Reason, Freedom, and Animality: A Small Point on Gerald’s Werewolves

image of werewolf transformation
Morgan Ms. M.461 33r, Livre des merveilles du monde (thanks to JB Friedman for pointing me to the image)

Gerald of Wales’s story of the werewolves of Ossory from his History and Topography of Ireland has been the subject of frequent scholarly attention.[1] What distinguishes his werewolves from the Bisclavret of Marie’s lai is the wolves’ companionship – a man and a woman, rather than Marie’s lone knight; the clear cause of their condition – an abbot’s curse; and the werewolves’ treating their time as a “pilgrimage,”[2] that is, a time of repentance and purgation. Bisclavret, by contrast, doesn’t seem to mind being a werewolf; he just dislikes being betrayed.

What connects Gerald’s story with the many other twelfth-century werewolf stories of what we might call Greater Britain is his insistence on the werewolves’ fundamental humanity. Pull back the fur of the sick wolf, and underneath is a dying old woman; one wolf uses his paw “like a hand”; and the wolves not only speak, they speak good Christian doctrine. Whatever their appearance, no real transformation has occurred: they remain human.

And they remain gendered human as well: the male wolf is the one who acts, who reveals, who speaks directly; the woman speaks only indirectly (“she welcomed him [the priest] in a human way,” “premittens salutacionem satis humanam,” that is, offering a sufficiently human greeting); she has her fur pulled back to be revealed, attesting to the humanity of the seemingly lupine couple, but also helplessly made to be shown. The male wolf is fully human; she is…sufficient.

Something has happened to the priest, though, and perhaps to Gerald too. When the male wolf reveals the old woman, “the priest, more through terror than reason, communicated her as she had earnestly demanded, and she then devoutly received the sacrament.” Terrore tamen magis quam ratione compulsus (144; 103): compelled “more by terror than by reason,”[3] the priest performs what may be his sacerdotal duty, but not out of any free choice on his part. So careful to distinguish human from beast, even as he seems compelled to test each category’s mutual limits, Gerald here imagines the priest in an uncertain position in relation to his own reason. Compulsion, after all, is what animals experience, not humans, or, not humans like Gerald imagines himself: male, educated, noble, able-bodied, and celibate.

Gerald is uncertain whether the priest did the right thing. As O’Meara’s translation has it, Gerald explains that it happened “more in equity than with proper procedure”: the pun is “rite potius quam recte,” and can perhaps better be translated “by the rite rather than rightly.”[4] That is, the priest went through the motions, in terror – one imagines, almost automatically – but perhaps he made the wrong judgment in administering the viaticum to what may not have been quite human. For his part, Gerald’s punning, itself the symptom of his clerical rhetorical education, shows that he, at least, is story’s rational governor.

Not unusually, however, Gerald cannot leave the story alone. He continued to revise the Topographia, typically adding to its material rather than revising it. His second recension – the one, I believe, to which Gerald added the most material – has Gerald continuing to worry at the story. He compares human lupifaction to Christ’s incarnation: surely the latter proves that God can do the former. Still, he wonders:

But is such an animal to be called a brute or a man? A rational animal appears to be far above the level of a brute; but who will venture to assign a quadruped, which inclines to the earth, and is not a laughing animal, to the species of man? Again, if any one should slay this animal, would he be called a homicide? We reply, that divine miracles are not to be made the subjects of disputation by human reason, but to be admired. (46)


Sed animal hujusmodi brutum an homo dicetur? Animal namque rationale a bruto longe alienum esse videtur. Praeterea animal quadrupes, pronum in terram, nec risibile, humanae naturae quis adjunget? Item, qui hoc animal ociderit, nunquid homicida dicetur? Sed miracula divina sunt admiranda, non in rationem humanae disputationis trahenda. (105)

Forester and Wright’s translation obscures certain things, unsurprisingly, because they were naturally not as attuned as I am to questions of animality and reason. We can mark, first, that “animal” here simply means nonplant living thing. The next key division is that between brutus, a beast, and homo, a human. I have not checked Gerald’s corpus to determine whether he knew the older usages of brutus: only in late Latin, that is, by eighth century or so, does the word primarily come to distinguish nonhuman from human animals. Prior to that, the word meant, first, heavy, and then stupid: in earlier Latin, an inanimate object might be brutus, like the earth itself, or a stupid human being might be brutus, without anything being implied about their losing their humanity. Slowness, heaviness, irrationality: all qualities of a lack of autonomy or, strictly speaking, an absence of self-motivation. An “animal brutus,” combining as it does the liveliness of animal and the heaviness of earth, is a handy paradox, loading the living thing with the usable inertness of mere objecthood.

Gerald’s next sentences nonetheless still suggest some hesitance about how to think of this conjunction of human and wolf. “A longe alienum,” done by the translators as “far above,” should perhaps instead be done as “a distant stranger”: Gerald’s metaphor is spatial, but not necessarily hierarchical. Adjunget, done as “assign,” could literally be rendered instead as an agricultural metaphor, “yoke to,” suggesting an attempt to think of wolf and human as joined together, but still separate, yet side by side, like yoked oxen.

How, Gerald is wondering, can we think of the wolf and the human at once? What do we owe such a creature? Should we kill it, like a wolf, or should we punish its killers, as we would were it a human being? All Gerald can offer is finally to recognize that reason can take him no further into the truth of the miraculous.

But he keeps going: Gerald cites material on “monstruosis hominum generibus” (monsters of human descent) from Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, with “various deformed forms” (variis deformati formis), and concludes, with Augustine, that anything that is a rational, mortal animal is human, whatever its shape. To emphasize this point, and to connect it better to his werewolf story, Gerald cites Augustine’s own accounts of the Arcadians, some of whom are likewise forced to live as wolves, and who, in this case, can return to being human only if they eat no human flesh during their lupinity. Augustine adds a further transformation, of Italian stable-women who turn travelers into donkeys with magical cheese. Gerald knows such cases in his own day: travelers turned into red pigs, and sold to be brought to market; when they cross water — as I suppose they inevitably must — or after three days, whichever comes first, they return to being human: Gerald only hints at the danger of their being butchered and eaten by people like himself. He recalls, too, stories of old women of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland — that is, England’s Celtic periphery — who turn themselves into hares so they can stealthily suck out the milk of cows. Gerald’s point, which he shares with Augustine: neither demons nor wicked can really change the nature of things, whereas God can, as he did with Lot’s wife, whom he transformed into a pillar of salt.

He does not wonder, however, at what Lot’s wife might have been thinking, or whether she was thinking at all, after she became entirely salinated. He wants the conversation to be narrowly about physical transformations, so he can distinguish false — which is to say, impermanent — from true, persistent transformations, which can be caused only by God or his agents. In his insistence that the wolves of Ossory retain their human reason, that anything that is rational and mortal is human, even if it sometimes looks like a donkey or a red pig, he is insisting on the persistence of human beings.

Notably, he never considers stories of brute animals given human shapes, and I can think of no such stories from the Middle Ages: no stories, for instance, of a knight who meets another knight who, it turns out, is actually his own dog. The absence, or near absence, of such stories is something we might talk about in seminar.

The problem that concerns me here is what happens to the nonphysical aspect of humans in these transformations, or indeed in any moment here in this surprising world. The priest, compelled more by terror than by reason, has been transformed too, temporarily, with his changeable mind. His reason has been pushed aside. His mortality, one imagines, has been pushed to the fore. Unable to categorize adequately what is before him, he goes through the motions of his profession. His reason will return eventually, because terror is only a temporary state, but that transformation, the time of the priest’s terror, raises the question of what we are when we lose our reason. Or what are we when only admiration is sufficient? Gerald tells us reason cannot take us fully into the truth of wonders; admiration is all we have, and admiration, with its slackened certainty, is not at all dissimilar from terror. The victim of the wonder might have lost their body, but the wonder watcher might have lost their mind, and with it, the reason that humans need to be human.

Gerald does not explore that problem at any length. He only hints at it, without thinking to be worried. Yet by insisting on the centrality of reason to the human being, and by setting the priest’s terror against his reason at the moment he’s compelled to help, and by declaring reason itself inadequate to the very stories he is compiling, Gerald raises questions that himself might have thought to explore had he thought through the problem of being human more insistently.


  1. The standard citation is Caroline Walker Bynum, “Metamorphosis, or Gerald and the Werewolf.” Speculum 73.4 (1998): 987-1013. Also excellent is Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “The Werewolf’s Indifference.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34.1 (2012): 351-356. Woefully undercited is John Block Friedman’s extraordinary “Werewolf Transformation in the Manuscript Era.” The Journal of the Early Book Society 17 (2014): 35-93.
  2. John J. O’Meara, ed, “Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernie: Text of the First Recension.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 52 (1948 – 1950): 113-178; “peregrinationis,” 114; for the second recension, see Geraldi Cambrensis, Topographia Hibernica, ed. James F. Dimock (Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1867), 101. I will give page numbers for both where the passage exists in both recensions. Unless otherwise indicated, translations are from John J. O’Meara’s of the first recension for Penguin; a translation of the second recension, by Thomas Forester, rev. by Thomas Wright, is available here.
  3. O’Meara does not directly translate compulsus; Forester and Wright do.
  4. It took my seminar to suggest the best way to do this pun.