Some 200 years before the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, courts in Europe were convicting men—and some women—of transforming into werewolves and mutilating and eating children.
The punishments were sometimes as gruesome as the alleged crimes. In Germany in 1589, executioners strapped accused werewolf Peter Stumpp to a cart wheel, removed his skin with hot pinchers and chopped off his head before burning his body at the stake. Stumpp's head, attached to a wooden pole carved into the likeness of a wolf, was later displayed as a warning to others tempted to consort with the Devil.
Werewolf trials took place in parts of Europe throughout the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, driven by superstition, religious and political clashes and the desire to find scapegoats for harsh conditions. Many of the accused were beggars, hermits or recent émigrés to the areas. Many confessed to being werewolves and committing heinous crimes, but only after being tortured. Historians suspect some suffered from delusions or weren’t intelligent enough to know what they were admitting to. A few may have been actual pedophiles or serial killers, but the historical records are fragmented and exaggerated. Centuries later, it's difficult to untangle folklore from real evidence or what people believed to be real at the time.
"The idea of being consumed by animals, in this world or the next, remained a popular anxiety throughout the Middle Ages," writes Aleksander Pluskowski, a medieval zooarcheologist at the University of Reading in the 2015 book Werewolf Histories.
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Early Werewolf Lore
The concept of humans transforming into wolves goes back millennia. In the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia in 2100 B.C., the hero abandons a love interest when he learns that she turned an ex-lover into a werewolf. In Greek mythology, King Lycaon of Arcadia tests Zeus's omnipotence by feeding him disguised human remains and is turned into a werewolf as punishment. (His name is the root of the term lycanthropy—used for both changing into a werewolf and the delusion of being one, a recognized psychiatric condition for several centuries.)
Werewolves also figured into the folklore of the Middle Ages, but they were usually benign characters who shape-shifted into beasts against their will and were desperate to return to human form.
Charges that real people could be menacing werewolves surfaced as part of the witch trials that swept through parts of Europe in the 1400s. Officials in the Valais region of Switzerland conducted large-scale prosecutions, blaming witches for crop failures, lameness, blindness, infertility and impotence—as well as adopting wolf forms and mutilating cattle. According to some accounts, several hundred men and women were convicted and burned at the stake in Valais starting in 1428, often with a sack of gunpowder around their necks. Any land they owned automatically transferred to the local vassal of the King, which may have spurred the accusations.
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Werewolf Trials: From Papal Inquisitors to Secular Courts
From the Alps, werewolf prosecutions spread to Franche-Comté, in Burgundy, a densely forested area where villagers and livestock were easy prey for actual wolves. There, as elsewhere in Europe, political and religious upheavals heightened tensions. And Christianity was struggling to overcome regional pagan traditions, making fertile ground for fanciful accusations, according to Rolf Schulte, a German expert on witch and werewolf hunts, in his 2009 book Man as Witch.
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In 1521, inquisitors appointed by the Pope presided over several trials of alleged werewolfery. Two shepherds, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, confessed to making 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 attending midnight witch gatherings and hunting and eating children. Both were convicted and burned at the stake, along with a third who refused to confess.
Subsequent werewolf trials often featured similar details: men in black, a magic salve, belts or skins that turned the accused into wolves, attending witch ceremonies late at night and going on bloodthirsty rampages. Supposed eyewitnesses testified to seeing huge, glowing eyes and long, pointed teeth and beasts running with superhuman speed.
Contesting the Church's authority, the secular Parliament in Dole soon took charge of werewolf prosecutions, at one point encouraging citizens "to assemble armed with clubs, halberds, pikes, arquebuses and other cudgels...to hunt down the named werewolves where they might find, catch, shoot or kill them," according to an Edict of Parliament cited in Shulte's book.
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Doctors Credit Satan With Altering 'Body Humors'
A patrol in the eastern French town of St. Claude tracked down Gilles Garnier, an immigrant living in poverty in the forest, and accused him of mutilating children near Dole in 1573. After 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 against eating meat on Fridays. Garnier was burned at the stake, despite some doubts that he could have physically traveled 60 kilometers away where some of the missing children lived.
St. Claude's Grand Judge, Henri Boguet, became convinced that a large group of witches and werewolves was terrorizing the community and ordered multiple arrests and prosecutions, with the charges often used interchangeably. He also authored treatises on various forms of demons, including werewolves, and in 1598 alone, pronounced 17 death sentences. But he had to reconcile his legal views with the Church's official position that God alone could transform humans and the Devil could only create illusions. Noting that he had seen confessed werewolves snarling and prancing around the courtroom on all fours, Boguet concluded they were clearly under the Devil's spell and thus equally deserving of execution, according to Shulte.
Courts sometimes called in physicians to testify. A common medical view was that confessed werewolves suffered from melancholia, a kind of depression that included mania and delusions. Some doctors gave the Devil his due, however, and opined that Satan could have caused such ailments by altering body humors—"a line of reasoning that was impossible to disprove and accepted by the majority of physicians," according to German medical historian Nadine Metzger.
Modern medical experts theorize that some accused werewolves could have suffered from porphyria, which causes sensitivity to light, reddish teeth and psychosis; or hypertrichosis, a hereditary condition that manifests in excessive hair growth. Lycanthropy—believing oneself to be a werewolf—might have been brought on by deliberately or unwittingly consuming hallucinogenic herbs, mushrooms or folk concoctions.
Werewolves Lose Their Bite
Werewolf trials continued sporadically in the 17th century in Germany, the Netherlands and eastern Europe, particularly in isolated rural areas. But gradually, the educated and elite stopped believing in the Devil or animal transformation. In 1692 in Livonia, Sweden, an 80-year old man named Thiess was laughed out of court when he professed to being a werewolf and entering Hell three times a year to battle witches and devils and insure a good harvest. He was later convicted of practicing folk magic, sentenced to flogging and banished for life.
As the threat posed by real wolves in Europe slowly vanished due to industrialization and population growth, Metzger writes, even the delusion of being a werewolf was gradually replaced by other forms of psychosis.
How many people were tried and convicted of being werewolves in all? Several scholarly papers report that 30,000 were executed as werewolves in France alone between 1520 and 1630. But Dutch historian Willem de Blécourt traced the origin of that figure to a 1611 book by Pierre de Lancre, another zealous werewolf prosecutor, noting that it referred to all the inhabitants of the Labourd region of France. That’s because De Lancre believed that every family practiced witchcraft in some form.
De Blécourt concludes, "The total number of prosecuted werewolves in Europe probably did not exceed several hundred."