Tales of werewolves have been told since ancient times. The term “lycanthropy” describes the act of a human assuming the form of a wolf and is derived from the name of King Lycaon of ancient Greek mythology. In many tales, being a werewolf is undesirable. It is a form of punishment in many stories, including that of King Lycaon.
Yet people in Europe between the 1400s and 1700s saw fit for many reasons to add to the plight of accused werewolves by hunting them down, making them stand trial, and brutally executing them. The trials and beliefs about werewolves during this period are fascinating and disturbing, from why werewolf stories were told in the first place to the gratuitousness of the executions. Here are ten wild and terrifying facts about werewolf trials.
10 They Only Happened Where Real Wolves Roamed
No other animal has matched the influence of the wolf in European tales of human-to-animal transformation. Some researchers theorize this is because wolves were, for thousands of years, the most frequently encountered land predator able to pose a genuine threat to the people living on the continent. This is supported by a comparison of the number of werewolf trials in England and European countries with forested regions like France and Germany.
Wolves had been eradicated from England by the end of the 15th century due to intensive hunting. Consequently, no trials were recorded there. There were also no trials in the Mediterranean regions of Europe where wolves did not live. Germany saw upward of 300 cases, which seems a lot in comparison to none. Still, it comes nowhere near the 30,000-45,000 convictions for witchcraft around the same period.
9 The Charges Were Nearly Impossible to Defend
Without modern scientific methods, early societies had little more than their imagination to help explain unusual conditions. For example, catalepsy and trance were explained by a person’s soul leaving their body. This caused problems in court because any alibi could be dismissed since the accused’s soul could simply have left their body to go about its wicked business.
The argument was used against alleged werewolves and witches alike. A mental illness defense was also often unhelpful because even medical experts believed it was possible for the Devil to have caused the illness. Maybe it was lucky more were not executed with this kind of logic to defend against.
8 They Caught Some Actual Serial Killers
In fact, the whole project might have had its roots in attempting to explain serial killers or the unsolved crimes committed by mercenaries and marauders. Scandinavian Berserkers, wild warriors who enjoyed nothing more than massacring and plundering their way around Europe, were reported to occasionally be unable to control their cravings to kill while at home between expeditions. A phenomenon known as “Berserker rage” saw them wrap up in bear and wolf skins to engage in a night of wanton death and destruction.
Less public but no less sinister, serial killers certainly existed at the time of the werewolf trials. A French tailor burned alive in 1598 for being a werewolf was found with children’s bones in his house. Jean Grenier was a teenage cannibal caught after a failed attack on a young girl. Even today, we are short of explanations for such inhuman actions, and in early modern societies, lycanthropy seemed plausible. Grenier confessed to making a pact with the devil to become a werewolf, a state of affairs he was reported to have genuinely believed.
7 Christianity Turned Werewolves Evil
One difficult question about the history of the werewolf trials is when exactly lycanthropy became evil. In earlier Nordic folklore, wolf-like attributes were viewed positively. They were used to the advantage of heroic warriors on their quests. In other cases, it was a curse, and those suffering from it deserved sympathy. Ancient cultures also did not see transformation into a beast as necessarily evil. So what changed in the 15th century?
One theory is that Christianity had a habit of adopting aspects of pagan beliefs and turning them evil. For example, images of the devil as faun-like are based on the Greek god Pan. When werewolf mythology crossed with Christian theology, it came to be believed that the power to transform into a wolf must have been granted by the Devil and, therefore, must be punished. However, other researchers have pointed out that this is not strictly in line with Christian theology, which says God is the only being strong enough to transform matter, and he would not transform something created in his image into a soulless animal.
6 Most People Did Not Believe in Literal Werewolves
The theological argument above and the strong influence of the church at the time meant most people did not believe men could physically transform into wolves. Prosecutors claimed the werewolf phenomenon was caused by illusions conjured by the Devil or demons. Critics of the trials blamed delusions.
The delusion that one is or has been a wolf has been recognized since ancient Greek times and could explain some of the confessions made by alleged werewolves as well as some of the wolf-like behavior witnesses saw. Unfortunately for the accused, these also strengthened the prosecution’s case, and a pact with the Devil seemed equally plausible at the time. In some cases, an intermediate explanation, neither wholly demonic nor wholly medical, was reached.
5 There Were Medical Witnesses
Physicians were often called as expert witnesses in witchcraft and werewolf trials. One important responsibility they had was proving genuine insanity. In some cases, such as that of teenage child-killer and self-confessed werewolf Jean Grenier, medical reviews successfully spared the accused from the death penalty.
Medical experts also had to make sure accused females were not pregnant. If they were, they were generally not tortured or put to death. In other cases, physicians may have helped convict people. Part of their role was to examine the defendant and check for signs of contact with the Devil or witch’s marks.
4 Drugs Could Have Been to Blame
Some critics of the werewolf trials believed witches’ ointments could have been causing hallucinations among the population. Sadly for the accused, this theory had little backing until the 1960s when chemical analyses revealed ingredients in witches’ ointments and the poisonous fungi ergot were similar to LSD. Contact with the ointment and ergot poisonings could explain some of the werewolf sightings. However, other modern researchers have criticized this explanation for oversimplifying the situation.
The unfortunate truth is that even today, the precise cause of the acts committed by the accused and the observations of witnesses are unknown. Other modern researchers have suggested rabies, neurological dysfunction, and even epilepsy as alternative explanations.
3 They Picked on the Poor and Marginalized
Modern historians have spotted similarities among the unfortunate people accused in werewolf trials. As might be expected, they tended to be men. This was not always the case, as lycanthropy was believed by many to be a type of witchcraft. However, the strength and aggression of werewolves are traits typically associated with men. Their hairy and ferocious image has been described by some researchers as hyper-masculine.
The accused were often marginalized members of society, such as peasants, beggars, shepherds, and farmers. Beggars were already considered criminals, so it was not unusual for them to be accused of further crimes. The dirty and smelly nature of shepherds’ and farmers’ work caused them to be stigmatized, and those doing the work believed to share characteristics with animals.
2 No Full Moon Required
Werewolf lore in early modern times did not involve transforming when there was a full moon. They did, however, involve some kind of magic item obtained from the Devil, which could be used to affect a transformation at any time. Typical items included belts or wolf pelts. But since the church had distanced itself from the idea of humans physically transforming into wolves, magic ointments and salves that could cause sleep or unconsciousness were also said to be used.
These supposedly allowed the Devil to possess the person’s body and commit all kinds of heinous acts while disguised as a wolf. Henri Boguet, the 16th-century proponent of this theory, believed the person was still to blame because they had already renounced God, and any crimes they committed were things they intended to do.
1 Executions Were Brutal
Probably the most famous execution of an alleged werewolf was that of a German named Peter Stumpp. However, other sources refer to him as Stubbe and Stumpf. He was accused of committing 16 murders, including those of his own son and 12 other children. He confessed to these crimes along with his lycanthropy and having relations with his own daughter and a demon disguised as a beautiful woman.
The fact the confessions were obtained through torture did nothing to lighten his savage sentence. On October 31, 1589, a crowd looked on as Stumpp was strapped to a wheel to have his bones broken and skin removed. Only after he had been skinned was he decapitated. His head was displayed in the center of the village to warn other werewolves what was coming for them. And just to make sure he would not be coming back, his body was burned.