Friday, 11 January 2013

Medieval Werewolves, Skeptics, Believers and how they thought

Like Vampires Werewolves have, thanks to Hollywood movies - starting with The Wolf Man in 1941 - come to be seen in a romantic light: something perhaps missed by those torn to pieces and eaten by humans who considered themselves were-animals or perhaps were  even real were-animals.

Modern Science and Medieval Scholarship both considered physical transformation of humans impossible, though for vastly different reasons. The skeptics in the West in the Middle ages were faced with a well attested phenomenon that needed explanation and produced explanations that seem plausible, though hard, if not impossible to test, especially given their belief in the inerrancy of the Bible.

The cases here are presented to help make sense of the phenomenon and try to distinguish between various theories. Since more than one theory may be correct it is necessary to look at recorded cases involving transformation into an animal, not necessarily a wolf

Quick Looks at some cases

In 1581 a shepherd called Petronio, tried at Dalheim in Germany, was said to have changed himself into a wolf by means of various incantations in order to mutilate sheep owned by neighbours against whom he had a grudge.

In 1598 a court in Paris ordered records of a werewolf trial to be burned because the details were so grisly.

In 1589 Peter Stumpf of Bedburg in Germany confessed to killing children in the form of a wolf “With eyes great and large” . He sounds like the Peter Stubb who, according to Keel [4] terrorised the German countryside for 25 years in the 16th Century by donning a wolfskin belt given him by the Devil. When the monstrous wolf was tracked down the hunters saw Peter appear miraculously before them. His head was mounted on a pole outside the village but the wolfskin belt was never recovered.

Nine years later a French beggar called Jacques Roulet was executed for the same crime. He confessed he and his companions: his brother and a cousin, had a salve that let them take the form of wolves. Again he had killed and eaten children in various parts of the country. Although there were no eye witnesses of his transformation hunters had chased a wolf that was eating the body of a fifteen year old boy and tracked down a human with fresh blood on his hands and red human flesh under his nails.

Gilles Garnier was burned as a werewolf at Lyon ( another source says it was in Dole, about 100 km away) after freely confessing his crimes. In 1573 he killed a young girl with his “paw like hands and his teeth” on St Michael's day, eating some of the body and taking some home to his wife. A month after that he killed another girl but three people prevented him eating her. Then he killed a child of ten and ate part of their thighs, legs and abdomen. Later, in human form, he killed a boy about 12 years old but was prevented from eating him.

Apart from the sudden appearances of the humans when the wolf was pursued, there is little evidence of anythinf supernatural in these cases

Wolf Like Humans

In 1610 Pierre De Lancre, a judge in Bordeaux, visited Jean Grenier, a 21 year old werewolf who had been confined to a monastery cell for seven years. In his book L'inconstance published in 1610 De Lancre noted that Grenier had viciously attacked several victims and eyewitnesses swore he was in the form of a wolf when he carried out the attack. Grenier claimed he had a magic coat that could turn him into a wolf.

De Lancre said Grenier had glittering deep set eyes, long black fingernails and sharp protruding teeth. He walked on all fours much more easily than he could walk upright. He told the judge he craved the flesh of little girls. In this way he was like American serial killer, child rapist and cannibal Albert Fish [3], though Fish never claimed to change into an animal. It is possible, but not stated, that Grenier had been a feral child of the type occasionally reported today that is raised by animals, though generally they cannot talk coherently.

In 1584 a werewolf attacked a girl in a small village in the Jura mountains, and when her brother tried to rescue her it killed him. Enraged bystanders clubbed the werewolf to death and saw the dead wolf turn into the nude corpse of a young woman called Perenette Gandillon. An official enquiry resulted in the arrest of her whole family. Steiger says they seem to have brought about a werewolf psychosis by means of self hypnosis. In a book entitled Discourse Des Sourciers a well known Jurist called Boguet described his examination of the family: they acted as if possessed, losing all resemblance to humanity, their eyes turned red and gleamed, their hair sprouted, their teeth became long and sharp and their fingernails turned horny and clawlike. A bit like the people in the January Sales.

Medieval Werewolf theories

Instead of being seen as driven by bestial impulses we all have (be honest with yourself here) the Medieval Werewolf was associated with magic and the Devil. Those who believed a man could become a wolf and those who did not both proceeded from a worldview totally alien to modern man.

Medieval people were not stupid, though academic learning, and indeed literacy, was restricted to a small elite, indeed the general harshness of life may have made them more street smart than most people today. In Christendom the supreme authority was the Bible and the Christian worldview dominated theories about the world. The situation was almost certainly similar in the lands and peoples of the other Abrahamic religions, but the Christian case is well documented in English and is the only one considered here, though one must bear in mind that large groups of people are similar everywhere, though cultural differences may hide the similarities: take away the religions and a muslim and christian fundamentalist are almost identical.

In the Middle Ages there was a widespread belief that humans could transform into animals. The arguments for and against believing this centred on the limits of the power of the Devil. The believers' case centred on the power of the Devil to transform himself, and they argued it was no harder for him to transform a human. The skeptics, as represented by Henri Boguet argued that while animals were not made to have souls their brains were too small to hold a human intellect and that the witch would have to lose their soul at the moment of transformation and get it back later. Since the soul normally left the body at the moment of death and Satan could not resurrect people, the transformation was impossible.

Having rejected the reality of the transformation the skeptics had to explain the case reports. Some attributed the werewolf confessions to insanity, though others worried that this explanation would let self confessed werewolves off the hook. Others considered the transformation a glamour or illusion produced by Satan, or that Satan created false bodies from thin air, which the werewolf used. However they then had to explain why werewolves gained so many of the abilities of real wolves: fleetness of foot, ferocity and the love of howling. They also had to explain why the werewolves left tracks that could not have been left by a human being, and teeth marks on their victims.

They concluded that these feats were done by Satan or his demons who made them possible through their supernatural powers. Of course no one asked why the demon needed a human being on these expeditions.

This left the need to explain how wounds inflicted on the werewolf appeared on the human body when the transformation back to human form took place ( a feature also reported in some non-European cases). They supposed that the witch never left their home or base, and that the attack was a delusion with Satan inflicting wounds on the body paralleling that inflicted on the air-constructed body used by the demon carrying out the attack. If so Satan would seem to have been rather wasteful with his people.

At this point it seems to me it would have been more parsimonious to assume the transformations were real. Similar mental convolutions seem to characterise the way some skeptics dismiss anomalous phenomena today.

Other Theories

Brad Steiger [1] notes that in the middle ages bands of thieves and beggars would wonder the countryside at night often dressed in Wolfskins and howling like animals. The nearest modern equivalent would be Football Hooligans or young City Traders. It is easy to think such groups explain some werewolf legends. However Steiger does not mention his sources and in the next sentence mentions Hitler's werewolf regiment which, apart from the name appears to have had nothing to do with werewolves. As always in this type of investigation check what you can and his theory needs to be checked.

Another explanation is the lycanthrope psychosis, the belief that one changes into a wolf at full moon (or alternatively that a wolf becomes human at other times). Given the changes observed in mediums at Spiritualist seances, it is possible that at this time the person's appearance changes enough that a victim, unable to spare the time to examine their attacker closely, would think they were seeing a real wolf. This is unlikely to cover all cases though.

An off the wall theory might be that a werewolf is actually the spirit of a wolf that has somehow ended up in a human body. Given the nature of the field it seems extremely difficult to test or asses this idea, and as a theory it does not explain the observed transformations or unusual footprints.

A final possibility is that the transformations were real, though the theoretical background of the Middle Ages may have influenced the reporting of the events. It is also interesting to note that there seem to be few modern cases though there is one from about 1820 involving a wolf strap, possibly a strap cut from the back of a hanged man [5]. Reports of apparent shapeshifters are almost non-existent today so perhaps if the werewolf exists it should be a protected species, like the vampire.

The Wrap

The cases here are only the tip of a worldwide iceberg of werewolf cases. We cannot dismiss the eyewitness reports out of hand: there are too many of them.

It seems simplest to assume that some at least of these cases are genuine transformations, though this conclusion can only be tentative and the author's inner skeptic does not like it. However there are common features to all these cases and where eyewitnesses see a transformation taking place in so many cases the idea of hallucination becomes hard to maintain.

It is also possible that many are explained by the lycanthropy psychosis with physical changes similar to those seen in Spiritualist Seances and the phenomenon of Transfiguration accepted by mainstream religions. This does not explain the cases where the beast left prints a human could not make.

Some commentators on an earlier version of this article noted that it might be easier to "possess" an animal than to become one and that demonic possession could also explain some cases

As always more research is needed.

[1] Monsters among us, Brad Steiger, Para Research 1982, ISBN 0-9149-18-38-9
[2] Strange Histories, Darren Oldridge, Routledge 2005, ISBN 0-415-28860-6
[4] Strange Creatures from Time and Space, John Keel, Sphere Books 1975 ISBN 0-7221-5147-0

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