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.
Name: Wodewose, faunis ficariis*
Range: The Wirral Peninsula, Africa
Predators: Alexander the Great
Threat Level: Endangered, possibly extinct
*faunis ficariis is translated as 'wodewose' in the Wycliffite Bible (Jeremiah 50:39).
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.
Wodewose 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 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.
A 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.
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 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 wodewose, The Genealogy of the Royal Houses of Spain and Portugal (the 'Portuguese Genealogy'), Lisbon and Bruges, 1530–1534, Add MS 12531, f. 1r
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.
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.
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.
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 votes with his feet (and captivating arms), Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 72v
Woman demonstrates displeasure at wodewose's advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 73r
Wodewose reaches lovingly for woman, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 74r
Wodewose rewarded for his advances, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 74v
Yet again wodewose gets speared for his trouble, Smithfield Decretals, Southern France (?Toulouse), c. 1300–1340, Royal MS 10 E IV, f. 101
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.
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.
The 'Bal des Ardents' from Froissart’s Chroniques, Southern Netherlands, c. 1470–72, Harley MS 4380, f. 1
Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, Demonology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952).
Timothy Husband, The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980).