Werewolf Wednesday: A History of the Ridiculous Extravagancies of Monsieur Oufle, Part 1 (1710)

An often overlooked addition to the body of early werewolf literature is Laurent Bordelon’s 1710 novel L’histoire des imaginations extravagantes de monsieur Oufle, which was translated into English the following year as A History of the Ridiculous Extravagancies of Monsieur Oufle (this post is based specifically on the English version, so I can’t comment on liberties taken by the translator).

The book belongs to a vogue for satirical fiction that began with Don Quixote in the previous century, and was followed by such similarly-themed titles as Charles Sorel’s The Extravagant Shephard (1653) and the anonymous Mock-Clelia (1678). Indeed, all three of these books are specifically mentioned in the preface to Monsieur Oufle, which notes that “Several very Entertaining Fictions have been publish’d to expose those deprav’d by reading Poets, Romances, Books of Chivalry and other such Trifles, widely distant from Truth, and all Probability”.

The title character of Monsieur Oufle (an anagram of “le fou”) is another protagonist who, like Don Quixote, has been sent to a world of fantasy by his choice of reading matter. As opposed to chivalric romance, however, this novel sets out to skewer belief in the occult — and so Oufle believes himself to be not a knight in shining armour, but a werewolf.

Monsieur Oufle is introduced to us as a man wealthy enough to avoid finding any kind of work, instead whiling away his time reading books about magic and apparitions:

[H]e believ’d only those Histories, which affirm’d, for Instance, that such a Spectre appear’d; that such a wanton Daemon play’d his Pranks in the Night in a Garret, or a Stable; that such a Girl was bewitch’d by a Nosegay; such a Child by an Apple; that this Person could not avoid what was fortold by his Horoscope, and an infinite Number of the like Stories…

He spends his money commissioning paintings that depict magicians, hideous devils, sheet-wrapped ghosts and other such subjects, and amassing a collection of occult artifacts and books. These latter items are the topic of the entire second chapter, which consists entirely of a catalogue of Oufle’s library, often with sardonic comments from the story’s narrator (“Malleus Maleficarum. If Witches are not as present as much talk’d of as formerly, is it not because this Mallet has knock’d down so many, that there cannot be many left?”) As an aside, one of the authors to turn up in Oufle’s bibliography is Olaus Magnus, whose comments on werewolves I covered here.

The third chapter is where lycanthropy enters the picture. Rather curiously the English translator renders the French phrase “loup-garou” — typically translated as “werewolf” nowadays — as “hobgoblin”, and acknowledges having done so in the first of the novel’s many footnotes. The word “werewolf” had seen print in Britain prior to this time, but Monsieur Oufle‘s anonymous translator was apparently either unaware of the term or assumed that it would be unfamiliar to the readers.

Whether we call them werewolves or hobgoblins, the novel is most dismissive of the idea that such shapeshifting creatures might exist:

Hobgoblins have been long talk’d of; both Antients and Moderns tell us a great many Stories of them, which tho’ fabulous, have yet passed in the Judgment of the Simple, for most true. A thousand Tales are told to young Children, who being void of Understanding and Experience, the more easily believe them, because ’tis by their Fathers, their Mothers, and their Nurses, that these ridiculous Relations are handed to them. The impression of the Idea of Hobgoblins or these Transformations has sunk so deep into their Minds, that they retain it their whole Lives, if they don’t labour to exterminate this childish Prejudice by an unbias’d Study; and if they don’t efface this Prepossession, they afterwards communicate it in their turn to several others; and ’tis thus that we daily see so many popular Errors perpetuate themselves, without being authoriz’d by any other Reason, that bare Hearsay, and that people take no manner of care to examine into the Truth of them.

The author provides a lengthy footnote arguing that “The Transformation of a Man into a Wolf, is not possible either in Soul or Body” but, alas, such logic is lost on Monsieur Oufle. The story’s protagonist is a committed believer in the reality of werewolves:

[H]e did not doubt that there had been, for Instance, whole Families, in which there was always some one that became a wolf,; (c) as also that Men sometimes became so by eating the Entrails of a sacrific’d Child; (d) he likewise firmly believ’d that’was possible to be chang’d into a Cat (e) into a Horse (f) a Tree, an Ox, a Viper, a Fly; (g) a Cow; (h) and in short into all manner of Shapes (i) Twas in vain that he learnt from some Books, that if there be any such thing as these transform’d Wovles, they are occasion’d only by a disturb’d Imagination, which persuades the Patient that he really is a Wolf, and makes him imitate almost all the Actions of that Beast; this is called Lycanthropy; (k) and ’tis with this sort of Distemper that those are afflicted, for Example, whom they call in Poitou, la bête bigourne qui court la galipode, as I’m inform’d by a very agreeable Lady of Quality.

Note that every variation on the werewolf motif is here given an annotation. The points about hereditary werewolves and child-sacrifice come from Pliny; the were-cats are from the Malleus Maleficarum; the were-horse was described by St. Augustine; the were-tree, were-ox, were-viper and were-fly are all the Empusa from Aristophenes’ The Frogs; and the were-cow was a sorceress encountered by none other than King Frutho of Denmark, according to Albert Krantz. Diodorus Siculus is another authority cited on the topic of shapeshifting, while Pomponatius is brought up in relation to lycanthropy as a mental affliction.

While the author may not have believed in werewolves, he was evidently willing to do his research into the chapter. It is no exaggeration to say that this third chapter of Laurent Bordelon’s satirical narrative rivals any chapter of Sabine Baring-Gould’s better-known Book of Were-Wolves in terms of scholarship.

As for Monsieur Oufle’s exploits as a self-confessed lycanthrope, well, these do not begin until the fourth chapter — which I shall be covering next week.

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