The ancestral lineage of Arlecchino is both ancient and exotic. There are two principal veins in his bloodline, the first being the Central and Northern European barbaric culture, the second the classical tradition of the Mediterranean. Each contributed disparate elements to the evolution of the complex figure that ultimately established itself in the forefront of the commedia dell’arte scenarios.
Belief in nature deities in pagan times often became transformed in the Christian era. There are numerous instances in which such gods and goddesses became transmogrified, being given the role of purveyors of evil in the new faith. Among these is the figure that has come to be known as Harlequin.
The oldest known references that relate to Arlecchino’s barbaric lineage clearly show his ancestors to be daemonic. The Historiae ecclesiasticae libri XIII, a Norman manuscript by Ordericus Vitalis (1075-1143?), is the earliest extant written reference in this context. The Anglo-Norman monk who is its author narrates a legend – perhaps based on a real-life incident – centering on a supernatural encounter experienced by a certain Gauchelin, a French monk, when he was returning late at night to his abode in Bonneval, near Chartres. The text refers to his being accosted by a hellish band: “Haec sine dubio familia Herlichini est” (3.376). Clearly, the monk in the narrative had been beset by the “family of Herlichin” a “spectral host of relentless demons who marauded the countryside on certain winter nights, at the same time of year as the Carnival celebrations, rampaging through forests and valleys, destroying everything in their path” (Husband, 152-53). Gauchelin recognizes his assailants as the nefarious group that had come to be known among the populace as the Wild Horde, infamous beings out of a very widespread European folkloric tradition. The procession of damned souls is led by a gigantic figure with a club whose proper name is given as “Hellekins.” This will prove to be the earliest-known written version of the name that would ultimately become Arlecchino.
The fact that this episode, narrated in the twelfth century, is so well delineated indicated that the belief in the Wild Horde and its daemonic leader had currency much earlier. Ordericus Vitalis’s account is surely not an isolated one, only the earliest found to date. It is followed by others, narratives that show how deeply embedded was the belief in the Wild Horde and its leader in the imagination of the Middle Ages, particularly in France. (Robert Lima, Stages of Evil: Occultism in Western Theater and Drama)