Most people have heard of witch trials, but did you know that similarly, numerous supposed werewolf trials took place across Europe during the Middle Ages too? This Halloween, let’s look at the stories of some of those who were accused of, and even executed for, lycanthropy – the act of human transformation into a wolf.
Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were French shepherds who, in 1521, were put on trial having been accused of being werewolves. The men confessed to making a deal with some mysterious men dressed all in black – in exchange for food and the protection of their flock, they were given a magical ointment that would turn them into wolves when applied. The men, in wolf form, had supposedly hunted, killed, and eaten a number of people, including some children. Both men were convicted and burned at the stake.
Peter Stubbe, from Bedburg in Germany, had supposedly made a deal with the Devil and was given a belt which would allow him to shapeshift into a wolf. Over the course of 25 years, he murdered and ate countless victims – whilst records aren’t complete, the deaths of two pregnant women, 13 children, and a number of cows have been attributed to Stubbe. He was finally caught and, in 1589, executed by having his skin torn off and his arms and legs broken before being beheaded and his remains burnt.
In The Netherlands, a man named Folkert (or Folkt) Dirks confessed that he and his family were able to change into wolves and cats when commanded to do so by Satan. Both Folkert and his 17-year-old daughter were tried and convicted after Folkert’s own teenage sons made an initial accusation, claiming that the family (like Peter Stubbe) had been given a magic belt by the Devil. The brothers also accused their younger siblings, aged just 11 and 8, of lycanthropy.
Despite many accused “werewolves” being sentenced to a gruesome death, not all were executed. 80-year-old Theiss of Kaltenbrun claimed to be a Hound of God, telling stories of how he would enter Hell three nights a year, dressed in a wolf cloak, to battle against demons and witches in order to secure a good harvest for the following season. As he never confessed to making a pact with the Devil in exchange for the ability to turn into a wolf, he was convicted of simply practicing folk magic and was sentenced to a flogging, rather than execution.
At only 18-years-old, Hans of Livonia was arrested and charged with lycanthropy in 1651. At court he admitted to having hunted as a werewolf and told of how a man dressed in black, whom he believed to be Satan, had bitten him, which caused him to shapeshift. Despite there being no evidence of Hans having murdered anybody, he was sentenced to death on the grounds that Satan had performed magic upon him.
In an era during which the notion of serial killers and psychopathy was beyond people, it is somewhat understandable that the myths and legends around shapeshifting and lycanthropy became an explanation for the horrific crimes of certain individuals, and as with “witches”, the confessions of those accused were the result of torture, mental illness, or a lack of understanding what they were actually confessing to.
You can read more about the European werewolf trials at the websites listed below.
A German werewolf’s ‘confessions’ horrified 1500s Europe (National Geographic)