Reading List: The Book of Werewolves

“The Book of Werewolves, Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition,” by Sabine Baring-Gould, was originally published in 1865. The author recounts how he became interested in writing the book in Chapter One: He was in rural France and had stayed out after dark working or studying or vicaring. He intended to return to his local domicile by walking across a Werewolf-infested field in the moonlight. He thought nothing of it, being a British clergyman. Among his hosts, all educated and respected people of the town, an argument ensued about the perils of the walk: Who should accompany him? What weapons they should carry? How many strong men it would take to safely come back? Baring-Gould ended the debate by declaring he’d go alone and take full responsibility. Apparently, he lived to tell the tale.

What’s exciting and wonderful about the book is that Baring-Gould knew people who really believed in Werewolves. He treats the subject with gravity although his agenda is to discredit the myth and prove human beings are evil, per Christian doctrine. He’s the clergyman who wrote the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers,” so he’s not exactly a friend of the devil.

Or maybe he is. Some Christian theorists seem so bent on finding evil where they look that they almost seem to create it by the keenness of their gaze…hmm…

Baring-Gould nevertheless does a nice job of digging in to the history and contemporary local myths of shape-shifting humans in European countries. He speaks little about African and Asian myths, so I’ll need to seek elsewhere to learn more about Hyena Women. They are most definitely on my agenda.

Baring-Gould gives fairly detailed accounts of Werewolf trials in Medieval France. He names perpetrators and victims and describes eyewitness accounts as they are recorded in old records of the crimes. Most involve children being attacked or murdered, or going missing under dubious circumstances when a suspected Werewolf was near town. The specifics are much richer than the information I’ve found online about this relatively forgotten subject.

Yes, in France during the Middle Ages, Werewolf trials were as common as Witch trials. This is the sort of very important history that was never mentioned when I was in school.

The credibility of confessions is not questioned by the author. He questions whether or not the accused Werewolves really transformed, but remains innocent of suspicion that the confessions may have been coerced. Torture or threat of torture is mentioned as an interrogation tactic. Usually the accused are outcasts from society before the finger is pointed their way. It’s a bit heart-rending to read how the magistrates passed judgement with some degree of mercy when the accused was “feeble-minded.” The author describes several confessed “Werewolves” with some level of disability who were quick to trust in the authorities urging them to save their souls, or gloated on the attention given them in court, or responded pliantly to the power of strong suggestion until the interrogatory situation lapsed. Meanwhile, the true child-killers, furred or unfurred, continued to roam free.

The book is a reminder that serial killers are not a phenomena of the current time we live in. In the past, society simply had different names and explanations for their behavior. They were Witches, Werewolves, Fiends, and Devil-worshipers. Many had signed a pact with the devil or received a “mark” from his claw. Now we talk about brain chemistry, malnutrition, systematic childhood neglect, and sexual abuse. Different marks with similar results.

What’s lacking in the book is an appreciation of non-Christian traditions like the shamanic transformation into totem animals common in most religions of the ancient world. I suspect that a belief in animals as ancestors is at the heart of Werewolf myths. That’s the good thing about writing fiction: I’ll make my own myth if I don’t like what the history books say. Maybe I’m getting carried away on my own speculative fiction train wreck, but I like to think the ancient Were-creatures were sacred ancestors, protectors of the tribe or town, respected as much as they were feared.

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