THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

19 April 2017

Four legs good? A Bohemian Wild Man

The Gazeta de Lisboa reported on 29 August 1825 that a wild man had been found in the Hartzwald in Bohemia. About 30 years old, he howled like a dog, walked on all fours, climbed trees as nimbly as a monkey, and caught birds with ease. Taken to Prague, he resisted all attempts to civilize him.

This news inspired the anonymous author (or, rather, translator, as most of his information comes from the New Dictionary of Natural History printed in Paris in 1803 – that is, Nouveau dictionnaire d'histoire naturelle, appliquĂ©e aux arts, principalement Ă  l'agriculture et Ă  l'Ă©conomie rurale et domestique; BL 723.i.1-23.) to put together in 14 pages a small anthology of wild men.

Wildman tp
Noticia de hum homem selvagem, apparecido ultimamente; com a curiosa relação de outros muitos, que em varios tempos tem apparecido na Europa (Porto, 1825) RB.23.a.24200.

In 1544 a young man in Hesse had been brought up most carefully by a family of wolves, who had dug a hole in which to hide him. So used was he to walking on all fours that it was necessary to tie splints to him to make him stand upright. Having learned to speak, he told the Landgrave he would sooner live among wolves than men. His natural language consisted of “most expressive gesticulations” and “sharp cries issued from his throat”.

Wildman Lutterell Psalter  Add MS 42130
A mediaeval image of a wild man, walking on all fours, from The Lutterell Psalter, Add MS 42130

There is a remarkable consistency among these wild men: a boy of about nine found among bears in Lithuania also communicated in rough grunts and refused all attempts at education. Another Lithuanian wild boy had forgotten all about his animal life by the time he learned human language.

Tulpius, the Dutch doctor (was he the Dr Tulp of Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson?) describes a boy brought up by sheep in Ireland. He lived on straw and leaves, which he could sniff out without mistake.

Tulpius Observationes
Engraved title-page of Nicolaus Tulpius, Observationes Medicae (Amsterdam, 1672) 1607/108

Another recognized his foster mother at a distance, by smell alone, like a dog. Some were still wearing residual clothing, like the boy found in Breslau. Had he run away from a cruel mother or nanny? Initially fierce, he allowed himself to be partly domesticated, but all his life evinced an antipathy to women: their proximity made him shiver and tremble.

Come of these cases are described as unusually hirsute, but in general are said to be well formed. In all cases the senses were developed beyond those of a civilized person. The treatments of these cases are neither voyeuristic, sensationalist or sentimental. Although the idea of the Noble Savage had been current for over a century, these savages are neither better or worse than the people who write about them.

Wildman Peter
‘Peter the Wild Boy’, a famous 18th-century feral child, found near Hamelin in Germany in 1725, from The Manifesto of Lord Peter (London, 1726) 12316.tt.24.

Even though these men and boys in many cases came to speak normally, none of them was reconciled to the civilized life, and sadly all yearned to return to the animal families who had nurtured them.

Barry Taylor, Curator Romance Studies