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Source Exercise 3: The Medieval Universe 10

  • Definitely true Fear of water was common before relatively recent history and the evidence in these sources does suggest a certain suspicion of it: the 'wild man' is the only person in the account who swims and he is able to escape on two occasions simply by swimming away: no-one seems to swim after him. His ability to swim seems to be the only ground for Ralph’s conjecture that he might have been 'some fish in human form'. It was popularly believed that the water was part of the devil's realm and that an ability to swim was a sign of being in league with him (hence the practice of 'swimming' witches). However the evidence here is indicative rather than decisive and is not strong or specific enough to justify this judgement.
  • Probably true Yes. Fear of water was common before relatively recent history and the evidence in these sources does suggest a certain suspicion of it: the 'wild man' is the only person in the account who swims and he is able to escape on two occasions simply by swimming away: no-one seems to swim after him. His ability to swim seems to be the only ground for Ralph's conjecture that he might have been 'some fish in human form'. It was popularly believed that the water was part of the devil's realm and that an ability to swim was a sign of being in league with him (hence the practice of 'swimming' witches).
  • Possibly true Yes, although the evidence, although indicative and circumstantial, is strong enough to go further and say 'probably true'. Fear of water was common before relatively recent history and the evidence in these sources does suggest a certain suspicion of it: the 'wild man' is the only person in the account who swims and he is able to escape on two occasions simply by swimming away: no-one seems to swim after him. His ability to swim seems to be the only ground for Ralph's conjecture that he might have been 'some fish in human form'. It was popularly believed that the water was part of the devil's realm and that an ability to swim was a sign of being in league with him (hence the practice of 'swimming' witches).
  • Definitely untrue The evidence does not allow to be this certain, and there is evidence in the text to support the case that medieval people were at least suspicious of those who felt at home in the water.
  • Not shown by the evidence There is no direct evidence, but there is evidence to suggest it.

The story of the wild man of Orford is, in ways, immune to historical explanation. Nonetheless, it offers interesting clues about medieval conceptions of the 'civilized' man and also, in Ralph's closing words, the intellectual categories in which medieval writers tried to locate strange beings.

By drawing on images and texts we can start to understand how medieval men and women imagined the larger world around them. But these sorts of stories about the extraordinary also hint at what medieval men and women thought about the ordinary human world, about 'normality', by revealing characteristics which made someone 'wild' and placed them outside it.

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