The French feral child Victor of Aveyron (c. 1788–1828) apparently grew up in the wilderness and was captured temporarily by hunters in 1798. Although he resisted living among other humans for many months, he fell under the care of a sympathetic physician who taught him language and rudimentary skills despite the boy's delayed mental development.
When the adolescent boy often known as Victor of Aveyron was discovered in the woods near Lacaune, France, several doctors attempted to understand him, and one, following the Rousseauian philosophical ideas then in vogue about civilization, nature, and language, attempted to educate him. These efforts, although largely unsuccessful, had positive ramifications: they aided in the development of humane approaches to the mentally ill. Victor became something of a celebrity, attracting the attention of some of the most famous figures of the time, including the brother of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte and English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He seemed to offer a possible answer to the question of whether humans in their natural state lived an idyllic existence, or a miserable one. Victor's story has exerted a pull on a long line of writers and film makers; he was the original “wild child” and his story established a pattern for others, both real and fictional.
Although the details of his early history vary, Victor was born around 1788, likely in the region of southern France that encompasses the villages of Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance and Lacaune. The terrain here is rugged and contains several large gorges where a determined individual might live and avoid detection. As early as 1794, there were reports of a naked child living in these woods, but it was not until 1798 that he was clearly spotted searching for acorns and roots. Captured by hunters after a brief struggle, the lad had no grasp of language and no way of communicating his name or his story.
Put on display in the town square as a kind of curiosity, the frightened boy made his escape as soon as the opportunity presented itself. He did not return fully to his sylvan existence, however; residents now saw him poaching potatoes and turnips at the edges of their fields. Sometimes he would eat these root vegetables raw, and sometimes he would carry them off. Several of his hiding places were found, including one with a primitive bed made from leaves and moss. On July 25, 1799, Victor was treed by three hunters, tied up, and brought back to town. He was housed with a widow who operated an orphanage; she dressed him in a bathrobe and offered him food. He turned down meat but accepted root vegetables and nuts, always sniffing them before eating them. After eight days he escaped again.
After his second escape, Victor remained close to civilization. The winter of 1799–1800 was unusually cold, and he sometimes entered farmhouses for warmth. If given a potato, he would throw it into a fire, retrieve it, and eat it immediately, despite the protests of onlookers that it was too hot. On January 8, 1800, he entered a dye workshop in the village of Saint-Cernin and, in the words of author Harlan Lane in The Wild Boy of Aveyron, “slipped across the threshold into a new life, and into a new era in the education of man.”
After Commissioner Saint-Estève drew the erroneous conclusion that Victor was deaf, the boy was moved to the home of a commissioner in Saint-Afrique. Here he began to eat soup with bread. He also played in the snow naked without discomfort, and when he made attempts to escape he was more easily discouraged. Victor would not urinate in his bed, but otherwise he performed excretory functions at will. Throughout the region, he became known as the Wild Boy of Aveyron.
Word about Victor spread through the community, and rumors circulated about his possible origin. Two veterans of the French Revolution visited him, asserting that he might be a long-lost son, but neither claimed him. A local professor of natural history, P.J. Bonaterre, examined Victor and suggested that he might represent an ideal test case for the relationship between civilization and nature. This was currently of great interest to French academics because Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for an idealized state of nature in his 1762 book Émile, ou De l'éducation.
Although Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon's younger brother, expressed an interest in meeting Victor, Professor Bonaterre sent the inarticulate teen to France's National Institute for the Deaf, located in Paris. There Victor spent time with Philippe Pinel, then among the foremost doctors in France, as well as with Abbé Sicard, then director of the Institute. Pinel concluded that Victor was, in the parlance of the day, an idiot, incapable of learning; Sicard worked with the boy for a longer period, attempting to teach him the rudiments of language, but he made little progress.
Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, one of Pinel's students, had qualms about his teacher's hasty conclusion, observing that Victor's laughter seemed to convey real enjoyment. Itard's colleague, anthropologist and naturalist Julien-Joseph Virey, examined Victor and pronounced him devoid of empathy, but Itard remained curious. Deciding that society had an obligation to Victor as a fellow human, he decided to take the feral boy on for an extended program of training and education modeled on the work of Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, who had investigated the role of language in moving humans from a natural to a civilized state. According to Michael Newton in Savage Girls and Wild Boys, Itard planned a five-pronged educational approach: he would try “‘to attach him [Victor] to social life’; to awaken his nervous sensibility; to extend the sphere of his ideas; to lead him to the use of speech; and to unite mind and body by exercising the simple operations of the mind upon the objects of his physical needs.”
Itard made some progress, but his efforts were at best only partially successful. Determined attempts to teach Victor to speak resulted, at best, in the boy's imitations of words he heard used around him in certain situations, much as he would imitate the call of a bird. He uttered the phrase “Oh, Dieu” (Oh, God), which he heard from Itard's housekeeper, Madame Guérin, but he did not understand its meaning beyond being a general expression of happiness. However, Victor did learn to write the word “lait” (milk) when requesting milk at mealtimes. More significantly, he seemed to display empathy toward Madame Guérin after her husband's death. While under her care, he had been taught to set the table, and one day he set it for three people, as usual. After observing the woman's dismayed reaction, he in future would lay out only two place settings.
After Itard concluded that he could do no more for Victor, the feral boy from Aveyron faded from public view. Although little remains known of his later years, he apparently continued to live with Madame Guérin, mastering basic social conventions and several more phrases in French. He died in 1828, perhaps after contracting pneumonia. The only detailed account of his life in his own time was published by Itard in 1801; it was translated a year later as An Historical Account of the Discovery and Education of a Savage Man, or, The First Developments, Physical and Moral, of the Young Savage Caught in the Woods near Aveyron in the Year 1798.
While Itard's work with Victor was foundational in the growing study of human development and impairment, several scholars have questioned the varied accounts of Victor's life. He was spoken of as being from Aveyron, but the exact place of his first contact with humans remains murky. Scars seen on Victor's body by his initial captors suggested to later researchers that he had been abused as a child and that his behavior might have evolved as a response to such abuse. Other academics, such as Uta Frith, have suggested that Victor could have been autistic.
Victor's story also captured the fascination of creative artists. Perhaps the most famous treatment of his life was the 1970 film L'enfant sauvage (translated as The Wild Boy or The Wild Child), by French director François Truffaut. Victor is also the subject of the novel Wild Boy by British novelist Jill Dawson, the novel Wild Child by American writer T. Coraghessan Boyle, and the children's book Victor by Mordicai Gerstein.
Itard, E.M., An HistoricalAccount of the Discovery and Education of A Savage Man, or of the First Developments, Physical and Moral, of the Young Savage Caught in the Woods Near Aveyron in the Year 1798, Richard Phillips, 1802.
Lane, Harlan, The Wild Boy of Aveyron, Harvard University Press, 1976.
Losure, Mary, Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron, Candlewick Press, 2013.
Newton, Michael, Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children, Picador, 2002.
Shattuck, Roger, The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron, Secker & Warburg, 1980.
St. Mary's University History Media, http://www.stmuhistorymedia.org/domesticating-victor-of-aveyron/ (November 22, 2017), Thomas Fraire, “Domesticating Victor of Aveyron: The French Mowgli.”□