Wild Man

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Medieval art included Wild Men (and occasionally Women) among its grotesques. They were a race of primitive sub-humans covered in shaggy hair, immensely strong, and living in forests; the males were usually shown wielding a branch, or even a whole tree, as a club, and sometimes crowned and belted with leaves. Their reality was confirmed by respected classical writers and by references to ‘hairy creatures in desert places’ in the Latin versions of Isaiah 13: 21 and 34: 14; they were often identified with satyrs and fauns.

In literature, Wild Men could symbolize savagery, lust, and uncontrolled passions, or, alternatively, a natural innocence which could easily be brought to virtue; both aspects can be seen in Spenser's Faerie Queene (1596). In Book IV, canto vii, there is a monstrous specimen, grotesquely ugly and hairy, naked except for a girdle of ivy, and carrying a young oak as a club, whose delight is to rape and eat women; in Book VI, however, there is one who acts as a stupid but loyal protector to one of Spenser's heroines.

Wild Men are found among the costumed performers at courtly masques. At a Twelfth Night entertainment for Henry VIII in 1515 ‘eight wyldemen, all apparayled in green mosse with sleved sylke, with ugly weapons and terrible visages’ fought against eight knights; at Kenilworth in 1575 a poet costumed as a Savage Man draped in moss and ivy emerged from a wood to greet Elizabeth I; at Cowdray Park (Sussex) in 1591 the Queen was addressed by a Wild Man ‘cladde in ivy’. They also appeared in civic pageants, clearing the way for the main procession, where they were referred to as Savages or Green Men. They were common in heraldry, and Aubrey notes that a Wild Man or Green Man (he uses the terms interchangeably) was ‘not uncommon’ as an inn sign in and about London, and was drawn as ‘a kind of Hercules with a green club and green leaves about his pudenda and head’ (Aubrey, 1686/1880: 134–5, 177).

Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages (1952).

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