There is currently some speculation that wolves are once again roaming wild in parts of rural Brittany. After an absence of over a century, their presence is now being greeted with a measure of acclaim but it was not always so. For centuries, the wolf was regarded as a figure of dread throughout the land and there are countless accounts of wolves destroying livestock and attacking horses, dogs and people.
In the 17th and 18th centuries it was often reported that wolves hunted men into the towns and villages of central Brittany, keeping the inhabitants virtual prisoners at night. The menace posed by wolves is frequently mentioned in the government records of the time; in 1796 the Commission of the Executive Directory noted that in southern Brittany: “The countryside is infected with ferocious ravenous animals. They already appear in bands of fifteen to twenty wolves. What will this winter be like during the snow?” Similar concerns were raised in central Brittany where, in 1807, the prefect of the Department reported of “the presentation by the mayor of Rostrenen where wolves frequently show up in large packs in the vicinity of the town, threatening cattle and even the people.”
Wolves were regarded as a dangerous menace to everyday life and official bounties were offered to those who killed a wolf; this had been the case since a capitulary of Charlemagne in 813 ordered the creation of official wolf hunters who were charged with eradicating wolves and rewarded with a modus of grain for each wolf pelt submitted. By the late 15th century the French Court included a position known as the Wolfcatcher Royal and in 1520 François I revisited and formalised the old Charlemagnian bounty system but it would still be almost a generation before the laws of a French king held sway in independent Brittany.
In 1676, Louis XIII offered two denarii for each wolf and the records of these bounty payments provide a useful insight into the presence of wolves in Brittany at that time; for instance, in 1685, some 42 bounties were distributed in the town of Quimperlé alone. Abuses to the bounty system saw its abandonment in 1787 only for it be resurrected after the Revolution; in 1790 twelve new francs was set as the new bounty and in 1794 free powder and shot were also added as an incentive. However, the scarcity of firearms at the time meant that take-up was very small, prompting the authorities to exhort to the regional prefects: “There are a thousand ways to capture wolves in the traps that are set for them; research these means, publish them, so that your fellow citizens’ profit and the territory will be purged.“
Some well-documented wolf attacks in western and central Brittany around this time include: in September 1773, near Rosporden, a wolf devoured two children and several head of cattle; in the same year, thirteen people in the village of Saint-Caradec were bitten by a rabid wolf. Twelve died, the thirteenth survived thanks to the bite not penetrating her heavy canvas clothes. In 1777, wolves were reported ravaging charcoal-makers in the woods of Plounéour-Ménez; in Châteaulin in 1797 a wolf attacked three young men, opening the skull of one and permanently disfiguring another. Thankfully, the other man was able to hold the beast until the arrival of a fourth man armed with an axe. Near Bannalec in the same year, an eight year old cowherd was viciously attacked and maimed. At Huelgoat, in January 1811, a wolf attacked a labourer; a fierce struggle ensued in which the man was only saved thanks to his sickle and the energy of his brother. Later the same month and just a few miles away, a young shepherdess had her face lacerated by a wolf who attacked her after killing one of her sheep.
At the time, many people believed that a rabid wolf only attacked livestock but records show that this was not the case. In 1715 a rabid wolf wreaked havoc around Concoret, biting over twenty five people, several of whom died. In 1849, a fourteen year old boy from Châteaulin was attacked by a rabid wolf whose bite had already resulted in the deaths of two neighbours; fortunately he subdued the animal with an axe. A few years later, in 1851, hunters managed to capture and kill a wolf thought to have been responsible for up to forty attacks in the woods around Quintin. In 1872 in Plouguerneau, four cows were attacked by a rabid wolf, one of whom was almost completely devoured. When rabid wolves bit people it was popularly thought that they had only done so under the spell of a sorcerer.
In 1811, the bounty was increased to 18 francs, payable upon presentation of the carcass or simply the head to the local Mayor; some forty years later the bounty increased to 30 francs for a male and 50 francs for a female. It was then still common practice for a dead wolf to be paraded around the streets on a cart or wheelbarrow before being hung from a suitable oak tree near a forest away from town.
At times, the carcass of a wolf was depredated; paws were popularly nailed to doors as charms to keep the wolf at bay and teeth carried for good fortune. Other parts of the carcass were also of value. In 1702, a man from Concoret was condemned as a sorcerer and sentenced to public humiliation for having cast the spell of ‘knotting the needle’. This curse was widely held to prevent the consummation of a marriage and required the penis of a freshly killed young wolf. For the spell to work it was necessary to call out the name of the intended victim and once acknowledged, a tight knot of white twine was tied around the wolf’s member, leaving the new groom unable to perform.
By the late 19th century packs of seven or nine wolves were rare; groups of two to five being most commonly reported but the wolf menace was still keenly felt. The Welsh clergyman Edward Davies, in his account Wolf Hunting and Wild Sport in Lower Brittany (1875), noted: “It is only during a long-continued season of snow that the wolf, pinched by hunger, hardens his heart and becomes at once both a daring and destructive brute. At such a time it has been found necessary to light fires nightly at all the road entrances into Carhaix, Callac, Gourin, Rostrenen and other small towns in that vicinity, in order to save the cattle and even the dogs from the rapacity of the hungry wolves.”
In the year 1879, almost a third of the 555 wolves reported killed in France were slain in Brittany where local priests often blessed the pitchforks and guns of those setting out to kill wolves. While the popular perception might be of images of intrepid hunters armed with simple slow-loading firearms stalking the countryside, the more popular means of capturing wolves was by a covered pit trap and poisoned bait. However, from around 1880, the systematic use of strychnine in those areas known to be home to wolf dens precipitated a sharp decline in wolf numbers leading to its effective disappearance within a decade or so. Changes to the animals’ natural habitat such as deforestation and the construction of more and more roads helped seal the wolf’s fate in Brittany.
The last wolf bounty here was awarded in March 1891 to three hunters from the town of Milizac but it seems that the last wolf killed in Brittany was captured and destroyed around Ménez Hom in January 1903. However, a hanged man was allegedly devoured by wolves near Plouay in 1905 and a three-legged wolf was sighted near Brasparts in 1906 while other sightings were reported near Molac and the forest of Loudeac in the years leading up to WW1.
Although wolf attacks were far from commonplace (just 81 deaths recorded from wolf attacks in Brittany since 1600), the threat to life and livelihood was very real for the rural farmer surviving on subsistence agriculture. Children, who were usually used as cowherds and shepherds, were unable to offer any useful defence against a determined wolf thus many cattle were lost; an expensive asset for a Breton farmer. To keep the cattle or sheep secure in the summer months, it was therefore necessary for the men to sleep outside or to look after the cattle themselves thus diverting much needed labour away from the crucial seasonal tasks. However, the loss of a horse was often the farmers’ greatest worry and there are several pitiful accounts of people forced to become townsmen due to the loss of a horse. In 1796, authorities in the town of Retiers were asked to provide “a few pounds of powder and lead … to continue hunting these destructive animals which, in one year, destroyed in a single neighbouring commune over forty foals.”
Given the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in people’s imagination. For centuries, the wolf was the anti-hero or villain of countless folktales and legends which were passed down through the generations and the beast’s victims of choice were seemingly always young lambs: innocent children watching-over their sheep and cattle or virtuous young girls travelling through the woods after nightfall.
The wolf therefore had accumulated the diffuse fears of the rural folk to become the most terrifying of animals; a beast that dominated the land that man himself claimed dominion over. In yesteryears’ Brittany, most rural dwellers even feared to acknowledge a wolf (bleiz in Breton) by name, referring instead to Yann, Guillou or Ki Noz (the night dog in Breton) which was sometimes used as a synonym for the Devil. The wolf was therefore seen as evil incarnate and was often depicted in the region’s folklore as cruel, cunning, voracious and violent.
This same folklore was rich in tales of shapeshifters; magical beings who could turn themselves into domesticated animals such as cats or pigs but when there was talk of a metamorphosis of a man, it was often into a wolf or man-wolf. The werewolf (Den Bleiz in Breton or loup-garou in French) superstition was once as prevalent in Brittany as in other parts of France but the region was, thankfully, spared the werewolf hysteria that gripped eastern France in the 16th century.
The notion that a man, and it was usually a man, could be temporarily or permanently transformed into a wolf stretches back to antiquity and probably beyond but it was the Roman poet Ovid who provided the image that took root in the popular imagination. In the first book of his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how Lycaon, King of Arcadia, was turned into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for feeding him the roasted flesh of his murdered son:
“His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws and he now directed against the flocks his innate lust for killing. He had a mania for shedding blood. But, though he was a wolf, he retained some traces of his original shape.”
This image of a man-wolf full of cunning and savagery resonated through the ages amongst the rural folk of Europe. In Brittany, where there existed many superstitions surrounding the power of a name, the werewolf was sometimes known as Bleiz Garv (cruel wolf in Breton). A central element in European folktales featuring werewolves is usually the destruction of innocence – the murder of a child, not with thoughts of self-preservation but out of sheer blood lust. The image of the werewolf was one of a ferocious fiend, a cold-blood killer who tasted human flesh for pleasure.
Such traits were little changed since the myth of Lycaon and, like Lycaon, it was believed that the transmutation from man to werewolf could only be achieved through divine of demonic intervention. Only through powerful supernatural forces could man alter so profoundly, thus werewolves were usually linked to witchcraft and were pursued and prosecuted as wicked sorcerers.
Witches and sorcerers were said to be able to transform themselves into animals such as bees, cats, dogs, hares, mice and wolves. Such transformations were regarded as an innate capacity of the witch but it was also believed that such powers were the gift of the Devil; a reward for entering into a solemn pact with him.
The metamorphosis from man to wolf was thought to be most commonly done by shedding their human clothing and putting on a girdle or belt made of wolf-skin but other methods were spoken of, such as applying a special lotion over the body or drinking rain-water from a wolf’s footprint or eating the brains of a wolf. Donning the wolf’s girdle or rubbing oneself with an ointment was viewed as a wilful act; man thus volunteered to become a werewolf.
In addition to the voluntary werewolf, there were also believed to be involuntary ones too. These were typically men who had been transformed into a wolf as a punishment for their sins, particularly thievery, and condemned to pass a certain number of years as a wolf or until the curse was lifted. One tradition in central Brittany held that werewolves were men who had been turned into wolves for not having confessed their sins for more than a decade. Involuntary werewolves were popularly believed to revert permanently to their human form if they bled from a wound inflicted by an iron sickle or a black-hafted blade.
After roaming the countryside at night, a werewolf had only to throw off his wolf skin to return to human form, taking pains to hide their wolf skin with care. In Brittany, it was said that if this skin was placed in a cold place, the man actually felt the chill. Conversely, there is a tale of a man who had hidden his skin in the communal bread oven; his wife having lit a fire there, discovered her husband shrieking and struggling as though he was really surrounded by flames. Burning the wolf skin was thought to forever sever the link between man and werewolf, while destroying the werewolf’s human clothes made it impossible for him to regain his human appearance.
The werewolf superstition was at its height in France during the 16th century and numerous records attest to the trials of people, predominantly men, who were accused of being a werewolf. One of the first celebrated werewolf trials occurred in 1521 in Poligny, a town some 300 miles (485km) east of the then Duchy of Brittany but it is worth highlighting as an indicative example of the typical charges levied and the subsequent investigation and prosecution of the accused.
While travelling near a forest outside Poligny, a group of men were attacked by a wolf but successfully managed to beat off their assailant, injuring him in the process. The injured wolf was tracked to the hovel of Michel Verdun who was found inside dripping with blood; he was promptly seized and subsequently arrested. Under torture, he confessed to being a werewolf and implicated two friends; Philibert Montot and Pierre Bourgot, the latter likewise confessed to being a werewolf but also told of having once made a pact with a mysterious black-clad man to protect his sheep. Bourgot claimed there had been a hailstorm when he was collecting his sheep and that the stranger, likely a demon, told him that he would not have missed gathering a single sheep if he but served the demon as his lord.
Bourgot’s testimony describes how he agreed the pact the following night: “kneeling before the demon in homage, vowed to obey him, renouncing God, Our Lady, all the Company of Heaven, his baptism and chrism. He swore also never to assist at Holy Mass nor to use Holy Water. He then kissed the demon’s left hand, which was black and cold as the hand of a corpse.” He alleged that Verdun gave him an ointment that turned him into a wolf and together they killed at least two children: …they killed a woman who was gathering peas. They also seized a little girl of four years old and ate the flesh, all save one arm. Several other persons were murdered by them in this way, for they loved to lap up the warm flowing blood. … Another time they killed and ate raw a goat belonging to Maître Bongré. It is unclear if Montot also confessed but he was executed along with the others.
Another well documented werewolf trail took place in the Breton border town of Angers in August 1589. Jacques Roulet, a local vagabond, was accused of having been found, hiding amongst some bushes, in the form of a werewolf, half-naked with matted hair, his hands covered in blood and fingernails sunk in the remains of human flesh. The mutilated body of a 15 year old boy was discovered nearby. Roulet confessed to the murder and claimed “to have attacked and devoured with his teeth and nails many children in various parts of the country whither he had roamed.” Furthermore, he claimed to have been a werewolf ever since using an ointment that his parents had given him some years earlier.
Roulet’s confessions during the trial were often contradictory and improbable; he was prone to convulsions and most likely mentally ill. The tribunal sentenced him to death but he appealed to the Parlement of Paris, which commuted the death penalty, probably due to the lack of evidence, to two years confinement at the Saint-Germain-des-Prés asylum “with instruction in the faith and fear of God, which he had forgotten about in his huge poverty.” Roulet was perhaps fortunate that his appeal was heard at the time the Parlement of Paris was stamping its authority over local tribunals, requiring all capital sentences of witches be appealed to them.
Due to their renouncement of God and their alliance with the Devil, werewolves were regarded as damnable sorcerers and like those of their female counterpart, the witch, trials focused on the diabolical pact, confessions were gained through torture and punishments were severe. In the same year as Roulet’s trial, Peter Stubbe was convicted of being a werewolf just over the French border in Westphalia; he was sentenced to “have his body laid on a wheel and with red hot burning pincers to have the flesh pulled off his bones in ten places, after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden hatchet, afterward to have his head struck from his body, then to have his carcass burned to ashes.”
The notion of a pact with the Devil, freely entered into, and the renunciation of God were at the very heart of werewolf trials. Under torture, many hapless unfortunates also confessed to having worshiped the Devil at a sabbath and it was the demonic implications of these two key acts that were the focus for prosecutors. In Brittany, it was believed that the sorcerer who agreed to the Devil’s covenant was bound to it for seven or sometimes nine years; the contract being automatically renewed if the werewolf was seen by anyone other than fellow werewolves. If the werewolf died before being released from the contract he could expect to descend to hell without hope of redemption.
While many scholars of the day argued that human to animal transformation was impossible. Others, such as the 16th century French jurist, Jean Bodin, stressed that such damnable witches should be sentenced to death since “it is a vile belief the Devil puts into the hearts of men in order to make them kill and devour each other and destroy the human race.” A position echoed by Jean Beauvois de Chauvincourt, in his 1588 Discours de la Lycanthropie, who described werewolves as “men so denatured, that they have made bastards of their first origin, leaving this divine form and transforming themselves into such an impure, cruel and savage beast.”
The official position of the Church was that any human to animal transformations did not happen in the physical body but through diabolical illusions in the spirit only. A position the Church had held for centuries, condemning as illusory those vestiges of pagan superstitions and beliefs in magic, animal transformations and night-flights which were contrary to the true faith. Lycanthropy was something induced by evil spirits that created a delusion in some men, culpability therefore lay with the Devil rather than the weak-willed but the culpability of witches and sorcerers for striking a bargain with the Devil was a heresy that demanded a vigorous response.
While the demonic element was usually the key feature of a werewolf trial, the charge was closely followed by accusations of murder and sometimes cannibalism. The accused were usually said to have a predilection for young children and especially little girls and the lewd sin of lechery, sexual assaults and acts of incest were commonly found in such trials. With very few exceptions, it was men that were accused of werewolfism and no matter the physical attributes of the accused, in wolf form he was usually described as strongly-built with sharpened teeth and claws. These were crucial elements in the popular image of a werewolf during the 16th and early 17th centuries; a lustful, lecherous and savage predator.
Without straying too far into pop-psychology it does not take a giant leap to consider that the werewolf might have served as a useful medium for the people in small rural communities to accept how a seemingly rational neighbour could also, for a moment, act as a completely irrational creature. Even if the metamorphosis is always supernatural, the werewolf remains partly human, thus is would have been understandable to dehumanise the image of the man who threatened the stability of the community. The emphasis on the sexuality of the werewolves likely reflects the anxieties felt within the community surrounding the issue of safety. Mutilated livestock, murders and disappearances of children and young women would naturally spread alarm and feed the collective fear of a wicked sorcerer at large. An active sexual deviant could easily destroy the equilibrium in a small village and so, in their fear, the community would turn to God and the local magistrates for help and so the witch-hunt would begin!
The accused in most werewolf trials had three things in common: they were poor, male, rural peasants, depicted as evil but weak-minded men who were easily tempted by the Devil and his promises of reward. Some modern scholars have focused heavily on the extreme poverty faced by many of the accused and questioned whether these men were simply social outcasts without means and thus, as the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, easily chosen as scapegoats for society’s ills. However, it is important to recall that, at the time, most rural dwellers lived in abject poverty and outbreaks of plague and famine were common in 16th century France.
Werewolves were widely held to only roam freely at night, particularly when there were violent winds; in some areas of Brittany this was thought to be only on the nights of a full moon but in others, all nights belonged to the werewolf. The werewolf as symbol of storm, of night and of winter, is a vivid one and some tales add to this sense of otherworldliness by taking the werewolf out of the forest and placing him on the heath or at a crossroads; both locations rich in symbolism – the transition between the wild and the cultivated and of paths chosen.
There are few Breton tales that involve a werewolf attacking people or even other animals; often the werewolf is portrayed as a forlorn creature and many stories contain strong religious connotations surrounding the notion of sin and penance. Curiously, werewolves were believed never to attack musicians and were even said to flee upon hearing the binioù or Breton bagpipe; likely a superstition which had its roots in the 17th century when Jesuit missions in Brittany cursed musicians in their efforts to stamp out music and dancing.
The belief in Wolf Leaders (meneurs de loups in French) was quite widespread in Brittany; men who directed wolves and were obeyed by them. They were also believed to command werewolves. Such men were not always werewolves themselves but sorcerers who had made a pact with the Devil and received something other than the ability to metamorphose as their reward. In some parts of the region, tales tell of men who secretly raised bands of wolves to ravage the land and destroy the flocks and herds of those that were pointed out to them.
In western Brittany, the role of wolf leaders was said to be handed down from father to son. These men were believed to stay for extended periods in the forests, where they were served by their wolves whilst sat on armchairs formed of intertwined oak branches trimmed with grass. It was even said that sometimes they ordered their wolves to lead lost travellers back home. Some stories emphasised the need to give bread as thanks to these nocturnal guides as they might be werewolves seeking to obtain the key to their return to the world of men by a good deed; the gift of bread would allow the involuntary werewolf to break his curse.
The Christian undertones are clear and further examples can also be found scattered throughout Breton werewolf lore stretching back as far Saint Ronan, an early 6th century evangelist in Brittany, who was once famously accused of killing a child and of being a werewolf. The legends of other Breton saints tell how they changed unrepentant sinners into wolves. In western Brittany, priests were once thought to possess the power to transform unbelievers into werewolves and to be able to take on an animal form themselves during Advent. Divine assistance was also called upon to slay a werewolf who it was believed could only be killed by being struck three times in the forehead by a dagger made of silver melted from a crucifix or shot by a ball moulded from the same silver source. Sometimes, it was said that it was also necessary for the firearm itself to have been blessed or its stock rubbed with wax from a Paschal candle.
Adolphe Orain in his Picturesque Geography of Ille-et-Vilaine (1882) tells of another way to lift the werewolf curse in eastern Brittany:
“The charcoal burners will tell you that the garou, that is to say the poor devil on whom a spell has been cast, and who is forced in spite of himself to run every night, can only foil the spell which undermines him by kissing a cross located in a forest clearing. But his efforts are in vain, a force keeps him at a certain distance from the cross, before which he crawls on the ground, screaming in rage. He can only reach it if someone spills his blood, either by hitting him with a stone or with a whip. If the blood does not flow before the sun rises, he will have to start again the following night and return to the same place to try to reach the cross.”
Despite the confessions – given under torture – of the so-called werewolves, it is likely that many of the fatal attacks blamed on them during the werewolf trials of the 16th century were simply wolf attacks. Others were certainly brutal murders and would have been tried as such were it not for the superstitions surrounding the demonic element of a man-wolf. Some of the accused may well have suffered from lycanthropy, a psychiatric illness in which the sufferer imagines himself to have been transformed into an animal. By the middle of the 17th century confessions of werewolfism were no longer credited; the question of bodily transformation having lost its significance in natural philosophy and science.
Many men who confessed to being werewolves claimed that they used an ointment rubbed on their bodies to effect the transformation. Such an ointment could have had hallucinogenic qualities that fooled a man’s mind into believing that he had actually changed into a wolf. Other wolf hallucinations may have been accidental, for instance, a man’s diet might have included bread made from ergot-infected grain (the ergot fungus can cause hallucinations and irrational behaviour) as was quite common in France in the Middle Ages. We will now never know the truth of the matter.
Few of the folktales collected by folklorists and ethnographers in the 19th century deal with werewolves and this perhaps reflects the decreasing importance of wolves in the Breton countryside by then but werewolves continue to remain in the imagination and old legends are still reworked in popular fiction and contemporary films and dramas. The demise of the wolf as a millennia-old adversary effectively made the werewolf redundant; a notion nicely summed up by the English antiquary Algernon Herbert, who said “where there is no natural wolf, there is no werewolf”.