In medieval Europe, wolves (alongside → bears, → lynx and of course humans) were top terrestrial predators, at the apex of their food chain.
Populations survived across Europe into the early modern period, except in England where wolves were hunted to extinction by the fifteenth century. They were predominantly associated with physically and conceptually marginal landscapes; broadly defined as wilderness or in Scandinavian studies as utmark or outland (i.e. uncultivated land).
The intensity of wolf hunting during the Middle Ages appears to have varied across Europe. In England for example, the persecution of wolves was largely sponsored and driven by the crown, particularly in the thirteenth century, in late medieval Normandy there is extensive documentary evidence for peasants hunting wolves, whereas in Scandinavia organised wolf hunting was a much later development. The Sachsenspiegel (the Saxon Mirror) encouraged the hunting of bears, wolves and foxes. Hunting was not driven by any demand for wolf fur or body parts, but by its perceived threat to livestock, people and – most importantly – protected game species.
Documented incidents of wolf depredations on livestock are relatively uncommon in the Middle Ages, at least in north-west Europe, and attacks on humans are difficult to quantify before the modern period. There is very little documentary evidence for wolf pelts being traded, and even less archaeological evidence for their procurement. The latter is partly related to difficulties in distinguishing between the archaeological remains of → dogs and wolves, but also must reflect the infrequent acquisition and use of wolf carcasses. There is some written evidence for the capture of live wolves for baiting, or more unusually, as in the case of the counts of Artois at the turn of the 14th century, for keeping as a troublesome pet.
The wolf was also the animal model for the quintessential medieval monster: the werewolf. Werewolf beliefs are poorly and unevenly documented across Europe before the fifteenth century, after which a few hundred appear within prosecutions of witchcraft. They do however feature in Anglo-Norman but more so in Old Norse literature, where they are found in sixteen texts. In Iceland, the figure of the werewolf with innate shapechanging abilities (rather than the Continental, sometimes referred to as ›Celtic‹ transformation by magic) was probably a remnant of pre-Christian beliefs.
Lit.: A. G. PLUSKOWSKI: Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages, 2006.