Wolves from the Rochester Bestiary © British Library Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 29 (CC)

Beowolf and other Wolves in Old English Texts

In the Middle Ages, two views of the wolf – as the emblem of the heroic warrior or the embodiment of the devil – fought over people’s minds. A new book explores this complex set of narratives as it unfolds in Early Medieval Literature in England.

Wolves in Beowulf and Other Old English Texts
by Elizabeth Marshall
Boydell & Brewer 2022


In the Early Middle Ages, wolves were considered much differently from today when they are either admired as sacred creatures or abhorred as decimators of dwindling stocks and hunters’ dogs and prey. A fresh and sympathetic investigation of the depiction of wolves in early medieval English literature aims to recuperate their reputation.

The best-known wolves of Old English literature are the Beasts of Battle, alongside ravens and eagles as ravenous heralds of doom who haunt the battlefield in the hope of fresh meat plucked from still-warm bodies. Yet to reduce these animals to mere corpse-scavengers is to deny that they are frequently imbued with a variety of far more nuanced meanings elsewhere in the corpus.

Two such meanings are inherited from ancient and medieval European lupine motifs: the superstition that the wolf could steal a person’s speech and the perceived contiguous natures of wolves and human outlaws.

Tracing the history of these associations and the evidence to suggest that they were known to writers working in early medieval England, this book provides new, animal-centric readings of Wulf and Eadwacer, Abbo of Fleury and Ælfric’s Passiones Eadmundi, and Beowulf, placing these texts within a lupine literary network that transcends time and place.

By exploring the intricate, contradictory, and even sympathetic depictions of the wolves and wolf-like entities found within these texts, this book banishes all notions of the medieval wolf as the one-dimensional, man-eating creature that it is so often understood to be.


Note on the Text
Introduction: The Wolf in this Story
1 A Lexicological Survey of Lupine Outlaws
2 The Superstition of the Speech-Stealing Wolf
3 A Wolfish Way of Reading Wulf and Eadwacer
4 Abbo, Ælfric, and the Wolf in Edmund’s Story
5 The Speech-stealing weargas and wulfas of Beowulf
Conclusion: The Stories Wolves Tell


Elizabeth Marshall gained her PhD from the University of St Andrews, receiving awards for both her thesis and for her work researching the cultural and sociological issues related to top predator reintroduction to Britain.



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