Friday, February 5, 2021

Werewolf Trials in France

One of my claims to being fame-adjacent is that I was in college with Mark Rein-Hagen, creator of the World of Darkness series of role-playing games including Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. The reason I bring this up is to point out that the World of Darkness was one of the first places in popular culture where the vampire and werewolf myths were combined into a single story. This trope has gone on to become a mainstay of modern paranormal fiction - vampires and werewolves are treated as part of a single unified myth, often as adversaries.

In real life, though, it should be pointed out that werewolves and vampires are separate myths and come from completely different parts of Europe. The vampire is myth is from Eastern Europe, which is why in Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is originally from Transylvania, a region in modern-day Romania. The werewolf myth is from Western Europe, particularly France. And I will say that I'm getting kind of sick of the whole "paranormal slush" genre that lumps vampires and werewolves together, and then brings in basically every other paranormal creature on the damn planet. It makes a good scenario for a role-playing game in which you want players to have a lot of options, but in terms of real-world mythology it's kind of a mess.

At any rate, I came across this article today about the Beast of Gévaudan and the "werewolf trials" that took place in sixteenth and early seventeeth-century France. I was familiar with the story of the Beast of Gévaudan from cryptozoology circles and also with a couple of the most famous werewolf trials, but I was quite surprised to find out just how many actually went on. You'd think that a "werewolf panic" would be even more implausible than the witch panics that happened in other parts of Europe. It's one thing to accuse someone of casting spells or "communing with the devil," which can't be proven by empirical means, but these trials purported to be about observable physical transformations - which either happen or don't.

As Dangerous Minds notes, the period between roughly 1520 and 1630 saw “France’s version of Europe’s witch trials and executions, but with werewolves. For 110 years, 30 thousand people were accused of being werewolves, tortured in exchange for their confessions, or lack of admission of guilt, and died at the stake.” The panic persisted long afterward. In the most famous case of wolf terror, La Bête du Gévaudan, or the Beast of Gévaudan, supposedly killed and partially ate over 100 people in the span of three years, beginning in 1764.

The many attacks over the centuries attributed to werewolves or some kind of supernaturally vicious and powerful creature were often the result of human killers or of other kinds of animals. But the descriptions of the Beast of Gévaudan remain consistent over the course of dozens of eyewitness accounts, as do the injuries sustained by its victims. Its attacks became so frequent and concerning that Louis XV offered up a bounty for its head. Something was indeed killing dozens of people in Gévaudan, but it wasn’t a werewolf.

Beliefs about the Beast’s true nature have ranged from “a single enormous wolf,” John Knifton writes, perhaps infected with rabies, to “a number of wolves in a single pack… some type of enormous domestic dog, or perhaps even a wolf dog hybrid.” Between 1764 and 1767, half a dozen wolves were killed and said to be the Beast. Some historians have seen a hyena in the descriptions of its attacks, while German biologist Karl-Hans Taake argues it was most certainly a young male lion. Whatever the Beast was, its legend contributed to the ongoing werewolf panic in France and beyond.

As far as I can tell there's no such thing as an actual physical werewolf. There is a psychological condition called Lycanthropy in which a person believes they have transformed into a wolf - and, interestingly, it always seems to be a wolf for reasons psychiatrists don't quite understand. But patients under constant observation clearly don't physically transform. I suppose the only magical way to do it would be to cast some sort of strong illusion so that others would perceive you as a wolf, because otherwise you get into all sorts of issues where probability shifts have to overcome conservation of mass and the like.

Based on the sources I had previously read, I was under the impression that there were only the handful of werewolf trials covered extensively in the historical record took place. Thirty thousand people is a lot, even over a hundred years, especially if you consider that the population of Europe was much lower during that period than it is today. For whatever reason, it seems like a common theme of my posts lately has been bunches of people believing in completely implausible stuff, which is something we all need to pay attention to, especially in the day and age of social media where literally anything people say can travel all over the world in seconds. So far I haven't heard of any werewolf trials, which is a good and happy thing.

As far as fiction goes, werewolf stories aren't really my thing for whatever reason. But their real history is interesting enough to write about without having to bring in vampires, zombies, non-werewolf shapeshifters, other kinds of were-animals, djinn, wendigos, sasquatches, or whatever. Witches and/or magicians could make sense in the right context, since real lycanthropy would most likely be magical in some way. But beyond that, these days it would be nice to see some of the paranormal stories "stay in their lanes," so to speak. Witch trials spawned whole genres that span multiple periods and continents - sometimes in annoying ways, but still. Why couldn't some clever writer do the same with werewolf trials?

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