July 2020 Student of the Month – Lizzie Marshall
Wolves (Canis lupus) were hunted to extinction in England in the 15th century, though they clung on until the 18th century in Scotland and Ireland. They were the last apex predator that remained in the British Isles, and were the object of a great deal of hatred, fear, and persecution throughout medieval and Early Modern Europe. While wolves have been successfully reintroduced in numerous places – most famously to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 – I often hear doubts about the feasibility and likelihood of wolf reintroduction to the UK, particularly when it comes to public attitudes towards them. Most people in Britain (and further afield) will have never even seen a real wolf, but they still understand the species as ‘savage’, ‘bloodthirsty’, ‘big’ and ‘bad’, perhaps even as ruthless killers and man-eaters. If it’s not based in experience, then, why do we fear wolves so much? Where did our ‘lupophobia’ (Marvin, 2012) come from?
There’s a plethora of negative stereotypes attached to wolves throughout western history, which have consistently affected the treatment of these animals in the real world. My area of expertise is the representation of wolves in Old English literature, the subject of my doctoral thesis. While the presentation of wolves in the thousand-year-old texts I examined is different in content from the texts we read about wolves today (fairy tales and fables weren’t as widespread then as now), the sentiment that wolves are evil remains pretty similar. In fact, the way in which wolves are presented in a number of Old English texts, as I’ve argued in my thesis, are inherited from understandings of wolves from previous cultures: wolves have been ‘wicked’ for thousands of years.
In my thesis I looked at two lupine associations in particular, the first being the linkage between wolves and outlaws. Germanic in origin, this association is rooted in perceptions of the wilderness as a place beyond human control, inhabited by savage animals and people who had been cast out of society because they did not adhere to the laws of humanity and standards for behaviour. If you behaved like a wolf (i.e., if you were greedy, rapacious, savage) you were treated like one, hunted down and killed without consequence (or perhaps even with reward). In fact, in a twelfth-century law-code an outlaw is declared a wluesheued, ‘wolf’s head’ (O’Brien, 1999). This conceptual linkage between wolves and outlaws is found in Old and Middle English literature, as well as in Old Norse poetry. Though this is probably an unfamiliar association for British people today, during the wolf eradication efforts of 19th century America, wolves who evaded capture were often termed ‘outlaws’, like Ernest Seton Thompson’s lupine enemy, Lobo (Thompson, 1898).
The second association that I examined was inherited from an Ancient Greek and Roman superstition, that if a wolf saw a man before the man saw him, the man would lose his voice. A related proverb, ‘the wolf in the story’, was used in much the same way as we use the phrase ‘speak of the devil and he will appear’ today – the ‘wolf’ was the person being discussed who suddenly appeared, causing those talking about him to ‘lose’ their voices (i.e., stop gossiping about him!). In my thesis, I argued that both of these associations were not only inherited by the Anglo-Saxons, but that they informed the contemporary depictions of wolves or wolf-like creatures in four texts: Beowulf, a poem called Wulf and Eadwacer, and two saints’ lives about the ninth-century king of East Anglia, Saint Edmund.
To round out my knowledge of wolves, in 2018 I undertook a doctoral internship at the Scottish Deer Centre in Fife, where I spent a lot of time observing the resident wolf pack and researching wolf behaviour, reintroduction, and public attitudes towards them among many other things. While I initially thought that my PhD and internship research were quite disparate (apart from being centred on the same animal), the more I learned, the clearer it became that literary and cultural representations of wolves are hugely influential when it comes to the fate of these animals in the real world, even despite the fact that the ‘real wolf’ and the ‘cultural wolf’ are so different that they may as well not be the same species.
Researchers have long recognised that attitudes towards animals are one of – if not the most – important factors to consider in any reintroduction efforts. In the case of wolves, who are so laden with cultural stereotypes and who feature in so many negative literary depictions, I think it’s hugely important that everyone (and especially those living in and around potential reintroduction sites) is encouraged to question their unconscious biases about wolves that they have learnt from books, films, and TV. If wolves are to survive in the real world, the Big Bad Wolf needs to be exposed as the man-made monstrosity that he is. I hope that my PhD research can contribute to this in its small way, by elucidating this particular period in the long history of ‘lupophobia’ in the UK.
Marvin, G. (2012). Wolf. London: Reaktion Books
O’Brien, B., ed. and trans. (1999). God’s Peace and King’s Peace: The Laws of Edward the Confessor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
Thompson, E. S. (1898). Wild Animals I Have Known. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.