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The Woodwose or Wild Man

The woodwose was a literary and artistic invention of the medieval mind which served as a useful scapegoat for unexplained calamities in the natural world.  He was a medieval bogey man who might abduct naughty children, who was violent and aggressive and liable to wreak havoc on the farmer’s crops and animals; parents could use him as a threat to discipline their children and farmers could attribute to him rather than the weather the failure of their work.  He lived in remote, forested regions all over Europe but his legend was particularly popular in German-speaking lands.

According to myth he was a creature who lived in the woods like an animal, but who had some human characteristics.  Like an animal his body was covered in hair, he was unable to speak, had limited powers of reason, was deaf to the word of God, but his face, hands and feet resembled those of a man.  He carried a large club or uprooted tree with which he would fight all beasts, even the dragon, and because of his superhuman strength he would always win.  In common with Samson he could tear apart the jaws of a lion with his bare hands, and the animals recognised his superiority and submitted to him.  

In the early Middle Ages it was said the wild man could be overpowered by a Knight but late in the 14th century when the days of the Knight were over, the wild man became unconquerable.  He had an insatiable appetite for women, which had put him into conflict with the more gentlemanly Knight, but the ordinary man felt that in this respect he had more in common with the woodwose than the Knight.

However, with the late Middle Ages came a new range of attitudes and values that led to a quite different appreciation of the wild man.  He came to be viewed as a free and enlightened creature in harmony with nature, at once savage and sublime.  In contrast with the towns, the woods were seen as free of corruption and the creatures within the woods were untainted by society.  The wild man became a symbol of what man should try to achieve; he was no longer a creature to be feared but an innocent, immune to the ills of civilisation.  Woodland idylls started to appear in art, notably on tapestries, and carvings in wood and stone showed a strong, silent, unthreatening character.

During the Middle Ages the wild man’s image underwent a radical change.  From malevolent, aggressive and mad, he became benign, retiring and rational.

Nos. 1, 2 and 3 are of a German oak choir-stall carving, c.1500.  No. 1 shows the top half on which a wild man is wrenching the jaws of a lion apart in a superhuman display of strength.  

No. 2 shows the complete carving, illustrating the conjunction of the two images of the wild man (above) and Samson (below).  

No. 3 is the lower half where Samson is using his bare hands in the fight against a lion.

No. 4 is an English oak panel, c.1500.  The wild man crouches down, club in hand, staring out.

No. 5 another English oak panel.  Here the wild man seems to swing while holding onto the feet of two birds.