The Werewolf Trials

Werewolf IllustrationWerewolves are supposed to be frightening, aren’t they?  Creatures of nightmare?  Yet I struggle to think of a time when they frightened me, rather than fascinated me.  I don’t think I’m alone in this.  In modern media, the werewolf is often the hero of TV shows, movies, books, comics …

It’s easy to be fascinated rather than frightened when you know that something is just fiction.  It’s easy for teenage girls (or thirty-year-old women) to imagine falling in love with a werewolf or a vampire when they’re depicted as tortured souls, out to make amends/get revenge/insert suitable back story here …

I write the Wolf Land series – beautiful witch falls in love with handsome werewolf.  Okay, there’s more to the stories than that but … in my books the werewolves are (for the most part) the good guys.  They fight on behalf of the dispossessed, they fight to stop the forests being destroyed, they fight to help protect the real wolves from destruction.

And I’m not the only one who writes and reads this sort of fiction.  So I have to wonder: were people ever really frightened of these creatures?  Or did they always see them as the fictional creation that they (probably) are?

While writing the Wolf Land series I read a lot about the werewolf trials of the past.  I refer to two of them in Wolf Land Book Two, and I’d like to delve into both a little more deeply in this blog.

The Werewolf of Dole

The first trial I refer to in the book is one which one of my characters, Maria, attended in her past.  Maria speaks of a trial she witnessed where: ‘The man being tried had, undoubtedly, done terrible things. He had killed young children. Consumed their limbs and … oh, you do not need to know the gore. The man claimed that he had done these things only because he had been cursed. He claimed to be a werewolf.’

Although I add some fictional elements, I was inspired by a  very real trial when I wrote this section.  The trial I was thinking of was that of Gilles Garnier, a trial that took place in France in the 1570s.  Gilles was also known as the Werewolf of Dole, and the Hermit of St Bonnot.  Gilles lived much of his life as a hermit and, when he eventually took a wife, he found that feeding two mouths was more difficult than feeding just one.  So he took the rather extreme action of turning to cannibalism.  He killed and consumed children, carrying out the killing alone.  He would, however, take the leftovers home for his wife.

Gilles claimed that he carried out these acts in the form of a wolf.  One night while out hunting for food, he said, a spectre appeared to him and gave him a magic ointment that would allow him to transform, and so make hunting easier.  He was found guilty of crimes of lycanthropy and witchcraft, and was burned at the stake in 1573.

The Werewolf of Bedburg

Later on in Wolf Land Book Two the rector tells the local children the lovely tale of Peter Stumpp.  Some of you may have heard of Peter, though perhaps not under that name.  The Werewolf of Bedburg was known by many names, often spelled differently:  Peter Stube, Pe(e)ter Stubbe, Peter Stübbe or Peter Stumpf … Abal Griswold, Abil Griswold, Ubel Griswold

If you google the subject, you’ll find many stories about this man and his crimes.  He confessed that the devil had given him a belt which allowed him to transform into a wolf.  The crimes he is said to have committed in this form, under insatiable blood lust, began with killing sheep and newborn lambs; he soon progressed to murdering and consuming human victims.  His victims number 14-18, depending on the source.  They include the unborn fetuses of two pregnant women.  He is even said to have eaten the brain of his own son.

These crimes, if true, are incredibly unsettling.  The details of Peter’s execution, however, are more unsettling still.  He was put on a wheel on October 31st 1589, his body splayed out and stretched painfully.  The flesh was torn from his body by hot pincers, and his limbs were broken by the blunt side of an axe to prevent his body from returning from the grave.  He was beheaded, then, before being burned on a pyre.  His head was placed on a pole as a warning to others who might be tempted towards sorcery or shapeshifting (y’know, in case Satan ever offers them a magical belt).  It’s said that his daughter and his mistress (the Gossip of the pamphlet I link to below) were considered accessories to his crimes.  They were said to be raped, flayed and strangled (because, of course, it’s not a sin if it’s a sinner you’re doing it to) and their bodies burned alongside his.

The main source of information on this subject is a pamphlet named the Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter (you can read it here – please let me know about any dead links).  Two copies of this pamphlet exist, one in the British Museum and one in the Lambeth Library.  It was produced in 1590, and it is a translation from a German pamphlet detailing the case and trial of Peter Stumpp.   There are no remaining copies of the German pamphlet, and the English translation was rediscovered in 1920 by the occultist, Montague Summers.  Montague reprinted the pamphlet,including a woodcut, in his work, The Werewolf.

There is some additional information in the form of an alderman’s diary entries, and some German broadsheets.  The broadsheets, however, were probably reprinted from the English translation.  Any original German documents about the trial were apparently lost; Peter’s date of birth is unknown, too, because local church records were destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).

Such a dearth of real information will always lead to speculation.  There are some who believe that Peter Stumpp’s trial was a political trial in disguise.  In Wolf Land, Sorcha tells us Brian Farrell’s theories on the subject: ‘I too knew the story of Peter Stumpp, but I knew the story as Brian told it; Brian, a man eager to believe in werewolves, had always said that this was not a story of the horrors of werewolves, but a story of the horrors of man. Peter Stumpp was caught in the middle of a religious war – he was a powerful Protestant in an area where others were determined to re-establish Catholicism.’

There were reasons for such theories.  Peter grew up in Bedburg, and so was quite likely a Protestant. When the area was overthrown in 1587, in an effort to establish Catholicism, it’s conceivable that – if Peter was a Protestant in a position of some power – the new Catholic authorities may have wanted to make an example of him.  Many powerful people came to his trial, and in a time when such trials were ten a penny, this was unusual.  But … if Peter really did commit the crimes he confessed to, the trial would have been quite a draw, so perhaps the attendance of the peers and princes of Germany was not so unusual after all.

 

Conclusion

I began this post with a question in mind: does anyone really fear werewolves?  And after reading about the trials in this blog, and so many similar cases against witches and werewolves over the centuries, I’m no closer to an answer.  It could be argued that, in such trials, calling oneself (or being accused of being) a werewolf or a witch was just an excuse.

It wasn’t my fault, your honour, the devil made me do it.

Or:

Kill him, he’s in league with the devil.  Never mind that it’s terribly convenient for us that this man no longer exist, just … kill him.  I’m telling you – he’s got a magic belt and he knows how to use it!

But imagine we did believe that Gilles and Peter were werewolves.  Imagine we believed that the countless women tortured, abused and murdered during the witch-hunts over the centuries really were witches.  Would they still fascinate us or would they become something to fear?

I – and many others – create worlds filled with witches and werewolves.  I’ll continue to do so.  And they’ll (almost always) be the good guys.  My werewolves aren’t serial killers or child murderers.  But they might just chow down on the guys that are carrying out such heinous deeds.  And as for my witches, if they’re ever tempted to resort to the blackest of magics, then I’ll make sure their hair looks good while they’re doing it 🙂

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