Wolf Child of Hesse: State of the Research

wolf child 2A little more than a month ago, I put up a little post about the Wolf Child of Hesse. I’m talking about this material twice in the next month, first, this Friday at the CUNY Grad Center at 2pm, in the third annual Pearl Kibre Medieval Study Roundtable on New Directions in Medieval Scholarship; then I’ll revise madly based on that discussion, and present the research again at Barnard on December 4, at the The Twenty-Second Barnard Medieval and Renaissance Conference: Animals and Humans in the Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, where I’ll be the very junior member of a roundtable discussion with Aranye Fradenberg, Sarah Stanbury, and Julian Yates. Here’s a piece of what I have currently.

To recap: one of the several anonymous continuations of the Chronicle of St Peter of Erfurt tells the story of a boy snatched away and raised by wolves:

Anno Domini MCCCIIII. Quidam puer in partibus Hassie est deprehensus. Hic, sicut postea cognitum est, et sicut ipse retulit, cum trium esset annorum, a lupis est captus et mirabiliter educatus. Nam, quamcumque predam lupi pro cibo rapuerant, semper meliorem partem sumentes et arbori circumcucientes [nb: “circumiacientes”] ipsi ad vorandum tribuebant. Tempore vero hiemis et frigoris foveam facientes, folia arborum et alias herbas imponentes, puerum superponebant, et se circumponentes, sic eum a frigore defendebant; ipsum eciam manibus et pedibus repere cogebant et secum currere tamdiu, quod ex use eorum velocitatem imitabatur et saltus maximos faciebat. Hic deprehensus lignis circumligatis erectus ire ad humanam similitudinem cogebatur. Idem vero puer sepius dicebat se multo carius cum lupis, si in se esset, quam cum hominibus diligere conversari. Hic puer in curiam Heinrici principis Hassie pro spectaculo est allatus.

1304. A certain boy in the region of Hesse was seized. This boy, as was known afterwards, and just as the boy told it himself, was taken by wolves when he was three years old and raised up wonderously. For, whatever prey the wolves snatched for food, they would take the better part and divide it up for him to eat while they lay around a tree. In the time of winter and cold, they made a small pit, and they put the leaves of trees and other plants in it, and surrounded the boy to protect him from the cold; they also compelled him to creep on hands and feet and to run with them for a long time, from which practice he imitated their speed and was able to make the greatest leaps. When he was seized, he was bound with wood to compel him to go erect in the manner of a human. However, this boy often said that he much preferred to live among wolves than among men. This boy was conveyed to the court of Henry, Prince of Hesse, for a spectacle.

The heterogeneous Erfurt Chronicle includes another such story, that of the child of Wetterau:

Anno Domini MCCCXLIIII. quidam puer a lupis deportatus in Wederavia in una villa nobilium, que dicitur Eczol, qui puer XII annis cum lupis erat in magna silva, que dicitur vulgariter dy Hart. Hic puer isto anno tempore hyemis in nive in vanacione captus [fuerat] a nobilibus ibidem morantibus, et vixit forte ad LXXX annos.

In 1344, a certain boy, taken by wolves in Wetterau in an estate named Eczol, who was with the wolves for twelve years in a great forest called the Hart. This boy was captured during winter in the snow by nobles who were in the area for hunting, and he lived for 80 years.

The Erfurt historiographical material tends not to list marvels; instead, it tends towards records of catastrophic weather, accounts of struggles between nobles or between nobles and the papacy, and depressingly many accounts of pogroms attempted forced conversions (and mass suicides), and ritual murder/Host desecration accusations. It does not often speak of wolves: it has two records of a attack in 1271 in which wolves eschewed sheep and instead devoured 30 men and a legend of the fleeing Nero, dead in the woods of hunger and thirst, whose corpse wolves ate. It’s therefore strange to find the wild children stories here rather than in, say, William of Malsmesbury.

The Erfurt wolf children stand out even more in comparison to medieval historiography as a whole. It’s a habit of writers on wild children to compile lists (see for example Lucienne Strivay’s Enfants Sauvages: Approches Anthropologiques (Paris 2006) and Michael P. Carroll, The Folkloric Origins of Modern ‘Animal-Parented Children’ Stories” Journal of Folklore Research 21.1 (1984): 63-85). Per these lists, these two children are virtually the only medieval examples. Procopius’s history of the Gothic War speaks of an abandoned infant raised by a goat, and several post-medieval works cite medieval sources; but, barring the dubiously medieval work of Procopius, the Erfurt material furnishes the only two actual examples in medieval historiography (perhaps this is why there’s basically nothing in wild children in medieval scholarship?). Given the many wild children recorded in Greco-Roman myth and, especially, the many from the seventeenth century on, the medieval rarity is especially odd. This rarity suggests a shift in modern thought concerning children, their humanity, and their dressage/education: I’m content however to leave the archaeological investigations to others.

At least since the tenth edition (1758) of C. Linnaeus’s Systema naturae marked Homo sapiens ferus as one of the sub-categories of Homo sapiens, discussions of wild children have concentrated on the absolute limits of the human: what minimal degree of socialization does the human require? And what does this suggest about the (pre)historical point at which humans separated themselves from irrational beasts? Is it possible to conceive the leap from homo infans to rational humanity? The Erfurt material, however, lacks several elements of what would become typical to such stories: we don’t have a single female animal, but a heterogeneous pack; the children, not dying soon after their capture (like the Green Children of Woolpit) survive into adulthood; not deprived of language, the Hesse-child speaks of his own experience; they can eat “human” food (again, unlike the Green Children of Woolpit); and their bodies have not quite transformed into animal forms (the eyes of the famous Amala and Kamala, for example, supposedly glowed in the dark). The Erfurt material, particularly the more developed first story, concerns something other than the transformation of prehistoric to historical humanity, colonial encounters, autism, or whatever other fortunes the story has had from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

What the medieval material particularly concerns I must begin to determine by Friday. Not least of all it’s about the uncertain boundaries of the human (for such discussion, see H. Peter Steeves), even if these boundaries are not conceived of historically. It’s also obviously about posture (something I cover at length in my forthcoming book on animals). The Hesse/Wetterau wolf children should also be read with other medieval stories of children snatched by wolves and other animals: my previous post cites exempla by Jacques de Vitry and Caesarius of Heisterbach. I must also cite the romance of William of Palerne and the Wolfdietrich legend (and works it influenced, including the Helgi-Lay and the Irish story of Cormac), and the medieval afterlife of the Romulus and Remus legend (about which I currently know little); maybe I could even dragoon Isumbras into the discussion, or the legend of Saint Eustace, given that he temporarily loses a child to wolves, or legends of hairy saints promulgated at least since shepherds first mistook Benedict for an animal. I’ll also have to remember the name of this medieval story about a spurned child that learns to run with deer.

As of this afternoon, I’m struck by the varying uses of the woods, used by the wolves to protect the(ir) child, and by humans to correct. I’m struck by the lupine honor the child receives, which, to give the simplest possible answer, suggests the prelapsarian (or Messianic) state of human dominion over animals in the peaceable kingdom (see David Salter for more on this). I am most struck by the violenceof the Hesse-child story. The account’s first sentence has child “deprehensus” (seized), by either wolves or humans; he is “captus” (captured) by the wolves, and then “deprehensus” (again?)when he’s taken back to live among humans. The wolves “rapuerant” (snatch) prey, and they “cogebant” (compell) him to go on hands and feet, just as he “cogebatur” (is compelled) to walk upright in the likeness of a human. What is this substance that is being worked over first by wolves and then by humans? What, if anything, is being stolen and cherished and trained and gawked at, amid the wolves and the wood and Henry’s court?

And what it is that the adult wants when he wishes he were back among the wolves? This is the big question, and the hardest to answer. We’ll see what I come up, but, in the meantime, suggestions are enthusiastically encouraged.

(modified image from here, detail of New York, Columbia University, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary UTS MS 051, f. 143, Eustace standing in the middle of the river with the lion and the wolf on either side, each with one of Eustace’s sons in his mouth.)