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Far before the time of Shakespeare, there was a prevalent belief in the creatures known as werewolves, or lycanthrope, as they were called in the Ancient world. This belief saw a large increase by the 16th century, with people believing werewolves were humans capable of shape shifting into the form of a large and evil wolf, desiring to consume other humans, particularly children, by the light of a full moon. The legend of werewolves today is dismissed by the popular mindset and relegated to the halls of horror films, tv shows, and of course, Halloween costumes. However, in Shakespeare’s lifetime, there was not only an established belief in actual werewolves, but documented cases of real people convicted of being werewolves, like the Werewolf of Dole in 1573, Peter Stumpp in 1589, and A Geneva man was convicted of killing 16 children when he had changed himself into a wolf on October 15, 1580, when Shakespeare was just 16 years old. Here today to share with us the history of the werewolf in Shakespeare’s England, and details about some of the surviving documentation we have about real werewolf cases in Europe is our guest and author of Werewolves, Witches, and Wandering Spirits, Kay Edwards.

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Kathryn A. Edwards (Kay) is Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, She has published widely in the history of daily life, folklore, and religious belief and practice in Europe, ca. 1400-1700, and is the author of Werewolves, Witches, and Wandering Spirits, Kay Edwards.

Check out Kay’s latest book here:

Read More about Kay Edwards and her work here

Kay is Past Editor of French Historical Studies, Past President of the Society for Reformation Research, Past Research Director at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (Finland), Past Senior Research Fellow at the Hansewissenschaftskolleg (Germany), and member of various editorial boards.  She is currently finishing two large books projects: Living with Ghosts: The Dead in European Society from the Black Death to the Enlightenment and, as editor, The Brill Companion to the Devil and Demons. Today’s broadcast is based on earlier research into the folklore of the Franche-Comté, which is a modern French province but was once very much on the borderlands between France and Germany. 

video version of episode with kay edwards on werewolves

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I’ll be asking Kay Edwards about:

  • Given the number of cases where real people were convicted in a court of law of being werewolves, what was the legal criteria for evaluating whether or not someone was one?  
  • In researching this episode, I wanted to see the people convicted of being werewolves as victims of societal superstition. However, in many of the documented werewolf cases, the people involved are confessing to the crime, or in other instances like the man in Geneva who killed 16 children by turning into a wolf in 1580, he was caught in the act of cannibalism. Kay, how do we explain the cases of werewolves when looking back at the evidence, it definitely looks at face value like werewolves were real (Or least that those called werewolves were actual criminals, if not actual wolves?) 
  • Previously on That Shakespeare Life, we’ve discussed cases of hypertrichosis, where the body is excessively covered in hair. While some scholars have suggested this condition could be what causes convicted serial killers to also be accused of being werewolves, the cases of hypertrichosis we looked at on our show were people seen as curiosities and actually put on display for enjoyment, not things to be feared and they specifically were not accused of being werewolves, as I had expected they might have been. Kay, can you tell us about the medical community’s response to werewolf cases? Was Lycanthropy ever looked at as a disease, considered to be transmissible, or defined by a set of observable symptoms, or assigned certain treatments?  
  • …and more!

Sabine Baring-Gould. The Book of Werewolves. London: 1865.  The classic Victorian compilation.  I wouldn’t trust its interpretation, but it collects many European accounts of werewolves. 📚

Willem de Blécourt, ed. Werewolf Histories. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.  He’s also published many articles on the topic and is a highly regarded scholar. This is an important collection bringing together work by a number of leading European scholars. 📚

Anonymous. A True Discourse Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of One Stubbe Peter… London: 1590.  An English translation of an early history of a famous continental European case. 

You might also refer your readers to the online bibliography by Dana Rehn.  While many of her sources are in languages other than English, all of the cases that I know of were in non-English speaking areas, too: 

If you read French, Kay shares that the most authoritative work on werewolves from this time period is Jean de Nynauld, De la lycanthropie (1615) 📚

The treatise Kay talks about in today’s episode is by Henri Boguet, Discours des sorciers

Montague Summers The Werewolf in Lore and Legend, This book is available at and much of the publication is available to read on Google Books

Caroline Oates, The Trial of a Teenage Werewolf, Bourdeaux, 1603 📚 (Also numerous articles and publications, I suggest searching her name and “werewolves” for ample material, including this article on Trials of werewolves in the Franche-Comte in the early modern period.)

There is one French Claude Lecouteux his work has been translated and if you’re interested in his folklore in general, not so much werewolves, but werebeings, fairies, etc, he’s one of the leading French scholars.  

“But since all is well, keep it so: wake not a sleeping wolf.”

— Henry IV Part 2 (I.2)

Discourse on Werewolves by Henry Bouget, TItle Page
Discours des sorciers .Tiré de quelques procez, faicts dez deux ans en ça à plusieurs de la mesme secte, en la terre de S. Oyan de Joux, dicte de S. Claude au comté de Bourgongne. Avec une instruction pour un juge, en faict de sorcelerie. Par Henry Boguet, grand juge en la susdicte terre Boguet, Henry (1550-1619). Auteur du texte | Bibliothéque Nationale de France. Translated: Speeches of the wizards. Drawn from some lawsuits, made two years in that with several of the same sect, in the ground of S. Oyan de Joux, dictates of S. Claude in the county of Bourgongne. With an instruction for a judge, in sorcery. By Henry Boguet, Grand Judge in the aforesaid land Boguet, Henry (1550-1619). Author of the text | Source

Werewolves Convicted in Courts of Law

Henry Bouget is just one of several authors who record real court cases where actual people were convicted of being werewolves. Kay explains that while there were some established definitions for what a werewolf was, there was far from universal laws governing the legal criteria for evaluating whether or not someone was one. In many instances, the variances depended on the country where you were being put on trial.

If you were in England, they had criteria, but France and other countries all had different law codes defining werewolves. However, there were no valid reasons in English law for convicting someone of being a werewolves, but in France or other places it was almost the same criteria as being a witch. Werewolfism and being a witch was often linked due to being able to change their physical form, at least the theologians or theorists writing about it were saying that the condition was delusional. It was something they had in their mind they could do, or they were capable of convincing people through a kind of trick that they could change shape, but it wasn’t actually happening.  

In researching this episode, I wanted to see the people convicted of being werewolves as victims of societal superstition. However, in many of the documented werewolf cases, the people involved are confessing to the crime, or in other instances like the man in Geneva who killed 16 children by turning into a wolf in 1580, he was caught in the act of cannibalism. Kay explains that analyzing the history of werewolves next to the science gets complicated since many of the definable psychological disorders that we have established today were all lumped into a group called “melancholy” for Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is fair to say that at least some of the convicted werewolves were convicted also of being serial killers, or murderers, or cannibals. However, defining the reasons for that behavior psychologically, or medically, is almost impossible.

You have to break away from modern terms and modern assumptions about how the world works…someone like the man in Geneva, he’s convicted on cannibalism. There are many ways you can argue that man is a serial killer in the modern world. The idea that he is behaving like a wolf, preying on smaller members of the community, works as a perfectly good explanation for a large part of [16th century] society, because nature is believed to be that mutable and that magical.

“She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France…”

— Henry VI Part 3 (I.4)

Woodcut showing "The She Wolves of Jülich", 1591
“The She Wolves of Jülich”, 1591 | Witch trials were often combined with werewolf trials. This woodcut shows a group of women being executed for being capable of shape-shifting into wolves and being witches. |Bayerisches National Museum Munich | Artist: Anonymous| Public Domain| Source

Werewolves and Medical Science

Previously on That Shakespeare Life, we’ve discussed cases of hypertrichosis, where the body is excessively covered in hair. While some scholars have suggested this condition could be what causes convicted serial killers to also be accused of being werewolves, the cases of hypertrichosis we looked at on our show were people seen as curiosities and actually put on display for enjoyment, not things to be feared and they specifically were not accused of being werewolves, as I had expected they might have been. Kay explains that the medical community did not look at lycanthrope as a disease, there was not a defined by a set of observable symptoms, nor any assigned treatments.

When it comes to defining how someone became a werewolf, the causation is so wide, and so vaguely written about, with broad variances between countries and cultures, that it is unclear what defines that start of a werewolf (the way there’s consensus around the start of a vampire is when you’re bitten by another vampire, for example.)

Illustration, 16th century, showing Geneva killings by Gilles Garnier, convicted of being a werewolf
In Geneva a man killed 16 children when he had changed himself into a wolf; he was executed on 15 October 1580. Coloured pen drawing, Johann Jakob Wick, Sammlung von Nachrichten zur Zeitgeschichte aus den Jahren. 1560–1587 | Cited in Werewolf Histories / Ed. by W. de Blécourt. — Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. — 280 p. — P. 9. — (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic). | Public Domain | Source

When it comes to defining what their condition was medically speaking, they had the “melancholy” which was not only a scientific term for Shakespeare’s lifetime, but as Kay explains, melancholy was “the catch all explanation for these things, particularly the association with mass murder…” Medical doctors acknowledged that those convicted of being werewolves were dealing with what Kay explains as “Some sort of repressive mental disturbances” but the explanations we might offer today of psychological conditions like paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or manic depression were all nuances and understandings that weren’t present for Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Kay points out that is important to remember, too, that demons were often assigned blame for cases of lycanthrope.

“Another explanation for Lycanthropy was demonic possession. “The devil made me do it” which sounds flippant, but in the 16-17th century, when there were these major lycanthropy trials, they believed that The Devil was actively involved in their world, who immediately did things to people. Those were reasons given by the scientific community as a legitimate explanation of causation for this behavior.”

Title page of King James I book Daemonologie

James I: Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue. Title page. | This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post (archive). |Public Domain| Source

Werewolves, Demonology, King James, and Official Scientific Explanations

In addition to King James’ Daemonology publication, treatises like Henry Bouget’s work, see werewolf syndrome (my word, not the 16th century’s) as caused primarily by demonology.

One of the things [Bouget] does is he argues that this is a belief done by either deluded people who think they’ve seen werewolves, or deluded people that think they’ve become a werewolf. He justifies this in modern scientific terms, arguing that the seed of a human soul is in the brain (Highly debated at the time) and as he points out ot his audience, comparing the human head to the size of a wolf’s brain pan, there’s no way a human could transform into a wolf without losing some of it’s brain, and therefore some its soul, and since humans cannot lose some of its soul, then scientifically, a human cannot transform into a wolf.  

James I of England in his publication, Daemonologie, described werewolves as victims of delusion induced by “a natural superabundance of melancholic.” While, to me, his description sounds like it could be a cases of psychopaths or paranoid personality disorder, or other psychological diagnosis often given to serial killers today, Kay suggests that’s it is anachronistic, and even imposing a modern worldview onto these cases of the past, to try and box them into our present day understanding of psychological disorders.

“I wish some ravenous wolf had eaten thee!”

— Henry VI Part 1 (V.4)

Werewolf of dole illustration, dated 1512
Werewolf by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553), c. 1512, Woodcut. Public Domain. Source

The Werewolf of Dole

In 1573, Gilles Garnier, was convicted of being a werewolf and even became known as “The Werewolf of Dole.” Kay, this monicker sounds like names given to serial killers today.

Gilles Garnier was in a place where wolves were all over the place, and the understanding then was…in this place there were a migration area for Protestants going to Geneva, but it was also Ultra Catholic, area where the government was very disputed, and almost semiautonomous, not wealthy, very tied to basic existence, agriculture, and transhumanism. Various people are doing cattle, sheep, and goats, traveling over the mountains, to the East. Wolves were a real issue, whether they were werewolves or regular ones they were a real problem. We know that Gilles Garnier was mentally deficient in some capacity, but we aren’t clear in what way. He was not thinking in the same way or at the same level as people of the time, but when he was first brought in and put into a monastery for the protection of society it was considered generous because it was for his protection as well. They weren’t sure what he was going to do. He wasn’t entirely there or comprehend what was going on.  

It didn’t help matters that there were actual wolves in these parts of Europe who were actually killing children, small animals, and livestock. Many of the stories of wolves made it easy to think a person had become one, particularly if that person was suffering from a mental disorder that fit the profile of a werewolf.

“O, be thou damn’d, inexecrable dog!
And for thy life let justice be accused.
Thou almost makest me waver in my faith
To hold opinion with Pythagoras,
That souls of animals infuse themselves
Into the trunks of men: thy currish spirit
Govern’d a wolf, who, hang’d for human slaughter,
Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,
And, whilst thou lay’st in thy unhallow’d dam,
Infused itself in thee; for thy desires
Are wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous.”

— Merchant of Venice (IV.1)

Execution of Peter Stumpp, 1589, convicted of being a werewolf. Illustration includes details relaying his crimes
This wood cut shows the ‘breaking wheel’ as it was used in Germany in the Middle Ages. The exact date is unknown, as is the creator, but it depicts the execution of Peter Stump in 1589. The woodcut relates the crime and the punishment of Peter Stumpp and includes a depiction of the punishment of his daughter and mistress. Stumpp was accused of being a werewolf and in the top left hand corner of the woodcut we see a large wolf attacking a child. Above this scene a man with a sword is seen fighting off the wolf and in doing so, lops off the wolf’s left forepaw. In the centre left of the illustration we are shown the first punishment of Stumpp, namely the tearing of his flesh with red hot pincers while he is bound to a wheel. In the middle we see the executioner using the blunt side of an axe to break Stumpp’s arm and leg bones. On the righthand side of the illustration the executioner beheads Stumpp. In each of these three depictions we can see that Stumpp’s left hand is missing, presumably pointing to the fact that the werewolf had its left forepaw cut off. After his beheading, Stumpp’s body is dragged away to be burnt. In the top right hand corner of the wood cut we see the fire where Stumpp’s daughter and mistress, each tied to a stake, are burnt alive with Stumpp’s headless body tied to a stake between them. Also shown is a wheel, mounted on a pole, which carries Stumpp’s severed head together with a figure of a wolf. | Unknown author; cropped by Beyond My Ken (talk) 00:23, 18 July 2020 (UTC)| Public Domain | Source

The Case of Peter Stumpp

Peter Stubbe, in the late 1580s, is accused of killing numerous children across multiple years (upwards of 25 kids) in Cologne, he doesn’t slaughter his own livestock aimlessly, but he craves the blood of livestock (which would have been legitimate at that time) and the blood of men, women, and children as well (which was when things got weird for Peter) and as the accusations take off his trials,

“he is even accused of having killed his own son to satiate this desire. The thing with the Peter Stubbe case, who is eventually convinced, of killing approximately 20 people, also women, and what made this even more grotesque, is that some were pregnant and he was accused of tearing out the fetus as well. This insatiable craving was described in the trial as animal like. The trick with it however, and part of why the Peter Stube case was so sensationalized is that along with the things he’s accused of, aside form the werewolf behavior, is that he very much talks about a lot of the things the way a witch could have. Power to transform into a wolf, have him the strength (he testified to this power given to him by the devil).”

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