We take a detour from my regular fiction posts to reflect on different werewolf legends and myths from the French region of Europe. Instead of being called “werewolves” which is more of an English/German term, they were called Loup-Garou, which in literal translation is Wolf-Man. The height of werewolf related murders was in the 16th century into the first quarter of the 17th century. Over that span of 100 some-odd years, it was believed that over 30,000 individuals were killed by werewolves or people suspected of being werewolves.
Bisclavret – A record written by Marie de France in the 12th century tells a story of a man named Bisclavret. He’s much beloved by the citizens of his hometown and also his wife. However, he disappears every week for three days. When his wife finally confronts him, and after much prodding, he reveals that he turns into a werewolf on these three days. He strips down his clothes and hides them from himself. If he can’t find his clothes again, he would become a werewolf forever. He also tells her where he hides his clothes. Disgusted by this truth, his wife is determined to rid herself of her husband. She employs the help of a knight whom she promises herself to once her husband is out of the way.
Bisclavret is never seen again and his wife marries the knight. About a year later, the king is out with his hunting party in the same forest where Bisclavret ran as a wolf. They come across Bisclavret in his wolf form, but instead of attacking them, the wolf approaches the king and kisses his feet. The king is amazed and adopts the wolf as a pet for himself. The wolf comes back to his castle and is much loved for his docile temperament and intelligence.
One day, the king holds a banquet and in attendance is the knight who stole his clothes. Bisclavret attacks the knight and was restrained by the king’s guards. The sudden violent behavior of this docile wolf raised suspicion regarding the knight.
The king was later out on a hunt, Bisclavret accompanying him. When they take lodging in an area, Bisclavret’s former wife decides to approach the king with a gift. When Bisclavret sees his wife, he attacks her and rips off her nose. After restraining the wolf, the king’s wisemen make the connection between the knight and the wife and the disappearance of Bisclavret. Under much questioning, the wife confesses to her evil deed.
The king demands that the woman restores Bisclavret’s clothes and once he returns to his human form, Bisclavret is restored his title and lands. The wife and her new husband are exiled.
The Beast of Gévaudan – For three years, between 1764 and 1767, a large wolflike beast terrorized the citizens in the area around the Gévaudan Wood in the southern-central part of France. Some eye witnesses claimed the beast to look like a large dog, wolf, panther, boar, and about the size of a horse. Beginning in the summer of 1764, the beast began preying on lone men, women, and children who were tending livestocks in the area around the forest. The beast attacked its victims at the head or neck, never around their stomach or limbs. Attacks increased and it was presumed that there were actually two or more beasts making these attacks to attribute to the rising numbers. Priests were hailing these attacks as a punishment from God on sinners who were attacked.
King Louis XV became interested in this tragedy and put out rewards for the capture or killing of this beast. He also sent out his own band of royal wolf hunters to destroy the beast.
In September of 1765, one of the king’s hunters, Francois Antoine, killed a wolf measured to be over 5 feet long and weighing over 130 pounds. They recorded that this must be the wolf who had caused so much damage. They named it Le Loup de Chazes, after the nearby area of Abbaye de Chazes where they found it. Citizens reported this to be the famous beast based off of the scars from where its victims fought back. The wolf was stuffed and the reign of terror was declared to be over.
However, a few months later in December, the beast returned and several more killings were reported. This may confirm previous suspicions that there was more than one beast to begin with.
In the summer of 1767, a hunter named Jean Chastel claimed to kill the beast for good during a hunting excursion. The beast was finally taken down with a “blessed silver bullet” made by Chastel himself. When the wolf was cut open, they found human flesh remains in its stomach. By the end of this time, the beast had killed over 100 people and injured about half as much.
The Beast of Gévaudan is a true story, backed up by records from that era. The notion that it was a werewolf came from its first literary mention in 1858 by Élie Berthet where the attacks were done by a man claiming to be a werewolf. The legend has take off from there and has been remade again and again through literature and hollywood to entertain audiences.
The Case of Pierre Burgot and Michael Verdun – Believed to have made a pact with the devil, Pierre Burgot was approached by Michael Verdun in 1521. Verdun ordered Burgot to get naked and rub a magical ointment on his body. Once he did, he transformed into a wolf. Verdun turned into a wolf himself and together, they ran about the countryside committing atrocities such as eating children and killing women. When they were finally caught, they transformed back into their human selves and were put on trial. They were then executed for their crimes and their portraits were hung inside the church to show what kind of evil deeds men were capable of while under the influence of the devil.
Gilles Garnier, the Hermit of Dôle – In the region of Dôle, several half eaten children were found, ranging from nine to twelve years old in 1573. Two months after the discovery, a hermit named Gilles Garnier was arrested for the crimes. He claimed to have killed them with his teeth and claws and ate the meat of their thighs and stomach. He was promptly proclaimed to be a werewolf and executed. Folk songs are still sung about him to this day.
The Were-Woman – In the mountains of Auvergne in 1588, a nobleman saw a hunter out in the forest around his chateau. He told the hunter to report to him what conquests he gained from his hunt when he returned. The hunter later stumbled upon a wolf and in the struggle, cut off its paw. The hunter bagged the prize and presented it to the nobleman at his chateau. When the pouch was opened, they found a woman’s hand bearing at gold ring instead of the paw of a wolf. The nobleman recognized the ring and immediately sought after his wife. He found her in the kitchen nursing an injury. Her hand was missing. After questioning, she admitted to being the wolf that fought the hunter. She was burned at the stake in Ryon.
The Werewolf of Caude – In 1598, a man was found in the region of Caude. He was in the forest, half naked with long matted hair and covered in blood, still holding a lump of flesh in his hands. He was arrested and tried for the killing and devouring of a fifteen year old boy. In this trial, he also confessed to murdering several other people including lawyers, bailiffs, and attorneys. At first, he was sentenced to death but then was condemned to a madhouse. He only stayed there two years.
The Boy Lycanthrope – In 1603, a fourteen year old boy was brought to trial for the crimes of murder. Mentally and physically retarded, he told of how he and another young boy ran away from home into the forest. They met a man clothed in black and accepted wine from him and were taught out to coat themselves in oil and fur. They transformed into wolves and ate fifteen children. Finding his crimes to be the result of a mental illness, they confined him to a cloister for the rest of his life. Over the years, he grew gaunt and long nails like claws. His teeth were sharp like a canine’s and he was fascinated by wolves and imitated them at any given chance. This may be one of the first recorded cases of lycanthrope and after his trial, judges began to regard these werewolf cases with more tolerance.