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Howling at the Boundaries: Werewolves and Anxiety about the Human-Animal Border in Early Modern Europe

By Isabelle Pollentzke
History Graduate,  University of Glasgow

 

Abstract:
Western folklore has featured werewolves for centuries, beginning with the ancient Norwegian Völsunga saga. In early modern Europe, werewolves like Peeter Stubbe became feared criminals often thought to be cooperating with the devil and who should be punished. Since they were monsters, they escaped easy classification. This essay argues that early-modern werewolves reflected anxieties about the border between Western civilisation and wilderness, male sexual deviance, and religious uncertainty. Ultimately, by transgressing the border between human and animal, werewolves illustrated a fear of the devil and his followers undermining human, particularly Christian, society.

 

Accounts of humans turning into wolves are found as early as the ancient Norwegian Völsunga saga or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In the twelfth century, accounts of werewolves emerged that described the creatures as gentle characters, often suffering from their involuntary transformations. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a different type of werewolf legend and narrative was present in Europe. Werewolves were no longer friendly sufferers of involuntary transformations but vicious criminals who had to be brought to court. The alleged werewolf Peeter Stubbe, for example, committed numerous crimes, such as killing two pregnant women, according to one pamphlet published about him in 1590.

This essay will explore early-modern European werewolf legends and cases to find out how werewolves reflected anxieties about the boundaries between humans and animals in the period. It will first consider the Biblical view of the wolf and why early modern Europeans feared the animal. The discussion will then look at the werewolf as a monster outside hierarchies such as Aristotle’s Great Chain of Being. The essay will examine werewolves as a threat to the border between civilisation and wilderness, as a metaphor for male sexual deviance, and finally as an expression of religious anxiety. It will argue that European attitudes about werewolves expressed anxieties, sometimes particular to a region, about religion, sexuality, and society. Nonetheless, the underlying fear in all regions was that the early-modern werewolf, by crossing the border between human and animal, posed a threat that the devil and his followers would undermine Christian society.

In early-modern Europe, wolves were known as formidable pack hunters that not only preyed on large wild animals, but also on domestic flocks and herds, and on humans. However, these were not the only threats wolves posed. Much symbolism in the New Testament presented Jesus and Christians as lambs and sheep while their enemies were associated with wolves. Jesus was, for example, described as “the good shepherd” or the Lamb of God, while his followers were “sheep in the midst of wolves.” Additionally, Jesus warns his followers of false prophets that come “in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” It becomes obvious that the behaviour of wolves, as well as people that were associated with them, was not considered natural but instead excessive and immoral. Thus, wolves threatened not only people’s lives by attacking their livelihood, but also – metaphorically – their religious beliefs. Wolves threatening sheep became a symbol for the devil threatening Christians and Christianity. Due to these fears, early-modern Europeans dreaded wolves as creatures more dangerous than any other. The French naturalist Comte de Buffon even labelled the wolf as the “enemy of all society.” Earlier stories about werewolves, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, had little in common with the diabolical werewolves of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The early-modern werewolf was an individual human that willingly acquired the ability to change shape, usually through a pact with the devil, and was therefore deemed intentionally evil. The werewolves’ cooperation with the devil was one of the reasons the creatures were so fearsome. Due to their presumed collaboration with the devil, werewolf trials became an aspect of witchcraft trials.

The historian Stefan Donecker points out that “[t]he werewolf is, essentially, an early modern monster.” In his examination of monsters, the literary scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen characterised the monster as a creature that refused easy categorisation. It is not part of what he called the “order of things” and violates the rules of nature. This was certainly true for werewolves, as they were not only both wolf and human, but they also coexisted within one body. They combined the appearance of the wolf with the reason of a human. Thus, they could not be placed in a hierarchy like Aristotle’s scala naturae, since they were both an animal and a human.

For example, contemporaries of Peeter Stubbe regarded him as a monster as it becomes obvious in a pamphlet published about him. The pamphlet described deeds such as killing his son and eating his brain, as done by Peeter Stubbe in his lupine shape, “the most monstrous act that euer man heard off, for neuer was knowen a wretch from nature so far degenerate.” This quote emphasises the issues contemporaries had with explaining Stubbe’s actions. Killing his son and then eating his brain was so inexplicable that Stubbe must have been a monster and not part of the natural world, which adhered to clear boundaries between animal and human. Stubbe did not conform to human moral codes, yet he often appeared in human shape. The transgression of these boundaries was made possible, as we have seen, through a pact with the devil. Therefore, werewolves were not only deemed unnatural due to the difficulties in categorising them, they also acted against God when they asked the devil for help in transforming them into an animal that was considered a threat to Christianity. Hence, the werewolf willingly turned against God and Christianity.

The possibility of physically turning into a werewolf was heavily debated in this period. According to the Canon Episcopi, a passage in medieval canon law, only God was capable of transforming creatures. Anybody who believed anything else was “certainly an infidel and worse than a heathen.” This led to issues explaining how the devil was able to present humans in the shape of a werewolf if a real transformation was considered impossible. Some, like Heinrich Kramer, the author of Malleus Maleficarum, believed that werewolves were an illusion created by a sorcerer. In Kramer’s opinion, the werewolf only caused others to hallucinate that he had transformed into a wolf when he was actually possessed by a demon. Others, like the French political philosopher and lawyer Jean Bodin believed that the devil was capable of transforming his followers into werewolves, despite the Canon Episcopi. Furthermore, he was convinced that the transformed appearance had no effect on human nature, i.e. reason. However, as Johannes Dillinger pointed out that this was likely to be caused by his profession, as the presence of reason left no space for doubt concerning the werewolf’s guilt.

There were numerous theories of how humans could transform into werewolves and re-transform into humans. In Olaus Magnus’ Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus, published in 1555, the clergyman wrote about werewolves in Livonia. He stated that anyone wishing to harm other people and their livestock, and who craved abilities that were forbidden by the divine had the potential to become a werewolf, regardless of whether they were Germans or indigenous peasants. Despite this statement, the examples he gave solely featured indigenous Livonian peasants that transformed into werewolves. In stories from other parts of Europe, werewolves also often belonged to the lower classes of society. Many of them were vagrants or beggars. In medieval Europe, the upper layers of society often regarded peasants as bestial. As the historian Paul H. Freedman has pointed out, they frequently considered peasants as “beings of a lower order resembling more the beasts they tended than humanity.” Furthermore, both Baltic German nobles as well as Jesuit and Lutheran missionaries in the region regarded Livonians and Estonians as barely Christian and instead as “barbarous, deceitful pagans.” They were convinced that they still practiced heathen rituals and magic instead of Christianity. It is likely that Olaus Magnus, as well as people in other parts of Europe, considered peasants as bestial and thus more prone to a transformation into a monster like a werewolf. Additionally, the missionaries may have been convinced that Livonians and Estonians, since missionaries believed they were barely Christian and still stuck to pagan rituals, were more likely to cooperate with the devil and transform into a werewolf, and thus threaten Christianity.

According to Magnus, one of the first tasks that a new werewolf had to perform was to kill a sheep from a nearby flock, which they then had to bring to the other werewolves. Therefore, the new werewolf threatened the livelihood of humans by attacking their sheep. Keeping in mind that sheep were a Christian symbol and wolves a symbol for the devil, this act can be considered a metaphor for the devil attacking Christians. Thus, it can be concluded that the Livonian werewolves were deemed creatures that, in common with other monsters, turned against human, particularly Christian, civilisation. They reflected a social anxiety that the devil could undermine Christian society through creatures that did not adhere to the boundaries between humans and animals.

The places where Livonian werewolves transformed were also quintessential to their opposition to civilisation. When Merili Metsvahi and Ene-Reet Soovik examined folk tales from Saaremaa, Estonia’s largest island, they found that many werewolves transformed under a fence or by a stake supporting a fence. Fences are borders between parcels of land, but they can also be borders between a domesticated garden and the undomesticated wilderness. In the context of transformation into werewolves, fences can be regarded as symbols of the border between the domesticated, human sphere, and the wild, animalistic sphere. Magnus recounted a story about a werewolf whose transformation was also connected to the crossing of the border between the domestic and the wild realm:
Once, a certain nobleman was journeying through a spacious forest escorted by a number of serfs from the countryside who were well versed in this kind of magic, for such men are commonly met with in those regions. The day was drawing on towards evening and, with no inn nearby, they were forced to spend the night in the forest. Moreover they were suffering from hunger, yet had little food with them. At length one of the company put forward an unexpected scheme, urging the others to remain quiet and not raise any commotion if they happened to witness something. He said he had spied a flock of sheep grazing in the distance, and he would see to it that without any great pains they should have one of them roasted for their dinner, which otherwise would be pretty meagre. Immediately afterwards he took himself off to a dark wood so that nobody could observe him, and there changed his shape from man to wolf. […] Next the wolf rushed upon the flock of sheep at great speed, snatched up one of them, and then raced back into the wood. A little later, still in the guise of a wolf, he brought the carcase to his master’s carriage. His companions, accessories to this pillage, received it with thankful hearts and hid it away in the carriage, while the one who had changed himself into a wolf returned to the wood and once more assumed human shape.

Again, the werewolf was a creature on the border between civilisation and wilderness. He had to leave the (human) group behind in order to go “into the dark wood” to perform his transformation. By looking at where the Livonian werewolves transformed, it can be seen that they reflected social anxieties about the boundary between civilisation and the wilderness. The werewolf belonged to both and neither groups at the same time, and the nobleman was not able to tell since he did not witness the transformation.

The same anxieties can be observed when looking at where werewolves re- transformed into humans. In many stories from Saaremaa, the pigsty is the place where werewolves turned into humans. Metsvahi and Soovik pointed out that this was the animal shed that was the furthest away from the home, and hence the one that was the furthest away from the domestic sphere. The werewolf had to re-transform into a human at a boundary between the wild and the domestic realm, which stressed the character of the werewolf as a liminal creature existing between the human and the wild sphere. Similarly to where they transformed into their lupine shape, the spot of the werewolf’s re-transformation further emphasised the anxiety of creatures not belonging fully to either of the realms.

In other cases, the werewolf symbolised anxieties of male sexualities that were considered deviant. The historical anthropologist Willem de Blécourt refers to three motifs in particular that were common in the Netherlands, Flanders, and Germany, and that can be considered as metaphors for male homosexuality, sexual violence, and bestiality. The first motif featured the werewolf as “back rider.” In legends dealing with this motif, the werewolf jumped on somebody’s back who then had to carry the werewolf. The werewolf would then also lick or urinate on the person he jumped on, which according to de Blécourt indicated homosexual acts. However, this motif was not limited to legends. The trial of Johan Martensen van Steenhuijsen, also known as Hans Poeck, in Arnhem in the late sixteenth century dealt with this theme. After staying afloat during the ordeal by water, Hans Poeck confessed to having been bewitched by the devil. Poeck claimed that three years earlier, he had met a man on a dyke who, when Poeck asked him for food, offered to “give him plenty if you [Hans Poeck] do my will.” Poeck hesitated but then consented to renounce God whereupon the man gave him a cloth, promising him that with it he would “succeed in everything.” Poeck then confessed to having “walk[ed] as a wolf” for three years after that, whilst still being capable of judgment in the shape of the werewolf. He transformed into a werewolf by putting the cloth given to him by the devil on his head but also claimed to have a belt. De Blécourt drew attention to the accused’s name. The name Poeck shows similarities with the Dutch verb poekelen, which means to carry someone on one’s back. This, as well as his encounter with the devil, indicated homosexual acts, similarly to other stories dealing with the back rider theme. It should also be noted that Poeck and the devil met on a dyke, another boundary. Although a dyke is not a boundary between the domestic and the wild, as boundaries in other legends and stories, it separates the safe mainland from the sea that threatens the people inhabiting the mainland. Hence, the werewolf is once more described as a creature in between two spheres, between danger and safety to society. Furthermore, the werewolf is again associated with the devil. Thus, in the case of Hans Poeck as in others, the werewolf is portrayed as a liminal creature cooperating with the devil. It expresses the early modern fear that the devil could undermine society through male homosexuality.

Another theme that reflected anxieties about male deviant sexuality can be found in the most common type of werewolf story, which de Blécourt called “the Hungry Farmhand.” In these legends, a group of labourers took a nap. One of them put on a belt, transformed into a werewolf and devoured a foal. Another labourer only pretended to sleep and watched the werewolf. When the werewolf returned, he complained about a stomach ache or a lack of appetite, depending on the legend. The labourer who watched him replied that this was no wonder since he had just eaten a foal. Since in some stories, the werewolf put off his trousers before the transformation and due to the impossibility to devour an entire foal in such a short period of time, de Blécourt interpreted this type of legend as a metaphor for bestiality.

A third type of legend that associated werewolves with deviant sexuality centred on the lover or husband of a woman being a werewolf. In these legends, a werewolf attacked a woman and bit into her skirt, petticoat or apron, depending on the story. The woman then found pieces of the fabric of the ripped clothes between her husband’s or lover’s teeth, meaning that he was the attacking werewolf. De Blécourt considered this type of story to be a metaphor for sexual assault. The most famous case of a werewolf being accused of sexual assault is that of the aforementioned Peeter Stubbe. He was executed on 31 October 1589 in Bedburg near Cologne in Germany. One of the crimes he was accused of was killing a girl “whom […] he had first deflowred.” Both cases associated werewolves with sexual violence that was perpetrated after their transformation into their lupine form. Since the werewolves often had diabolical support for their activities, the underlying anxiety was once more that the devil would undermine Christian society with the help of werewolves.
In Westphalia, Hesse, and Schaumburg, werewolves were often called “Boxenwolf,” meaning “trouser wolf.” This name stressed the lower half of the werewolves’ bodies and their sexuality. It should also be noted that in many stories, means such as belts or girdles helped the werewolves to assume their lupine shape. As mentioned above, the werewolf in “The Hungry Farmhand” legends put on a belt before transforming into a wolf. Peeter Stubbe claimed to recover into his human shape once he took off a girdle according to one pamphlet. In Der Werwolf, a folk story collected by the Brothers Grimm, a man transforms into a werewolf after taking off a belt. Since belts and girdles divide the body into two halves, they emphasise the lower half of the body and hence the person’s sexuality. Additionally, “wild hair stands for wild morals,” as de Blécourt pointed out. After looking at werewolf legends and cases in Flanders, the Netherlands, and Germany, it becomes obvious that at least in these areas, the werewolf was often a metaphor for deviant male sexuality. The legends and cases can be seen as dealing with male homosexuality, bestiality, or sexual violence. Thus, the werewolf in these regions expressed anxieties about male sexual deviance closely associated with the transformation into lupine shape. The animalistic nature of a werewolf, enabled by the devil, posed a danger to society since it caused people, particularly men, to deviate from early-modern sexual norms.

In comparison with other parts of Europe, an unusually high number of people in Franche-Comté were accused of transforming into werewolves. In 1573, the parlement of Dôle issued a regulation permitting people in certain areas to be armed so they could defend themselves against werewolves. Around the 1660s, the official persecution of werewolves came to an end. It is certainly possible that these werewolves were in fact just wolves who lived in the densely forested region of Franche-Comté and moved closer to human civilisation in this period. However, the time frame of the increased number of werewolf attacks is conspicuous. The predominantly Catholic region Franche-Comté bordered Protestant territories to the north and east, and authorities considered Franche-Comté an “outpost of Catholicism.” A strong counter-Reformation movement, characterised by a fight against everything that authorities perceived as anti-Catholic, developed in the middle of the sixteenth century and became stronger under Albert of Austria after 1589. It is likely that the migration of the Catholic Jesuits to Franche-Comté after they were banned in France in 1595 affected this development. In their new territory, they acted as missionaries, and their work fuelled the counter-reformatory milieu in the region further. Here, fears of werewolves coincided with attempts to limit the influence of Protestantism in the region. The werewolves in Franche-Comté reflected religious anxieties, particularly since according to legends and theories, werewolves frequently made a pact with the devil. The werewolves in Franche-Comté were feared as creatures that threatened Christian – more specifically Catholic – ideas of hierarchies and hence posed a danger to Catholicism.

In conclusion, werewolves reflected different anxieties in different regions. In Livonia and Estonia, they often mirrored concerns about the borders between the wilderness and the domestic realm as well as missionaries’ anxiety regarding the indigenous paganism. In Germany, Flanders, and the Netherlands, werewolves frequently were a metaphor for male deviancy from heterosexuality. In Franche-Comté, they reflected religious anxieties in the context of the Counter-Reformation that was particularly strong in the region due to its position as “outpost of Catholicism” and the Jesuit missionaries that sought refuge in Franche-Comté. What all these werewolves had in common was their transgression of the boundaries between human and animal. Werewolves were neither wolves, animals regarded as an enemy of Christianity, nor human. Instead, they combined both in one body; they were monsters that escaped classification and hierarchies such as Aristotle’s scala naturae. Werewolves were not beings that were created by God. Although it was heavily debated whether the transformation into a werewolf was physical or hallucinated, it was certain that the devil gave werewolves the ability to transform from a human into a werewolf, often by providing them with tools such as belts or girdles. Not only was it the devil that made their transformation into a monster beyond the boundaries between animals and humans possible, the transformation was also a voluntary decision made by the werewolf. Thus, early modern Europeans feared that the devil and his followers attempted to undermine Christian society by blurring the boundaries between animals and humans.

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