Well, another Monday rolls around and we’re into the last week of the A to Z Challenge – I’ve been having a lot of fun with it, so hope you’re enjoying the posts. I’m still a day behind I’m afraid, so today is going to be T. You’ve probably heard of the witch trials in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, but much less well-known was that there were also werewolf trials going on.
Sometimes these trials would be combined, as lycanthropy was considered linked with witchcraft, black magic and pacts with the Devil. In France alone between 1520 and 1630 some 30,000 people were labelled as werewolves. Suspected werewolves were generally a mix of those with mental health disorders, local ‘weirdos’ who, like the witch trials were accused because of simply being seen as different, and genuine murderers and serial killers, whose horrible deeds were attributed to an ‘inner beast’.
The Estonia werewolf trials in particular accused 18 women and 13 men of causing damage to property and livestock while in the shape of werewolves. Under torture they confessed to hiding their ‘wolf skins’ under a rock and being able to change without being noticed. Most people accused of lycanthropy were tortured horribly to get a confession and if found guilty sentenced to death.
There are many famous cases. One of ‘Hans the Werewolf’ was a typical story, where the accused confessed to meeting a ‘man in black’ who gave him the ability to transform into a wolf. Often the cases related horrible crimes, children and women torn apart and eaten by people in wolf form. One of the most well-known was that of Peter Stumpp, also known as the ‘Werewolf of Bedburg’. After being stretched on a rack, Peter confessed to having practiced black magic since he was twelve years old. He claimed that the Devil gave him a magical belt which allowed him to transform in the shape of a wolf. He was described as an ‘insatiable bloodsucker’ who ate the flesh of livestock as well as men, women and children. Under threat of torture he confessed to killing and eating pregnant women and children, including his own son. His execution was one of the most horrible on record, with him being put to a wheel, where “flesh was torn from his body”, in ten places, with red-hot pincers, followed by his arms and legs. Then his limbs were broken with the blunt side of an axehead to prevent him from returning from the grave, before he was beheaded and burned on a pyre. As a warning against similar behavior, local authorities erected a pole with the torture wheel and the figure of a wolf on it, and at the very top they placed Peter Stumpp’s severed head.
Although the majority of those tried were sentenced to death, a few managed to argue against it. A notable case in Latvia in 1692, did not end in a death sentence: the eighty-year-old Thiess confessed to being a werewolf who, with other werewolves, regularly went to hell three times a year to fight the witches and wizards of Satan to ensure a good harvest. The court tried to make Thiess confess that he had made a pact with the devil and that the werewolf was in the service of Satan, but they did not succeed, and he managed to get away with a whipping. There were several other cases where the defendants managed to put forth the case that as werewolves they protected the local village or community.
However, the majority of those accused, similar to the witch trials, were subjected to horrible torture until they confessed and then handed death sentences. Whether these accused were actually killers, or just misunderstood or mentally ill victims, the brutal history of the werewolf trials is one that remains.
Take care x