Saturday, May 28, 2016

Everyone Wants to Be a Wild Man

The April issue of Archaeology Magazine features an artifact, a gold spoon finial from late medieval Europe, crafted into the form of a bearded, club-wielding humanoid of doubtful sanity. The editor identifies his visage as that of the "Wild Man," a common motif in European art and ceremonial from the twelfth century to the fifteenth. Scholar Ronald Hutton notes that the Wild Man evoked earlier pagan deities and at the same time warned Christian Europeans of the chaos that lurked at the edge of their civilization. We might add Robert Berkhofer's observation (in The White Man's Indian [1978]) that the Wild Man heavily influenced Europeans' perception of Native Americans. Early modern Europeans sometimes assumed that Indians, like Wild Men, lived on raw meat or human flesh, and referred to both groups as "woods-dwellers" or "silvani" - in English, "salvages." 

What interested me most about the article was the obvious ambivalence Europeans displayed toward Wild Men. Commoners and elites feared these mythical figures but also emulated them, the latter by including them in military heraldry and by dressing as Wild Men for pageants. The image, like that of Native Americans in later centuries, suggested strength, physical courage, and a carnivalesque suspension of social rules. (We may note that the same elites who dressed as Wild Men in the fourteenth century also dressed as Brazilian Indians in the sixteenth century.) The Wild Man thus served as a precursor to the early-modern trope of the "noble savage," and a bridge between that era and the pre-Christian Europeans whom Tacitus and his Classical contemporaries admired.

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