The Werewolf Debate: How Pre-Modern Thinkers Debated the belief in Werewolves

Keywords: metamorphoses, werewolves, witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, Johann Weyer, Jean Bodin

Scepticism existed in the ability of man to transform into wolves in antiquity as stated in Pliny’s Historia naturalis in c.77A.D (Pliny, 1962, p. 95). However, it did not become the subject of wide debate until early Christian saints such as Saint Ambrose (339-397), Saint Jerome (c.347-420), and Saint Augustine (354-430) denied the possibility of metamorphosis (Sconduto, 2008, p. 17; Cheilik, 1987, p. 270; Augustine, 1871, pp. 236-7). Although Augustine did not completely refute the possibility of metamorphosis as God’s powers were limitless, he refused to believe that God would allow the Devil to transform humans into wolves (Sconduto, 2008, p. 18). Augustine stated that any pronouncement of such was the result of a drug-induced illusion (Augustine, 1871, pp. 236-7). To suggest that the Devil had the power to transform humans into wolves was to equate his power with God (Sconduto, 2008, p. 21). Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) reiterates the thoughts of Augustine in the Summa Theologica (1273), as the Devil does not have the power to work real miracles (Aquinas, 2006, p. 1023 (Pt. 1, Q. 114, Article. 4)). Therefore, any miraculous events must be an illusion. Saint Ambrose rejected the notion that the soul of a rational man can be transported into that of an irrational animal for man is made in God’s image (Ambrose, 1953, pp. 256-7).

Despite the denouncement of early pagan beliefs in shape-shifting by the Church, the Bible included a story of King Nebuchadnezzar turning into an eagle in Daniel 4.33. Some thinkers have explained that this transformation would have only occurred through the permission of God, but does not adequately explain why man cannot be given permission to transform into wolves (Lancre, 2006, p. 263). Other acts of transformation in the Bible include Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19.26), and Christ turning water into wine (John 2.9). Further acts of transformation that were widely believed was by way of the Eucharist, where the consecrated bread and wine were converted into the body and blood of Christ (Sconduto, 2008, p. 18). However, metamorphosis was likened to heresy in Canon Episcopi (Cannon 11B) (c.900) by stating ‘Whoever believes that some creatures can be created or changed for the better or worse or turned into another shape or likeness in any way other than by the Creator of all things […] is worse than an infidel (cited in Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, p. 100).’

German Dominicans inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger gave the belief in witchcraft validity and as a result, the possibility of powers of transformation. In writing the Malleus Maleficarum (‘Hammer of Witches’) (1486), they essentially overruled the Canon Episcopi by stating: ‘Whether the belief that there are such beings as witches is so essential a part of the Catholic faith that obstinately to maintain the opposite opinion manifestly savours of heresy (cited in Sconduto, 2008, p. 128).’ No book during the early modern period did more to promote the belief in witches (Kamen, 1998, p. 270). In this way, Kramer and Sprenger gave the belief in witchcraft legitimacy and as a result, the possibility of powers of transformation. This was supported by the statement in Malleus Maleficarum that through the help of the Devil, sorcerers could transform into wolves. They reported that wolves seen to steal and eat babies were either real wolves possessed by demons or that the Devil created the illusion in the mind of the witch that they had metamorphosed into a wolf as well as by their victim (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, pp. 201-6. (59C), 209 (63A-B); Sconduto, 2008, p. 127). Although this was despite later assertions that such metamorphosis could not exist without the will of God (Kramer and Sprenger, 2009, pp. 100, 201-2).

During the sixteenth-century several books were published in Europe on the topic of werewolves. Also, many publications on witchcraft included a chapter on werewolves or debated the ability of witches to undertake metamorphosis (see: primary sources in Selected Bibliography for Scholarly Research on the Early Modern Werewolf). The ability of humans to metamorphose into wolves was often approached from either a demonological, medical, or legal standpoint. Although some Renaissance thinkers believed in the reality of people being able to transform themselves into wolves through a pact with the Devil, most did not as it challenged the Christian hierarchical worldview between humans and animals. For example, Jean Bodin and Johannes Fridericus Wolfeshusius believed in werewolves, whereas Jean Beauvois de Chavincourt, King James I, Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg, Pierre de Lancre, Claude Prieur, Nicholas Remy, Reginald Scot, Peter Thyraeus, and Johann Weyer did not. Nevertheless, the belief in metamorphosis would not have been a subject of debate if the populace did not widely believe in it (Sconduto, 2008, p. 18). The fact that Latin, the language of elite culture, did not have a word for ‘werewolf,’ whereas German did (‘werwolf’), supports the idea that it was part of popular culture (Schulte, 2009, p. 19).

The denouncement of the power of metamorphosis maintained a more popular position during the sixteenth century. For Renaissance thinkers, such as Dutch physician, Johann Weyer (c.1515-1588), Englishman Reginald Scot (1538-1599), and King James I, lycanthropy (a Greek compound of lykos (‘wolf’) anthropos (‘man’)), was a melancholic disease based on the imbalance of humours (Weyer, 1991, p. 193 (Book 3, X); Scot, 1964, p. 102 (Book 5, Chapter 7); Otten, 1986, pp. 24-5, 26; King James I, 2011, p. 153 (Book 3, Chapter 1); Davidson, 1987, p. 103, 168-9). Melancholy was associated with various kinds of mental conditions from depression, hallucinations, and delusions (Otten, 1986, pp. 22, 24). Weyer asserted that the belief in the human transformation into a wolf was the work of the Devil who ‘sets in motion the humors and spirits suitable for these illusions’, whereas a real wolf carries out its attacks under the influence of a demon (Weyer, 1991, p. 193 (Book 3, X)). A man cannot be transformed into a wolf for he is made in God’s image (Weyer, 1991, p. 516 (Book 6, XIV)). The human body also served as a temple for the Holy Spirit, and for God’s spirit to dwell within a body of an animal was thought to be blasphemous (Sconduto, 2008, p. 141). Weyer also suggested that the ointment used by some supposed werewolves was a sleep-producing agent, whereby the Devil produces dreams of them killing maidens and copulating with she-wolves (Weyer, 1991, p. 514 (Book 6, XIV)). A condition known as insania lupina described people who would attack other people or livestock, believing they were wolves (Dillinger, 2015, p. 155).

Similarly, French judge, Pierre De Lancre (1553-1631) who oversaw trials of supposed werewolves, wrote in 1612 that the Devil could not transform man into wolves because:

when the Almighty created the world, he made it so that the earth, air, and water would produce all things in such a way that every living being be created with its own characteristics, according to its own special and distinctive nature, as bestowed on it by God’s divine majesty (Lancre, 2006, pp. 257, 258 (Book 4, chapater 6)).

Lancre concluded that transformation was the result of illusions created by magic and the Devil makes the witch believe that they have fully transformed. Whereas French judge Nicholas Remy (1530 – 1616) believed witches possessed some of the powers of wolves given to them by the Devil such as ‘fleetness of foot, bodily strength, ravenous ferocity’ (Oldridge, 2005, p. 102).

More practically, Henri Boguet (1550-1690), another French judge and author of Discours des Sorciers (‘An Examen of Witches’ originally published in 1590, but a chapter on werewolves was not included until his 1602 edition), rejected the notion of werewolves because a human brain would have to shrink to fit into the skull of a wolf that is much smaller (Boguet, 1929, pp. 143-4, 146. Sconduto, 2008, pp. 163-4). Since the human brain would need to shrink, he would lose all reason and possibly his soul, something God would never allow. Boguet also believed that it was the Devil who carried out acts of destruction while in the shape of a wolf, leaving a witch in a state of dreaming and letting them believe that they were the wolf (Boguet, 1929, pp. 143-4, 146).

A magical ointment was described by physician, Jean de Nynauld, that was used to transform people into wolves in his 1615 book, De la Lycanthropie, transformation et extase des sorciers (‘On Lycanthropy, the Transformation and the Ecstasy of Witches’). Nynauld believed the ointment created the delusion of transformation and included the same ingredients that witches used to fly (Pearl, 1999, p. 125; Davidson, 2012, p. 160). The ointment included poisonous and hallucinogenic herbs. The toxic herbs included poisonous mushroom, opium, Atropa Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade), Aconitum (Wolf’s Bane), officinarum (Mandrake), Hyoscyamus niger (Hebane) and Conium maculatum (Hemlock) (Davidson, 2012, p. 160; Sidky, 1997, p. 196). Henbane is reportedly able to cause the sensation of transforming into an animal (Sidky, 1997, p. 249).

Alternatively, the Catholic Jean Bodin (1530-1596), denounced the idea that lycanthropy was an illness and predicted that it could lead to legitimate cases of self-confessed werewolves escape (Oldridge, 2005, p. 101). He further believed that the werewolf maintained the rational mind of man, and therefore, a ‘true’ transformation had not occurred to circumvent the heresy of believing in metamorphosis (Oates, 1989, p. 319-20). However, the papacy did not agree and the heretical belief of transformation resulted in Bodin’s work, De la Démonomanie des Sorciers (‘On The Demon-Mania of Witches’), being placed on the list of heretical works by the pope in 1596 (Schulte, 2009, p. 34). However, by this time, the work had already received great success and wide appeal with 23 editions and translations into German, Italian, and Latin (Scott in 1995, p. 9).

Scepticism amongst the intellectuals of society limited trials of supposed werewolves that did not occur to the same extent towards witches. This is not to say, however, that the belief in werewolves was insignificant evidenced by the continued debate about their existence through the ages.


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