Hagiographie: The wolf is possibly the most common wild animal in hagiography. It was primarily used to exemplify the saint’s restoration of the conditions of Eden through the control of wild animals. In showing how the virtues of the Egyptian Fathers were reproduced in the West, Sulpicius Severus replaced the figure of the → lion with that of the wolf in his Postumianus dialogue. Here, wolves are turned from wild to tame, obeying the saint, eating bread, and showing penitence for transgression (PL 20, cols. 192-3). The developed image of Eden-like conditions appears occasionally thereafter, as in Goscelin of Saint Bertin’s Vita of Saint Edith, a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon nun of Wilton. Her garden enclosure is described as a place where wild animals from → doves to wolves and → bears live in docility, and are fed by hand by the saint (Vita Sanctae Edithae¸ 65-8).
The simple element of the tamed wolf working for the saint is more common than the full Edenic scene. An eighth-century Vita of the Irish Saint Fintan has the saint using wolves as sheepdogs to guard his father’s flocks (Heist, 198-9). In Cogitosus’ version of the Life of Saint Brigit of Kildare, the saint is able to make wild wolves act as herdsmen for her → pigs (AASS 1 February, 138). In Jocelyn of Furness’ late-twelfth-century Vita of Saint Kentigern, the saint puts a wolf and a → stag under one yoke of a plough (Vita Kentigerni, 193-5). Bernard of Tiron was establishing his monastery when a wolf, as if it were tame, brought a lost → calf back to the monastery (PL 172, cols. 1410-11). Stories like these have raised the suspicion that many of these wolves may have been sheepdogs that had gone feral, and were in essence being reclaimed from the wild. This explanation does have fair plausibility.
As a rule, the hagiographic role of wolves is overwhelmingly negative. They appear sometimes as demonic agents, and occasionally as symbols of human villains, as in the story of Saint Francis and the wolf of Gubbio (Habig, 1348-51). The key is, of course, the saint’s ability to defeat the demonic wolf. The twelfth-century English holy man, Godric of Finchale, reduced a wolf set on devouring him to submissive humility (Reginald of Durham, Vita Godrici, 63-4). In Italian hagiography, Elisa Anti found that into the eleventh and twelfth-centuries saints increasingly acted as protectors against wolves. Anti linked the growth in popularity of this type of story to widening cultivation and the confinement of wolves to ever smaller habitats, causing an increase in human contact with wolves (Anti, 162-9).
Despite their negative connotations, wolves can be used as instruments of divine will. In a late-eleventh-century account, a thief who stole from Saint Amelberga of Tamise is killed by a wolf (AASS 10th July, 96). Wolves can be used to try a saint. Saint Columban was surrounded by twelve wolves on one occasion, but remained steadfast in his obedience to God’s will, even as the beasts seized at his clothing. The wolves then wandered back into the woods, the holy man having passed the test. Thus Columban’s power over nature is confirmed, and animal miracles are frequent in his Vita after this incident (MGH SSRM 37, 166-7).
There is a minority of tales in which the wolf appears in a more ambiguous light, not simply as a dangerous predator who must be tamed or defeated. Many of these are Irish. As a child, Saint Abban was worshipping while the other boys were playing, when a poor she-wolf came out of the forest with her cubs and stood before the → calves, which the boys were meant to be watching. The boy saint, showing his piety, pitied the wolves and commanded them to eat one of the calves (Plummer, 1, 6-7). This recognition of wolves as a legitimate part of the world finds its most spectacular expression in the eighth-century Vita of Saint Ailbe. Ailbe was the illegitimate son of a man and a bondmaid in King Crónán of Araid Cliach’s household. His father fled at the pregnancy, afraid of punishment, and the king would not have the baby reared with his own sons, so Ailbe was abandoned in the wilderness under a rock. This rock turns out to be the den of a she-wolf, who loves the baby Ailbe and raises him with her own cubs (Heist, 118). Later Ailbe saved a wolf and cubs from hunters. The Araid people (north-eastern Limerick) were hunting in order to drive the wolves from their territory. The she-wolf took refuge with the saint, placing her head beneath his cowl. Ailbe explicitly makes his aid a quid pro quo: ‘Do not be afraid. It is fitting that you should flee to me and that I should defend you from your persecutors. Indeed, I, in the days of my infancy, when men had spurned me, was gently nourished by your kind (Heist, 130).’ The wolves are made safe at Ailbe’s table, where they eat bread along with the brothers.
Other atypical interactions with wolves do appear in hagiography from outside Ireland. The Flemish Vita of Saint Gudwal has an episode where the saint saw a wolf walking as if lame. The animal bowed its head to the saint upon being called over, and exhibited a thorn in its paw. The saint cured it with his staff but commanded the wolf to be vegetarian thereafter (AASS 6th June, 739). Saint Norbert of Xanten treated wolves in a markedly equitable fashion. On one occasion, Norbert’s monks came across a wolf devouring a → roebuck, and chased it away, taking the prey back with them to the monastery. The wolf followed after and made a complaint outside the door, while sitting ‘tamely’. Upon hearing this, Norbert inquired about events, and commanded that the monks ‘return to him what is his, you have done an injustice taking what is not yours.’ Having received his property, the wolf went away peacefully (MGH SS 12, 692). On another occasion, one of the brothers was aided in guarding his flock by a wolf, who patiently minded the animals all day. As the monk returned to the house, the wolf followed after, but was locked outside the door, and made complaint by knocking on the door with his paw. Norbert, having discovered the matter, again castigated his monk for not giving due recompense to the wolf; ‘the labourer is worthy of his food’ (Luke 10:7), he declares (MGH SS 12, 692). Another positive appearance for a wolf is found in the account of the martyrdom of the English Saint Edmund, whose head is kept safe from other animals by a wolf (Cubitt, 63-4). This last example is noteworthy as a ‘creative adaptation’ and transformation of the ‘Beasts of Battle’ motif from heroic poetry where then → raven, the → eagle and the wolf accompany the armies in expectation of feasting on the corpses of the slain.
In these examples, it is possible to see a different understanding of the wolf emerging from the shadow of the standard hagiographic model, perhaps reflecting the animal’s role as a pre-Christian sacred animal.
Ausg: Cogitosus, Vita Sanctae Brigidae AASS 1 February, pp. 129-141, Goscelin of Saint Bertin, Vita Sanctae Edithae Virginis, ed. A. WILMART, Analecta Bollandiana 56 (1938), pp. 5-101 and 265-307, Jocelyn of Furness, Vita Sancti Kentigerni, in Lives of St. Ninian and St. Kentigern, ed. and trans. A. P. FORBES, 1874, The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, in: St. Francis of Assissi: Writings and Early Biographies, ed. M. A. HABIG 1972, Reginald of Durham, Libellus de vita et miraculis Sancti Godrici, heremitae de Finchale, ed. J. STEPHENSON, Surtees Society 20 (1847), Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, ed. W. W. HEIST 1965, Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae, ed. C. PLUMMER, 2 vols. 1910.
Lit: E. ANTI: Santa e animali nell’ Italia Padana Secoli IV-XII, 1998; C. CUBITT: Sites and Sanctity: revisiting the cult of murdered and martyred Anglo-Saxon royal saints, in: Early Medieval Europe 9 (2000), 53-83; D. ALEXANDER, Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, 2008; L. FRANZ: Wahre Wunder. Tiere als Funktions- und Bedeutungsträger in mittelalterlichen Gründungslegenden, 2011.