In considering the real dangers to rural lives and livelihoods once posed by wolves it is not surprising that this animal occupied a unique place in the popular imagination of rural Brittany. For centuries, the wolf was the villain of countless folktales 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.
Over time, the wolf 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); a term sometimes also used as a synonym for the Devil. The wolf was therefore seen as evil incarnate and was often depicted in the region’s lore 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). 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 or 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 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; similar practices were said able to transform a person into a witch.
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 form.
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 480km (300 miles) 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 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 from his bones in ten places, after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden hatchet. Afterwards to have his head struck from his body, then to have his corpse 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 worshipped 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 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 but some early 18th century works mention witches known as graguez-vleiz (Wolf Witches) who, under the guise of beautiful women, dismembered and tore little children to pieces. The werewolf is more often 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 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. In western Brittany, a werewolf was believed able to rid themselves of their curse if they washed in a colonnaded fountain or sacred spring but only if they entered from the east side.
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 tales 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 summed-up by the English antiquary Algernon Herbert, who said: “where there is no natural wolf, there is no werewolf”.