The End of the Werewolf Faith in Strasburg January 14, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback
Beachcombing recently examined the death of the fairy faith in the Yorkshire town of Ilkley and sold it to his readers as a melancholy moment in that community’s history. Today he thought, instead, that he would give evidence for the beginning of the end of faith in were-wolves in the area around Strasburg (‘Germany’ or France depending on the century). In 1508 a priest, Johann Geiler von Keysersperg (obit 1510) gave a sermon there on that magical creature. His words show belief in the wooly ones was in sad retreat on the cusp of the modern age.
Johann begins with a rhetorical question.
‘What shall we say about were-wolves? for there are were-wolves which run about the villages devouring men and children. As men say about them, they run about full gallop, injuring men, and are called ber-wölff, or wer-wölff. Do you ask me if I know aught about them? I answer, Yes. They are apparently wolves which eat men and children, and that happens on seven accounts: 1. Esuriem (Hunger); 2. Rabiem (Savageness); 3. Senectutem (Old age); 4. Experientiam (Experience); 5. Insaniem (Madness); 6. Diabolum (The Devil); and 7. Deum (God).’
So far almost good. But if you read these sentences again carefully, you will find that Johann is not describing man turning into wolf: there is no Neil Jordan film hiding away here. In fact, reading Johann’s text we learn that for him a were-wolf is a wolf that attacks humans rather than a human shape-shifter. For example, under the third heading he writes:
‘the wolves do injury on account of their age. When a wolf is old, it is weak and feeble in its legs, so it can’t run fast enough to catch stags, and therefore it rends a man, whom it can catch easier than a wild animal. It also tears children and men easier than wild animals, because of its teeth, for its teeth break off when it is very old; you see it well in old women: how the last teeth wobble, and they have scarcely a tooth left in their heads, and they open their mouths for men to feed them with mash and stewed substances.’
The only passage in fact in the sermon that gives us any hope of the old belief in the were-wolf as something more than just a wolf comes in, of course, the sixth diabolum:
the injury comes of the Devil, who transforms himself, and takes on him the form of a wolf. So writes Vincentius in his Speculum Historiale. And he has taken it from Valerius Maximus in the Punic war. When the Romans fought against the men of Africa, when the captain lay asleep, there came a wolf and drew his sword, and carried it off. That was the Devil in a wolf’s form. The like writes William of Paris, that a wolf will kill and devour children, and do the greatest mischief. There was a man who had the fantasy that he himself was a wolf. And afterwards he was found lying in the wood, and he was dead out of sheer hunger.’
But even here it is the devil, not a man, who becomes a wolf, while the man who believes himself capable of becoming a wolf is living a ‘fantasy’.
Of course, belief in werewolves will carry on for many more centuries – Beachcombing is particularly interested at present in twentieth-century examples: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com – but scoundrels like Johann marked the beginning of the end for Europe’s favourite bogeyman.
Beachcombing has opened today a page of sources for texts relating to particularly bizzare areas and thought that he would start with werewolves. As with his bizarre bibliography he will start slow… If anyone has the original German then Beachcombing would be particularly grateful.