Thursday, October 16, 2014

Wolves and the Weather

In 1450, a pack of wolves entered Paris through a gap in the city walls and ate 40 of the citizens before they were killed. France records a number of prominent predatory wolf attacks on humans in the 18th century. In Germany, beginning in the late middle ages but reaching a zenith in the early modern period, we find records of the Wolfbann, a magic charm spoken to cause wolf wolves to attack a particular intended target, and the Wolfsegen, a charm to ward off such attacks. It is in the same period that werewolf trials are at their peak, and we find the character of the Big Bad Wolf developing in fairy stories from the seventeenth century.

It's almost as if something was making Europeans more concerned about wolves for a couple hundred years.

Beginning, depending which climatologist you ask, any time between about 1350 and 1500, Europe and North America (and quite possibly other parts of the world, though the evidence is less consistent) underwent a period, now known as the Little Ice Age, during which average temperatures were cooler than before or since. The effects were dramatic: crops failed, plagues spread, dynasties fell. But cooler winters were not only a matter of concern for humans; wolves, desperate for a meal, came closer to human settlements (perhaps mostly to prey on livestock, and so into more frequent contact with the people who tended it) and, so far as anyone can determine from documentary sources, attacked humans with greater frequency than in previous centuries.

The Little Ice Age ended sometime between 1850 and 1900, again depending which climatologists' definitions you favor. And, in the 20th century, it's very rare for wolves to be found in the towns where we live, and even quite rare in wolf country for one to attempt an attack on a human being. We've mostly forgotten, when we speak of keeping the wolf from the door, that we are referring to the literal fear that one bad winter might mean stepping out of our houses to be attacked by a wild beast in the streets of our cities. But for several centuries of European history, the fear may have been far more familiar.

Is it any wonder, then, that oral culture incorporated wolves, and the fear of wolves too comfortable among humans? Should we be surprised that magicians of the Little Ice Age conjured and abjured wolves, that superstitious magistrates sentenced men to death for lycanthropy, and that the wolf remains the most familiar villain of our fairytales?

The world changes, and culture follows.

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