In both Old English and Middle English “wo(o)d(e)” is most often used as an adjective to mean “mad” or “insane,” though it can sometimes function as a noun as well and–less frequently–an adverb or verb. The entries for “wód” in Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/036378) and for “wod(e)” in the Middle English Dictionary (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/med-idx?type=id&id=MED53255) demonstrate that the term carries a connotation of “anger” and “frenzy” that verges on, and sometimes yields to, violence to oneself or others. The entry for the “wood” in the Oxford English Dictionary reinforces, and is a testament to the long life of, this connotation (http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/230008?rskey=5gOihv&result=4&isAdvanced=false#eid).
“Rabidus” or “insanus” in Latin (http://bosworth.ff.cuni.cz/036378)
Etymologically, “wod(e)” evolved from the Old High German “wuot,” which is associated with rage. Ultimately, though, the term has its source in the Indo-European “wāt,” with the “fundamental meaning being ‘to be excited or inspired’ ” (OED). It seems clear from the etymology related in the OED, though, that this excitement was originally connected to a kind of religious ecstasy. Eventually, the religious meaning fell away, and what remained was the sense of physical agitation caused by forces unseen, presumably due to a mental impairment. Interestingly, it is this idea of physicality and accompanying anger that distinguishes the term from others that may have described mental illness. Indeed, as the dictionaries attest, “wod(e)” was also used to describe those who were infected with rabies, so it is the physical expression of the impairment that is fundamental to an understanding of this term.
For example, in the 14th c. poem Sir Orfeo–which retells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice in the context of a medieval romance–Orfeo travels to the Otherworld to find Heurodis and sees a host of individuals suffering from many maladies. Among them, he sees a group who “lay wode, y-bounde” (l. 394;
http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/orfeo.htm). The physical expression of their illness, then, has caused them to be tied up in order to suppress the violence and rage. Chaucer uses “wood” often to describe this combination of violence and mental illness. In the Knight’s Tale alone, the term is used nine times to describe both gods and humans (http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/concordance/ct/ct.txt.WebConcordance/framconc.htm).
It is tempting to suggest that the medieval trope of knights losing their sanity or affecting madness on journeys into the woods is somehow connected to the term “wo(o)d(e),” particularly because the Middle English word for wood/woods is “wod(e),” but the two are not etymologically connected (OE wudu; OED), so any attempts to make this connection may be forced. The trope is not particular to English literature, either. It is possible, however, that medieval English authors consciously employed the pun.
Joshua R. Eyler, Rice University