Fear of Wolves in Sixteenth-Century Germany

Keywords: werewolves, Johannes Geiler of Kayserberg, Olaus Magnus, rabies, fatalities

From 1570, Europe experienced a ‘little ice age’ that brought harsher winters and wetter summers, resulting in failed crops and outbreaks of disease (Soergel, 2012, p. 24; Bailey, 2013, p. 161). The ice age froze rivers which enabled wolves to travel while impeding traffic for people allowing wolves to approach human habitats in search of food (Aberth, 2013, p. 10). The period also coincided with outbreaks of rabies between animals and humans. These epidemics were unheard of before the sixteenth century (Sidky, 1997, p. 245). Times of war had also been shown to increase the rate of wolf attacks as wolves became attracted to the corpses left on the battlefield. This would have further led to wolves becoming habituated with humans, becoming less fearful and more likely to attack (Fritts, Stephenson, Hayes, and Boitani, 2010, p. 303).

Jost Amman, ‘Wolf Hunt,’ illustrated in Heinrich Schröter, Künstliche, Wolgerissene new Figuren von allerlai Jagt und Weidwerck, Leonhardt Heussler, 1592,
Woodcut, 8.8 x 11.6cm,
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek.

Poor peasants inhabited the surrounding forests outside the walled German cities where there was a genuine present danger associated with villages built in wolf habitats in German alpine regions. The threat felt by wolves during this period is illustrated in several prints of wolf hunts. In a woodcut by Jost Amman, an entire towns’ people with guns, pitch folks, and other farming equipment and weapons that locals could get their hands on to rid themselves of the beasts who preyed on their livestock illustrated with a wolf in the foreground devouring a sheep. The number of prints of wolf hunts reflected fears and frustrations of the problem of wolves encroaching closer to human settlements. Tobias Stimmer (1539-1584) executed several prints of more seasoned hunters and soldiers prepared with nets, horns and drums, and sophisticated weapons to capture wolves. These prints could suggest that wolves were just as much a problem for the inhabitants of walled cities as well as the surrounding towns and farms, which relied on the latter for food production (Resel, 2007, p. 6).

Johannes Geiler of Kayserberg, Die Emeis, Strasbourg, Grüninger, 1516, XLIr
Bayerische StaatsBiblothek

A real concern for wolf attacks in sixteenth-century Germany was highlighted in a chapter devoted to werewolves in the published transcripts of Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg’s (1445-1510) sermons of 1508. They were transcribed and printed as Die Emeis (‘The Ant-Colony’) in 1516 posthumously. In the woodcut, a journeyman pulls back to one side with his arms raised in surprised as a large and ferocious wolf pounces on him with its front claws. This scene is witnessed by the city gate’s guardsman, or lansquenet, evident from his ornate clothing. The lansquenet has yet to fully comprehend what was unfolding before him as his body remains static, still holding onto what appears to be a water canister instead of reaching for a weapon. The figures are scaled larger than the gate beside them, thereby emphasising the audience’s focus on the dramatic scene in the central foreground. However, the gate is important as it reminds the audience that the scene is unfolding just beyond the walled city. The unknown artist appears to convey the dangers that lurk on the other side of the walled city, as the wolf and the journeyman have merged from the depths of the forest (Kors and Peters, 2001, pp. 236-37).

The print and its accompanying text highlights that there was a real concern with wolf attacks and that wolves were getting more desperate for food, leading them closer to human habitats. The increasing encroachment and disruption caused by wolves in human habitats meant they were attributed with supernatural qualities and equated with human qualities of boldness and intelligence. Fear of wolves invading a city wall was retold by Johann Weyer (c.1515-1588) who stated that a pack of a hundred and fifty wolves breached Constantinople’s walls in 1542. The fearful inhabitants barricaded themselves in their houses until the wolves were chased away by soldiers. Reporting that the wolves seemed to instantly leap through the city’s walls provided a supernatural quality to them (Weyer, 1991, p. 515 (Book 6, XIV)).

The text underneath the image states that werewolves were believed to desire the flesh of man ‘for there are were-wolves which run about the villages devouring men and children’ (‘seint also werwölff die in die Dörffen lauffen unnd kind unnd menschen essen’) (For the full English translation of this section see Baring-Gould, 1865, p. 262). This recounted the enduring perception that real wolves were fearful and avoided humans. Current studies have shown that wolves are more likely to avoid humans, particularly if they have less exposure to them. Wolves are less fearful when they come in regular contact with humans (Oates, 1989, pp. 306-7; Fritts, Stephenson, Hayes, and Boitani, 2010, p. 301). However, cases exist where predatory wolves in either single or packs have preyed upon humans for food (Linnell, Andersen, and Zndersone et.al, 2002, p. 16).

The text further recalls the tales from antiquity that connected cannibalism with werewolves. Therefore, any potential attack by a wolf could be attributed to a werewolf. However, Geiler continued by providing several reasons why a wolf would eat a man or child, including both natural and supernatural, but not the belief that man could metamorphose into a wolf. These reasons included: hunger, savageness, old age and lack in swiftness in catching its usual prey, the sweetness of human flesh, madness, the Devil in disguise of a wolf or God punishing man by sending swarms of wolves (Geiler cited in Baring-Gould, 1865, pp. 262-265).

In Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), Olaus Magnus reiterated this point and stated that during the harshest winters, they would even enter people’s homes (Magnus, 1998, p. 894 (Vol. 3, Book 18, Chapter 13). As animals continued to be regarded as distinct from humans, such cunning shown by animals was considered miraculous and thus attributed supernatural qualities to them (Salisbury, 1994, p.178). While recognising the problem of wolves killing cattle in the region, Magnus, emphasised that it was the werewolf who caused the most destruction (Magnus, 1998, p. 929. (Vol. 3, Book 18, Chapter 45)). He believed the northern European countries had ‘huge swarms of them’ (Magnus, 1998, p. 928. (Vol. 3, Book 18, Chapter 45)). Jean Beauvois de Chavincourt also cited the terror of wolves in the French countryside during the sixteenth century stating: ‘the bloody incursion of wolves maddened with hunger’ (Chavincourt, 1599, p. 11).

Even today, there is debate about whether wolves attack humans. Early twentieth-century naturalist Charles Henry Douglas Clarke claimed that wolves do not bite and eat humans, however, rabid wolves do (Sidky, 1997, pp. 242-43). Fear of werewolves in sixteenth-century Germany coincided with outbreaks of rabies between animals and humans. These epidemics were unheard of before the sixteenth century (Sidky, 1997, p. 245). Rabid wolves tend to attack people at random who were typically male, which reflects the predominately male occupations outdoors in agriculture (Linnell, Andersen, and Zndersone et.al, 2002, p. 37). Such epidemics during this period could have led to scapegoating and explanations of the supernatural (Sidky, 1997, p. 85).

Wolves inflicted with rabies tend to roam vast distances aimlessly, become easily agitated and nervous, and have a tendency to bite anything it encounters. In the nineteenth century, accounts of rabid wolf attacks left many livestock killed and people bitten, who subsequently died from contracting the disease. In France in 1851 near Hue-Au-Gal, a wolf bit forty-six people and killed eighty-two livestock (Sidky, 1997, pp. 244). It is at least the main reason for death from wolf attacks today (Linnell, Andersen, and Zndersone et.al, 2002, p. 36).

Children were also easier prey for wolves as they would frequently work on farms, gathering firewood, and herding livestock (Ferraro, 2013, p. 65). This idea is supported by more recent studies of wolf attacks, where the predominant victims were children. A 2002 Norwegian study found ninety percent of wolf fatalities were children. It also found that the remaining adult victims were all women (Linnell, Andersen, and Zndersone et.al, 2002, p. 37). These statistics suggest that either wolves attacked smaller people or were less able to defend themselves from an attack leading to a fatality.


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