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A Brief History of Europe's Werewolf Trials

Events | October 11, 2019

Werewolf eats a baby. Johan Jakob Wick, 1580.

Werewolves, or lycanthropes if you're feeling fancy, have been around in myth form since time immemorial, but there was a period in Europe when they were taken entirely too seriously. Not only were they believed to be real, suspected werewolves were subjected to trial in the much the same way as the accused witches of Salem. Let's take a look at the mass hysteria surrounding werewolves, the odd (and occasionally sexist?) relationship between their trials and the witch trials of the same period, and the oh-so-unsurprising link between drugs and madness.

A werewolf. Konrad Lykosthenes, 1557.

Back then, different social classes had very different opinions of what "werewolf" meant. Peasants, still steeped in the pagan mythology of the area, blamed werewolves for dead livestock or interpersonal disputes and demanded the perpetrators be brought to justice. If it wasn't bad enough for humans to accuse each other of being actual animals, many of the accused were mentally ill or (as in Salem) poor and estranged from the majority of the population. In true witch trial tradition, confessions often only came after long bouts of "questioning" that definitely involved torture.

Medieval art depicting a werewolf chowing down.

The Church's official stance on this in the late 1400s was essentially "Werewolves are bad because they're pagan." By the time the werewolf/witch hunt had gotten into full swing in the late 1500 and early 1600s, the Church had changed its stance to something more like "Werewolves are bad because they're in league with Satan." In fact, many of the werewolves who were sentenced were put to death for witchcraft, not for the crime of being a werewolf. Thiess of Kaltenbrun, or "the Livonian werewolf," admitted to becoming a werewolf but only to go down to hell to fight for humanity in wolf form as a self-described hound of God. He refused to admit he was in league with Satan, so he got off light---with a whipping. You know things are bad when that's mercy.

Werewolf cabal.

Those with perhaps less colorful imaginations didn't get away so easily. One of the earliest reported werewolves was in 1521 in Poligny, France when a traveler was attacked by a wolf, tracked it, and found Michel Verdun dripping with blood. For some reason, Verdun not only confessed to being a werewolf but also named Pierre Bourget and Philibert Montot as fellow wolves. Their stories were suspiciously inconsistent with regards to how, exactly, one becomes a werewolf; Verdun said that he was given the power by a man in black, while Bourget said that Verdun had given him an ointment and forced him to renounce his baptism. (Montot didn't say anything about it, but he was executed just the same.)

In 1651, the Estonian werewolf trials turned up one 18-year-old known only as Hans. He said he'd been a werewolf for two years after being bitten by, you guessed it, a man in black. Given that this was Europe in the 1600s, the court decided he could only have become a werewolf through a Satanic pact, making him a practitioner of witchcraft and therefore sentencing him to death. 

Death of the werewolf. (Goldenwolf)

Some of the werewolves were connected to actual crimes. Jacques Roulet (the Werewolf of Angers/Caud, depending on which town you prefer to name) was found wounded and half-naked near the mutilated corpse of a teenage boy. Also spotted on the scene? Wolves. Needing no further evidence than these circumstances, he was arrested. Unlike other famous "werewolves," Roulet confessed immediately and even embellished, boasting that he'd killed and eaten others before. Oddly, Roulet was judged mentally incapable and sentenced to an insane asylum and religious education rather than execution.

In 1572, after the bodies of multiple missing children were found half-eaten in the woods of Dole, France (no relation to the fruit company, probably), the group responsible for finding the culprit noticed that one of the wolves they were hunting sort of looked like their neighbor. They took that and ran with it, quickly accusing local weirdo Gilles Garnier and his wife. The pair were thrown under the bus by over 50 witnesses and tortured on the rack, which successfully wrung a confession out of Garnier. Less than a year later, they were burned at the stake. 

Werewolf eating babies.

The most infamous werewolf of the time was Peter Stubbe, A.K.A. the Werewolf of Bedburg. In 1589, pamphlets warning of his ability to shape-shift began circulating through London, describing him with "most sharpe and cruell teeth, a huge body, and mightye pawes." Stubbe's werewolf transformation allegedly came from a magical girdle he strung around his waist, so they were clearly getting bored with the same old "pact with Satan" thing.

Stubbe was accused of killing and eating his victims for over 25 years, and he also confessed to incest with his daughter and cannibalizing his own son, just to spice things up. As penance for these crimes, he was strapped to a wheel before his skin was peeled off with hot pokers, his arms and legs were broken, his head was cut off, and his body was burned. Not content with this, they then set up a wolf's body with Stubbe's head attached to it in the town square as a warning to anyone else interested in becoming a werewolf. They didn't do the thing by halves, is the point. In medieval Europe, wolves were the most dangerous predator around, and they were often strung up on gibbets next to their human counterparts.

The execution of Peter Stubbe. Lukas Mayer, 1589

Why were so many people in medieval Europe and America seeing witches and/or werewolves? Sure, cryptids have always been popular, but why did the hysteria reach such a pitch in this time, in these places? One possible theory is straight-up rabies, which was still being passed between wolves and humans at the time. This could account for the tendency of both "werewolves" and "witches" to avoid water. Much like in Salem, grain moldy with ergot could also be to blame, creating psychosis that cause multiple accounts of victims begging others to cut their skin open. Finally, it could be drugs. In 1545, the Pope's physicians tested ointment that the Bishop of Avils suggested could be causing people's reactions. Indeed, Bourgot said it was Verdun's ointment that made him into a wolf. It took the church 94 years to get around to it, but when they did test the concoction, they found that it could indeed create the sensation of flying or growing fur. And so, another mystery is solved! It was humans being violent and reactionary all along.

Tags: Salem Witch Trials | werewolf trials | werewolves

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Joseph A. Williams

Writer

Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).