When much of the human world was in lockdown this spring, the animal world seemed to come out of its own kind of quarantine. Dolphins had a holiday in the Bosphorus. Mountain goats cruised through Llandudno. Wild boar munched their way through Haifa. These stories were so addictive that they were followed by many false reports, then many excellent parodies, then critiques of the mix of fear and boredom and anxious optimism that fueled all this publicity in the first place. Our media teemed with animals even more than our cities did.
But the pandemic wasn’t even to blame for some of these adventures. Take the wild boar of Haifa: long before lockdowns they had been venturing out from the woods of Mount Carmel to enjoy the city’s nightlife (more specifically, its restaurants’ dumpsters). By late winter the city was also home to a new road sign — Haifan Wild Boar in the Area— and a local microbrewery called Hazir Ha-Bor: The Wild Hog. As Ha-Aretz reported in April, alongside a captivating photo essay, the pandemic only meant business “as usual” for the pigs.
The author of Psalm 80 in the Hebrew Bible would have sympathized. The psalm speaks of the destruction of the vine of Israel, and a “boar of the woods” (hazir mi-ya‘ar) was one of the culprits that materialized to ravage it. Centuries of Jewish and Christian commentators read these verses with a knowing sense of frustration at the damage that Sus scrofa was capable of doing in search of a tasty meal. And they compared this boar to the forces of Nebuchadnezzar II, to the Roman emperors who laid waste to Judea, or more bluntly to the devil himself.
But there’s a twist to this seemingly timeless history: unlike, say, the police force of Barcelona or farmers in Texas, the medieval communities who found themselves constantly put out by pigs were usually dealing with their own domesticates.
In the early Middle Ages, most farmers practiced what’s now called free-range husbandry: their pigs were not stall-fed but were instead allowed (under the supervision of a swineherd, ideally) to roam in search of food. But the pigs weren’t easy to herd, and even when they were penned in, the situation was hardly secure. They jumped fences and swam considerable distances and treated fences like a puzzle to solve. Once loose, they were more destructive than other livestock because they rooted things up rather than simply trimming them down. They were known to bite adults, kill children, and dig up the occasional corpse. And in the high Middle Ages, as cities became more densely populated, the pigs that people raised in urban spaces also became traffic hazards and grocery thieves. Farmers and lawmakers and civic bureaucracies did what they could to mitigate these problems. But they didn’t tame their pigs completely.
Following the trail of Sus scrofa helps track down a history in which animals were more than forms of food or entertainment. They were coworkers. Their ecumenical appetites, and their ingenuity and flexibility as explorers and hunters, enabled them to exploit all sorts of ecologies — and to convert those acorns and grubs and garbage into pork. These same aptitudes also made them enormously frustrating, but humans adapted in their own ways, too, and they learned a lot from their pigs in the process. Domestication goes both ways.
These are no longer common experiences. Most of us don’t work with pigs on a regular basis (and those of us that do are usually working with very different breeds, under very different farming regimes). But the wild pigs of the present are a reminder of that deeper history. Once again, the species fascinates us. As pigs swarm our streets, they are working their way back into our heads.
Jamie Kreiner is an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia whose research focuses on the early Middle Ages. She is the author of The Social Life of Hagiography in the Merovingian Kingdom.