Ladies Love Cool Woodwoses (Mmm… Marginalia #67)

This week’s marginal image is technically also a bleg, because I cannot for the life of me remember where I got it from.  So if you’ve seen this before, drop me a line in the comments and let me know where.  And here it be:

Normally I refrain from posting images that I don’t know the provenance of and images that are damaged, so this one should be doubly disqualified, but I like it for two reasons.  First, it’s a doppelganger of an image I’ve already posted, actually the first Mmm… Marginalia from way back in the day, which I called “To Arms, My Monkey Brethren.”

Recasting familiar scenes with an all-monkey cast is a joke that’s been going strong for at least a thousand years now,* and any time I can find an original motif and its simian parody I’m a happy medieval art scholar.

But back to the original scene.  Instead of monkeys defending their castle from foxes, it’s damsels and woodwoses–and that’s the second reason I’m fond of this image: I can’t get me enough of them woodwoses!  Woodwoses (aka wodewoses) are wild men who have been away from civilization so long that they have grown shaggy hair over their entire bodies.  You can think of them as the medieval answer to Bigfoot.  (And you might remember the woodwoses from their marginal battle against the monkeys during the monkey apocalypse.) Most woodwose are born, but it’s possible to have woodwositude thrust upon you, too.   You know how it is, you find out the girl you love is unavailable for some reason or another and the grief drives you mad and sends you out into the wilderness to live all naked and hairy for a few years.** Most famous medieval heroes go through a woodwose stage at some point.

You can also think of woodwoses as the poor man’s monkey.  If you’re having trouble telling them apart, the best bet is to look for the beard.  Monkeys are clean shaven, by and large, while woodwoses’ facial hair resembles Rip Van Winkle’s. And while they’re not as popular as monkeys, woodwoses do get up to a fair amount of mischief in the margins of manuscripts.  For some reason, they really catch on towards the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Early Modern era, so you see a lot more of them in the margins of books from the end of the fifteenth century on.

The antagonism between this week’s woodwoses and the damsels in the tower is a little atypical, though.  Usually, damsels and woodwoses get along smashingly, and who wouldn’t get along with a hairy naked bearded guy?***

*Manuscript illuminators would’ve been big fans of the sixties TV show Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp.
**And eventually you hear music, or you come upon some damsels out for a ride, or you smell cooking meat, or you catch sight of your beloved and you come to your senses.  Happens to the best of us and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
***Other than monkeys, of course.  Their antagonism is understandable, though, since they have to compete for the same marginal jobs aping famous medieval commonplaces.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • ncm

    +1 for the personal dative. +1 for the Lancelot Link reference. +1 for "woodwositude".

    It's a clean sweep for Carl this week. But how will he top it next week? Stay tuned.

  • Catanea

    Well, it looks French to me, if that's any help…

  • Steffen Hope

    I am a fellow woodwose fan and I really enjoy this illumination. It appears to me like a metaphor of the battle between savagery and civilisation –  which in turn finds another embodiment in the art of horticulture – and I’m reminded of Tintoretto’s evocative painting of Susannah bathing in a garden fountain being glared out by the elderly voyeurs standing behind a hedge in the wilderness. Do you know if there’s done any scholarship on the dichotomy of domestic and savage in the Middle Ages?

    PS: Since you enjoy woodwoses, please check out this post from my own blog:

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