Wild men and bearded women of the medieval North


Hairy, speechless, and uncultured. These are but a few of the many traits I share with the wild men of European folklore. These half-beasts were endemic to the continental hinterlands, if medieval chroniclers are to be believed, stalking the wild peripheries side by side with cyclopes, cannibals, and unipeds who bounced around on one leg.

Struggling to keep up with the ethnographic trends of the time, medieval Norsemen were also familiar with such creatures. Icelandic and Norwegian scholars demonstrated their access to continental thought by writing books such as Konungs skuggsjá, or "The King's Mirror" if you prefer it by its English title. Which is a 13th century Norwegian handbook in courtly customs (smile a lot, don't pull a knife on the king), street-smartness (don't get drunk, don't be a horndog, rise early), and natural wonders (there's a hot spring in Iceland that tastes like beer). Needless to say it is one of my favorite works of medieval literature.

Among those aforementioned wonders, we find a number of curiosities and facts both true and false from all around the North Atlantic. In a chapter dedicated to the peculiarities of Ireland, the author relates an anecdote from the apprehension of a wild man:
It once happened in that country (and this seems indeed strange) that a living creature was caught in the forest as to which no one could say definitely whether it was a man or some other animal; for no one could get a word from it or be sure that it understood human speech. It had the human shape, however, in every detail, both as to hands and face and feet; but the entire body was covered with hair as the beasts are, and down the back it had a long coarse mane like that of a horse, which fell to both sides and trailed along the ground when the creature stooped in walking. (1917: 110)

One should say that woolly halfwits hardly make the weirdest entry in a book that eagerly encourages its readers to rub whale sperm in their eyes, but don't mind me: Such wild men occur in various cultures across Europe under various names, such as the Old High German schrato and English "woodwose", which likely originated from Old English *wudu-wāsa, or "wood-being". This might recall the Old Norse vættir "nature spirits, trolls", as both share a common Proto-Germanic etymology: *wihtiz meaning "thing, object, essence, creature". Perhaps a euphemism, a taboo name used to avoid naming the creatures directly, as was originally the case with the huldufólk ("hidden people") and hittfolk ("those people") of Nordic folklore.
Stained glass wild man. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Private photo.

Here as always, the world of monsters mirrors the world of men. While the author of Konungs skuggsjá did not doubt that wild men lived in the outskirts of other realms, I can't help but wonder whether he thought it possible that such a creature could be found in his own native Norway. The German medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen offers answers. Adam, whose main claim to fame is his descriptions of the pagan temple at Uppsala in Sweden, also penned some fetching descriptions of the rest of the Nordic area in his Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg. There he gave the following and rather unflattering account of the Northern Norwegian population in the 1070's:
I have heard, in the rugged mountains that exist up there, that there are women with beards, while the men live in the forests and rarely show themselves. They use the skins of wild beasts for clothing and when they speak, it supposedly resembles snarling rather than speech, so that they are hardly intelligible even to their closest neighbors. (1968: 282 [My own translation])
Interestingly, he goes on to describe the Sami next, or Stride-Finns as he calls them, who are easily the prime victims of literary dehumanization in the Nordic middle ages. Specifically he notes their inability to exist without snow - on which they rely to get around, and which also allows them to traverse the landscape "faster than the wild beasts" (read: skiing). Adam also refers to Scandinavian speech as snarling elsewhere. This could imply that he thought these bearded women belonged to Germanic Scandinavian stock, or at the very least were of some other ethnicity than the Sami, which is interesting insofar that Norse literature often refers to trolls and Sami as if they were entirely interchangeable.

Wild man on a church panel in Sogn Folk Museum, Norway. Private photo.

Pardoning their general gullibility and hyper-violent tendencies, Adam claims Norwegians make model Christians. None the less he describes a general problem of rampant witchcraft and heathendom across Scandinavia. No wonder: Adam refers to Norway as "the remotest country on Earth" (1968: 279). He considers Scandinavians half-civilized at best, and utter barbarians at worst. They are contested only by the barely human hybrids living further North and East of the Baltic Sea, or "Barbarian Sea" as Adam likes to call it. In line with his extravagant use of the word "barbarian", which he fits wherever he can.

Finland, he asserts, is populated exclusively by amazons who mate either with passing merchants or wild beasts, and isn't too shy to provide a theory of his own either: First of all it's extremely unlikely that any sailor would have sex with strange, allegedly gorgeous women. Besides, any male specimen of the amazonian race is born with the head of a beast, while the women are all bombshells. Whether or not you accept Adam's reasoning he makes a distinction between amazons, who sire offspring through bestiality, and the hound-faced people of Russia whom he implicitly equates to the Huns, based on the rock solid science of folk-etymology (Hun and hound sound similar, ergo there must be a connection).

Wild men are to a point what most people are not. They are uncanny, and their ambiguity is often underlined in the fact that some authors cannot decide whether or not they qualify as human. Which is to ask what a human is. Surely with no lack of poetic doubt and self-questioning, an existential level to the wild men which seems strengthened by the fact that the stories about them are shrouded in hearsay, as if the possibility of their existence is compelling, yet dreaded for its implications. They are recognized partly as kin, partly as a natural counterpart to man. Something that links him to savage and untamed nature on one side, and that which is unspoiled, raw and potent on the other. In case you couldn't tell, Adam was taking any argument he could to further his claim that Scandinavia needed some more of that Christian religion. Make of that what you will, but if you come to Norway looking for our bearded women I'm afraid you'll be severely disappointed.

But the part about dog-faced people and amazons is entirely true.

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Sources

  • Adam Bremensis. 1968. De hamburgske ærkebispers historie og nordens beskrivelse. Translated by Carsten L. Henrichsen. Rosenkilde og Bagger: Copenhagen.
  • Larson, Laurence Marcellus (tr.). 1917. The King’s Mirror [Speculum regale - Konungs skuggsjá]. Scandinavian Monographs 3. The American-Scandinavian Foundation: New York. 

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