Late 17th Century illustration of the Werewolf of Ansbach being hunted and later hanged

This week I learned: the werewolf trials of early modern Europe

Just a short* post from me today, for the best of reasons – I’m busy writing! I’ve found an anthology to get excited over, which is always a great way to spark ideas – I get a lot of my inspiration from having a topic to brainstorm around. In this case, delightfully, it’s queer werewolves.

Here’s a historical titbit I’ve learned while researching my submission:

Werewolves on trial

You’ve most likely already aware of the witch trial hysteria that spread across Europe and North America in the 15th-18th Centuries – they’re the subject of plenty of fiction and non-fiction retellings, none more famous than The Crucible. But today I learned that witches weren’t the only creatures of the night put on trial during this period.

Werewolf trials, though far less common, occurred throughout the same areas of Europe as the witch trials, and were particularly ubiquitous in Estonia and Livonia (today northern Latvia). In these countries, the peasantry were still practising paganism despite the influence of the Christian church, so their belief in black magic did not have same connections with Satan-worship that informed witch trials elsewhere.

Across Europe, there were at least 280 cases recorded where the accused was tried as a werewolf or wolf charmer (one who did not turn into a wolf, but could control wolves), sometimes in combination with being tried as a witch.

How to become a werewolf

These early modern werewolves differed notably from the common tropes of today. In particular, their transformations had nothing to do with the full moon, but were entirely voluntary.

Methods for assuming a wolf’s form included applying an ointment or wearing a wolf skin (or wolf-skin belt) given to them by mysterious strangers or demons – or Satan, according to the Christian authorities who handled the trials and were eager to conflate the locals’ pre-existing beliefs with their own.

Others claimed to have gained the ability to transform themselves by drinking rainwater out of a wolf’s footprint, or even by drinking from a jug of beer with which an existing werewolf had toasted them.

Transformed, the accused said they would hunt in the night as a wolf, often killing and eating human children. During the day, those who used wolf-skins to transform would hide their skins away, a habit reminiscent of the selkie beliefs of Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. A small number of the trials involved people claiming to turn not into wolves, but bears or cats.

Wolves tried as humans, humans tried as wolves

Explanations vary for these instances of supposed lycanthropy. Some cases seem to have involved wolf attacks being blamed on local hermits or other maligned members of the community, either living or dead (the Wolf of Ansbach, for instance, was believed to be a much-hated former Bürgermeister returned from the dead).

Others appear to have been genuine cases of serial killings and even cannibalism, with the accused tortured into admitting to more Satanic explanations so that the Christian authorities could further cement their religion among the local populace.

Theiss of Kaltenbrun, the octogenarian, witch-fighting werewolf

Possibly the strangest and most intriguing of the werewolf trials that we have on record concerns Thiess of Kaltenbrun, the Livonian werewolf. He was brought before the court in his eighties, initially not as the accused but as a witness to a robbery case. However, when the judges learned that Theiss freely admitted to being a werewolf, they decided to pursue the matter.

Not only was Theiss a self-proclaimed werewolf – he claimed that he and a number of other werewolves regularly ventured into Hell to fight Satan and his witches. Indeed, he had appeared in court ten years previously as the complainant, accusing a local farmer of breaking his nose by beating him with a broomstick while they did battle in Hell. The case had been thrown out.

In his later court appearance, Theiss explained that he and the other werewolves transformed into wolves three night a year to travel to Hell. There they would fight off Satan’s witches and retrieve the livestock, grains, and fruits that the witches had stolen away, thereby ensuring a good harvest to come. He stressed that werewolves were not creatures of Satan, but servants of God.

Unlike almost every other werewolf to be tried, Theiss of Kaltenbrun survived the experience. The Christian judges appear to have been at a loss for how to sentence a man claiming werewolfism as evidence for his devotion to God.

Theiss’s eventual sentence of flogging and banishment stemmed not from his lycanthropy, but from the discovery that he also practised folk magic for the local community. His blessings and charms, although they mentioned thwarting the devil, did not actively invoke God, which the judges argued encouraged Theiss’s clients to reject Christianity.

When asked whether he regularly attended church, said his prayers, and partook of the Lord’s Supper, Theiss replied with what I can only picture as delightful octogenarian crankiness that he did none of these things, as he was too old to understand them.


*Hah. OK, so I’m terrible at short.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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