Sunday, November 07, 2010

Wolf Child of Hesse: State of the Research

by KARL STEEL

A little more than a month ago, I put up a little post about the Wolf Child of Hesse. I'm talking about this material twice in the next month, first, this Friday at the CUNY Grad Center at 2pm, in the third annual Pearl Kibre Medieval Study Roundtable on New Directions in Medieval Scholarship; then I'll revise madly based on that discussion, and present the research again at Barnard on December 4, at the The Twenty-Second Barnard Medieval and Renaissance Conference: Animals and Humans in the Culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, where I'll be the very junior member of a roundtable discussion with Aranye Fradenberg, Sarah Stanbury, and Julian Yates. Here's a piece of what I have currently.

To recap: one of the several anonymous continuations of the Chronicle of St Peter of Erfurt tells the story of a boy snatched away and raised by wolves:
Anno Domini MCCCIIII. Quidam puer in partibus Hassie est deprehensus. Hic, sicut postea cognitum est, et sicut ipse retulit, cum trium esset annorum, a lupis est captus et mirabiliter educatus. Nam, quamcumque predam lupi pro cibo rapuerant, semper meliorem partem sumentes et arbori circumcucientes [nb: "circumiacientes"] ipsi ad vorandum tribuebant. Tempore vero hiemis et frigoris foveam facientes, folia arborum et alias herbas imponentes, puerum superponebant, et se circumponentes, sic eum a frigore defendebant; ipsum eciam manibus et pedibus repere cogebant et secum currere tamdiu, quod ex use eorum velocitatem imitabatur et saltus maximos faciebat. Hic deprehensus lignis circumligatis erectus ire ad humanam similitudinem cogebatur. Idem vero puer sepius dicebat se multo carius cum lupis, si in se esset, quam cum hominibus diligere conversari. Hic puer in curiam Heinrici principis Hassie pro spectaculo est allatus.
1304. A certain boy in the region of Hesse was seized. This boy, as was known afterwards, and just as the boy told it himself, was taken by wolves when he was three years old and raised up wonderously. For, whatever prey the wolves snatched for food, they would take the better part and divide it up for him to eat while they lay around a tree. In the time of winter and cold, they made a small pit, and they put the leaves of trees and other plants in it, and surrounded the boy to protect him from the cold; they also compelled him to creep on hands and feet and to run with them for a long time, from which practice he imitated their speed and was able to make the greatest leaps. When he was seized, he was bound with wood to compel him to go erect in the manner of a human. However, this boy often said that he much preferred to live among wolves than among men. This boy was conveyed to the court of Henry, Prince of Hesse, for a spectacle.
The heterogeneous Erfurt Chronicle includes another such story, that of the child of Wetterau:
Anno Domini MCCCXLIIII. quidam puer a lupis deportatus in Wederavia in una villa nobilium, que dicitur Eczol, qui puer XII annis cum lupis erat in magna silva, que dicitur vulgariter dy Hart. Hic puer isto anno tempore hyemis in nive in vanacione captus [fuerat] a nobilibus ibidem morantibus, et vixit forte ad LXXX annos.
In 1344, a certain boy, taken by wolves in Wetterau in an estate named Eczol, who was with the wolves for twelve years in a great forest called the Hart. This boy was captured during winter in the snow by nobles who were in the area for hunting, and he lived for 80 years.
The Erfurt historiographical material tends not to list marvels; instead, it tends towards records of catastrophic weather, accounts of struggles between nobles or between nobles and the papacy, and depressingly many accounts of pogroms attempted forced conversions (and mass suicides), and ritual murder/Host desecration accusations. It does not often speak of wolves: it has two records of a attack in 1271 in which wolves eschewed sheep and instead devoured 30 men and a legend of the fleeing Nero, dead in the woods of hunger and thirst, whose corpse wolves ate. It's therefore strange to find the wild children stories here rather than in, say, William of Malsmesbury.

The Erfurt wolf children stand out even more in comparison to medieval historiography as a whole. It's a habit of writers on wild children to compile lists (see for example Lucienne Strivay's Enfants Sauvages: Approches Anthropologiques (Paris 2006) and Michael P. Carroll, The Folkloric Origins of Modern 'Animal-Parented Children' Stories" Journal of Folklore Research 21.1 (1984): 63-85). Per these lists, these two children are virtually the only medieval examples. Procopius's history of the Gothic War speaks of an abandoned infant raised by a goat, and several post-medieval works cite medieval sources; but, barring the dubiously medieval work of Procopius, the Erfurt material furnishes the only two actual examples in medieval historiography (perhaps this is why there's basically nothing in wild children in medieval scholarship?). Given the many wild children recorded in Greco-Roman myth and, especially, the many from the seventeenth century on, the medieval rarity is especially odd. This rarity suggests a shift in modern thought concerning children, their humanity, and their dressage/education: I'm content however to leave the archaeological investigations to others.

At least since the tenth edition (1758) of C. Linnaeus's Systema naturae marked Homo sapiens ferus as one of the sub-categories of Homo sapiens, discussions of wild children have concentrated on the absolute limits of the human: what minimal degree of socialization does the human require? And what does this suggest about the (pre)historical point at which humans separated themselves from irrational beasts? Is it possible to conceive the leap from homo infans to rational humanity? The Erfurt material, however, lacks several elements of what would become typical to such stories: we don't have a single female animal, but a heterogeneous pack; the children, not dying soon after their capture (like the Green Children of Woolpit) survive into adulthood; not deprived of language, the Hesse-child speaks of his own experience; they can eat "human" food (again, unlike the Green Children of Woolpit); and their bodies have not quite transformed into animal forms (the eyes of the famous Amala and Kamala, for example, supposedly glowed in the dark). The Erfurt material, particularly the more developed first story, concerns something other than the transformation of prehistoric to historical humanity, colonial encounters, autism, or whatever other fortunes the story has had from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries.

What the medieval material particularly concerns I must begin to determine by Friday. Not least of all it's about the uncertain boundaries of the human (for such discussion, see H. Peter Steeves), even if these boundaries are not conceived of historically. It's also obviously about posture (something I cover at length in my forthcoming book on animals). The Hesse/Wetterau wolf children should also be read with other medieval stories of children snatched by wolves and other animals: my previous post cites exempla by Jacques de Vitry and Caesarius of Heisterbach. I must also cite the romance of William of Palerne and the Wolfdietrich legend (and works it influenced, including the Helgi-Lay and the Irish story of Cormac), and the medieval afterlife of the Romulus and Remus legend (about which I currently know little); maybe I could even dragoon Isumbras into the discussion, or the legend of Saint Eustace, given that he temporarily loses a child to wolves, or legends of hairy saints promulgated at least since shepherds first mistook Benedict for an animal. I'll also have to remember the name of this medieval story about a spurned child that learns to run with deer.

As of this afternoon, I'm struck by the varying uses of the woods, used by the wolves to protect the(ir) child, and by humans to correct. I'm struck by the lupine honor the child receives, which, to give the simplest possible answer, suggests the prelapsarian (or Messianic) state of human dominion over animals in the peaceable kingdom (see David Salter for more on this). I am most struck by the violence of the Hesse-child story. The account's first sentence has child "deprehensus" (seized), by either wolves or humans; he is "captus" (captured) by the wolves, and then "deprehensus" (again?) when he's taken back to live among humans. The wolves "rapuerant" (snatch) prey, and they "cogebant" (compell) him to go on hands and feet, just as he "cogebatur" (is compelled) to walk upright in the likeness of a human. What is this substance that is being worked over first by wolves and then by humans? What, if anything, is being stolen and cherished and trained and gawked at, amid the wolves and the wood and Henry's court?

And what it is that the adult wants when he wishes he were back among the wolves? This is the big question, and the hardest to answer. We'll see what I come up, but, in the meantime, suggestions are enthusiastically encouraged.

(modified image from here, detail of New York, Columbia University, Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary UTS MS 051, f. 143, Eustace standing in the middle of the river with the lion and the wolf on either side, each with one of Eustace's sons in his mouth.)

13 comments:

Karl Steel said...

I'm having some difficulty with the Latin. If anyone has a moment, how would you do:
"Nam, quamcumque predam lupi pro cibo rapuerant, semper meliorem partem sumentes et arbori circumcucientes [nb: "circumiacientes"] ipsi ad vorandum tribuebant"?
I do it as: "For, whatever prey the wolves snatched for food, they would take the better part and divide it up for him to eat while they lay around a tree."
It's that image of the wolves lying around the tree that seems odd to me. Also: "circumcucientes" is pretty much a hapax, and the editorial to correction "circumiacientes" is virtually a hapax.

It's hard to answer this without seeing ms/mss but is it possible that the word is circumcurrentes [running around/surrounding]??

Aidan said...

Taking only the editorial correction:
circumiacentes (< circum+iaceo) would be 'lying around'.

circumiacientes (< circum+iacio) would be 'casting/throwing/placing around/at the flank of', and it looks like the emender construed it with the dative.

So (a bit too literally) something like:
'...taking the better part and placing it beside (by/?around/?about) the tree, they would grant/award (it) to him to eat.'

'At the flank of' is classically used in military descriptions, but it doesn't seem too far a stretch to use it to mean 'to put at the side of' or 'put by', rather than strewing the prey entirely around the tree.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Those are very good questions indeed, Karl, and I can see the answers you're moving towards implicit in how you've framed them: well done.

A small note on the Green Children: don't forget that only the boy does not survive. Whereas he perishes as an "unsubsumed" Other, his older sister is (in William of Newburgh's version) assimilated into happy domesticity -- a housewife in Lynn, no less -- while in Ralph of Coggeshall's version the integration doesn't last, and the girl when grown up and married to a knight turns out to be wanton. Typical of William, the children are at once rather feral AND already bearers of an advanced culture.

Another source to think about: the ME romance Octavian (c. 1350). The empress of Rome gives birth to twins, is accused of adultery, and exiled with the newborns to the wilderness. One baby is kidnapped by an ape, the other by a lion. The story is not all that invested in this leonine-nourished boy: he survives on milk from the "lyenas pappe" and finds a tender mother in the beast. His human mom eventually recovers him, and adopts the lion as a kind of co-parent, and they live together in Jerusalem. The ape-abducted boy, meanwhile, is rescued by a knight, then becomes captive to outlaws and then to a middle class family. It's interesting to think about that glide, from ape to knight to pirates to merchant family.

Anyway, I've written about the romance a little bit in Medieval Identity Machines.

Karl Steel said...

Aidan, thanks so much for helping me out with my "small Latine" (and No Greeke). Very helpful, and no I'm glad to now know about your blog. Could I suggest promoting it on twitter as well?

Jeffrey: I honestly remembered that one Woolpit child survived hours after I wrote the post, but I figured I'd tempt you into a correction. Really? Anyway, thanks, yes, and thanks for reminder about Octavian: I just reviewed your MIMs material.

"I can see the answers you're moving towards implicit in how you've framed them"
Well, thanks. I'm not sure I can see them yet! Honestly. Here goes...

Here's what troubles me about the story this morning. We have the wolves on one side, and men on the other, and the boy in the middle, drawn to one pole when he's rather be on the other. Given that I've been reading Graham Harman's Prince of Networks, the tale's polar arrangement annoys: the structuralist LeGoffian temptation has to be overcome. The tale IS about wolves vs. humans, but surely there's more going on.

Somehow I want to talk about the boy being present (to be stolen back and forth), resistant (in his desires, in his body), and malleable (able to leap like wolves or eventually walk LIKE humans), the boy, in other words, as an ever shifting actant [who affects the wolves, who honor him, and the humans, who wonder at him, write about him, and more or less inaugurate an entire tradition of wild child writing]. All of this runs counter to the notion of some human or animal identity (of course), but it also runs counter to the notion of there being no there there. There's something, but it's unidentifiable except in what happens to it and through it, except through its actions and its actions upon others; there's something there, but it's there in its relations.

Something like this! Probably more than I can do in 10 minutes though.

Karl Steel said...

...and of course if I really want to go full bore Latour (or Harman, when I eventually finish reading the book), I need to think in terms of the agency of the trees and the pit and the weather. I'm not sure the tale allows for that though, although the second Wetterau one, with its great woods, and its winter, perhaps does more readily.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Interesting. And you know, there is a good deal at stake in going full bore Latour (in which all their are are actants in their hybridity and mingled co-existence) or Harman, in which case there is something that withdraws, something noncommunicative about the actants, including the boy -- some mystery that stays reserved.

Karl Steel said...

Ultimately, I think I'm going to throw my lot in with Harman. All his hesitations so far, even before he's started his critique (I'm 83 pages into Prince of Networks) jive with my own resistances to Latour.

Rachel said...

Whenever I read In The Middle I always feel too sleepy or too sick or too something to say anything cogent in reply, but since you asked for comments on Twitter, here's just a brief thought that occurs to me... I wonder if you might approach some of your questions by thinking of Sir Gowther. One of the most interesting things about that romance, from my perspective anyway, is the hero's conscious choice to act like an animal in order to become human. By losing his voice and eating with the dogs, Gowther seeks, yes, a route toward divine forgiveness, but I think also a way to become a man amongst men. Gowther, curiously enough, takes a road less travelled to find a path well travelled. Integration is often the happy ending afforded to wolf/lion/eagle-children, but there is something more interesting going on with Gowther, I think. He makes a choice. Of course, one can say he is not a dog-child, or a dog-man; he is wearing a mask, like his mask of muteness. But of course a mask is in itself as much a source of revelation/disclosure as of enclosure/secrecy.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I can't believe I wrote "in which all their are are actants." Good gods, revoke my PhD immediately.

So, Karl, if you travel the road of Harman not Latour (OOO not ANT): what do you think is at stake in reserving from potential communication some portion of all objects and bodies? Sometimes I wonder if that insistence upon mystery isn't a kind of mysticism, or theology by secular means.

Karl Steel said...

Rachel,
thanks for joining in! I wrote on Gowther in this space some time ago: I tend to think that the romance's resolution of Gowther into proper chivalric humanity is the easy way out. That is, he could have stayed on the hill with the greyhound, neither snatching his food, nor imagining himself abased by being among the animals. Instead of resting there, he moves forward and does his penance. There, in the court, he engages with animals as if they were bestial. He projects himself imaginatively into an already-known animality and finds in that animality a new relationship to the body. As a creature partly demonic, his problem is that he's not sufficiently or authentically of the body; he doesn't know his own death properly. Through becoming-animal (where the animal = body), he comes out more fully human and no longer demonic. In other words, I don't see that he has a mask on at the end, although I like that your reading tends that way and would be curious to hear more abut it if you have time.

The Wolf Child of Hesse, however, does not quite integrate. He remains a spectacle, reshaped as a wonder, a similitude of the human whose experience has inextricably lodged something else in him. To put this in Latourian language (!), he has unlocked the black box of the human by showing how what we call the human requires not some substance but a certain set of relations (for example, a relation to sky rather than to earth/pits, as we see in the posture, a relation to the earth of looking up from it rather than leaping, etc?). He wishes he were elsewhere, back among the wolves. He has passed through something, but he has been reshaped by this; and there may be nothing (which is to say everything) to him but this reshaping.

Again, I want to stress the symmetry of the narrative: he's taken, then taken, compelled, then compelled, he lives among (as the valued member of the pack), and he lived among (as a differently valued member of the human pack, still a center of attention). Then the symmetry breaks when we hear of his longing. I think this longing has to be the heart of my reading...

Karl Steel said...

Jeffrey: funny thing is that when I woke up this morning, I'd become more Latourian. I'm on page 113 of the Harman book, not quite yet at his critique of Latour (there's, as you probably know, an 80-page chapter on Object-Oriented Philosophy), and I just can't conceive of this...stuff...that would exist or be held in reserve independent of relations. I have to think that any so-called potential is just a new combination, a combination that's made possible by earlier combinations and so on in a network that's, in practical (but not actual) terms, infinitely regressive. I have to say practical rather than actual precisely b/c that 'infinite' (see Levinas) is 'a kind of mysticism, or theology'.

Karl Steel said...

I'm not, by the way, accusing Harman of believing that this independent 'stuff' is 'potential'; I'm not entirely sure what he does believe. Give me a couple days.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

If in a few days you are able to solve it, I will be impressed, amazed, and grateful. I've been puzzling over it for months. Sara Ahmed and I even puzzled over it together at dinner last Friday and we are both stuck there!

I would love to hear your further thoughts, as they come...