Werewolf Wednesday: The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter (1590)

Peter Stubbe

No survey of werewolf history would be complete without discussing The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter, a 1590 text that was (so the front matter claims) “Truly translated out of the high Dutch, according to the copy printed in Collin, brought over into England by George Bores ordinary post, the 11th day of this present month of June 1590, who did both see and hear the same.” An online copy can be read here.

After some pious opening remarks upon the evil of those who stray from God, the document introduces us to its chief personage:

In the towns of Cperadt and Bedbur near Collin in high Germany, there was continually brought up and nourished one Stubbe Peeter, who from his youth was greatly inclined to evil and the practicing of wicked arts even from twelve years of age till twenty, and so forwards till his dying day, insomuch that surfeiting in the damnable desire of magic, necromancy, and sorcery, acquainting himself with many infernal spirits and fiends, insomuch tat forgetting the God that made him, and that Savior that shed his blood man man’s redemption: In the end, careless of salvation gave both soul and body to the Devil for ever, for small carnal pleasure in this life, that he might be famous and spoken of on earth, though he lost heaven thereby.

We are told that Stubbe Peeter was motivated by malice rather than greed. Instead of riches, this sorcerer asked the Devil for the ability to turn into a ferocious beast, and his wish was granted by a magic girdle:

The Devil, who saw him a fit instrument to perform mischief as a wicked fiend pleased with the desire of wrong and destruction, gave unto him a girdle which, being put around him, he was straight transformed into the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like unto brands of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body and mighty paws. And no sooner should he put off the same girdle, but presently he should appear in his former shape, according to the proportion of a man, as if he had never been changed.

We then read of how Stubbe would meet his victims in the form of a wolf “and never rest till he had plucked out their throats and tear their joints asunder” before returning to his human form. He would then “go through the streets of Collin, Bedbur, and Cperadt, in comely habit, and very civilly, as one well known to all the inhabitants thereabout, and oftentimes was he saluted of those whose friends and children he had butchered”. The dramatic possibilities of the Jekyll & Hyde narrative were being exploited at a very early date, as we see.

During his career, Stubbe racked up a considerable body count:

Thus continuing his devilish and damnable deeds within the compass of a few years, he had murdered thirteen young children, and two goodly young women big with child, tearing the children out of their wombs, in most bloody and savage sort, and after ate their hearts panting hot and raw, which he accounted dainty morsels and best agreeing to his appetite.

Indeed, Stubbe even killed his own son and “presently ate the brains out of his head as a most savory and delicious mean to staunch his deadly appetite”. Stubbe’s family situation was most unwholesome all around, with the brain-eating joined by rampant incest:

He had at that time living a fair young damsel to his daughter, after whom he also lusted must unnaturally, and cruelly committed most wicked incest with her, a most gross and vile sin, far surmounting adultery or fornication, though the least of the three doth drive the soul into hell fire, except hearty repentance, and the great mercy of God.

This daughter of his he begot when he was not altogether so wickedly given, who was called by the name of Stubbe Beell, whose beauty and good grace was such as deserved commendations of all those that knew her. And such was his inordinate lust and filthy desire toward her, that he begat a child by her, daily using her as his concubine; but as an insatiate and filthy beast, given over to work evil, with greediness he also lay by his own sister, frequenting her company long time, even according as the wickedness of his heart led him.

The locals blame the killings on a common wolf, until a chance incident (or the will of God, as the author has it) caused Stubbe to lose his girdle and regain human form in full view of pursuing men:

In the end, it pleased God, as they were in readiness and provided to meet with him, that they should espy him in his wolfish likeness at what time they beset him round about, and most circumspectly set their dogs upon him, in such sort that there was no means of escape, at which advantage they never could get him before; but as the Lord delivered Goliath into the hands of David, so was this wolf brought in danger of these men, who seeing, as I said before, no way to escape the imminent danger, being hardly pursued at the heels, presently slipped his girdle from about him, whereby the shape of a wolf clean avoided, and he appeared presently in his true shape and likeness, having in his hand a staff as one walking toward the city.

Stubbe Peeter was duly examined by magistrates, who learnt that his daughter Stubbe Beele and a second woman named Katherine Trompin (who “resembled rather some heavenly Helfin than any mortal creature”) were both accessories to his crimes. On 28 October 1589, a sentence of death was passed upon all three:

Stubbe Peeter as principal malefactor, was judged first to have his body laid on a wheel, and with red hot burning pincers in ten several places to have the flesh pulled off from the bones, after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden ax or hatchet, afterward to have his head struck from his body, then to have his carcass burned to ashes. Also his daughter and his gossip were judged to be burned quick to ashes, the same time and day with the carcass of the aforesaid Stubbe Peeter. And on the 31st of the same month, they suffered death accordingly in the town of Bedbur in the presence of many peers and princes of Germany.

Finally, both Stubbe and his victims were memorialised in a grisly monument to the affair:

After the execution, there was by the advice of the magistrates of the town of Bedbur a high pole set up and strongly framed, which first went through the wheel whereon he was broken, whereunto also it was fastened; after that a little above the wheel the likeness of a wolf was framed in wood, to show unto all men the shape wherein he executed those cruelties. Over that on the top of the stake the sorcerer’s head itself was set up, and round about the wheel there hung as it were sixteen pieces of wood about a yard in length with represented the sixteen persons that was perfectly known to be murdered by him.

So, how does the Stubbe Peeter narrative compare with the werewolf narrative as established by Hollywood? There are definite similarities between Stubbe’s atrocities and the exploits of Larry Talbot and his cinematic brethren, the most striking being the moment at which the above document plays up the irony of the killer walking in open society. But it has a substantial difference in that Stubbe is portrayed not as a tragic victim of a curse, but as a Faustian character who deliberately made a deal with the Devil for his shapeshifting ability. The detail of Stubbe being enabled by non-werewolf accomplices is also unusual in modern werewolf fiction.

One last detail: a contemporary illustration (seen at the top of this post) depicts Stubbe as a wolf, a man, and — in the very first frame — a bipedal wolf-man. An early ancestor of the familiar cinematic Wolf Man?

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