Forgotten Forteana — The Werewolf Trials
Ah, Autumn. The nights are drawing in, Halloween is approaching, and I’m being driven up the wall by the constant sound of cranefly limbs blindly thrashing against every available surface. Seriously, I have a Buddhist monk attitude to killing even the smallest insect, where I’ll start blubbing with guilt if I step on an ant, but the past couple of weeks have seen me gleefully stamping on those little fuckers like a 1970’s football hooligan.
So yeah, Halloween. I thought I’d share a few posts about creepy Fortean stuff that’s not particularly well known or remembered, from my mind-vault of ‘weird shit that probably didn’t happen but is interesting anyway’. What’s great about olden days Forteana is that, back then, people believed anything. Fairies, Spring-Heeled Jacks, ectoplasm that could form itself into the shape of a man and ride a bike; each every bit as real to them as Miley Cyrus is to us. Great, but also scary, if you’re from that time, and your village thinks you’re a witch just because you did a fart that came out a bit squeaky. Which brings us to this week’s piece. Everyone knows about the witch trials, but something lost to the mists of time are the werewolf trials that went on around the same period.
Werewolves were big in Medieval Europe, particularly in Germany and France, where they’d show up in romantic poetry as tortured, accursed souls, like proto-Twilight characters. French writers of the time delved into the religious and psychological implications of the many sightings and rumours taking place throughout Europe, such as the teenage werewolf who was said to be serving life imprisonment in Bordeaux, which is a great pitch for a historical serial drama that’d be ruined by MTV if they ever got their hands on it. Suspected werewolves seem to be a mixture of legitimate mental disorders where people genuinely believed themselves to be manbeasts, confessing to crimes they thought they’d done (or had done, in fits of human mania), and witch-hunts where local weirdos (or actual murderers) found themselves accused of shape-changing to commit dirty deeds.
Culturally, the werewolf delusion is the 16th century equivalent of today’s schizophrenics and unstable conspiracy-folk thinking the government are beaming messages into their brains with a CIA skull-gun. The government is our Big Bad, but back then, wolves were the uberhunter; the alpha beast lurking in the shadows of the imagination; and for real, beyond the village, waiting to pounce. Coupled with primal memories of ancestral cannibalism lingering in the far reaches of the mind, and you’ve got yourself a monster.
Interestingly, the full moon aspect of werewolf lore didn’t exist then, and generally the transformations involved stripping naked and donning a wolf skin, or a girdle made from human skin, or daubing bodies with magical ointments. Other times, wolfing out was brought about with a magic incantation, or by drinking rainwater from a wolf’s footprint, or was the result of a curse. There were a number of ways for the cursed to transform themselves back into a human, from having the sign of the cross waved over their bodies, or losing three drops of blood, to kneeling in the the exact same place for a hundred years, although with the latter, I think the wicked-bad cramp would outweigh the need to regain one’s humanity.
For a modern analogue of the wolf/witch-hunt, you don’t even have to go back as far as the 1950’s Reds Under the Beds scare. Your Facebook news feed might suffice, where you can see the media & government’s demonizing of the unemployed (or ‘chavs’/immigrants/Muslims) in action on a daily basis. The sort of person you’ll find posting frothy-mouthed, illiterate statuses about “workshy benefit scroungers” wearing a new pair of trainers bought “wiv our tax money” could probably be found a few hundred years ago whispering to a local neighbour how they’d spotted a likely wolf-man with fresh blood around his mouth, which in the lawlessness of Medieval times, might result in the accused being dragged off to trial. Similarly, I’m sure we’ve all got characters skulking around the folklore of our towns and cities — the Cat Man, or a tramp who looks just like Willem Dafoe — with playground rumours that he used to be a millionaire but went crazy when his nob fell off; or a bloke down the street that’s definitely a nonce because of his comb-over. In more superstitiously inclined times, village chatter would put them savaging victims beneath a full moon, or buzzing the skies on a broomstick.
Trials persisted, on and off, for a few hundred years, as a part of the broader, better-known witch trials, and there are a surviving handful of cases where men were executed for crimes of werewolfery. In 1573, the children of the French town of Dole began disappearing, or were found dismembered in the woods. The blame was placed at the — possibly hairy — feet of Gilles Garnier, a hermit who’d been caught by a posse with the body of a dead child. While stretched out on the rack, he confessed to meeting a ghost who gave him the magic ointment, and slaughtering the children as a source of food because he couldn’t afford to feed himself and his wife, and she was getting the hump. It’s unclear whether Garnier was a straight-up child-murdering cannibal, or just confessed to whatever they told him to while being horribly tortured. If you sellotaped me to a chair and shoved an egg whisk up my urethra, I’d happily tell you about the magic ghost who turned me into a giant woodlouse and sent back in time to start the Great Fire of London. Although, back to Garnier, it’s a poor kind of hermit that has a wife. A true hermit shouldn’t have even seen a woman for at least a decade, and definitely shouldn’t be sharing a bed (and a delicious bowl full of children’s hearts) with one.
In 1605, the second of our wolf-men, Henry Gardinn was, along with two buddies, charged with the crime of transforming into a werewolf to eat a local child. Like they always were at these ‘trials’, he was found guilty and burned alive, while one of his accomplices, the fantastically named Jan Le Loup, confessed to sexual activity with the Devil before escaping, and spent two years on the run, before being captured, strangled and burned at the stake, just to be sure. Accusations of weird supernatural sex were tied in to most of the witch and wolf trials, kind of like a contemporary newspaper kiss and tell attempting to discredit a politician or popstar with tales of enjoying a “vile kinky sex act” (aka a blowjob); but today, tales of Devil-bumming or wolfmen laying with actual female wolves read like an average episode of HBO’s True Blood.
Most famous of all is Peter Stumpp (only one of a myriad of possible spellings), the Werewolf of Bedburg. Eschewing magical werewolf oil, Stumpp made use of an enchanted belt given to him by Satan, which transformed him into a wolf, which sounds like a quest reward from World of Warcraft (“Slay me ten Hogburrowers, and I shall give you this fedora of +2 penis size!”). The surname Stumpp may originate from him having one of his hands cut off, which supposedly led to his downfall, when a similarly paw-less werewolf was spotted.
Like Garnier and Gardinn, “Stumpy” Stumpp confessed to the killing and eating of children; fourteen of them, in fact, including his own son, a child born of the rape of his own daughter, Belle, and whose brains Stumpp noshed on. He also killed grown men and women, two of whom were pregnant and had their foetuses ripped from their bodies, and their hearts, “dainty morsals” as the nutter himself described them, eaten. Oh, and he fucked a succubus that the Devil sent him, having practised black magic since the age of twelve.
Outdoing the death of Jan Le Loup, in a Vigo the Carpathian style, Stumpp was put on the breaking wheel — a kind of rolling crucifixion popular in Medieval times– to have flesh ripped from his body with red hot pincers, had all four limbs broken and his head removed, before he was flung onto a burning pyre. Belle, a true victim wherever the truth may have lay, was also tossed into the flames with her father, for the dual crimes of incest, and of being a woman in olden days Europe. The pole-mounted wheel, atopped by Stumpp’s severed head, served as a warning from the church to the people of Bedburg to cut that werewolf shit out, seriously.
History paints Stumpp as a serial killer guilty of the actual crimes behind the werewolf dressing, but all of his misdeeds were confessed while on the rack, so, you know, judge with caution. There’s another theory that his trial was a political deal, with the Catholic Church using Stumpp, a recent Protestant convert, as a show of power; an example of what happens when you switch to the other team. If the Vatican fireplace is decorated by a werewolf-skin rug, we may be onto something.
In 2013, Werewolves are so neutered by television and film’s need for handsome young leads to appeal to that tweenage demographic, that anybody finding themselves accused of being one would more likely be guilty of a shit haircut than of eating from a big pile of dead children. Today’s werewolf wears a cone of shame to stop them from gnawing at the sore patch where their balls used to be. Not that it ends at werewolves; the entire monster oeuvre has been prettied up into Instagrammed mannequins. Vampires, witches, ghosts; even Aaron Eckhart’s upcoming Frankenstein’s Monster looks to be built from the parts of dead personal trainers and hunks. Although nothing tops the CW’s Beauty and the Beast remake, where a super handsome model guy with a tiny little scar that like he’s scratched his face while jogging past a bramble bush just screams “Don’t look at me, I’m deformed!”
It’s easy to giggle off the werewolf trials as the naïve, uneducated nonsense of centuries past, as the thought of being burned at the stake, or the idea that the Catholic Church could set somebody up as an incestuous, murderous wolfman seems pretty distant in a world where you’re probably reading this on the train on a pocket supercomputer. Probably less so though, if you’re browsing from, for example, a modern-day Africa that sees children outcast, tortured and killed by Christian pastors for being suspected witches, or the slaughter of albino children so that their body parts can be used in magic potions. But on the bright side, if you think we’ve got a modern epidemic of paedophiles on our hands, just be thankful the paedo-werewolves have all died out.
If you liked this, check out the other Fortean stuff I’ve posted on here:
Also, my Kindle book, Dirt Baby and Other Small Mercies has some festively creepy flash fiction in it, if you’ve got a spare 99 pence/cents.