Earlier in this series I outlined the possible origins of the “Wildman” surname, and whilst doing so I mentioned the old medieval myth of the Wild Man. I thought I would return to this idea, mainly because it is such an interesting one and the paintings depicting such Wild Men are vibrant and colourful.
This myth stretches back throughout history, with different cultures developing legends with interesting differences; however, the one key similarity is of the Wild Man being in the wilderness beyond the bounds of civilisation.
This first image was painted by the German Albrecht Durer in 1499. It highlights two Wild Men, with their savagery clearly on display. They do not wear clothes and instead are warmed by their incredibly hairy bodies. Furthermore, the weapons they carry are rudimentary clubs, which suggests that the painter is juxtaposing the Wild Men with the chivalry of the age. The shields below are coats of arms belonging to a noble house, but yet the nobles themselves are absent. Perhaps the Wild Men have defeated them to claim the shields, and perhaps this is a comment on how nature will ultimately overcome the civilisation of man.
Wild Men have been commonly used in heraldry, appearing on shields, sigils, and seals all across Europe. A couple of examples are shown below; the first comes from a 19th century coat of arms for the city of Antwerp (which also includes a Wild Woman), and the second comes from the Finnish city of Lappeenranta.
Why is there a continuing allure of the Wild Man in the use of these images, especially on coats of armour and city crests? When first considering this, I simply thought the Wild Man was used in this manner because of its striking appeal: simply put, it looks cool. This, perhaps, is the reason that other striking images are used on coats and crests, such as dragons, lions, and unicorns.
Well, that might be part of the reason, but a deeper analysis suggests that there is something more to this. There is a repeated theme with the likes of dragons, lions, and unicorns: they are seen as rather fantastical elements for mankind to tame. This can be seen in fantasy fiction with the likes of dragons (who are heroically slayed or trained to be ridden), and with lions throughout history (captured and killed for the entertainment of man).
If we logically follow this train of thought then we could place the Wild Man in the same category as lions and dragons: a creature in which mankind and society captured and tamed. Therefore, the civilised towns of the modern world display the Wild Man on their crests, highlighting their advanced state in comparison to the depraved condition of the conquered, defeated, and tamed.
Arguably, there is an even deeper explanation. Dudley and Novak commented on how the Wild Man suggests the:
‘potentialities lurking in the heart of every individual, whether primitive or civilised, as his possible incapacity to come to terms with this socially provided world.’
Perhaps, then, the Wild Man is utilised time and again in such images in order to remind the audience of what could become of them. Behind the societal facade of manners and decorum is a raging beast ready to leap out and undo us all. Therefore, the coat of arms and city crest depicts itself as the bastion against the savagery of the inner heart of man.
Of course, the first surface-level suggestion could be the most direct and obvious of all: there is no doubt that the Wild Man is an interesting and engaging idea, and therefore generation after generation has returned to it in order to decorate and adorn their images.