MythLines 5: The Wild People of the Woods: a medieval rejection of ‘civilisation’

Continuing on with my series of ‘MythLines’ columns from EarthLines Magazine, here is my offering from Issue 17, in March 2017.

(Image: ‘Merlin’, by Alan Lee)


 

The folkloric motif of the ‘wild man in the woods’ is ancient and universal; it appears in texts as early as the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Indian tale of Rishyasninga, which included legends of hairy anchorites or hermits who lived in solitude in the desert. In medieval Europe, there existed a strong belief in the Wild People: a raggle-taggle group of folk who inhabited the unsettled, uncultivated woodlands beyond the villages and towns of ‘civilised’ society. They were believed to be skilled hunters, and imagery from the time depicts them using natural, rather than manufactured, weapons: wooden clubs, or uprooted trees. They rode stags, bareback, in contrast to the saddled, bridled stately horses of the archetypical medieval knight. The Wild Man was known throughout Europe by a variety of names: agrios, homo sylvestris, hombre salvagio, uomo selvaggio, l’homme sauvage, the wodewose, and the wilde mann. But the Wild People of medieval Europe were more than just characters in stories: there existed outcasts who, due to mental illness or by their own choice, withdrew from society and lived in the wildernesses of mountain or wood.

Studies of the phenomenon have suggested that the Wild Man represented the idea of ‘noncivilisation’. During the early part of the medieval period, the Wild People were to be feared and loathed, but in later centuries this attitude began to change. A cultural crisis had set in, as people reacted against the oppressions of the old feudal order; and this provoked widespread disillusionment with the state of civilisation. The idea of the Wild Man, then, represented an escape from civilisation’s ‘corrupting’ influence through a rejection of its social values and its technology, and a reversion to primitivism or ‘radical archaism’. There was also frustration with the sterility of the chivalric lifestyle, which led to a growing interest in folk culture and the pastoral.

During this time, the Wild Man became a common motif in medieval legend and literature, and authors of the day began to associate it with characters who were either tormented by passion (Yvain, Tristan, Lancelot) or who possessed the gift of prophecy. In these stories, the hero turned Wild Man abandons the artifices of civilisation and takes to the woods. There, he secludes himself, with only wild animals (a wolf; a woodland pig) for company. He lives off berries and raw meat; sometimes he refuses to clothe himself.

The best-known example of the Wild Man as prophet is Merlin, one of the most enduring figures in Arthurian literature – though it should be noted that Merlin’s legend was originally independent from that of Arthur, and it remained so until the twelfth century, when Geoffrey of Monmouth brought them together for the first time in his Historia Regum Britanniae. That work not only assigned to Merlin a crucial role in the conception of Arthur, but also instituted a major shift in his popular image – for until then he had been known as Myrddin, a prophet and wild man of the woods, whose legend had roots in Wales and northern Britain.

The first references to a character called Myrddin (later, in works such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini, for example, Latinised to Merlinus or Merlin), who is depicted as a prophet and bard, are found in early Welsh verse. These poems contain passages which reference Myrddin’s legend, and other passages which contain his prophecies. What is likely to be the earliest reference to Myrddin’s legend is found in the Black Book of Carmarthen text of ‘Yr Afallennau’: in it, he addresses an apple tree growing in ‘the forest of Celyddon’, and declares that after the battle of Arfderydd, and the death of his lord, Gwenddolau, he has suffered fifty years of ‘wandering with madness and madmen’ in the Caledonian forest. The apple tree’s ‘mystique’ renders it invisible to the men of Rhydderch, who prevailed in the battle, and who are now pursuing Myrddin. The poem suggests that Myrddin, previously a warrior of some reputation, had lost his reason as a consequence of the battle, and so joined the company of Wild Men in the woods.

Also associated with the legend of Myrddin is a body of Scottish material which concerns a wild man named Lailoken. A twelfth-century Life of St Kentigern written by Joceline of Furness tells of the presence at the court of King Rederech (Rhydderch) of a prophet named Laloecen or Laloicen. The character also appears in two longer tales in a fifteenth-century text held in the British Library known as Cotton Titus A xix, which includes a text called the Vita Merlini Silvestris. This text tells of an encounter between Kentigern and a naked hairy wild man called Lailoken, and of Lailoken’s dealings with a King Meldred. After Lailoken’s name is first mentioned, the text notes that ‘certain people say that he was Merlin (Merlynus) who was regarded by the Britons as unique in his powers of prophecy’. The author of this text clearly holds that Lailoken and Merlin are the same, and academics have suggested that Lailoken in Scottish legend and Myrddin in the Welsh poems had originally existed independently of each other, but that the northern tales migrated to Wales together with other material at some point between the sixth century and the Middle Ages, and the two characters became conflated

In Wales, wild men like Merlin were known as gwyllt (later wyllt), and in Ireland they were known as geilt. In Irish literature, however, a gelt or geilt was usually afflicted by trauma and madness as a consequence of a fierce battle, from which he fled to live alone in the woods. Often, in the extremity of his madness, he acquired supernatural powers – in the case of Suibhne Geilt (‘Mad Sweeney’) in the Buile Shuibhne, for example, the ability to levitate and fly like a bird.

 

 

(Sculpture of Sweeney on the Isle of Eigg, by Trevor Leat.)

But the Wild People weren’t always men: an Irish tale which is likely to be earlier than the story of Suibhne tells of a woman called Mis, who was the daughter of Dáire Dóidgheal, a powerful ruler from Europe who set out to invade Ireland. He landed with a huge army in Ventry, County Kerry, and a fierce battle followed which lasted a year and a day. Dáire was eventually slain by the hero-warrior Fionn mac Cumaill, which ended the battle. Mis came down in the aftermath to look for her father, and found only his dead body, bleeding, on the beach. Mis was overwhelmed by grief, and flung herself across her father’s body, licking and sucking at his bloody wounds to try to heal them, just as an animal might. When this failed to restore him to life, madness overcame her and she rose up into the air like a bird and flew away into the heart of the Sliabh Mis mountains. She lived there for many years, and grew long trailing fur and feathers to cover her naked skin. She grew great sharp claws with which she attacked and tore to pieces any creature or person she met. She could run like the wind, and no living thing was safe from her. They thought her so dangerous that the people of Kerry created a desert stripped of people and cattle between themselves and the mountains, just for fear of her.

In most stories of characters like Myrddin and Mis who flee from the horrors of civilisation, the wilderness offers not just escape, but solace, and often healing. As Merlin puts it, in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Vita Merlini:

‘When I remain under the green leaves, the riches of Calidon delight me more than the gems that India produces, or the gold that Tagus is said to have on its shore; more than the crops of Sicily or the grapes of pleasant Methis; more than lofty turrets or cities girded with high walls or robes fragrant with Tyrian perfumes. Nothing pleases me enough to tear me away from my Calidon which in my opinion is always pleasant.  Here shall I remain while I live, content with apples and grasses, and I shall purify my body with pious fastings that I may be worthy to partake of the life everlasting.’

2 thoughts on “MythLines 5: The Wild People of the Woods: a medieval rejection of ‘civilisation’

  1. Thank you,
    I did also think of some of the archetypal Old Testament prophets who dwelt in deserts, caves and by rivers. John the Baptist also comes to mind with his camel hair and wild honey diet. Depictions of Francis of Assisi also have him dwelling in caves, talking to animals and rejecting medieval civilisation. Much to continue to ponder.

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