In winter of 1450, Paris was invaded.
Not by an invading army.
But by a pack of man-eating wolves.
Intense feudal agriculture and poor game management practices in the forests had created an ecological catastrophe. Fewer deer and wild boar were around to feed the rapacious appetites of France’s wolves.
To make matters worse, France had suffered over a century of brutal warfare over ownership of the French crown. (This was the so-called Hundred Years’ War that was really series of wars over a 116-year period).
As a result of all of that warfare, the French people were under an extreme burden to survive. The farms and forests were pushed to their limits to feed the population.
And that meant an increased burden upon the wolves.
For some reason, the government in Paris has refused to repair its walls, which had been erected several centuries before. It would have made sense that they would have constantly kept them up, considering how long armies had been fighting over the control of the French crown.
The walls also kept the fell beasts of the forest out of town, but now, a pack wolves had slipped into the city.
Wolves that had been starving in the forests often turned to raiding livestock for survival, but in France– as in most of Europe at this time– most of the peasants were unarmed. It didn’t take some wolves long before they learned that humans were a perfectly acceptable prey species. Women and children were prime targets because they were smaller and less likely to injure the wolves when they attacked.
And that is why this wolf pack entered Paris in the winter of 1450.
Before their reign of terror was over, about 40 Parisians would fall to the wolf pack.
And in a major urban center, such events would cause mass hysteria.
Plenty of stories about the wolves spread throughout the city.
The leader of the pack supposedly was a reddish animal with a bobbed tail. He was nicknamed “Courtaud”– “Bobtail.”
Lots of things can be said about Courtaud. Perhaps he was a wolf hybrid. Some French dogs do have naturally short-tails, which has survived most strongly in the Brittany and the Braque du Bourbonnais. The red color could also point to a dog ancestry.
However, it is more likely that Courtaud was an Iberian wolf, which are often quite red in color. We all know that wolves disperse over great distances when they leave their natal packs. Wolves in North America occasionally travel over 500 miles from their parents’ territory to find suitable territory. An Iberian wolf born in the Pyrenees could have easily made it to Paris in search of a new territory.
In a time when wolves were widely hunted with dogs and all sorts of traps were set for them, it could be very easy for a wolf to lose its tail. Cortaud also could have lost his appendage in fights with other wolves, which are known to occasionally grab the tails of their opponents as they try to flee.
With around forty people dead, the government had to act.
A group of the boldest Parisians got together and went on an urban wolf drive.
They pushed the wolves into the Île de la Cité.
And then drove them into the front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
In front of the citizenry, the wolves were speared and stoned to death.
And the wolves’ bloody reign of terror ended.
Discussing the existence of wolf attacks is very hard to do rationally.
In North America, the vast majority of the public views the wolf in a very positive light. It is almost a totemic animal that has come to represent the wildness that is our continent as well as our enlightened efforts in conserving our natural heritage.
This view is direct contrast to what the wolf once symbolized in every Western country– and virtually all of those in Central and Eastern Asia. (Mongolia being an exception, of course). To Europeans, the wolf represented the most dangerous of animals. The animal that could easily kill all the sheep in a flock then rip out the shepherd’s flock.
Within the popular culture, there were many stories of wolves attacking people.
There are documented accounts in the Old World. Some of them are outright fictitious or extreme exaggerations.
One should not forget that propaganda about wolf attacks would have been very useful in maintaining the feudal system. Serfs were not property and did possess within them a certain amount of free agency within feudal law.
At some point, they could decide to go off as free yeoman in the forest, even if they were still legally bound to the manor.
The possibility of being attacked by wolves is a very powerful weapon to use to keep people from wandering off the manor. In the early days of feudalism, it could be used to encourage peasants to accept the “protection” of a lord.
And some of these attacks are very clearly the case of rabid wolves. Rabid wolves would be those that attack whole droves of people, doing nothing more than biting them. In a time without rabies vaccines or any way of preventing the disease, the mere sight of a wolf had to have been a terrifying experience.
But these Parisian killer wolves were hardly rabid.
They were engaging in pack hunting behavior.
Just this time, they were hunting people, not their normal prey of boar and deer.
Wolves in North America rarely hunt people, and when I say rarely, I mean almost never. They are much more a threat to domestic dogs than they are to people. Dogs are viewed as trespassers, and wolves regularly kill interlopers. And often eat them.
But North America has much better managed ecosystems than Europe does, and this was certainly the case in the Medieval Period.
And France in the mid-1400′s was a very bad place to be.
The vast majority of the population lived just a step above starvation, and poaching in the forest was commonplace, even during a time of peace.
During a time of war, things were that much worse.
Courtaud and his band of man-eaters were living in a forest that was in ecological catastrophe.
An ecological catastrophe in the midst of a human world that is full of social and economic catastrophes.
Those who were most vulnerable in that society were those most likely to fall prey to the wolves.
With no weapons to defend themselves, it really isn’t much of secret why wolves would hunt people.
People would be easier to kill than any livestock. We don’t have horns or sharp tusks, and we can’t even run all that well.
How common these attacks were in the history of Europe is still questionable.
However it is through that lens that the first settlers to North America viewed the wolf. And it is through that lens that virtually all people living in Eurasia viewed them.
It is only when these countries became relatively affluent and political freedoms were extended to the vast majority of the populace that the wolf’s position in society changed.
It became that totemic symbol of conservation.
Its totemic status is so strong now that to even mention the possibility of wolf attacks will result in severe pillorying.
It is almost heresy to mention that such a thing could happen.
But they have happened and do happen.
That does not mean that we should allow those attacks to allow another wave of wolf persecution to happen.
Instead, we have to be honest with people
We have to say that wolf attacks can happen. They aren’t very common.
In North America, they are far, far less common than bear or shark attacks. And certainly less common than domestic dog attacks.
But to deny the possibility is just intellectually dishonest.
To make such bold statements such as the oft-repeated “Wolves have never attack people” is really risky business.
Wolves are complex animals that learn much of their behavior. To make broad statements about an animal like a wolf is really not wise.
That bromide can be repeated until it becomes a meme.
But what happens when a wolf or a pack of wolves kills someone? (As happened in Alaska last winter).
Where is your credibility?
It is simply better to say that wolves rarely attack people.
And of all the things one should worry about, being attacked by a pack of wolves isn’t really a major priority.
And because North America has lots of things that prevent wolf attacks from happening– we have lots of prey species and our people are generally well-armed– we shouldn’t really worry too much about wolves.
However, wolves in other parts of the world might be more willing to consider people prey, and we have to recognize that reality.
Economic, political, and ecological factors can push wolves into hunting people, and it is best to understand how those exist within that dynamic, rather than denying the existence of wolf attacks.
The best book I have read that discusses this dynamic is David Quammen’s Monster of God. It discusses all of many different political, economic, and ecological factors that lead to potential conflicts between people and predators.
Wolves are not an example in the book, but the section that most resembles the story of the wolves of Paris is the case of the Maldhari people and the lions of the Gir Forest in India. The Maldhari people are very poor herdsmen, and those herdsmen who are the most impoverished are those who are most likely to experience losses from lions. They are the most likely to be forced to graze their stock in lion country, because those who are more established can graze in lion free areas.
Like the peasants of Medieval France, these people are the edges of society.
They are the ones who are most likely to suffer from nature in the raw.
To solve these problems, we must fine away of changing the status of these people and providing them some security within the system.
It is only then that people will be able to live with the large predators, regardless of what they are.