The brutal werewolf trials of 16th century Europe

The history of werewolves goes all the way back to 2100 BC, when one was mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh (the world’s oldest-known Western prose, for you non-Lit majors). Since then, they’ve popped up in folklore again and again. But throughout the centuries, no one took werewolves as seriously as Reformation-era Europeans. 

Starting in the 16th century and lasting through the 18th, Europe saw a string of werewolf trials that would put America’s witch trials to shame. Accusations of lycanthropy (transforming into a werewolf) started in France and quickly spread throughout the continent. Though many of the “shape-shifters” were clearly mentally ill, they were often accused of satanism  — then tortured, mutilated, and worse. 

This is the story of how millions of Europeans briefly lost their minds over a few imaginary furry beasts: 

It started in France

The first recorded instance of werewolfery occurred in Poligny, France, in 1521. There, authorities accused Michel Verdun of lycanthropy after wolves killed several locals. Somehow, officials ended up at the home of Verdun, who (after a lengthy torture session) confessed to being a werewolf, along with two of his compatriots, Pierre Bourgot and Philibert Montot.

 Photo Courtesy: [From collection of en:Johann Jakob Wick] via Wikimedia
According to The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culturethe men claimed to have killed many victims, “for they loved to lap up the warm flowing blood.” They also claimed to have had sexual intercourse with several “she-wolves.” Bourgot told authorities that they had made a deal with a man dressed in black, in exchange for the rejection of their belief in God. All three were hanged soon after.

Others are accused

Soon, accusations of lycanthropy were rampant across France and the rest of the European continent. Many of them, including that of Frenchman Jacques Roulet, involved tales of a transformational salve. Several claimed that the devil had provided them with a special ointment that they could rub on themselves in order to transform — and then murder and eat children

Roulet, incidentally, was found “feeble-minded” and sent to the 16th century equivalent of a psychiatric hospital. Many others didn’t fare as well. Peter Stubbe, a German man, claimed that satan gifted him with a belt that allowed him to shapeshift for the sake of murder. He was executed by having his skin ripped from his body, arms and legs broken, and head removed (before being burned).