The “Werewolf of Dole” and the Religious persecution of Lycanthropy in Early Modern Europe

Of all the most titillating tales of beasts and magic, perhaps none has permeated our culture in such a prominent and permanent manner as Lycanthropy. During the fifteenth century, the locals of the small, quiet French Town of Dole would experience such a horror at the hands, or more appropriately paws, of a hideous ‘beast’ colloquially known as a Werewolf. While many such cases existed albeit with differing circumstances and explanations of what had happened, an overshadowing concept that suffuses almost every recorded tale of Lycanthropy is the diversion from Christian values and the subjugation of all that is holy. The persecution of Werewolves and witches can be traced back to early Roman law which outlawed the practices of “harmful ritual magic”[1] and sorcery under a pretence of the harm it causes, but also due to the threat it poses to “political stability and the Judeo-Christian tradition” which considered any magical practices as a “moral lapse”[2]. The question is, just how far does this concept of the diversion of religious purity affect the tales told and the justice the accused received?

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The Execution of the ‘Werewolf of Ansbach’

A Lycanthrope is a human being with the ability to transform by either spell, curse, or natural ability, to shape shift and change their physical characteristics into that of a large half-man, half-wolf like creature. The legend appeared to emerge in what is now Switzerland in the 1500s and subsequently spread to almost every corner of the globe, with many of the recorded cases and sightings coming from Eastern and Western Europe. Many incidents were recorded of people being attacked and killed by abnormally large wolves, many such victims and witnesses would testify to having witnessed a Lycanthrope and consequently, the fear of the terrifying beast became all too real. While hundreds of recorded cases have been collected, many from Germany [3], the primary issue with analysing the history of Lycanthropy is accuracy. It was never certain in many cases as to who or what had carried out the attacks. Whether wolves or simply wild or rabid dogs or serial killers or cannibals. All humans who were caught with sufficient evidence of Lycanthropic practices were interrogated, tortured and put on trial, all on the pretence of Maleficium and crimes against the natural order and society. In this sense, the persecution of Werewolves shared many similarities to that of Witchcraft with a similar history of hunts, trials, and executions. Both practices were certainly linked to an individual being considered as “failed as members of a divinely ordained natural world and Christian community”[4]

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Portrait of Gilles Garnier

One of the more infamous recorded incidents of Lycanthropy is that of Gilles Garnier, “The werewolf of Dole”. Known to be a recluse or social ‘hermit’, Garnier lived in the out-skirts of the Forest of the French town of Dole in isolation with his wife. Isolation during that era would often represent a diversion from ordered society and therefore God, naturally arousing suspicion among locals of the man’s mental and spiritual state. During this time, Garnier began to find it increasingly difficult to provide food for him and his wife. As he would later tell during his trial, he was visited during the night by an apparition who presented him an ointment that would transform him into a wolf and allow him to hunt as one. The concept of an ‘apparition’ prompting such a dark transformation fuelled the already ingrained fear of malevolent spirits and the workings of the Devil. This of course differs to the popular Northern German legend wherein a lone labourer would leave his camp to hunt by placing a belt around his waist which was believed would trigger the transformation [5]. This of course is the method by which the infamous Peter Stump became a werewolf. Despite the dissimilarities between these two cases, the same notion of “an inversion of Christian family values” and the “subversion of the preservation of progeny”[6] is still undeniably present.

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Illustration of Gilles Garnier in his ‘Lycanthropic’ form, surrounded by bodies and feasting on a child

Following the night of Garnier’s spectral visit, several children between the ages of 9 and 12 went missing. At first little was assumed of the disappearances but several reports began to surface of sightings of a large wolf-like creature spotted roaming the forest and outer roads of the town, indicating the extent of the pre-existing superstitions of such a creature. Upon the discovery of Garnier’s first victim, a 10-year-old girl whom had been strangled and had pieces of her body mutilated and removed, the local authorities ruled on the matter by permitting a hunt of the werewolf they believed to be behind the crimes, showing the relative haste to conclude it to be the work of a Lycanthrope. Following another murder, Garnier was said to have been witnessed strangling a young boy and locals identified the ‘creature’ as having similarities to the ‘Hermit of St. Bonnot’ and shortly after, both Garnier and his wife were arrested. Garnier was tortured, gave a full confession of his crimes, and was found guilty of crimes of Lycanthropy and witchcraft, indicating the act of Lycanthropy fell under the same notion of malicious magical practices as Witchcraft and demonstrating the level of religious persecution against these perceived practices. On January 18, 1573, Garnier was burned at the stake.

Michel de Montaigne

 The fate of Garnier and Peter Stump links to an interesting statement made by Michel de Montaigne, describing the ceremonies of the cannibalistic Tupinambá people in Brazil. He argues that the act of torture “under the pretence of pietie and religion”[7] is considerably worse than cannibalism, hence raising the question of which is more determinedly barbaric –  the crimes or the execution where under the pretence of religious justice. W. Williams recognises that Montaigne is referencing a “mediated form of cannibalism” which while still being an atrocity, is far worse than torture and especially torture committed “in the name of religion”.[8] An example of this would be Peter Stump’s daughter, whom despite sharing no responsibility in the crimes, was also executed, simply for the fact she was raped by her father which condemned her as a deviant of the natural order.

It would appear that the preservation of Judeo-Christian tradition was enough to justify the barbaric condemnation and punishment of accused werewolves and their associates in light of their equally atrocious crimes.

[1] Edward Bever, The Realities of Witchcraft and Popular Magic in Early Modern Europe, Culture, Cognition and Everyday Life, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2008, p.5
[2] Ibid
[3] Willem de Blécourt,“I Would Have Eaten You Too”: Werewolf Legends in the Flemish, Dutch and German Area, Taylor & Francis, p.24
[4] Alison Rowlands, Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2009, p.178
[5] Willem de Blécourt,“I Would Have Eaten You Too”: Werewolf Legends in the Flemish, Dutch and German Area, Taylor & Francis, p.30
[6] Alison Rowlands, Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2009, p.198
[7] De Montaigne, Michel, Oeuvres complètes, ed. A. Thibaudet & M. Rat, Gallimard, Paris, 1962, pp.207-208
[8] W. Williams, “L’Humanité du tout perdue?”: Early Modern Monsters, Cannibals and Human Souls, 2012, p.250