Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Man or beast? Reading the medieval and Renaissance werewolf through modern forensics

In Bisclavret, her twelfth-century lais, a short, verse medieval romance, Marie de France presents a tale wherein a husband transforms into a werewolf when he sheds his clothes. Bereft of his clothing, Bisclavret has to struggle to reclaim his humanity after his scheming wife hides these one day so she can rid herself of her husband.  Although Bisclavret ends happily and nearly bloodlessly, with Bisclavret’s wife losing her nose when the werewolf bites it off, the medieval and Renaissance werewolf in histories was cruel, lusty, and bloodthirsty. The “real” monster was not the character of a romance, but a very real threat stalking the unsuspecting victim and devouring the corpse. 

Medieval wolf hunt  

Werewolf legends are nearly as old as written history, but alleged cases of werewolfism resurfaced with sharpened teeth and claw in the late-medieval and Renaissance eras.  As early as 1521, Frenchmen Pierre Burgot and Michael Verdun were executed after being accused of being lou-garous.  In 1578, French hermit Gilles Garner confessed to stalking and murdering four children between the ages of 9-12 after a magic ointment turned him into a wolf.  Like Burgot and Verdun before him, Garner was burned at the stake.

Werewolf attacking a man, 16th-century

The case of the werewolf Peter Stubbe of Germany, however, is among the most notorious of the genre.  Executed on October 31, 1589, Stubbe’s story survives in many salacious broadsheets of the age, including a 1590 pamphlet printed in English titled “A True Discourse: Declaring the damnable life and death of one Stubbe, Peeter, a most wicked Sorcerer, who in the likeness of a Woolfe, committed many murders, contributing this devilish practice 25 yeeres, killing and devouring Men, Women, and Children.”  The rapid transmission and translation of this story within a year speaks to strong interest in the lurid details of the Bedburg werewolf. 

Title page of the 1590 pamphlet on Peter Stubbe

Born in Bedburg, near Cologne 1564, Stubbe was “greatly inclined to evil” from a young age, according to the pamphlet.  Stubbe was a wealthy farmer, and the woodcut accompanying the pamphlet (see below) depicts him as a heavyset man.  Many of the details of the case focus upon Stubbe’s extreme sexual deviancy, noting that even prior to his metamorphosis, Stubbe committed incest with his daughter, as “he also lusted most unnaturallye, and cruellye committed most wicked incest with her.”  He also had a mistress, although neither mistress nor daughter nor sex with a close relative could satisfy his urges, leading Stubbe to engage in intercourse with a succubus – a “She-Devil,” as the pamphlet explains.[1] 

Werewolf ravishing a female victim

Stubbe was caught in 1589 by a group of huntsmen who attested that he was mid-transformation.  Facing torture on the rack – where the ankles and wrists are bound in some fashion as the body is slowly stretched out of joint in opposite directions – Stubbe admitted to murdering seventeen young women, children, and men.  Although the accusations include men, the details of the murders all share the distinct feature of the rape of women or girls, where the men are incidental victims or cannibalistic “food.”  If Stubbe spied a group of maidens, “he would be sure to lay hold of one, and after his filthy lust fulfilled, he would murder her presently,” the pamphlet reveals.

Injuries to the women’s bodies suggest the sexual nature of the attacks, as did Stubbe’s own admission that he would tear “children out of wombs.”  Under duress, Stubbe even admitted to killing his own son – the offspring of his incestuous relationship with his daughter – and eating his brains. 

1590 depiction of the torture and execution of Peter Stubbe

After admitting to his crimes, Stubbe faced one of the most gruesome executions on record in Renaissance Europe.  Red-hot pincers were used to tear pieces of his flesh from his body.  His limbs where then broken on the wheel, where he was likely left to suffer in agony while spectators looked on.  The coup de grace would finally come in the form of beheading, and his corpse was burned to ashes.  Sometime during this execution, Stubbe’s mistress and daughter were raped, flayed, and burned at the stake – a tragic footnote since their actions in the case seemed to be an association by guilt or sin, not as accomplices to the werewolf’s murderous reign.  A pole was erected on the execution ground, with Stubbe’s head thrust on the pike at the top. 

Wolf eating corpse, fourteenth-century manuscript illumination

What light can modern forensics shed on cases such as those of Garner and Stubbe?  The stories provide several clues to what may have transpired.  In the case of Garner, a hermit living on the fringes of society, the werewolf may have been living inadvertently on a serial killer’s dumping ground.  The age of all four victims – between 9 and 12 – suggests a murderer with a specific victim group.  If Garner’s testimony can be taken at face value and he is the killer, the surviving evidence, with the emphasis on injuries to the victims’ thighs or legs, also hints at sexual sadism.

In the case of Stubbe, the testimony and evidence strongly suggests a disorganized sexual sadist who drew pleasure in the rape, torture, and murder of his victims.  The accounts of his personal life and insatiable sexual appetite with regard to his daughter, cousin/sister, and mistress buttress this theory.  Even the minor detail about his childhood behavior as being sinister, abnormal, helps to develop an idea about how Stubbe’s deviancy might have begun around the age of sexual maturity since the pamphlets state that he was around eleven when locals began to suspect something was very wrong with the boy. 

Another element of Stubbe’s confession – his account of the murder of his son – can be read with a forensic eye.  Stubbe says he attacked his son and “ate his brains.”  True cannibalism is rare, but it may be that Stubbe is revealing a partial truth – that he bludgeoned his own child in the woods to prevent the evidence of his incestuous union with his daughter from coming to light. 

Gaspar (Kaspar) Puecer, 1525-1602

While many medieval and Renaissance accounts of serial murder insist on demonic possession, pacts with the Devil, or werewolfism, at least one contemporary physician investigating the idea of werewolves understood that the transformation from man to monster was psychological and not physical.  Writing in the mid and late-sixteenth century, Gaspar Puecer, (1525-1602) observed, “Those who are changed suddenly fall to the ground as if seized with epilepsy, and there they lie without life or motion.  Their actual bodies do not move from the spot where they have fallen, nor do their limbs turn to the hairy limbs of a wolf, but the soul or spirit by some fascination quits the inert body and enters the spectrum or ɸάσμα of a wolf, and when they have gutted their foul lupine lusts and cravings, by the Devil’s power, the soul re-enters the former human body, whose members are then energized by the return of life.”[2] (78)  Far ahead of his contemporaries, Puecer understood that this werewolfism was a state of mind, not of body. 

How does a society entrenched in folklore, superstition, and religion define the serial killer?  Today, as in the medieval and Renaissance eras, we label people like these “monsters.”  In our desire to understand the beastly within us, we also seek to differentiate ourselves from what lies beneath. 

Renaissance-csi values your input.  Weigh in below in the comments. 

[1] The accounts vary on the relative, with some suggesting a sister or cousin.  The woman’s last name is also Stubbe, and the accusation is clearly that the relationship was deviant. 
[2] See Peucer’s findings in Montague Summers’s The Werewolf (New York: Dover, 2003), pp. 78.  Writing in 1933 Summers has an extensive wealth of materials on werewolves, his conclusions are questionable since Summers himself insists that “Werewolfism is a very terrible and real thing… .”


  1. Hello I'm trying to find the complete English pamphlet which was printed about Peter Stubbe, so far can only find the title page, any info would be greatly welcomed

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  2. http://www.elmar-lorey.de/werwolf/Stump.htm

  3. Does anyone have extensive research on Stubbe/Stumpf/ Ubel Griswold? ? Oh and by the way, I really enjoyed the website previously posted that had the complete pamphlet on it. Extremely interesting and useful! !! Thank you @Lukaszz Wlodarski! !

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    2. I have done research on Peter Stubbe. Then I wrote an article on my website in Polish: