Popular culture is defined by the sensational story, you can’t go a day without seeing an example “Killer Food Bug Hits Britain” or “Hackers Can Turn Your Home Computer into a Bomb”. This sensationalism is not unique to our current generation, however the topics have undoubtedly changed.
The story of Peter Stubbe is no exception to this, the headline found on the original pamphlet describes him as “a most wicked sorcerer”. The document goes on to describe his heinous crimes: killing pregnant women and children and ravaging maidens. These seem to be the worst crimes a person could commit, but it gets much worse. Not only was Stubbe thought to be inherently evil and cruel from his childhood, but he was also in a pact with the devil who gave him a magic girdle that allowed him to transform into a giant wolf (p.4). This traditional werewolf narrative may be somewhat familiar, with a few minor differences.
Our modern idea of a werewolf, for that is what Stubbe undoubtedly became, is not one of a man who changes at will and chooses an evil life. Usually in modern fiction a werewolf is cursed or infected and must change every full moon, this text however makes no mention of moons or curses. The form which Stubbe takes is familiar:
“the likenes of a gréedy deuouring Woolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkeled like vnto brandes of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharpe and cruell teeth, A huge body, and mightye pawes”, (p.4)
In fact the text makes no explicit mention of Stubbe being a werewolf but judging by the physical description and his actions it is a fair assumption. But why is such a familiar supernatural phenomenon so different in both causes and symptoms. As I mentioned, Stubbe is not some poor unfortunate damned, to travel the world as a wolf every full moon. In fact this story falls very much in line with other Early Modern werewolf myths especially ones of German origin as presented by the Brothers Grimm. In this article, the main point of similarity between these stories is the magic belt.
Also, the shapeshifting being activated on Stubbe’s command in the manner of putting the belt on, takes away any sympathy that people may have harboured for a cursed unfortunate which we so often read of or see in movies today. Thus showing that the aim of Early Modern werewolf stories was completely different to that of today.
It seems to me that in Early Modern Europe tragic events such as a spate of killings, potentially by a serial killer, would often be blamed on a supernatural event. In this manner the common folk of Early Modern Europe could make sense of the world and attribute a certain amount of logic to seemingly illogical actions.
As in the case of Stubbe, it has already been established that he is ‘wicked’ but to kill as many as he is said to without being caught suggests supernatural aid. Thus the werewolf myth becomes useful; by explaining an unexplainable act of evil it gives a level of comfort to ordinary people who as a result don’t have to believe that it was a normal man. The fact that Stubbe communed with the devil for his gifts also answers the question as to why God would create such an evil man thus drawing the blame away from the church or religion and placing it at the feet of the ultimate evil. This inclusion of the devil is once again I believe a way of explaining why bad things happen such as murderers or natural disasters, without incriminating God.
It is interesting to note that Stubbe is said to have sometimes killed in human form (p.10). In theory this could have been actual sightings of him committing the murders this is however unlikely as he was never suspected until he was finally caught after metamorphosing from wolf to man by a group of hunters. Perhaps this does give some credibility to the fact that Stubbe was not a wolf man at all and was in fact an especially brutal serial killer. Of course it could also be a way of showing his descent into madness, this was completely opposed to the Early Modern beliefs regarding moderation in all things and would have further served to vilify him to the audience.
When discussing Early Modern sources it is always worth looking into the messages that the author is trying to get across, in this case it seems that the author is attempting to create a sort of moral revulsion toward Stubbe. Words such as wicked are used repeatedly, in fact wicked is used over fourteen times alone. Variations on cruel and cruelty are also used nineteen times. These words were carefully chosen to stir emotions in the reader: anger, revulsion, and horror. The fact that the writer also described Stubbe as killing while out of his beastly form shows that he has degenerated even more than initially thought. While killing out of wolf form Stubbe would have been thought of as worse than a beast as humans are supposed to be controlled and show restraint, and above all human beings are supposed to know better, whereas an animal is not. Above all else the story is one of morals; it is very similar to a fairy tale or fable in the way it works, as it starts with evil deeds and ends with the evildoer being punished and all ending well with the natural balance restored.
Stubbe himself may purely have been a victim of circumstance and have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was caught, he may also have confessed simply to end the torture as so many did. It is unlikely that the truth of Stubbe’s supposed shapeshifting killing spree will ever be known.
Featured image credit to the Wellcome Collection