it is interesting to note that the Pluskowski article mentioned that wolves actually played an “insignificant economic and dietary role in Anglo-Saxon society.” I believe the same can be said about today; wolves do not have much economic or dietary impact on people. Thus, when deciding whether a wolf is a villain or victim, a person’s view in the Middle Ages and today is largely (if not completely) influenced by outside resources like a religious metaphor or book rather than firsthand accounts with the ecological reality.



  1. But in fairness to our generation, we have made some progress in restoring the wolves' dignity! =] Yes I AM referring to the Twilight phenomenon. I think its influence doesn't stop at refueling our romanticization of vampires but also extends to the "werewolves." If I remember correctly, the Native American male pack was thought to be werewolves until the last book when they realize they're only shape-shifters. The giant wolves aren't portrayed as human foes but as protectors of the town. This probably works because these characters were derived from Native American folklore. I guess it also shows how different the Native American attitude towards wolves was/is from the Europeans.

  2. Clearly, our (that is, human beings') interactions with other predators (counting ourselves as the consummate predator) is necessarily complex. How much is our image of the wolf affected by the very real fear that people have/had of being attacked by wolves and how much is it a consequence of competition (not wanting the wolves to eat the animals that we intend to eat, a.k.a. livestock)? It would be interesting to compare the image of the wolf with that of other animals who likewise prey upon human beings under the right circumstances, e.g. lions or tigers. Somehow the lion, while hunted as predator since antiquity, particularly by the Persian kings (if I am remembering my ancient art history correctly), manages to be (if you will forgive the pun) lionized as the "King of Beasts," while the wolf is hunted only by woodsmen with axes and relegated to the role of cuckold (Isengrim) or pest. I think it is difficult to apply modern ideas about "not wiping out whole species" to medieval encounters with wolves: it is only in modern history that we (human beings) have become aware of and started to feel remorse for our effect on other animal populations in this way. That said, now that we do feel compassion for species, not just individuals, it is clearly important for us to make the right decision about how to interact with them. Yet another course, on animal ethics!