Werewolf Wednesday: Sabine Baring-Gould Chapter 5 (1865)

The Werewolves of Ossory.

The fifth chapter of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves is entitled “The Were-Wolf in the Middle-Ages”. Unlike the previous chapter, the author does not offer personal theories as to where lycanthropic beliefs came from, nor does he delve into etymology. Instead, he assembles a compendium of snippets dealing with werewolves — plus some weredogs and werecats thrown in for good measure.

The survey begins with Olaus Magnus on werewolves in Prussia, Livonia, and Lithuania; he tells us that on “the feast of the Nativity of Christ, at night,” a multitude of wolves — transformed from men — will gather and rampage. These shapeshifters are readily distinguished from natural wolves by their habit of barging into beer-cellars, indulging in alcohol and piling up empty casks before moving on. We are also given a description of some sort of lycanthropic sporting event:

Between Lithuania, Livonia, and Courland are the walls of a certain old ruined castle. At this spot congregate thousands, on a fixed occasion, and try their agility in jumping. Those who are unable to bound over the wall, as; is often the case with the fattest, are fallen upon with scourges by the captains and slain.

After recounting two more werewolf anecdotes from Olaus — one of which includes that well-worn motif of a wolf being injured, and a corresponding injury being found on a human, proving a lycanthropic connection — the chapter moves on Simone Majoli and Caspar Peucer. Baring-Gould summarises a bizarre story cited by both authors:

At Christmas a boy lame of a leg goes round the country summoning the devil’s followers, who are countless, to a general conclave. Whoever remains behind, or goes reluctantly, is scourged by another with an iron whip till the blood flows, and his traces are left in blood. The human form vanishes, and the whole multitude become wolves. Many thousands assemble. Foremost goes the leader armed with an iron whip, and the troop follow, “firmly convinced in their imaginations that they are transformed into wolves.” They fall upon herds of cattle and flocks of sheep, but they have no power to slay men. When they come to a river, the leader smites the water with his scourge, and it divides, leaving a dry path through the midst, by which the pack may go. The transformation lasts during twelve days, at the expiration of which period the wolf-skin vanishes, and the human form reappears.

The next subject is “a dissertation by Müller” citing Cluverius and Dannhaverus on the exploits of one Albertus Pericofcius. Reportedly, this despotic nobleman was transformed into a dog as punishment for blasphemy and cruelty. We learn that a similar fate befell a nobleman in Prague — unnamed by Baring-Gould — who was turned into a dog with a human head.

After briefly noting that both St. Patrick and St. Natalis are credited with turning wrongdoers into wolves, the author tells us about a certain Prussian duke:

A duke of Prussia, according to Majolus, had a countryman brought for sentence before him, because he had devoured his neighbour’s cattle. The fellow was an ill-favoured, deformed man, with great wounds in his face, which he had received from dogs’ bites whilst he had been in his wolf’s form. It was believed that he changed shape twice in the year, at Christmas and at Midsummer. He was said to exhibit much uneasiness and discomfort when the wolf-hair began to break out and his bodily shape to change.  He was kept long in prison and closely watched, lest he should become a were-wolf during his confinement and attempt to escape, but nothing remarkable took place. If this is the same individual as that mentioned by Olaus Magnus, as there seems to be a probability, the poor fellow was burned alive.

The next anecdote is from John of Nuremberg, and involves a priest meeting a talking wolf; this encounter leads to the clergyman saving a group of people — “the Ossyrian race” — who had been transformed into lupine guise. This tale, which seems to be connected with the Irish legend concerning the Werewolves of Ossory, is followed by a quotation from Marie de France which Baring-Gould declines to translate.

Next on the itinerary is Rhanæus, who lists the three ways in which Satan “holds the Lycanthropists in his net”. In the first, the person commits bestial acts while believing themselves to have become wolves, despite remaining human; in the other two, the person dreams in their sleep of becoming a wolf causing violence which, in reality, is carried out either personally by the Devil (the second variety) or by wolves under the Devil’s control (the third variety). Note that none of these involve physical transformation, and the latter two are variations on lycanthropy new to me. Rhanæus illustrates the topic with three brief accounts of werewolf incidents.

The list goes on…

Wierius and Forestus quote Gulielmus Brabantinus as an authority for the fact, that a man of high position had been so possessed by the evil one, that often during the year he fell into a condition in which he believed himself to be turned into a wolf, and at that time he roved in the woods and tried to seize and devour little children, but that at last, by God’s mercy, he recovered his senses.

Certainly the famous Pierre Vidal, the Don Quixote of Provençal troubadours, must have had a touch of this madness, when, after having fallen in love with a lady of Carcassone, named Loba, or the Wolfess, the excess of his passion drove him over the country, howling like a wolf, and demeaning himself more like an irrational beast than a rational man. He commemorates his lupine madness in the poem A tal Donna

The next source to be cited is Job Fincelius’ de Mirabilibus, which records lycanthropic changes taking place in the 1540s. This is followed by a snippet about were-cats from Spranger. Still more authorities are trotted out in succession: “Majolus relates that a man afflicted with lycanthropy was brought to Pomponatius…”; “Bodin tells some were-wolf stories on good authority; it is a pity that the good authorities of Bodin were such liars…”; “Bodin quotes Pierre Marner, the author of a treatise on sorcerers, as having witnessed in Savoy the transformation of men into wolves…”.

The following two accounts close the chapter:

Forestus, in his chapter on maladies of the brain, relates a circumstance which came under his own observation, in the middle of the sixteenth century, at Alcmaar in the Netherlands. A peasant there was attacked every spring with a fit of insanity; under the influence of this he rushed about the churchyard, ran into the church, jumped over the benches, danced, was filled with fury, climbed up, descended, and never remained quiet. He carried a long staff in his hand, with which he drove away the dogs, which flew at him and wounded him, so that his thighs were covered with scars. His face was pale, his eyes deep sunk in their sockets. Forestus pronounces the man to be a lycanthropist, but he does not say that the poor fellow believed himself to be transformed into a wolf. In reference to this case, however, he mentions that of a Spanish nobleman who believed himself to be changed into a bear, and who wandered filled with fury among the woods.

Donatus of Altomare affirms that he saw a man in the streets of Naples, surrounded by a ring of people, who in his were-wolf frenzy had dug up a corpse and was carrying off the leg upon his shoulders. This was in the middle of the sixteenth century.

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