Some 200 years before the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, European courts were convicting men – and some women – for turning themselves into werewolves and maiming and eating children.
The punishments were sometimes as horrific as the alleged crimes. In Germany in 1589, executioners tied werewolf Peter Stumpp to a cart wheel, stripped his skin with hot pliers, and cut off his head before burning his body at the stake. Stumpp’s head, attached to a wolf carcass, was later presented as a warning to others tempted to date the devil.
Werewolf trials took place in parts of Europe throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, motivated by superstition, religious and political clashes, and the desire to find scapegoats for difficult conditions. Many of the accused were beggars, hermits or recent emigrants to the regions. Many have confessed to being werewolves and committing heinous crimes, but only after being tortured. Historians suspect that some suffered from delusions or were not smart enough to know what to admit. A few may have been actual pedophiles or serial killers, but the historical record is fragmented and exaggerated. Centuries later, it’s hard to disentangle folklore from actual evidence or what people believed to be real at the time.
“The idea of being consumed by animals, in this world or the other, remained a popular anxiety throughout the Middle Ages,” writes Aleksander Pluskowski, medieval zooarchaeologist at the University of Reading in the book W from 2015Werewolf stories.
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Ancient tradition of the werewolf
The concept of humans turning into wolves dates back thousands of years. In the The epic of Gilgamesh Originally from Mesopotamia in 2100 BC, the hero gives up a love interest when he learns that she has turned an ex-lover into a werewolf. In Greek mythology, King Lycaon of Arcadia tests Zeus’ omnipotence by feeding him disguised human remains and transforms into a werewolf as punishment. (His name is the root of the term lycanthropy—used both to transform into a werewolf and for the illusion of being one, a psychiatric disorder recognized for centuries.)
Werewolves were also featured in medieval folklore, but they were usually benign figures who metamorphosed into beasts against their will and desperately sought to return to human form.
Accusations that real people could be menacing werewolves surfaced in connection with the witch trials that swept parts of Europe in the 1400s. Authorities in Switzerland’s Valais region carried out investigations. Large-scale lawsuits, accusing the witches of crop failure, lameness, blindness, infertility and helplessness, as well as adopting wolfish forms and maiming livestock. According to some accounts, several hundred men and women were condemned and burned alive in Valais from 1428, often with a bag of powder around their necks. Any land they owned was automatically transferred to the king’s local vassal, which may have fueled the accusations.
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Werewolf Trials: From Papal Inquisitors to Secular Courts
From the Alps, the prosecution of werewolves spread to Franche-Comté, Burgundy, a densely forested region where villagers and cattle were easy prey for real wolves. There, as elsewhere in Europe, political and religious upheavals are exacerbating tensions. And Christianity struggled to overcome regional pagan traditions, creating fertile ground for fanciful accusations, according to Rolf Schulte, a German expert on witch and werewolf hunts, in his 2009 book. Man as a witch.
In 1521, inquisitors appointed by the Pope presided over several trials of alleged werewolves. Two shepherds, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, confessed to having made a pact with the Devil in exchange for food: meeting with a man in black who gave them an ointment that turned them into werewolves, then participation in gatherings of midnight witches and hunts and eats children. Both were sentenced and burned alive, along with a third who refused to confess.
Subsequent werewolf trials often featured similar details: men in black, magic balm, belts or skins that turned the accused into wolves, attended witch ceremonies late at night, and went wild thirsty for blood. . Supposed eyewitnesses have testified to seeing huge shining eyes and long sharp teeth and beasts running at superhuman speed.
Challenging the authority of the Church, the Secular Parliament of Dole quickly took charge of the werewolf prosecutions, at one point encouraging citizens “to assemble armed with clubs, halberds, pikes, arquebuses and other clubs. … to hunt down named werewolves wherever they might find, catch, shoot or kill them, ”according to an edict of Parliament quoted in Shulte’s book.
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Doctors attribute to Satan the modification of “bodily moods”
A patrol in the town of Saint-Claude in eastern France found Gilles Garnier, an immigrant living in poverty in the forest, and accused him of mutilating children near Dole in 1573. After the torture, Garnier confessed to killing four children and feeding their bodies to his family on a Friday – a double sacrilege given the Church’s edict banning eating meat on Fridays. Garnier was burnt at the stake, despite some doubts that he could have physically traveled 60 kilometers from where some of the missing children lived.
Saint-Claude’s grand judge, Henri Boguet, became convinced that a large group of witches and werewolves were terrorizing the community and ordered multiple arrests and prosecutions, with the charges often being used interchangeably. He is also the author of treatises on various forms of demons, including werewolves, and in 1598 alone he passed 17 death sentences. But he had to reconcile his legal views with the official Church position that God alone could transform humans and the devil could only create illusions. Noting that he had seen confessed werewolves growl and prance around the courtroom on all fours, Boguet concluded that they were clearly under the spell of the devil and therefore deserved to be executed as well, according to Shulte.
Courts have sometimes called doctors to testify. A common medical opinion was that avowed werewolves suffered from melancholy, a kind of depression that included mania and delusions. Some doctors, however, gave the Devil his due and felt that Satan could have caused such illnesses by altering bodily moods – “a reasoning impossible to refute and accepted by the majority of doctors”, according to the German medical historian. Nadine Metzger. .
Modern medical experts hypothesize that some accused werewolves may have suffered from porphyria, which causes sensitivity to light, reddish teeth, and psychosis; or hypertrichosis, an inherited condition that manifests as excessive hair growth. Lycanthropy – believing yourself to be a werewolf – could have been caused by the deliberate or unintentional consumption of hallucinogenic herbs, mushrooms, or folkloric concoctions.
READ MORE: How the Salem Witch Trials Influenced the U.S. Legal System
Werewolves lose their bite
Werewolf trials continued sporadically into the 17th century in Germany, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, especially in isolated rural areas. But little by little, the educated and the elite stopped believing in the Devil or in animal transformation. In 1692 in Livonia, Sweden, an 80-year-old man named Thiess mocked the court when he claimed to be a werewolf and enter Hell three times a year to fight witches and demons and ensure good harvest. He was then found guilty of practicing folk magic, sentenced to flogging and banned for life.
While the threat posed by real wolves in Europe has slowly faded due to industrialization and population growth, Metzger writes, even the illusion of being a werewolf has been gradually replaced by other forms of psychosis.
How many people have been tried and convicted of being werewolves altogether? Several scientific papers report that 30,000 werewolves were executed in France alone between 1520 and 1630. But Dutch historian Willem de Blécourt traced the origin of this figure to a 1611 book by Pierre de Lancre, another prosecutor. zealous werewolf, noting that it referred to all inhabitants of the Labourd region of France. This is because De Lancre believed that every family practiced witchcraft in one form or another.
De Blécourt concludes: “The total number of werewolves pursued in Europe probably did not exceed several hundred.