Ailbe’s Wolf Mother

3274827794_224bd397f0I stumbled across a great story from the lives of the Irish saints, too great to keep to myself much longer. It goes like this:

Olenais, who belongs to the household of the chief of Ara Cliach, impregnates Sanclit, one of the chief’s serving-maid, and flees, fearing execution. He should have feared for his child. When Sanclit gives birth, the chief tells his servants to kill him, but, inspired (rather poorly I think) by the Holy Spirit, the servants just abandon the boy under a stone; and the stone is honored even today in his name, which is, namely, Albei. Here’s the rest in Latin:

Sub petra autem eadem fera lupa habitabat, que sanctum puerum valde admauit, et quasi mater tenera inter suos catulos leniter eum nutriuit.

Quadam autem die cum illa fera bestia ad querendum victum in silius vagasset, quidam vir, nomine Loch’h’anus filius Lugir, naturali bono perfectus, videns sub petra illa puerum inter catulos, extraxit et secum ad domum suam portauit; statimque fera reuertens, et puerum absentem cernens, cum magno anelitu velociter secuta est eum. Cumque Lochanus domui sue appropinquasset, fera tenuit pallium eius, et non dimisit eum donec vidit puerum. Tunc Lochanus ad feram dixit: ‘Vade in pace; iste puer nunquam amplius erit inter lupos, set apud me manebit.’ Tunc fera illa, lacrimans et rugiens, ad speluncam suam tristis reuersa est.

But a certain wild wolf lived under the stone. She very much loved the holy child, and like a tender mother raised him gently among her whelps.

But on a certain day when this wild beast was wandering the forest seeking prey, a certain man, named Loch’h’anus son of Lugir, by nature excellent and good, saw a boy among the whelps underneath the stone, and removed him and carried him to his home; and the wolf turned back at once, and seeing that the boy was gone, followed after him quickly with great anelitu [help!]. And when she neared the home of Lochanus, she took hold of his cloak, and would not let him go until she saw the boy. Then Lochanus said to her, “Go in peace; this boy will not be among wolves any more but will remain with me.” Then this wild beast, crying and moaning, returned to her cave in sadness. [Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, Vol. I, p. 46, an edition I’m using because the Heist edition isn’t available online]

Oh, weeper: wait! There’s a happy ending, because they meet again (page 62-63).

Quodam tempore homines illius regionis, id est Arath, cum suo duce venacionem fecerunt, ut lupos a finibus suis repellerent. Vna autem lupa direxit cursum suum ad locum in quo erat Albeus; et, sequentibus eam equitibus, posuit capud suum in sinu sancti Albei. Albei vero dixit ei: “Ne timeas; quia non solum tu liberaberis, set catuli tui venient ad te incolumes.” Et ita factum est. Et ait Albeus, “Ego apud vos nutritus sum in infancia; et bene fecisti, quia in senectute mea venisti ad me. Nam ante me cotidie ad mensam panem commedetis, et nemo nocebit vobis” Ita lupi cotidie veniebant ad sanctum Albeum, et commedebant ante eum; et postea reuertebantur ad loca sua. Et nemo nocebat illis; nec ipsi nocebant alicui.

In that time the men of that region, which is Araid, went hunting with their lord, to drive the wolves from their borders. And one wolf directed her course to the place where Albei was; and, with horses chasing her, she put her head in Albei’s lap. Albei said to her, “Fear not; for not only will I free you, but your whelps shall return to you unharmed.” And so it was done. And Albei said, “I was raised among you as a child; and you did well to come to me in your old age. For you will eat bread with me at my table, and no one will hurt you.” And that day the wolves came to Saint Albei, and they ate with him; and afterwards, they went back to their place. And no one hurt them; and they hurt no one.

(For a symbolic approach to these tales, see Dominic Alexander, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages p. 79 and 78. I’ll just note that stories of Irish saints and animals are not at all uncommon, but this one stands out for its nurturing wolf, its mother-love, and its final reciprocity that lends continuity to a life that’s otherwise just a jumble of missionary miracles. I wouldn’t be so quick to assimilate Ailbe’s wolfmother either to vestigial (and very hypothetical) pagan deities [as did Plummer] or to any other reading that erases the singularity of this love, or indeed the singularity of love wherever it happens. Here as elsewhere love’s singularity matters more than species)

The connection between this c. 800 story (per Richard Sharpe) and the story of the Wolf Child of Hesse is of course thinner than tenuous. So far as I know, only 3 mss of this vita survive, and I don’t know where else Ailbe’s story gets told. If I were still a betting man, I’d suggest that the story is further evidence of the well-attested early medieval interconnections between Irish and “German” monasteries. Perhaps some early version of the Wolfdietrich legend made its way to Ireland? Perhaps the Ailbe story made its way to, say, Erfurt or Hesse? A hunt like this is way outside the scope of a paper that’s already overflowing its wordcount, but if someone knows off hand where to check, say, a catalog of the medieval library of St Peter of Erfurt
Coming soonish: a story from Albertus Magnus that sounds VERY much like my Hessian Wolf Child story.