The medieval world was certainly interested in the supernatural, but this seemed not to encompass the horror element that later became popular, perhaps because there were plenty of horrors in everyday medieval life. The Church, a huge force in the Middle Ages, was keen to connect the idea of the supernatural with miracles, so while Church scholars explored the issue of therianthropy (metamorphosis between human and animal form), this seemed largely in order to deny the possibility that human-beast transformation could occur. The medieval bestiary – a tradition that showed to be intended to communicate a moral message from God to mankind – included exotics like the siren, amphisbaena, basilisk, and manticore; but not werewolves.
Wolves were hated throughout Europe: they were inedible predators with a fondness for domesticated food, and were thought dangerous to people. The term werewolf is found in early medieval legal codes (for instance that of Cnut) to mean outlaw, someone beyond the mutual responsibility of community; and as a denigratory term in clerical texts. Wolves are linked with greed and gluttony in the allegorical tradition.
Medieval werewolf stories existed in the romance tradition, which presented a man – baron, knight or king – trapped in bestial form through outside agency, almost always the man’s wife. Some werewolves were ‘natural’, and turned into wolf form periodically; in this case, stealing their clothes prevented them returning to human form. Other cases occurred through various forms of magic.
Unlike modern filmic depictions, which tend to give the werewolf a physical element of humanity – simian facial features, for instance, or the ability to walk on two legs – whilst emphasizing the ferocious bestiality of the creature’s actions, the medieval stories largely downplayed the bestial aspect: instead, they showed, through the werewolf’s rational and generally gentle behaviour, his human mind and sensibilities trapped inside an outer form that was indistinguishable from a wolf. If a werewolf attacked someone, it was with reasoned purpose: to express the injustice done to him and often to identify the culprit. There were several versions of the story – perhaps the most famous being Marie de France’s Bisclavret – and, to a greater or lesser extent, the narratives were inherently misogynous. The hero of the anonymous Melion, for instance, learns that women cannot be trusted; while in the Welsh story now generally known as Arthur and Gorlagon, surviving in a Latin version, the miscreant wife – a traitor as well as an adulteress, since her husband is the king – is punished by sitting at a table with her wronged husband, and being compelled to kiss the decapitated head of the lover who had plotted with her whenever the king kisses his new wife.
The only female werewolf surviving from the medieval Britain seems to be the one described by Giraldus Cambrensis in Topographia Hibernica, his account of Prince John’s journey to Ireland, and thus a (supposedly) factual narrative. (The werewolf folk-tradition is strong in Ireland, and has parallels with the Old Norse tradition in which werewolves are often presented as warriors so savage they are said to transform into wolves.) Giraldus recounts how in Ossory, only a few years earlier, a priest was approached by a werewolf, seeking the last rites for his wife. This couple had been cursed by a bishop to remain in wolf form for seven years. After much persuasion and proof, the priest agrees. He later confesses and is formally examined. This werewolf tale is particularly interesting because, unusually, the werewolves can speak.
At the tail end of the Middle Ages, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a belief arose that werewolves, like witches, were servants of the Devil. Again like witches, those convicted of being werewolves were burned alive. It is this later tradition that seems to have given rise to the werewolf as a staple of horror fiction, particularly through the influence of the eastern European tradition that links werewolves with vampires.
Dr Amanda Hopkins