Wolves and Early Saints

Ivy Stanmore / Sydney, Australia / Wolf Song of Alaska Member

Wolves are mentioned many times in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, though it is the saints of the early Christian centuries who are most frequently connected with wolves and usually in a sympathetic context.  These early saints used wolves as symbols and emblems, and also had them as companions.  They treated them with compassion and humanity in spite of the fact that among the laity wolves were often associated with Satan and persons of ill-repute, such as brigands, outlaws and other outcasts of society.

Celtic and Northumbrian saints are often portrayed with wolves. St. Patrick is said to have preached to wolves.  Another Irish saint, St. Maedoc of Ferns, who died in AD 626, is held to have shared his food with a starving wolf.  St. Columban (circa 543-615) yet another Irish-born saint living in the forests, was never molested by wolves and lived amicably among them.  The obscure 7th century St. Theodore of Sykeon in Galatia, whose fasts and austerities were severe, counted wolves, and also bears, as his friends.  St. Theodore at one time lived as a hermit walled up in a cave and was reputed to possess great healing powers.  St. Donatus, Bishop of Fiesole in Italy, was said to have had great rapport with wolves and to have had special posers over them.  In the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry, St. Eustace's two children were reported to have been seized by a wolf and a lion while crossing a river, though whether to assist or otherwise is not clear. St. Ailbe, a little-known Irish saint of the early 6th century, is reputed to have been suckled by a she-wolf.

The desert fathers and hermits shared the same characteristics of living amicably with and being assisted by wolves.  A number of manuscripts tell the story of the visit of St. Anthony the Abbot to St. Paul the Hermit.  This story is recorded in "Life of St. Anthony" written in AD 1426 for the Abbey of St. Antoine de Viennois in Dauphine' (manuscript now held in the Malta Public Library in Valletta) and in the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry (manuscript said to be in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, at the Cloisters).

According to these manuscripts, St. Anthony journeyed to visit St. Paul through the wilderness of the Egyptian desert.  En route he met with a succession of animals: some were helpful in giving directions for his journey, some were not.  When St. Anthony became lost a she-wolf appeared who guided him to St. Paul's desert dwelling.  The she-wolf stayed with these two saints and a raven brought bread for them to eat, which they shared with the wolf.

St. Anthony must have had remarkable relationships with wild animals because it is said that at St. Paul's death, St. Anthony supervised the burial and was aided by two lions who dug the grave with their paws. St. Ambrose described the power of the Holy Spirit by using wild animals as an analogy when he wrote "We, then, were wild animals . . . but now through the Holy Spirit the madness of lions, the spots of leopards, the craftiness of foxes and the rapacity of wolves have passed away from our affections."

In early times people believed that animals had the ability to recognize the quality of holiness in humans and these creatures reacted accordingly.  This belief would certainly account for some of the more remarkable stories which have come down to us. Wolves were taken as emblems by saints.  St. Wolfgang of Regensburg, a German saint (circa AD 924) whose feast day is October 31, has the wolf as an emblem.  St. Francis of Assisi (of whom more later) is always depicted with a wolf and sometimes with a wolf and a lamb together. A well-known saint having the wolf as emblem is St. Edmund, King and Martyr.  St. Edmund was King of East Anglia in the 9th century.  He led his people against the Danish invaders, but he and his army were defeated and Edmund was captured.  The invaders offered to spare his life if he would renounce the Christian faith, but Edmund refused to do so.  On November 20, the day now named as his feast, at Hellesden in Suffolk, Edmund was tied to a tree, shot by arrows and then beheaded.  One author, however, does state that Edmund underwent the "blood eagle rite" -- a terrible form of death usually reserved for captured kings and rulers of tribes.  Whatever the mode of Edmund's death, legend asserts that his head was hidden away from the body in the Forest of Englesdane.  Later his followers retrieved the body, though the head could not be located.  After a fruitless search, a voice was heard calling from a thicket deep in the forest.  There Edmund's retainers found the head being guarded between the paws of a gray wolf.  The wolf allowed the retainers to remove the head and the wolf followed them to Hoxne village, where the head and body were laid together in a grave.  On observing this the wolf returned quietly to the forest.

Later St. Edmund's body was transferred to Bedricsworth, which became known as Bury St. Edmunds.  An abbey was founded there and grew to be one of the most powerful in England.  At the church in the village of Hadleigh, Suffolk, a 14th century benchend depicts a wolf holding St.Edmund's head; the story is also commemorated on the north door at Wells Cathedral in Somerset.  A carving from Victorian days is at the parish church of Greenstead-juxta-Ongar in Essex, also depicting the same incident.  The cult of St. Edmund remained popular until the reformation; many churches are named for this saint even today. Saints also had the habit of taming wild beasts who, once tamed, performed penance for their so-called sins.  These examples were used to illustrate how mankind could be redeemed by sanctity, repentance and compassion.

Two well-known stories emerge from this aspect of wolf lore.  The first comes from Normandy, France.  Each day an unaccompanied donkey used to walk from the monastery at Jumie'ges carrying the laundry of the monks to the Convent of Pauilly, where the sisters tended the washing of the linen.  One day the donkey did not arrive.  St. Austreberthe, a sister at the convent, went out to search for the missing animal.  She failed in her search, finding only some bloodstained linen.  Eventually a wolf emerged from the nearby forest, knelt at her feet, confessed he had killed and eaten the donkey and asked forgiveness.  St. Austreberthe forgave the repentant wolf but said he must offer retribution by taking the place of the donkey and carrying the laundry himself.  The wolf agreed to do this and performed his task faithfully and well for the remainder of his life. The most famous of all the wolf stories comes from the little town of Gubbio in Umbria, Italy.  It concerns probably the most beloved saint in the Christian calendar, St. Francis of Assisi, whose empathy with and compassion for all animals is deeply embedded in his whole life. The story is depicted on a 14th century fresco in the Church of St. Francesco in Prienza, Italy.  It is also shown on a painting by Sassetta in the National Gallery, London.  The story is recorded in the Fioreti (The Little Flowers of St. Francis).  However, no mention is made of the incident by the writers Thomas of Celano and Bonaventura.  There are so many reports of this tale in more modern times it is difficult to say which is more accurate.  They all, however, lean toward the same basic details. During a period of severe winter weather, the little town of Gubbio was being terrorized by packs of wolves.  Of one wolf in particular the townsfolk were especially afraid.  St. Francis said he would talk to the wolf and he went out into the forest to seek the animal.  Some versions of the story say the wolf came to St. Francis voluntarily, others say the saint called "come hither, Brother Wolf" and the wolf came.  St. Francis and the wolf sat down together and he could see the wolf was both cold and hungry.  He began talking to the wolf, telling him that he knew how hungry. He began talking to the wolf, telling him that he knew how hungry he was and how he had to hunt for his food, but he was wrong to terrorize the people of Gubbio.

St. Francis told the wolf he would arrange with the local people to feed him every day and , in return, the wolf must promise never again to attack any animal or human.  St. Francis put out his hand, and the wolf bowed his head and placed his paw in the hand of St. Francis. And so it happened, Brother Wolf lived on in Gubbio.  The people fed him willingly and he took his food gently and courteously.  He was loved and respected by all, for he reminded them of the time St. Francis was among them.  Brother Wolf went in and out of the town as he wished, he harmed no living thing and even the local dogs did not bark at him.  When he died he was greatly mourned.

Legend embroidered one might say, and some do, maintaining that "Brother Wolf" was no more than a local bandit who reformed and mended his ways.  Whatever the real truth, it is one of the loveliest stories to come down to us from the high medieval period. Two facts do support the tale.  There was a plague of wolves in that part of Italy in the 13th century and, many years later, when excavations were being carried out a the Church of St. Francesco della Pace in Gubbio, the skull and bones of a large wolf were found buried in the churchyard, close to the walls of the church itself. All in all, it seems fair to say that the use of the wolf by the medieval authorities of Church and State ensured that many anecdotes and stories which otherwise would have been lost are remembered and enjoyed to this day.

Reference Titles:  Animals in Art and Thought; The Oxford Dictionary of Saints; Animals in Medieval French Art; Animals in Early Medieval Art; The Beast Within--Animals in the Middle Ages; Normandy; The Hill Towns of Italy; St. Francis of Assisi; A Traveler in Italy; A Traveler in Southern Italy; In Search of the Dark Ages; Pleasures and Pastimes in Medieval
England; Folklore, Myth and Legends of Britain; and Albion, A Guide to Legendary Britain.