When this feral child was found, his story threatened the hierarchy between human and animals
John of Liege was caught in the woods of Belgium
During the religious wars in Europe in the early 17th century, villagers in Liege, Belgium noticed a strange creature moving among their pigs and cows at night — a “beast of so strange a shape” with patches of hair covering visible pink skin. The villagers banded together and resolved to catch the beast, but always, it managed to escape them. After laying traps, they finally caught the animal and made a horrifying discovery.
The creature was human.
The account of the discovery of John of Liege was the first of a feral child recorded in English. Sir Kenelm Digby, who chronicled John’s life, was an English philosopher, scientist, and courtier. He saw John’s story as a redemption tale. Man became beast and was, he said, returned to manhood again. According to Michael Newton’s Savage Girls and Wild Boys, when John was a young boy, soldiers appeared in his village, and his family and neighbors fled into the woods. The boy was, as Digby said, “of a very timorous nature” and ran deeper into the woods than the others, becoming separated from them. When John heard people calling his name, he worried it was the soldiers, and ignored them. For reasons that are not entirely clear from Digby’s account, the boy remained in the woods for years, living off roots and fruits. He was discovered during one particularly miserable winter when he was hiding at night among the village farm animals for warmth. Digby’s account doesn’t make it clear how long John was in the woods, or how old he was when he emerged, though he was still a child.
By the time he was found, he had lost the ability to speak — an affliction common among feral children, who had either missed the cognitive window in which humans can learn language, or were too traumatized by reentry to society. Perhaps the strangest trait that Digby observed in John was his sense of smell. Like a dog or a wolf, the boy could smell fruits and roots at a great distance.
Civilization is built on human dominion over “lesser” living beings, whether we are using their meat, skin, or work to serve our needs. The feral child threatens to undo all of that, forcing us to ask what we are, blurring the distinction between the different levels of that hierarchy. Digby explained that John seemed to fall somewhere along the spectrum between man and animal, and that this was highly distressing to the people who encountered him. One woman took pity on him. It pained her “to see a man so neare a beast.” John became so attached to her that when she went out into the fields to work, he went searching for her by following her scent like a dog.
However, John did eventually acclimate to society. He became “as other ordinary men were,” according to Digby. He learned how to speak again and as Digby wrote, “I imagine he is yet alive to tell a better story of himself then I have done.” That story, though, would never emerge. John’s apparently successful reintegration into society was unlike the many other cases of feral children in whom wildness had left an indelible mark. Most feral children never fully lived comfortably among humans, preferring the presence of animals, often never learning language, or even walking completely upright. Perhaps because John was older when he started to live in the woods, civilization, by that point, had left a stronger mark on him. And after a while, he lost the acute sense of smell.
For many feral children, it was impossible to say how they spent their wild years, since so few could speak to tell us. In the absence of facts, they became screens onto which we could project our fantasies about what it means to be human. As Erica Fudge explained in her book, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture, John’s return to language would have been particularly meaningful to Digby, a philosopher and follower of Descartes for whom language was the ultimate mark of humanity. Descartes explained that even an imbecile could speak, but “there is no animal however perfect and whatever excellent disposition it has at birth, which can do the same.” Animals didn’t have reason or intelligence, they were automata, he argued. Like machinery, they could be used. With John’s return to language, so too had humanity returned to its proper hierarchical order. This would, of course, cast some doubt on Digby’s account. Perhaps he had exaggerated John’s “recovery” to better mesh with his Cartesian philosophy.
In the centuries since, wild children have emerged all over the world. There would be wolf children, jungle girls, and and children raised by monkeys. Perhaps the most famous case would emerge in the next century, when Victor, “the wild boy of Aveyron,” would appear in France and become the subject of numerous studies. Despite the hopeful proddings of Enlightenment researchers, Victor would never speak. The boundary between human and animal would prove less stark than Digby wanted it to be.