The ‘savage’ occupied a liminal space between the human and the animal. The Middle French word, sauvage, pertained to the wilderness, or to spaces beyond human control. Since ‘civil’ rooted virtuous human behaviour in town-dwelling and political organisation, ‘savage’ was the antithesis of ‘civil’, relating to remote or undomesticated places as well as people.[1] The postclassical salvagius, like the French sauvage, invoked the pastoral, natural, or wooded, and did not always carry negative connotations. The English, however, did not associate ‘savage’ with the more neutral associations of the French. ‘Savages’ as ‘naturals’ or innocent beings, apparent in the writings of the French essayist Michel de Montaigne or the Huguenot colonist Jean de Léry in Brazil, appeared far less frequently in English texts. The English did express a sense that they, too, had developed their societies from more ‘savage’ roots, but this did not incline them to envisage perceived savages as embodying a benign state of being, and ‘savage’ often carried connotations of violence or brutality.

‘Savage’, until the later sixteenth century, frequently related to animals and animal-like behaviour, particularly the cruelty of creatures who did not show mercy. ‘The Tyger, and the savage Beare’ were beasts ‘of prey that haunt the wood’.[2] Edward Topsell, in The historie of foure-footed beastes, described lions, wolves, boars, and leopards as exhibiting ‘savage’ characteristics. These animals were often agents of divine retribution, signifying God’s hand at work in nature, whereby the providence of the Creator ‘might seeme to be executed by the raging ministery of wilde, savage, and vngentle beastes’ on the lives of the sinful.[3] At the same time, humans who acted cruelly were described as becoming feral. Anger caused people to regress, wrote the Elizabethan George Turberville, ‘[f]or then he waxeth out a kinde of savage beast’.[4] The sense that one has been abandoned by God, the reformer John Calvin wrote, will cause ‘griefe and anguishe of mynde, yea and even into some frenzie to play the savage beast, and to life up him selfe agaynst God’.[5] The speaker in Edmund Spenser’s ‘Sonnet XX’ complained that his mistress was ‘more cruell and more salvage wylde,/ then either Lyon or Lionesse’, exhibiting no shame in having ‘guiltlesse bloud defylde’, but rather taking ‘glorie in her cruelnesse’.[6] Similarly, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1599), Claudio rebuked his beloved by saying, ‘you are more intemperate in your blood/ Than Venus, or those pampred animalls/ That rage in savage sensualitie’.[7] In these cases, early modern masculine anxieties about intemperate women as sexual snares equated this sin with the instinctive cruelty of animals.

As the post-Reformation English state began to extend its bounds and exercise more rigorous control of its internal territories, ‘savage’ entered political discourse to describe treason and criminality. One 1604 proclamation against pirates denounced them for acting ‘against the Lawes and Statutes of this realm’ by committing wilful murder ‘in most savage maner’.[8] Thomas Percy and his ‘confederates’ in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 were described as possessing ‘so savage and barbarous an imagination’ for conceiving of killing a monarch.[9] While the sense of ‘savage’ as bestial or cruel did not disappear in the later sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, English colonization in Ireland and later America indelibly altered English associations. As Nicholas Canny has argued, the humanist, Protestant educations of English policy-makers and colonial governors imbued them with the expectation that the Irish and Native Americans who resisted reform and conversion were dissidents who stood between the English and their aims of establishing civil society.[10] ‘[T]her ys no confidence to be had in the hearts of so varyable & trayterous a nacion’ as Ireland, wrote Sir Charles Cornwallis to the Privy Council in 1608, ‘as also to have so just an occasion, to roote out that savage generac[i]on bredd in those partes, and to plant his own people where his Justice and moderac[i]on … wyll not onyle secure those partes, but allso envyte all others w[i]thin that k[ing] dom … to desire nothing more then to become wholly subject’.[11]

Colonial promoters related the ‘savage’ behaviour of Atlantic peoples to its territories, both being considered uncultivated and raw. As Keith Thomas notes, ‘[h]uman civilization indeed was virtually synonymous with the conquest of nature’.[12] To the English, uncultivated nature prevented domesticity and the establishment of civil structures that made society possible. Just as wild animals were a danger to civil society, so the survival of domestic animals perpetuated the creation of enclosed pastureland and domestic stability. By contrast, desert spaces, like jungles, were ‘baren and salvage, so that it is not able to nourishe any beastes for lacke of pasture’.[13] In 1613, Samuel Purchas similarly associated peoples and landscapes when he wrote that Native Americans from the remotest areas ‘seeme to have learned the savage nature of the wild Beasts, of whom and with whome they live’.[14] The mistrust of ‘savage’ spaces in early modern England were calls to reform, engendering radical transformations to the landscape through enclosure, surveying, tillage, and husbandry.[15]

Experiences in the colonies also began to influence how the English articulated the misbehaviour of English subjects. Writing from Roanoke in what is now North Carolina, the soldier Sir Ralph Lane wrote to Sir Philip Sidney in 1584 that he had ‘the charge of savages as well as wild men of [my own] nation, whose unruliness prevents [me] leaving them’.[16] When the interpreter Henry Spelman came before the General Assembly in Virginia in Jamestown in 1619, accused of encouraging the Algonquian leader Opecancanough to resist English authority, the council deemed Spelman more ‘the savage than the Christian’.[17] As colonists and policy-makers articulated, ‘savage’ Native Americans and unruly Englishmen shared common traits. The similarities between them, and the precariousness of order — the pull to the wilderness, the possibility of degeneration — were entangled from the earliest English attempts to establish their colonies, where the transculturality of figures like Spelman related ‘savage’ behaviour to the possibility of abandoning one’s social structures and cultural beliefs. Merchants who showed an overzealous ‘love of gaine’ were similarly derided as being ‘more savage-like’ than the peoples the English had sought to conquer in the first place.[18]

From the 1620s, as Anglo-Native American relations in America disintegrated, any possible neutrality in the word ‘savage’ as a noun irretrievably disappeared. ‘Savages’ and ‘traitor’ became closely related. In the charter for New England (1620), King James considered the ‘horrible Slaughters, and Murthers, committed amongst the Savages and brutish People there’ to be reason enough for those ‘Territoryes, deserted as it were by their naturall Inhabitants’, to be ‘possessed and employed by such of our Subjects and People’.[19]

As the English extended their dominion over large parts of the globe in the seventeenth century, some of the political connotations of ‘savage’ lost its sting. With the Enlightenment, the ‘savage’ related more to behaviour or perceived backwardness than to an enemy. As late as the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin professed that he would rather ‘be descended from that heroic little monkey’ than ‘a savage who delights to torture his enemies, offers up bloody sacrifices, treats his wives like his slaves, knows no decency, and is haunted by the grossest superstitions’.[20] Three hundred years later, all the commonplace assumptions about ‘savagery’ that developed as a result of post-Reformation expansion were still present: human sacrifice and violence, indecency, sexual license, and religious superstition. Moreover, this statement indicates that ‘savage’ did not lose its comparison to the animal or animalistic. The question of humanity — where it lay, who exhibited its traits, and who could be tamed or made to obey — could not be defined without it.
1. ‘savage, adj. and n.’, Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 21 July 2017].
2. John Taylor, The sculler rowing from Tiber to Thames (London, 1612; STC 23791), sig. F3v.
3. Edward Topsell, The historie of foure-footes beastes (London, 1607; STC 24123), p. 583.
4. George Turberville, A plaine path to perfect vertue (London, 1568; STC 17244), sig. C4r.
5. Arthur Golding (ed), Sermons of Master John Calvin (London, 1574; STC 4445), p. 28.
6. Edmund Spenser, Amoretti and Epithalamion (London, 1595; STC 23076), sig. B3v.
7. William Shakespeare, Mr William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies (London, 1623; 22273), p. 144.
8. By the King. A proclamation for the search and apprehension of certaine pirates (London, 1604; STC 8363) [single sheet].
9. A booke of proclamations, published since the beginning of his Majesties most happy reigne (London, 1610; STC 7759), p. 116.
10. Nicholas Canny, ‘The Ideology of English Colonization: From Ireland to America’, The William and Mary Quarterly, 30 (1973), pp. 575-98.
11. 'Sir Charles Cornwallis to the Privy Council, 9 June 1608', Hatfield House, CP 125/160v.
12. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500—1800 (London: Allen Lane, 1983), p. 25.
13. Richard Eden, A treatyse of newe India (London, 1553; STC 18244), sig. Gir.
14. Samuel Purchas, Purchas his pilgrims (London, 1613; STC 20505), sig. Lll4v.
15. Thomas, Man and the Natural World, p. 254.
16. 'Sir Ralph Lane to Sir Philip Sidney, 12 August 1585', in Calendar of State Papers: Colonial, Vol. I, 1574—1660, ed. by W Noel Sainsbury (London: Institute of Historical Research, 1860), p. 3.
17. ‘Proceedings of the Virginia Assembly, 1619', Virtual Jamestown Project [accessed 6 February 2017].
18. Council for New England, A briefe relation of the discovery and plantation of New England (London, 1622; STC 18483), sig. B3r.
19. ‘The Charter of New England (1620)', American History: Documents [accessed 28 January 2017].
20. Quoted in Thomas, Man and the Natural World, p. 188.
Usage Examples
'But you are more intemperate in your blood/ Than Venus, or those pampred animalls/ That rage in savage sensualitie'