Humble apologies, my fellow travellers. The road was long and crooked, not to mention washed into a sea of mud by the recent downpour. Hell on the ankles. As a consequence, I have let this field lie fallow and kept you waiting by the fireside for my arrival longer than I ought to have.
The earlier entries I was set to edit did not amount to much, so I’ll be spending reading week writing some more thematically-appropriate follow-ups to my intro. In the first of these, I’d like to talk about humanity’s most persistent antagonists throughout the Medieval period in Europe: rats and wolves.
The Black Death, the outbreak of bubonic plague which swept across the Eurasian continent from 1346 to 1353, is far and away the deadliest natural event in known human history. While there will always be some uncertainty about statistics gathered from disparate sources nearly seven hundred years ago, any event whose death toll estimates conservatively weigh in around the 60-70 million mark is only to be challenged by the worst of modern wars.
Of course, we now know that the cause of the plague was not rats, but fleas and not fleas, but the bacteria they carried. Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the plague, would be a killer inconceivable to medieval medicine, a being so infinitesimally small as to be invisible to the naked eye. Such an outside agent was simply not to be thought of by a culture whose medical thinking was still predominantly informed by Galen’s four humours, which suggested that internal maladies necessarily had their origins inside the ill body. But while the sufferers of the plague could not see the agents of the disease themselves, the rats were readily apparent.
Funnily enough the animal most commonly blamed as a plague vector was the domestic dog, but that doesn’t mean that the medieval populace held the rat blameless. The true threat the rat posed to the medieval mind lay in their fecundity, their tenaciousness, and their hunger. Before modern farming methods and mass production, the growing of crops and the feeding of the populace was an uncertain thing. Famine was an ever-present threat, and the rats worsened it by adding millions of ravening mouths to feed. They chewed through wattle and daub to get at struggling farmers’ little all and sheared away both profit margins and food stores from those that could ill afford to lose them.
Furthermore, the rat’s capacity for travel merely only made them more dangerous the more advanced and interconnected European society became. In the early Medieval period, when more than just islands were insular, the threat posed by the rats was local. But by the high Middle Ages the complex network of international trade had spread rats in greater numbers than ever before. This image from a late 14th century French manuscript shows a satirical awareness that the rat’s wandering natures could cross more than just the land.
The subjects of famine and of Medieval humanity’s comparative vulnerability to more faceless natural forces like hunger, weather, and time are ones in which I have an interest as well. For now, I offer the rat as the ambassador of natural entropy and move on to a far more immediate threat; the wolves of Europe.
For all the time that has passed, people still fear and revile rats today for several of the same reasons they once did. Whether their feelings are justified or not, the rat still occupies a dark place in the minds of many. By contrast, the wolf is an animal whose cultural associations have completely changed since the pre-modern era. While few would care to encounter even one of these powerful pack hunters up close in the wild, their status as symbols of natural power and grace draw more admiration than fear from a human population that has outgrown the threat of wolves on anything but the personal level.
The same could be said of many apex predators now under threat from human action: tigers in particular represent a tragic vision of the natural beauty that is on the verge of fading from the world forever at our hands. But Europeans don’t live with tigers, and never did until New Imperialism had saturated the globe in mutton chops and firearms. We knew wolves long before that time, and they knew us.
In prehistoric Europe, there existed a large, social, mammalian carnivore that used intelligence and pack-hunting tactics to bring down larger prey. And alongside them, existed wolves. The fact that wolves and humans shared such a similar ecological niche inevitably resulted in clashes that continued from prehistory right up until the end of the Early Modern period. The current state of wolves being largely absent as a threat in Western Europe is very much not the norm. Our conflict with our lupine competitors lasted longer than any war humans have ever thought to fight amongst themselves.
The list of wolf attacks on Wikipedia is long and brutal, but it only presents detailed records of attacks from 1700 onwards, roughly the last century of the Early Modern period. However, the most powerful and shocking account on that page is one of the few Medieval entries, one that perfectly shows the parity which existed between wolves and men in those lost days; the story of the Wolves of Paris, when in the 1430s a pack of wolves entered the city through a rent in the walls and spent a brutal winter haunting Paris and hunting its trapped residents like penned sheep. Unlike the later Beast of Gévaudan, there is no confusion or controversy about the nature of these wolves. Despite the terrifying nature of the account, or the mythmaking that may gild it, no supernatural otherness is ascribed to the wolves. They are wolves, the enemies of man, and that is cause for fear enough.
References and image sources
“Courtaud & the Paris Wolf Attacks.” The Happy Gallows. July 2016, https://happygallows.blogspot.com/2016/07/courtaud-paris-wolf-attacks.html, [Accessed November 7th 2022]
Durand, Guillaume. Pontifical de Guillaume Durand. approx. 1390, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Paris, ms. 143, fol. 77v, accessed at https://upennmanuscripts.tumblr.com/post/154209929231/four-rats-rowing-a-little-boat-in-the-margins-of, [Accessed November 7th 2022]
van Maerlant, Jacob, Der Naturen Bloeme. approx. 1350, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague, KA 16, fol. 62r, accessed at https://manuscripts.kb.nl/search/simple/ka+16/page/24, [Accessed November 7th 2022].