Werewolves in Medieval History

A print from 1589 shows the story of a witch/werewolf, Peter Stumpf (shown in wolf form attacking a child in upper left) who is caught and punished as shown.

A print from 1589 shows the story of a witch/werewolf, Peter Stumpf (shown in wolf form attacking a child in upper left) who is caught and punished as shown.

Whether you’re more Team Jacob or “Werewolves of London” you know that werewolves are hot right now (both in sales, and apparently, in sex appeal). But their prevalence in the Urban Fantasy genre might obscure their long history. My eyes were opened to this history by a talk at the International Congress on Medieval Studies a few years ago, in a session promisingly titled “Hybrids and Monsters.”

Gerald of Wales, in a 12th century geography of Ireland, tells the tale of a devoted and devout werewolf couple living like wolves, but with the hearts of Christians. When the wife is dying, the husband goes out at great risk to bring back a priest to administer the last rites. Some of my favorite quotes from this moving scene are when “the wolf said some things about God which seemed reasonable” and the wolf’s first words to the priest: “Do not fear.” These are also the first words spoken by the archangel Gabriel to Mary during the Annunciation, when he reveals that she will bear a miraculous child. So even then, werewolves were given a sympathetic nature.

This stands in apparent contrast to earlier views of such transformations in which the wolf represents the bestiality of the man. In the Medieval conception, the victim could become a wolf, but retain the reason and emotion of a man. The speaker, Jeff Massey, drew a parallel between hypostatis (the idea of God residing in man) with that of the werewolf (wolf residing in man). I dunno about that, but it’s interesting to think about.

The outstanding medieval werewolf appears in the Lais of Marie de France (another 12th century source) in the character of Bisclavret, a nobleman who is transformed into a wolf for three days every week. He is force to reveal this to his wife, who has her lover steal her husband’s clothes so he can’t transform back into a man. But even in his wolf form, he retains his loyalty to the king and behaves so graciously, that the king brings him back to court. After the gentle wolf attacks his disloyal wife (the first sign of violence in the beast), the truth is revealed, and Bisclavret is brough clothes so he can become a man once more.

In both of these cases, we don’t know how the good people were afflicted with their fate, but other period tales and superstitions suggest the opposite of Bisclavret’s solution: it’s not the clothes that make the man, but the skin that makes the wolf. In these cases, the werewolf, often a witch, dons a wolfhide in order to deliberately become a wolf and go about ravaging the countryside. In most cases, this results in the witch/wolf eventually being hunted down and slain in wolf form, and thereupon, transforming back. The contrast between this behavior, and that of the good wolves, who apparently succumb through no fault of their own, suggests that the beast resides within us all–and can be managed if you retain your reason. If, however, you revel in the beast, a sorry doom awaits. Wikipedia has a nice selection of methods by which men become wolves in superstitions of different lands.

I recently found a reference to werewolves in the Volsungasaga of 13th century Iceland. Also heard of an Arthurian story about a former werewolf called “Gorligon.” Do you have some good references for early werewolves? Please pass them on!

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in fantasy, fiction, history, magic, medieval, Uncategorized, witchcraft and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Werewolves in Medieval History

  1. We have maligned the wolf for thousands of years. If we’ve been wrong about the nature of the wolf, then we could also be wrong about the nature of the werewolf.

    • An intriguing observation. One of the books I have on my shelf which I have not yet had the chance to read is specifically about the role of the wolf during the Middle Ages. As I one-time winner of a wolf howl contest and long-time fan of “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowat (and film of the same title), I’ve been a wolf supporter for a long time, but I have tended to focus on the human aspect of the werewolf in my own work. I do have a werewolf project in the queue–I’ll have to consider more deeply the wolf.

  2. I just received a link to this article about the history of lycanthropes via the Medievalists.net newsletter: http://www.tarlanc.ch/texte/Wettstein-Werewolf.pdf Good stuff!

  3. Ryan Kozlowski says:

    If you are interested in the academic dynamics of werewolf history, check these books out:
    “Werewolves, Witches, and Wandering Spirits” by Kathryn Edwards

    Leslie sconduto also wrote a great book. Look her up on Amazon.

    I think it is important that you mention that the werewolf in cultural memory has gone from noble, to savage, and even to sexy… Very interesting.

    I think you should note that the werewolf story has been debated
    to go as far back as the epic of Gilgamesh. At least the idea of man crossing boundaries of reason and savagery.

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