Let’s talk about werewolves. Not the fun kind that are trying to steal you from your sparkly vampire boyfriend and don’t wear shirts — I’m talking about the kind that were apparently running rampant in Medieval France.
By “rampant” I really mean rampant. Between 1530 and 1630, there were 30,000 people accused of werewolfery in France. That averages out to roughly one new werewolf being found every day for one hundred years.
Let me remind you that Medieval France was a heavily forested land full of superstitious peasants, home to quite a lot of actual wolves. Wolves dominate their natural environment, and in an era when people tended to go wandering alone and unarmed in the forest in search of food or firewood, the local wolf packs were not too picky about what they ate. Unfortunately for a whole lot of innocent peasants who were mentally ill or victims of torture or both, the French thought that the only thing that would dare eat a human was another human. You saw a wolf eating Sally from down the street? Must be one of your neighbors in the body of a wolf.
It was especially damning if a person was spotted near the sight of a werewolf attack at a later time, because the apparently only reason a human and wolf would be in similar parts of the forest at different times of day is if they’re the same mystical creature. If you were unfortunate enough to be mentally ill in an era when mental illness was woefully misunderstood, you were likely to be the prime suspect. It is suspected that those confessions not elicited under torture were given by people suffering some sort of manic episode or psychotic break, or possibly by people suffering from schizophrenia. It is also possible that some who confessed to being werewolves were in fact serial killers, who knew it would be easier for society to accept that they were possessed by a demonic animal spirit than that they simply enjoyed killing people — not to mention that the punishment would likely be lesser.
Many werewolves, however, were executed for their alleged crimes. One such case was that of Gilles Garnier, who was actually spotted cannibalizing a young child while in his human form. Though most likely a cannibalistic serial killer, Garnier came to be known as the Werewolf of Dole. According to his confession, he was living his normal hermit life in the forests of France when he encountered a spectral demon in the woods one day, since spectral demons have nothing better to do than wander the forests of France recruiting hermits. Regardless, the spectre offered Garnier an ointment with the power to transfigure whoever applied it to himself into a lion, a leopard, or a wolf. The spectre advised that a wolf was probably the best choice, since it was better adapted to the French climate, so Garnier oiled himself down and headed off to eat some French kids. He claimed he did it out of sheer desperation, because this was a time before Piggly Wiggly and he could not find any food for himself and wife. How in the world a hermit met and married a wife, I have no idea.
Regardless, Garnier’s story was not particularly unique. Although, unlike most of the accused, Garnier probably actually had committed some heinous murders, he was tortured and executed just like the vast majority of those 30,000 accused werewolves. Thankfully, this morbid fad petered out at the end of the 17th century, replaced by the somewhat less criminal but equally bizarre practice of wolf charming, where a person would simply bewitch a wolf into their service and command it to eat people. Like werewolfery, it was complete bunk, but trials for wolf charming continued through the end of the 18th century.
Thankfully the modern concept of a werewolf strongly resembles Taylor Lautner, and the average person meeting one in the woods is more likely to fangirl wildly than to run or sell their soul, but either way, I recommend that if you meet strange men in the woods who offer you magical ointment in exchange for your soul, you don’t take them up on the offer.