THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Medieval manuscripts blog

21 September 2016

A Field Guide to Wodewoses

It’s #WodewoseWednesday, people. You might not know what a wodewose is, but you surely should. They are mythical forest creatures that are guaranteed to improve your midweek. I would describe myself as an avid wodewose-ophile and hence have compiled this handy guide to the behaviour and habits of the wodewose, in case you meet one, one day. 

Wodewose

 


Name:  Wodewose, faunis ficariis*

Range: The Wirral Peninsula, Africa

Habitat: Forest

Predators: Alexander the Great

Threat Level: Endangered, possibly extinct

*faunis ficariis is translated as 'wodewose' in the Wycliffite Bible (Jeremiah 50:39).


BEHAVIOUR 

What is a wodewose? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the creature as ‘a wild man of the woods; a satyr, faun’. Wodewoses are wild creatures. They seem not to like being disturbed in their forest habitat. In this image some dogs have woken a wodewose from its nap and he is displeased. Or he might be trying to hug them. It’s unclear.

  Barking and wodewoseWodewose surrounded by dogs from the Queen Mary Psalter, England, c. 1310–1320, Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 173r

Wodewoses do not always dwell in the forest. Sometimes they like to be involved in pageantry. This one is sporting the arms of England.

 

Wodewose pageantry

  Woodwose 2

Wodewose holding the arms of England, La Bible Historiale, c. 1470–79, Southern Netherlands, Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18

Wodewoses don’t seem to be very concerned about personal grooming. They have large bushy beards which cover most of their bodies, like a beard in onesie form.

Wodeswose luttrell 2A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter, England, c. 1325–1340, Add MS 42130, f. 70r

Wodewoses don't often like to wear clothes. Here's a wodewose in its Sunday best, wearing a fetching leaf ensemble and matching head-dress.

Wodewose paste-in

A pasted-in wodewose from the end of Book I of John Lydgate's 'Fall of Princes', England, c. 1470, Harley MS 4197, f. 34v

It would be erroneous, however, to think that wodewoses are not sometimes quite stylish. These two dashing wodewoses are from the genealogy of the Portuguese and Spanish kings. 

Wodewose bluesteelWodewose Bluesteel, The Genealogy of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (the 'Portuguese Genealogy'), Lisbon and Bruges, 1530–1534, Add MS 12531, f. 1r

  Wistful wodewoseWistful wodewose, The Genealogy of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (the 'Portuguese Genealogy'), Lisbon and Bruges, 1530–1534, Add MS 12531, f. 1r 

DISTRIBUTION

Wodewoses appear to live in diverse parts of the world. In the late 14th-century romance poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, we hear how Gawain encounters wodewoses in the Wirral Peninsula in northwest England (line 721). But, they also apparently live in Africa as well. In John Trevisa’s 14th-century Middle English translation of a zoological text called De Proprietatibus Rerum (On the Nature of Things) by the Franciscan monk and scholar of the 13th-century, Bartholomaeus, there is a warning that in Africa one might find ‘satires, wodewoses, tigris, and oþer horrible bestes’. [satyrs, woodwoses, tigers and other horrible beasts]. Although, given that this text suggests that there are tigers in Africa, it might not be the most trustworthy source.

MATING HABITS

Wodewoses are terrible pick-up artists. I can’t be sure, because I’ve never met one, but it seems that wodewoses get tongue-tied around ladies. They just don’t have the right words; they can’t woo. Consequently they sometimes just have to make their affections clear to ladies after they’ve carried them off to their lairs. Unfortunately, the manuscript evidence suggests that this isn’t always a fool-proof strategy for winning the women of their dreams.

Wodewose

Ineffectual wodewose wooing from the Taymouth Hours, England, c. 1325–50, Yates Thompson MS 13, ff. 62r–63v

With thanks to the marvellous @iandouglas for stitching this little beauty together. This GIF makes us a teeny bit sad. As Ian observed, ‘poor guy. Can’t a wodewose attempt to carry off Princess Leia without being skewered for his trouble?’

In the beautiful Smithfield Decretals we can see some more wodewose wooing and wodewose repelling. In this image we’ve got a lady seemingly more taken with the embrace of a tree than that of the wodewose. Read more about this manuscript here

  Wodewose wooing 72r

Wodewose attempts to embrace lady; lady appears more taken with the tree, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f 72r

Wodewose wooing 72v

Wodewose votes with his feet (and captivating arms), Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 72v

Wodewose and lady in redWoman demonstrates displeasure at wodewose's advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 73r

Smithfield 74rWodewose reaches lovingly for woman, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 74r 

Smithfield 74vWodewose rewarded for his advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 74v 

Smithfield 101Yet again wodewose gets speared for his trouble, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 101 

 

PREDATORS

Wodewoses have few known predators. However, some versions of the story of Alexander the Great describe the king encountering marvellous races in India, who are sometimes depicted as wodewoses. 

  Wodewose predator

Alexander the Great predating some wodewoses, 'Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre', Paris, c. 1420–1425, Royal MS B XX , f. 64

 

ADDENDUM: WODEWOSES CAN BE FIRE HAZARDS

On 28 January 1393, a masquerade ball was held at the court of Charles VI of France. The ball, held at the Palace of Saint-Pol, was to celebrate the marriage of Catherine de Fastaverin -- one of the queen's waiting women. The king and several of his companions decided to dress up as wodewoses and perform a wild dance to entertain the guests. They wore masks and linen costumes soaked in flax which made them appear shaggy. At some point in the proceedings, Charles' brother, the Duc d'Orléans, arrived with a lit torch. Disaster struck: the torch somehow came into contact with the dancers' costumes and they caught fire. 

The king was only saved when his cousin, the Duchesse de Berry threw her voluminous skirts over him to extinguish the flames. One other dancer — Sieur de Nantoillet — survived by jumping into a vat of wine. All the others were burnt to death. Impersonating a wodewose can have dire consequences. 

Health and safety

The 'Bal des Ardents' from Froissart’s ‘Chroniques’, Southern Netherlands, c. 1470–72 Harley MS 4380, f. 1

 

What is your favourite wodewose image? Send us your favourite suggestions to @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #WodewoseWednesday

Mary Wellesley

@BLMedieval/@marywellesley

 

Further Reading: 


Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment and Demonology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952). 

Timothy Husband, The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980). 

 

 

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Comments

I could only find one image of a "tamed" wodewose on the internet so far, although I swore that I saw an article a few years ago about that, with more such images.

What a wonderful post! Had me smiling & then in stictches... just goes o show that not only is the BL the best library in the world but its staff are unique too! Thank you

I've recently spent a couple of months in East Anglia and Yorkshire and photographed a few wodewoses in their natural habitat. Unlike their cousin the Green Man, wodewoses seem a single, identifiable species. Number one stands next to window in St John the Baptist, Thaxted. He holds his trademark club and pulls his beard - a suggestive act at the time.

Number two alternates with seated lions around the base of the early fifteenth century font in St Edmunds, Acle. They look more guardsmen than wild men.

Number three is from a misericord in Ripon cathedral and is surrounded by outsized acorns and oak leaves.
Have images of all three but am too technically illiterate to send them.

Simon Johnson

(New Zealand)

There is fine wooden carving of a Woodwose in Marwood House, Honition, Devon. The house itself dates from the early 17th century but I suspect the carving is older than that. I believe there are others in Devon.

There are woodworks round the font of the church top of Ber st Norwich Poor wood woses not very popular were they ?

Thank you for a delightful lesson on wodewoses!

I have never herd of a Woodwose until I read this article while browsing through this wonderful array of documents and manascripts. I have herd of the Green man.
I love all these local legends, histories etc and came upon this website after watching the BBCs King Alfred and the Anglo Saxons. Wonderful programme.
I am immensely proud of our wonderful heritage and will enjoy browsing through this wonderful website in the future.

Wodewoses' mating habits might be more varied. Doesn't the one on the right look female in this old Spanish palace? http://bit.ly/2oKVbi2 (Sorry, I can't hyperlink, it seems.)

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