A wodewose (derived from the Old English wudu – wood or forest) is a ‘wild man’; a hairy forest-dwelling embodiment of nature, closely linked in its symbolism to the green man. Both the wodewose and the green man are depicted in medieval church architecture on roof bosses and corbels. The wodewose, in Suffolk at least, is often shown as a complete figure, supporting the bowl of a c. 15th baptismal font or flanking the exterior of a church porch. They are depicted covered in hair, bearing a club or a shield and sometimes locked in combat with a wyvern. But why are they present in church decoration at all?
A type of ‘wild man’ surfaces in, of all places, the Bible: King Nebuchadnezzar II is cast out of society by God; he grows hair on his body and lives like a beast. Similarly, St John Chrysostom and St Onuphrius respectively did penance by living in the woods like a beast-man, and sported a thick pelt and loincloth of leaves.
The wodewose was a feature of medieval seasonal folk festivals, leading processions and engaging in mock battles with personifications of summer and winter. He can perhaps be understood as a northern European variant of the continental satyr or faun. His origins may also lie in the liminal woodland beings of heathen belief: the spirits of place and woodland guardians; the land wights and vættr of the Anglo-Saxons and Norse. In Arthurian myth, the wodewose makes an appearance in Gawain and the Green Knight. And Geoffrey of Monmouth describes how Merlin / Myrddin retreats into the forest and becomes a ‘Man of the Woods… hidden… discovered by none, forgetful of himself… lurking like a wild thing.’
Post Norman conquest, gangs of ‘wild men’ almost certainly lived amongst forests and swamps; they were criminalised, social outcasts (Hereward the Wake being a well-known example.) The legends of Robin Hood, another wild man of the deep woods, present a composite character; he is an amalgam of gentleman outlaw, tutelary woodland deity, criminal, vigilante and leader of a pseudo-wild hunt.
In the Elizabethan era, the wodewose looms surprisingly large. Spencer’s Faerie Queene features two ‘savage men’: the first is ogre-like with ‘huge great teeth, liked to a tusked bore… Fed on fleshy gore’ (recalling Beowulf’s Grendel.) The second displays bravery and compassion. So the former provides a moral warning: mankind will descend into violence and bestiality if it forsakes its reason; the latter satirises high society – a wild man can be morally superior than his ‘civilised’ peers. The same can be said of Shakespeare’s Caliban, a wild man enslaved to Prospero; naive rather than bestial, he is essentially an untutored savage.
The wodewose appeared in entertainments for Queen Elizabeth I. In these spectacles the wild man represented the regent’s control over the forces of nature; he submits to her power and rule, and in turn enjoys her civilising influence.
So the wodewose is a strange conflation of a number of (conflicting) concepts: a pagan idea of nature-as-deity, a source of fertility, otherworldliness, innocence and abandonment; a Christian idea of nature as a ‘fallen’ realm populated by criminals and bestial creatures that exist outside God’s grace; and a more recent idea of wild men as ‘noble savages’.
Back to the medieval depictions of wodewoses on Suffolk churches. Why are they present? The medieval worldview was one populated by all manner of exotic humanoid species. Wodewoses were likely perceived less as mythological beings and more as literal flesh-and-blood creatures, either half-human or a distinct species. In fact, an encounter with a wodewose is described by the c. 13th Suffolk chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall. According to the report, Orford fisherman caught a creature completely covered in hair, and took it to the Castellan of Orford Castle, who kept it as a pet. The wild man ate raw fish and meat, slept on a couch, but was completely deaf and dumb – despite torture and the taking of Christian mass. The wodewose was later kept in a pen; he escaped, swam out to sea, then returned and stayed for two months, befriending the locals, before disappearing for good.
Perhaps this story explains the preponderance of carved wodewoses in Suffolk: they are a folk-memory of this local encounter. Alternatively, maybe these stone wild men perform the same function as gargoyles – a general warding-off of evil. I think there’s more to it than that. On one hand the presence of wodewoses on fonts and porches perhaps illustrates the civilising influence of the Church: by coming under its ambit, even these bestial creatures can enjoy God’s grace (in the same way that babies are welcomed into the Church during baptism.) And as physically-strong beings, they are well placed to defend the faith from wyverns, dragons and other destructive forces.
On the other hand, as embodiments of nature, wodewoses represent its unfettered potency: the energies that spin the cycle of life and death; like the green man, they provide the link between between the mysteries of nature and spirit.
So church depictions of the wodewose communicate ideas of ‘nature tamed’, but they also warn of the potency of ‘nature untamed’.
Wodewose carvings can be found in churches in the Suffolk villages of Halesworth, Crediton, Cratfield, Badingham, Darsham, Walberswick, Peasenhall, Sibton, Saxmundham, Chediston, Mendlesham, Orford, Woolpit, Waldringfield, Alderton, Wissett, Haughley, Framlingham, Yaxley, Harkstead, Newbourne, Theberton, Barking-cum-Darmsden, Middleton-cum-Fordley, Covehithe and Letheringham, as well as Ipswich. My personal favourites are the two wodewoses sitting on the angles of the exterior of the north porch at St Mary’s Mendlesham, keeping watch from their vantage-points.
A good tour of Suffolk’s wodewoses is available here.