The Werewolf, the Malevolent Witch, and the Warlock

Willem de Blécourt

Willem de Blécourt

In contrast to witchcraft historiography, recent reliable academic treatises on werewolves are exceedingly scanty. This is due both to a lack of interest in them, and a dearth of the source material. New presentations on the subject also have to position themselves against the many existing interpretations, which are inversely proportional to the research.

Within the boundaries of Europe, werewolves were not omnipresent and readily available for persecution as (alleged) witches were. In other words, the dispersion of the werewolf concept was fragmentary or at least limited on a temporal and geographical scale.

Most werewolf historiography, nevertheless, neglects this point. One encyclopaedia entry summarises him as “a murderous cannibal wolf”. Another states that, in some trials, “it is clearly shown that murder and cannibalism took place”.

The American literary scholar Charlotte Otten, in her turn, puts sexual aggression first, noting that “trial records of cases of lycanthropy contain detailed accounts of rape, incest, murder, savage attacks, and cannibalism”.

Such observations are not based on thorough research, however, but merely on the published accounts of only seven werewolf trials — four from Franche-Comté, two from elsewhere in France, and one Germany.

The list of French cases starts with the werewolves of Poligny, on trial in Besançon in 1521, and continues with Gilles Garnier in 1573 (also in the neighbourhood of Besançon), Jacques Roulet of Angers and the “cannibal” tailor of Châlons (Nicolas Damont) in 1598, and the Gandillon family in St Claude (Franche-Comté) in the same year. It ends with Jean Grenier, who was banished to a monastery by the Parlement (High Court) of Bordeaux in 1603.

This last trial, as Adam Douglas notes, “marked the end of the werewolf fever in the French judicial system”. The German case concerned Peter Stubbe from Bedburg, near Cologne, in 1589.

The image of the murderous and cannibalistic werewolf already existed when Sabine Baring-Gould published his ‘Book of Were-Wolves’ in 1865, in which he referred to all six of the Francophone trials. It was confirmed in 1933, when the self-proclaimed “Reverend” Montague Summers presented his learned tome The Werewolf to the public.

He had found a few trials in the literature that Baring-Gould had neglected. However, apart from the English version of the Stubbe pamphlet, which Summers published in full, he did not reveal much about these new cases and, in subsequent werewolf publications, they were again ignored.

Among them was the 1598 trial concerning the “warlock” Jacques Bocquet, executed with several witches who “had shifted their shape to wolves and haunted the wood of Froidecombe” in the Terre de St Claude.

The published details about these trials do, indeed, convey a cannibalistic image. In the translation by Summers, the Poligny werewolves “Pierre and Michel attacked and tore to pieces a boy of seven years old.

An outcry was raised and they fled. On another occasion, they killed a woman who was gathering peas. They also seized a little girl of four years old and ate the palpitating flesh, all save one arm”.

Giles Garnier slew a young girl and dragged her to a wood where “he stripped her naked and not content with eating heartily of the flesh of her thighs and arms, he carried some of the flesh to Apolline his wife”.

Other victims of Garnier included a girl, a ten-year-old boy and another boy of about 12 years.

The tailor of Châlons used “to decoy children of both sexes into his shop, and having abused them he would slice their throats and then powder and dress their bodies, jointing them as a butcher cuts up meat”.

Roulet’s victim was a boy, who was found “shockingly mutilated and torn. The limbs, drenched in blood, were yet warm and palpitating”. Summers had a preference for the last word, whereas Baring-Gould paid more attention to feasting and described the children’s flesh as “delicious”, “eaten with great relish”.

The element of shape-shifting was hardly present here, especially in the accounts of Baring-Gould. “On this occasion,” he wrote of Pierre Burgot of Poligny, “he does not seem to have been in his wolf’s shape.”

The men who prevented Garnier from devouring his final victim said that he had “appeared as a man and not as a wolf”.

Of the Châlons tailor, Summers states only that he was convicted “for lycanthropy” and adds that “under the shape of a wolf, he roamed the woods to leap out on stray passers-by and tear their throats to shreds”.

Finally, in Baring-Gould’s version of the interrogation of Roulet, the man stated that he had killed and eaten a child when he was a wolf but, when questioned about the way he was dressed and about his head, answered that everything was the same as his interrogators could observe. In other words, his humanity — and human responsibility — was emphasised, rather than his beastly traits.

Although the sources allow for these differences in presentation of the figure of the werewolf, they primarily reflect the divergent interpretation of the two authors. Both were connected to the Church, but Summers — as a defrocked Anglican and a pretend Roman Catholic priest — placed most emphasis on the influence of the Devil, while the Devonshire parson Baring-Gould emphasised the human aspects of his werewolves.

Only by quoting the early-sixteenth-century wolf sermon of the German preacher Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg at the very end of his book did Baring-Gould indicate that “man must turn to God when He brings wild beasts to do him mischief”.

Baring-Gould pointed out that Geiler, “puts aside altogether the view that [werewolves] are men in a state of metamorphosis”. The ‘Book of Were-Wolves’ bears this out. It might contain summaries and editions of most of the then available werewolf texts, but there are also chapters that only discuss murderers who were never described as “werewolves”, thus making it clear that its author regarded lycanthropy mainly as an extreme form of man’s “love of destroying life”.

Werewolves were insane: “the naturally cruel man, if least affected in his brain, will suppose himself to be transformed into the most cruel and bloodthirsty animal with which he is acquainted”.

Summers thought that Baring-Gould wrote “graphically and with vigour” and did not shy away from the “terrible truth” of the subject, but that he had also inserted “a great deal of extraneous matter”. Against the populariser Baring-Gould, Summers could easily claim the weight of authority: The Werewolf is littered with (untranslated) quotations in French and Latin. Summers, however, accepted the reality of the Devil and did not see any ground for questioning the statements of tortured people — in his view they were already “wicked” and “horrible”.

Discussing the opinions of the French lawyer Jean Bodin, who had included material on werewolves in his hugely influential demonology, ‘De la démonomanie des sorciers’ in 1580,20 Summers noted: “it is very certain by the common consent of all antiquity and all history, by the testimony of learned men, by experience and first-hand witness, that werewolfism which involves some change from man to animal is a very real and a very terrible thing”.

In his bombastic style, Summers wrote as if taking part himself in the werewolf debate that raged around 1600. Bodin’s theory was based on sound Christian doctrine, Summers found, whatever his enemies might have read into it. One of Bodin’s critics, Jean de Nynauld, was a “heretic” who contradicted “the sense of the Scripture”.

This makes it difficult to consider Summers’ book as anything more than a jumble of werewolf materials; his account of early modern debates is too biased to be of much historiographical use. He fell into the trap of anachronism and, as a psychiatrist observed in the late-twentieth-century, he “would have made a superb exterminator of hundreds of fellow humans if he had just been born a few centuries earlier”. But Summers would have had difficulty in holding his ground in early modern times.

Certainly, in his position on the werewolf, he outdid the Roman Catholic demonologists, as his assessment tried to combine irreconcilable views: “By the force of his diabolic pact he [the witch] was enabled, owing to a ritual of horrid ointments and impious spells, to assume so cunningly the swift shagge brute that saves by his demoniac ferocity and superhuman strength none could distinguish him from the natural wolf”.

With this conclusion, Summers reduced a complex historical debate to a personal concoction.

Baring-Gould, who rarely names his sources, seems to have made ample use of French and, to a lesser extent, German publications. His account of a recent case of desecration of graves in Paris was taken straight from a French report.

The descriptions of the early modern cases ultimately derive from demonological publications, such as ‘De prestigiis daemonum’ by the Rhineland physician Johann Wier, ‘Discours exécrable des sorciers’ by the Franc-comtois judge Henry Boguet, and ‘Incrédulité et mescréance du sortilège’ by Pierre de Lancre, a jurist and a member of the Parlement of Bordeaux from 1582 to 1616.

Pamphlets provided additional data, such as the one about Gilles Garnier that was “circulated through all the cantons of France, Germany and Flanders”, as a contemporary remarked.

Or ‘A True Discourse Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of One Stubbe Peter’, which appeared in London in 1590. The contents of these new sheets had also found their way into the early modern demonologies.

Summers, who translated several, consulted the latter directly. However, since demonologists had their own agenda, the use of their works did not necessarily ensure accuracy.

Accounts of witch-trials that started to appear in the course of the nineteenth-century could have provided a counter-balance, as they sometimes incorporated records of werewolf persecution. But they were mainly in German (which Summers shied away from) and, as the compiler of witchcraft texts Henry Charles Lea remarked on the basis of the eighteenth-century ‘Bibliotheca sive acta et scripta magica’: “werewolves are rarely found in the witch-processes. Of a hundred men, only three or four are accused of or confess to it”. Witch-trials primarily involved women.

Modern popular accounts reduce the seven werewolf cases to one or two. For instance, Gordon Stein discusses Grenier and Roulet, and then remarks: “There are several other cases similar to these, but they need not be mentioned, except in passing later”.

Keith Roberts thought that “the history of Stubbe Peter is typical for the reports about werewolves at that time”. These conclusions are premature. Werewolf trials might have been relatively few and far between, but research into witch-trials has (especially in Germany) provided enough werewolf cases to develop a different image next to the one of the cannibal.

In fact, precise reading of the Peter Stubbe case (or Stump, to revert to his German name) already supplies an alternative.

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