Werewolf Wednesday: “Hugues, the Wer-Wolf” by Sutherland Menzies (1838)

“Hugues, the Wer-Wolf” was published in 1838 and attributed to Sutherland Menzies; ISFDB mentions a theory that the true author was Elizabeth Stone, and I notice a few documents on Google Books indicating that a woman by that name did indeed use the pseudonym Sutherland Menzies. Whoever wrote it, the story is an early literary treatment of the werewolf theme – one that lacks a bona fide werewolf.

The story takes place during the reign of Henry II and deals with a Norman family residing in the Kentish countryside. Although the family name is Hugues, their Anglo-Saxon neighbours know them as the Wulfrics, believing them to be werewolves – “so thoroughly was accredited the descent of the original lycanthropic stain transmitted from father to son through several generations.” While the story depicts belief in werewolves as merely a superstition, Menzies does offer some colourful descriptions of lycanthropic activity:

The churchyard at Ashford, and the stone cross, from whence diverged the several roads to London, Canterbury, and Ashford, situated midway between the two latter places, served, so tradition avouched, as nocturnal theatres for the unhallowed deeds of the Wulfrics, who thither prowled by moonlight, it was said, to batten on the freshly-buried dead, or drain the blood of any living wight who might be rash enough to venture among those solitary spots.

The central character (whose full name is never revealed) is the last surviving member of the Hugues Wulfric family. Driven to desperation by the deaths of his relatives and his status as pariah, Hugues decides to strike out against the local community. Wearing a wolf costume, he masquerades as the supernatural creature that his neighbours believe him to be and obtains free meat on a regular basis by intimidating the local butcher.

This victim yearns to strike back, but is told that werewolves can be harmed only though a specific means – a concept that would be embraced by later werewolf fiction, even if the exact method changed over time:

“Slay a wer-wolf thou canst not,” was the repeated rejoinder of the wiseacre to the earnest queries of the tormented flesher; “for his hide is proof against spear or arrow, though vulnerable to the edge of a cutting weapon of steel. I counsel thee to deal him a slight flesh wound, or cut him over the paw, in order to know of a surety whether it really be Hugues or no; thou’lt run no danger, save thou strikest him a blow from which blood flows not therefrom, for, so soon as his skin is severed he taketh flight.”

Hugues’ reign of terror ends when the butcher finally plucks up enough courage to chop off his “paw”, causing the would-be werewolf to run away and nurse his injury. The butcher then unwraps the paw and, of course, finds a human hand inside. Hugues is still granted a happy ending, however, as he marries the butcher’s niece Brenda.

Although Menzies’ story lacks an authentic werewolf, it nonetheless incorporates an archetypal werewolf narrative. This is a narrative that turns up repeatedly in sixteenth-century French law records – which, perhaps unexpectedly, contain one of the richest cycles of werewolf lore.

H. Sidky’s book Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease: an Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts contains many accounts from this period. In one, a man travelling through Poligny in 1521 was attacked by a wolf which he succeeded in wounding. The animal gave flight, and the traveller followed the trail until he came to the hut of one Michel Verdun – a wounded man who was being treated by his wife. Believing Verdun and the wolf to be one and the same, the traveller alerted the authorities and Verdun was arrested.

Under torture, Verdun confessed to murder, cannibalism and black magic. He claimed that he used a magic ointment that turned him into a wolf, and named two other men – Pierre Bourgot and Philibert Montot – as his partners in this nefarious deed. All three men were executed. During the era of the witch-trials, of course, any number of innocuous traits such as having a mark on the skin or owning a pet could be taken as evidence of witchcraft. Likewise, as the story above indicates, simply being a wounded person in the wrong place at the wrong time could be taken as evidence of being a werewolf.

Numerous werewolf accounts (again listed in Sidky’s book) follow this same basic pattern. In a particularly colourful variation from 1558, a gentleman in a chateau looked out and saw a huntsman fighting a wolf, driving it away by cutting off its paw. The huntsman then paid the gentlemen a visit, and opened his pouch to produce his trophy – only to find that the wolf’s paw had transformed into the ringed hand of a woman. The gentleman’s wife subsequently turned out to be missing her hand, and confessed to being a werewolf; she was executed on this evidence. Here, we should bear in mind that many witchcraft executions were performed on the basis of spiteful accusations made by enemies of the alleged witches. It is not hard to imagine that this tale was concocted by a man who wished to dispose of an unloved spouse.

There are many more accounts along these lines to be found in Sidky’s book. An incident that took place in the Jura Mountains in 1598 fits the same template: a person wounds a wolf and follows its trail to find a wounded human, who ends up on trial for lycanthropy. This time the luckless individual was Perrentte Gandillon, who named his relatives as fellow werewolves. Once captured, the men of the Gandillon family reportedly behaved like animals while in captivity. Note that this narrative includes an entire clan of werewolves, not unlike the superstitions surrounding the fictitious Hugues Wulfrics.

There are other accounts that could be cited here, but the point has been made. While Sutherland Menzies opted to rationalise the supernatural subject matter of “Hugues, the Wer-Wolf”, they evidently had some familiarity with the purportedly true cases on record.

As a final detail, Menzies includes a few historical footnotes, one of which sheds light on why the author gave their alleged werewolves the family name of Hugues: “Hugh, surnamed Lupus, the first Earl of Kent, bore for his crest a wolf’s head.” However, Menzies appears to be conflating two separate personages: Hubert de Burgh, first Earl of Kent; and Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester. The footnote associates this composite figure with Edward I’s extermination of England’s wolves, but both Hugh and Hubert were dead by the time of that king’s reign.

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