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Crying Wolf in the early middle ages?

By Robert Evans @R_AH_Evans

The chronicles and histories of the early middle ages have a reputation for describing somewhat unusual events. In his history of contemporary events, for example, Prudentius, bishop of Troyes (d.861) describes how, in 846

‘Wolves attacked and devoured with complete audacity the inhabitants of the western part of Gaul. Indeed, in some parts of Aquitaine they are said to have gathered together in groups of up to 300, just like army detachments, formed a sort of battle-line and marched along the road, boldly charging en masse all who tried to resist them’ (The Annals of St-Bertin, 846AD, p. 62).

Prudentius later describes how, in 858, in a nearby church

‘while the priest was celebrating mass, a wolf suddenly came in and disturbed all the menfolk present by rushing about; then after doing the same thing among the womenfolk, it disappeared’ (Annals of St-Bertin, 858AD, p. 86).

These passages have largely been ignored by modern scholars only interested in what Prudentius has to say about politics and warfare. Such eccentric anecdotes have been dismissed as irrelevant or deluded. These wolves, however, clearly mattered to Prudentius and his readers and we can learn a lot about Prudentius’ view of the world if we ask why.

It is entirely possible that Prudentius was recording reports of real wolf attacks. Wolves could be a big problem for early medieval communities, especially in times of famine (as 846 was) as scarcity drove them to seek food in human settlements. The danger they posed can be seen from the measures taken against them. In 813, Frothar, recently appointed bishop of Toul, wrote to impress the Emperor Charlemagne, reporting that he had overseen the killing of 240 wolves. If (as a fellow bishop) Prudentius was also responsible for local wolf-culls, then reports of wolf attacks would have been directly relevant, especially since the second attack occurred in the same ecclesiastical province.

These attacks become more significant when we look at their place in Prudentius’ narrative. The first wolf attack is described immediately after an account of Viking raiding. The Vikings had attacked what is now the Netherlands, a long way away from Aquitaine. Prudentius, however, puts the two accounts together. This may explain Prudentius’ odd emphasis on the wolves’ military discipline. It is not hard to see a link between militarised wolf-packs and Viking warbands. Was Prudentius implying to his readers that the Vikings were just as much a force of nature, driven by bestial instincts, as the wolf-packs in Aquitaine?

The wolves’ symbolic significance deepens when we consider where else Prudentius’ readers might have read about wolves. It is striking that wolf attacks also feature in Gregory of Tours’ Ten Books of History (written c.590), the history most widely read by Prudentius’ contemporaries. Gregory describes how, c.500

‘Vienne was shaken by frequent earthquakes and savage packs of wolves and stags came in through the gates and ranged through the entire city, fearing nothing and nobody’ (Gregory, History, 2.34, p. 148).

Gregory even describes wolf attacks in Aquitaine in 582:

‘There was an earthquake in Angers. Wolves found their way inside the walls of the town of Bordeaux and ate the dogs, showing no fear whatsoever of human beings’ (Gregory, History, 6.21, p. 350).

Were both historians simply observing similar behaviour by wolves in Aquitaine? Or was Prudentius intending a deliberate echo of these accounts from Gregory?

Natural phenomena were important to both Gregory and Prudentius. Like Gregory, Prudentius tells us that in 846 a wind damaged the crops and in 858 that the land was hit by earthquakes (which may explain the wolves’ behaviour). Medieval historians were sensitive to natural disasters because they could indicate God’s disapproval. One of Prudentius’ contemporaries cited how ‘the world will wage war against the mad’ (Wisdom of Solomon, 5.21) to explain an unusually cold winter (Nithard’s Histories, 4.7). The Bible also described lions and bears as divine punishment for humanity’s worship of creation rather than its Creator (Wisdom of Solomon, 11.15-17). It is perhaps no surprise when the wolves around Toul got out of hand, Frothar wrote to a colleague that this was a sign of God’s judgement. In the first of Gregory’s wolf-attacks, the ‘horror only came to an end’ only when Avitus, bishop of Vienne, implored God’s mercy on the sinful Christians.

Prudentius leaves such parallels with Gregory to his readers. Nonetheless, he describes the Vikings elsewhere as a punishment for Christian sin (Annals of St-Bertin, 845AD). His readers would come to the wolf attacks with a particular vision of Christian society in view: a society troubled for its sins by chaotic events beyond its control. Prudentius’ history combines factual record with pastoral warnings. We can observe, therefore, how in this period natural phenomena, earlier histories, and contemporary events were interpreted within a practical Christian framework.

Further reading

The Annals of St-Bertin, trans. J.L. Nelson (Manchester, 1991).

Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, trans. L. Thorpe (London, 1974).

Frothar of Toul, Letters, ed. and trans. (Fr.) M. Parisse, La correspondence d’un évêque carolingien. Frothaire de Toul (ca 813-847) (Paris, 1998).

For early medieval history writing, see R. McKitterick, History and Memory in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2004).

Image – Public domain, British Library Online: British Library, Harley 2637 folio 50v – https://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=20020

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