Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Werewolf Syndrome: Compulsive Bestial Slaughterers

The Devil's Belt

During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church had to deal with the Protestant revolt, which inspired church officials to make their doctrines more forceful in those countries loyal to the Pope.  Thus, they supported campaigns throughout central Europe to rid the populace of satanic entities.  In other words, it was a fear campaign designed to make people more eager to cling to God and the Church.  As a result, between 1521 and 1600 several men were prosecuted in court for therianthropy (becoming a wild beast).  In fact, during one extended period, some 30,000 cases of werewolf "infection" were reported to authorities.  In God's name, inquisitors sometimes hacked these people apart to search for the telltale wolf hair supposedly planted inside their bodies.  No one was immune from arrest, and some witch-finder generals fully indulged their lust for torture. 

Witch-hunters were especially active in France, a country fighting for its former political glory.  At that time, demons were blamed for a great range of criminal behavior, with the devil inspiring his followers to take different shapes.  Some people viewed themselves as being cursed with an animal compulsion.  They not only killed but also consumed their victims' flesh and drank the blood. 

In the countryside, governing bodies issued proclamations to warn citizens about werewolves and to instruct them in how to arrest and punish the beasts.  In essence, "shapeshifters" were people leading degenerate lives that endangered others.  Yet despite the Church's firm attempts to convert everyone to the true faith, mystical practices calling on nature deities continued to flourish, especially in outlying areas.  Many practitioners viewed shape-shifting as a gift not a curse.  And for those people who possessed a strong sexual drive, a pact with the devil seemed a perfect excuse — a way to "accept" that their misdeeds were beyond their control. 

For example, in 1521, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were tried in Besancon, France.  They said they had pledged obedience to the "master" of three black men they'd met in exchange for money and freedom from trouble. They had then been anointed in a ceremony with unguents that changed them into savage animals.  Together they had torn apart a seven-year-old boy, a grown woman, and a little girl, whose flesh they consumed.  They so loved lapping up the warm blood that they could not help but continue to kill.  They also had sexual relations with female wolves, "as Dogges follow a Bitche."  In fact, Verdun had supposedly been discovered in the guise of a wolf.  It seems that a traveler had wounded him before he could kill and had followed his trail to his home, where his wife was bathing his wound.  The court listened to all this with little tolerance and both men were executed for sorcery.

The stories from these times had a common narrative: a woman or child would be found torn and partially eaten, and wolves would be seen bounding away.  Confessions from one or more people always followed, but how freely they were given in those days of hideous torture is open to much doubt.  It's likely that actual wolves were to blame, but people ended up paying the price.  As with any scapegoat, their executions made communities feel purified of evil and therefore safe again.

But the wolves just kept coming back.


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