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Episode
311

A History of Werewolves | Terror, Trials and Transformations

Nov 1, 2022
History
-
22
minutes

For hundreds of years, European folklore was filled with stories of men who would turn into murderous wolves in the middle of the night.

Villagers would do everything they could to try to catch these “werewolves”, and when someone was suspected, the punishments were often brutal.

In this episode, we will explore the bloody history of werewolves.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on the theme of Halloween.

[00:00:28] In part one, we followed the story of vampires, from fictional vampires to real-life ones, and discovered that even the real-life ones weren’t quite so real after all.

[00:00:41] In part three we will look at the unfortunate life of witches, or rather, women who have been accused of being witches.

[00:00:49] But today, in part two, we will be talking about werewolves, humans who have the mysterious power to turn into wolves, and who cause all sorts of chaos and violence.

[00:01:02] It’s an amazing story of accusation, torture, murder and cannibalism.

[00:01:08] This episode does also come with a bit of a warning that there will be some graphic descriptions, so if you would rather not listen to those, then now is the time to press pause.

[00:01:20] OK then, let’s get right into it and talk about the mysterious and horrifying history of werewolves

[00:01:29] Throughout the 1580s, around the rural town of Bedburg in Germany, there were a series of violent and strange attacks on livestock, on sheep, cattle, and other animals.

[00:01:43] At first the townspeople just blamed it on wolves, as they were known to have attacked animals in the past.

[00:01:51] But after a couple of years of the attacks on animals, fears reached new heights when the first villagers, young children no less, were killed.

[00:02:02] Wolf attacks on people had always been far less common so the town began to wonder what was to blame for the new string of casualties

[00:02:12] Before long, two pregnant women were also among the ever-growing number of victims.

[00:02:19] And they had all been killed in truly horrific ways.

[00:02:23] Both women had been sexually assaulted and their babies ripped from their wombs

[00:02:29] The children had been beaten, strangled, and some ripped open and disembowelled, in other words, their organs had been removed.

[00:02:39] Given the brutal nature of the attacks, people soon believed that no ordinary man could have possibly carried out these crimes.

[00:02:49] People began to talk of what beast could have possibly done this, some arguing it was a demon, others insisting the violence must have been the act of a werewolf, a man who had turned into a wolf.

[00:03:04] As the attacks on villagers continued, rumours began to emerge that people had actually seen a fearsome wolf-like beast stalking residents’ properties. 

[00:03:16] The town soon came to an agreement that they must take action and catch the beast.

[00:03:23] So, the villagers armed themselves in preparation for the next attack. 

[00:03:29] They also began to investigate individuals known, or I should say “thought”, to be associated with black magic.

[00:03:39] One of these individuals was a man called Peter Stubbe.

[00:03:44] Stubbe was a wealthy farmer who lived on the outskirts of the town and had kept himself to himself after the death of his wife several years before.

[00:03:54] Although he was investigated, Stubbe was one of the townspeople to have suffered terribly from the recent tragedies, as his son was one of the first children to be killed.

[00:04:07] Despite his personal tragedy, though, suspicions over Stubbe grew and they came to a head, or, reached their limit, after the events of one fateful evening.

[00:04:19] One evening, the townspeople were nervously awaiting the arrival of the beast.

[00:04:26] It arrived, but the villagers were prepared.

[00:04:29] There was a ferocious fight, and in the commotion the villagers chopped off one of the beast’s paws.

[00:04:38] But they weren’t able to kill or catch it; it ran off into the night, never to be seen again.

[00:04:46] Stubbe, however, was also nowhere to be seen during the battle with the beast.

[00:04:54] Suspicious of Stubbe’s coincidental absence that night, investigators decided to visit his home.

[00:05:02] When they arrived they were shocked to discover him treating a very serious wound, the loss of his hand.

[00:05:12] This was all the evidence they needed, they now knew the beast was none other than Stubbe himself.

[00:05:20] He was immediately arrested and brought in for interrogation but it did not take long to descend into brutal torture, which ultimately led to Stubbe confessing to the crimes.

[00:05:34] During his confession, Stubbe made a shocking claim that he had made a deal with the Devil.

[00:05:41] He said that the Devil had awarded him a magic belt made from wolf fur which transformed Stubbe into a giant, ferocious wolf with a hunger for human flesh.

[00:05:55] He admitted that he had indeed sexually assaulted the women he had killed, and that not only had he taken their unborn babies, he had actually eaten them, along with the organs of the children, children that included his own son.

[00:06:11] Grisly stuff indeed.

[00:06:14] And, as you will know, people in the 16th century weren’t exactly known for their lenient punishments.

[00:06:22] So, Stubbe was sentenced to a horrific execution on the 31st of October, yes, on Halloween.

[00:06:31] He was strapped to a large wheel. His flesh was pulled from his bones, his arms and legs were broken and only after all this, was his head chopped off with an axe.

[00:06:43] Finally, his body was burnt to ensure he could never return and terrorise Bedburg again.

[00:06:51] A truly gruesome ending to a truly gruesome tale.

[00:06:55] Now, scholars have cast doubts over whether Stubbe really was a serial killer, or whether he had made a false confession due to the agony he suffered during his interrogation.

[00:07:09] Either way, the story demonstrates how werewolves were believed to be real and were deeply feared throughout history, perhaps even more so than vampires.

[00:07:20] Indeed Stubbe was not alone, for throughout the Middle Ages tens of thousands of people were killed after facing similar accusations of being werewolves.

[00:07:33] So, let’s rewind a bit, and see where the beliefs about werewolves came from.

[00:07:39] Many consider the first account of a werewolf to be from the The Epic of Gilgamesh, the epic poem dating from around 2100 BC.

[00:07:50] The story tells of how Gilgamesh refuses to marry the goddess Ishtar because she had turned her previous lover into a wolf.

[00:08:00] Whether this story invented the idea of werewolves or was written because of existing cultural beliefs is unclear, but it is the oldest surviving example of such a legend.

[00:08:12] That’s not to say it is the only example, though.

[00:08:15] There are plenty of instances of werewolves in Greek and Norse mythology, too.

[00:08:21] The Greek god Zeus, for example, transformed the tyrant Lycaon into a wolf after Lycaon had attempted to trick Zeus into eating human flesh at a banquet.

[00:08:33] In the 13th century, one of the original Norse werewolf tales was also immortalised in the Saga of the Volsungs.

[00:08:42] This story follows a father and son who, when in the forest, had found magical wolf skins that could turn people into wolves for ten days, similar to the belt Stubbe had claimed to have received from the Devil.

[00:08:58] Unable to resist such powers, the father and son put on the wolf fur and began a killing spree which only ended when the father turned on his own son.

[00:09:11] Clearly, it’s a common feature in werewolf myths to see humans turned to ravenous beasts and who, like Stubbe, lose any human conscience or sympathy for their fellow man, and cannot not resist killing.

[00:09:26] And although these two stories are from myth there are also accounts discussing the real-life existence of werewolves, too.

[00:09:35] As early as 425 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus tells of a tribe of magical men, the Neuri, who transformed themselves into wolves for several days of the year.

[00:09:49] As you might expect, historians now believe that there was a perfectly logical explanation for this: the Neuri lived near Russia, in modern day Belarus, and their so-called transformation was them wearing wolf skins in order to stay warm in winter.

[00:10:08] All very logical.

[00:10:10] But mistaking someone wearing a wolf skin for someone who has turned into a wolf is one isolated incident, and certainly doesn’t explain the huge popularity of the werewolf myth.

[00:10:24] We might now say that it’s simply an attractive story, a great monster to invent and believe in, but modern scholars argue that the belief in werewolves may have stemmed from some fundamental misunderstandings about the human body.

[00:10:41] Specifically, misunderstandings about illnesses.

[00:10:46] For instance, the concept of someone being bitten and then acting strangely could have come from, well, you may well have guessed it, rabies, the disease that still exists today and that you can get if you are bitten by an infected dog, fox, or other animal.

[00:11:06] Rabies affects the entire nervous system and even your saliva, which means it is transferable through bites.

[00:11:14] When infected with the virus, people will often begin to act very strangely due to chemical imbalances in the brain that could even cause hallucinations.

[00:11:25] Those affected can struggle to sleep, making them active through the night just like werewolves.

[00:11:32] And that's not to mention the frothing at the mouth, dribbling, which certainly might have rang alarm bells at a time when these diseases were not at all understood.

[00:11:43] In fact, a werewolf would have been a pretty good explanation for all those symptoms, especially when there are other illnesses that could support the belief in such beasts, as well.

[00:11:55] One such condition, called congenital hypertrichosis terminalis, has even become known as werewolf syndrome.

[00:12:04] This condition causes excessive growth of dark hair and can lead to a sufferer’s entire face and hands being covered in thick dark hair that resembles animal fur.

[00:12:17] Though this condition is far rarer than rabies, it certainly would have strengthened beliefs in werewolves in the past.

[00:12:25] Even in the 19th century, sufferers of this condition were called ‘wolf-men’, and they were often put on display in circus freakshows.

[00:12:35] And while this caused no real health risks, there would clearly have been pretty serious psychological effects of being treated in such a way.

[00:12:46] There is, however, a rare illness, or delusion, that has no physical signs but does actually cause the sufferer to believe that they have become a wolf.

[00:12:58] And it’s called lycanthropy.

[00:13:01] Sure, this is a word you are incredibly unlikely to come across in any kind of normal conversation, but this is an episode about werewolves, and it’s a bit of fun trivia, so let me tell you a little bit more about it.

[00:13:15] People who suffer from lycanthropy actually believe that they have become wolves.

[00:13:21] They insist that their bodies have changed, they have grown fur and that they have large wolf-like teeth, though, in reality, none of this is true and they have not changed at all.

[00:13:34] In some cases, sufferers even begin acting like wolves walking on their hands and feet and howling.

[00:13:43] In the 4th century, the Greek doctor Oribasus even discusses the condition saying that this behaviour was a symptom of ‘melancholia’, which was sort of a catch-all term used in the past for a variety of mental illnesses.

[00:14:02] Today, scientists are not exactly sure what causes lycanthropy but they believe it is often related to illnesses such as schizophrenia, severe mood disorders or even brain injuries.

[00:14:15] Although it's an incredibly rare condition, if someone had been exhibiting such behaviour in ancient times, then they would certainly have aroused suspicion of being a werewolf

[00:14:28] And if you were accused of being a werewolf, well it wasn’t good news at all.

[00:14:34] Anyone who was accused of being a werewolf would be put on trial, and these trials were far more common than you might think.

[00:14:42] Not in Britain, I should say, for the very good reason that wolves had been hunted to extinction by the 15th century, there were no wolves living in Britain.

[00:14:53] In France, however, wolves were still a real threat at the time and this of course fuelled fears over werewolves, and France became the leader in werewolf trials and prosecutions.

[00:15:08] Some of the first to be put on trial, in the year 1521, were the shepherds Michel Verdun and Pierre Burgot.

[00:15:17] During the trial, Burgot had claimed that one night twenty years earlier, he was fearing for the safety of his sheep when three figures wearing black had rode to his farm.

[00:15:31] One of the figures had told Burgot that if he acknowledged him as his lord he would protect the sheep, so Burgot renounced God and kissed the hand of the figure who offered protection.

[00:15:45] This strange encounter was his first step on a very dark path.

[00:15:51] A couple of years later, fellow shepherd Michel Verdun brought Burgot into the woods and forced him to strip naked.

[00:16:00] Burgot was then anointed, covered in a liquid, that Verdun claimed could transform him into a werewolf.

[00:16:09] Shortly afterwards, Burgot said he had grown fur and his hands and feet turned into giant wolf-like claws.

[00:16:18] The pair then went on a murderous rampage preying on travellers, fellow farmers and children.

[00:16:26] Like Stubbe, the pair tore their victims to pieces and even ate many of the children.

[00:16:33] At trial, the pair even admitted to acts of bestiality.

[00:16:38] Their reign of terror was stopped in a similar way to Stubbe’s as a traveller had fought off Verdun and severely injured him causing him to flee.

[00:16:49] But the brave, or perhaps foolish, traveller decided to follow the trail of blood and stumbled across a man with a wound in the very same place as the beast’s injury.

[00:17:01] Both men were found guilty and burnt alive.

[00:17:06] But they were far from the only ones, and scholars estimate that around 30,000 people in France were executed for being werewolves between 1520 and 1630.

[00:17:19] Clearly, they were not actually werewolves, but they were more likely people suffering serious mental illness. Some had, perhaps, committed terrible crimes, but it seems probable that most were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

[00:17:36] And as our understanding of science and the human body improved, and belief in superstition started to wane, the belief in werewolves began to fade just like it did for vampires.

[00:17:50] Instead of being at the centre of sensational trials at court, the creatures were relegated to stories and literature. 

[00:17:59] Indeed, werewolves do appear in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

[00:18:04] But in many of these early novels, including Stoker’s, werewolves were more minor figures while the vampires took the starring roles.

[00:18:14] It was not until 1933 that werewolves in popular culture really got their starring role, with Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, a novel which has been described as the Dracula of werewolf literature.

[00:18:29] This book has all you’d expect from a werewolf story, painful transformations, secret killings, and feastings on flesh. It quickly rose to become a New York Times bestseller, it was a huge hit.

[00:18:45] Keen to jump on the trend, cinema producers did not take long to bring the beast onto the big screen and in 1935 audiences were presented with the first image of a half-man half-wolf in The Werewolf of London.

[00:19:02] However, the film was a flop, a disappointment, it was a commercial and critical failure.

[00:19:09] It was not until The Wolf Man in 1941, that a werewolf movie would be celebrated and gain critical acclaim.

[00:19:18] And from here, werewolves were on an upward trajectory.

[00:19:23] Like vampires and witches, they became a mainstay of horror, science fiction and fantasy, and rather than being portrayed only as murderous beasts, they are often portrayed in a more nuanced, more complicated way, with hopes and dreams of their own.

[00:19:43] So, to wrap up this little jaunt into the world of werewolves, werewolves were once used to make sense of barbaric human acts, appearing in sensational stories that capture the fear of deeply superstitious societies.

[00:19:59] They were used as a convenient way to scapegoat people who were probably suffering from terrible mental illnesses.

[00:20:06] But while their history can be, at least semi-rationally explained today, the idea of the werewolf has an enduring appeal.

[00:20:16] Perhaps it’s because wolves are the epitome of a wild and ravenous animal, perhaps it’s because it taps into pre-existing fears and superstitions about what happens on a full moon, or perhaps it’s because they remind us of the at times blurry, unclear, boundary between man and beast.

[00:20:41] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on werewolves.

[00:20:46] As a reminder, this was part two of a three part mini-series on the theme of Halloween.

[00:20:52] In our next and final episode of the series, we will be exploring the unfortunate history of witches.

[00:20:59] And if you missed part one, that was on Vampires.

[00:21:03] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:07] What do you think the cultural obsession with werewolves tells us about ourselves?

[00:21:12] Are there interesting and unusual stories about werewolves from your country?

[00:21:17] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:29] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:34] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on the theme of Halloween.

[00:00:28] In part one, we followed the story of vampires, from fictional vampires to real-life ones, and discovered that even the real-life ones weren’t quite so real after all.

[00:00:41] In part three we will look at the unfortunate life of witches, or rather, women who have been accused of being witches.

[00:00:49] But today, in part two, we will be talking about werewolves, humans who have the mysterious power to turn into wolves, and who cause all sorts of chaos and violence.

[00:01:02] It’s an amazing story of accusation, torture, murder and cannibalism.

[00:01:08] This episode does also come with a bit of a warning that there will be some graphic descriptions, so if you would rather not listen to those, then now is the time to press pause.

[00:01:20] OK then, let’s get right into it and talk about the mysterious and horrifying history of werewolves

[00:01:29] Throughout the 1580s, around the rural town of Bedburg in Germany, there were a series of violent and strange attacks on livestock, on sheep, cattle, and other animals.

[00:01:43] At first the townspeople just blamed it on wolves, as they were known to have attacked animals in the past.

[00:01:51] But after a couple of years of the attacks on animals, fears reached new heights when the first villagers, young children no less, were killed.

[00:02:02] Wolf attacks on people had always been far less common so the town began to wonder what was to blame for the new string of casualties

[00:02:12] Before long, two pregnant women were also among the ever-growing number of victims.

[00:02:19] And they had all been killed in truly horrific ways.

[00:02:23] Both women had been sexually assaulted and their babies ripped from their wombs

[00:02:29] The children had been beaten, strangled, and some ripped open and disembowelled, in other words, their organs had been removed.

[00:02:39] Given the brutal nature of the attacks, people soon believed that no ordinary man could have possibly carried out these crimes.

[00:02:49] People began to talk of what beast could have possibly done this, some arguing it was a demon, others insisting the violence must have been the act of a werewolf, a man who had turned into a wolf.

[00:03:04] As the attacks on villagers continued, rumours began to emerge that people had actually seen a fearsome wolf-like beast stalking residents’ properties. 

[00:03:16] The town soon came to an agreement that they must take action and catch the beast.

[00:03:23] So, the villagers armed themselves in preparation for the next attack. 

[00:03:29] They also began to investigate individuals known, or I should say “thought”, to be associated with black magic.

[00:03:39] One of these individuals was a man called Peter Stubbe.

[00:03:44] Stubbe was a wealthy farmer who lived on the outskirts of the town and had kept himself to himself after the death of his wife several years before.

[00:03:54] Although he was investigated, Stubbe was one of the townspeople to have suffered terribly from the recent tragedies, as his son was one of the first children to be killed.

[00:04:07] Despite his personal tragedy, though, suspicions over Stubbe grew and they came to a head, or, reached their limit, after the events of one fateful evening.

[00:04:19] One evening, the townspeople were nervously awaiting the arrival of the beast.

[00:04:26] It arrived, but the villagers were prepared.

[00:04:29] There was a ferocious fight, and in the commotion the villagers chopped off one of the beast’s paws.

[00:04:38] But they weren’t able to kill or catch it; it ran off into the night, never to be seen again.

[00:04:46] Stubbe, however, was also nowhere to be seen during the battle with the beast.

[00:04:54] Suspicious of Stubbe’s coincidental absence that night, investigators decided to visit his home.

[00:05:02] When they arrived they were shocked to discover him treating a very serious wound, the loss of his hand.

[00:05:12] This was all the evidence they needed, they now knew the beast was none other than Stubbe himself.

[00:05:20] He was immediately arrested and brought in for interrogation but it did not take long to descend into brutal torture, which ultimately led to Stubbe confessing to the crimes.

[00:05:34] During his confession, Stubbe made a shocking claim that he had made a deal with the Devil.

[00:05:41] He said that the Devil had awarded him a magic belt made from wolf fur which transformed Stubbe into a giant, ferocious wolf with a hunger for human flesh.

[00:05:55] He admitted that he had indeed sexually assaulted the women he had killed, and that not only had he taken their unborn babies, he had actually eaten them, along with the organs of the children, children that included his own son.

[00:06:11] Grisly stuff indeed.

[00:06:14] And, as you will know, people in the 16th century weren’t exactly known for their lenient punishments.

[00:06:22] So, Stubbe was sentenced to a horrific execution on the 31st of October, yes, on Halloween.

[00:06:31] He was strapped to a large wheel. His flesh was pulled from his bones, his arms and legs were broken and only after all this, was his head chopped off with an axe.

[00:06:43] Finally, his body was burnt to ensure he could never return and terrorise Bedburg again.

[00:06:51] A truly gruesome ending to a truly gruesome tale.

[00:06:55] Now, scholars have cast doubts over whether Stubbe really was a serial killer, or whether he had made a false confession due to the agony he suffered during his interrogation.

[00:07:09] Either way, the story demonstrates how werewolves were believed to be real and were deeply feared throughout history, perhaps even more so than vampires.

[00:07:20] Indeed Stubbe was not alone, for throughout the Middle Ages tens of thousands of people were killed after facing similar accusations of being werewolves.

[00:07:33] So, let’s rewind a bit, and see where the beliefs about werewolves came from.

[00:07:39] Many consider the first account of a werewolf to be from the The Epic of Gilgamesh, the epic poem dating from around 2100 BC.

[00:07:50] The story tells of how Gilgamesh refuses to marry the goddess Ishtar because she had turned her previous lover into a wolf.

[00:08:00] Whether this story invented the idea of werewolves or was written because of existing cultural beliefs is unclear, but it is the oldest surviving example of such a legend.

[00:08:12] That’s not to say it is the only example, though.

[00:08:15] There are plenty of instances of werewolves in Greek and Norse mythology, too.

[00:08:21] The Greek god Zeus, for example, transformed the tyrant Lycaon into a wolf after Lycaon had attempted to trick Zeus into eating human flesh at a banquet.

[00:08:33] In the 13th century, one of the original Norse werewolf tales was also immortalised in the Saga of the Volsungs.

[00:08:42] This story follows a father and son who, when in the forest, had found magical wolf skins that could turn people into wolves for ten days, similar to the belt Stubbe had claimed to have received from the Devil.

[00:08:58] Unable to resist such powers, the father and son put on the wolf fur and began a killing spree which only ended when the father turned on his own son.

[00:09:11] Clearly, it’s a common feature in werewolf myths to see humans turned to ravenous beasts and who, like Stubbe, lose any human conscience or sympathy for their fellow man, and cannot not resist killing.

[00:09:26] And although these two stories are from myth there are also accounts discussing the real-life existence of werewolves, too.

[00:09:35] As early as 425 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus tells of a tribe of magical men, the Neuri, who transformed themselves into wolves for several days of the year.

[00:09:49] As you might expect, historians now believe that there was a perfectly logical explanation for this: the Neuri lived near Russia, in modern day Belarus, and their so-called transformation was them wearing wolf skins in order to stay warm in winter.

[00:10:08] All very logical.

[00:10:10] But mistaking someone wearing a wolf skin for someone who has turned into a wolf is one isolated incident, and certainly doesn’t explain the huge popularity of the werewolf myth.

[00:10:24] We might now say that it’s simply an attractive story, a great monster to invent and believe in, but modern scholars argue that the belief in werewolves may have stemmed from some fundamental misunderstandings about the human body.

[00:10:41] Specifically, misunderstandings about illnesses.

[00:10:46] For instance, the concept of someone being bitten and then acting strangely could have come from, well, you may well have guessed it, rabies, the disease that still exists today and that you can get if you are bitten by an infected dog, fox, or other animal.

[00:11:06] Rabies affects the entire nervous system and even your saliva, which means it is transferable through bites.

[00:11:14] When infected with the virus, people will often begin to act very strangely due to chemical imbalances in the brain that could even cause hallucinations.

[00:11:25] Those affected can struggle to sleep, making them active through the night just like werewolves.

[00:11:32] And that's not to mention the frothing at the mouth, dribbling, which certainly might have rang alarm bells at a time when these diseases were not at all understood.

[00:11:43] In fact, a werewolf would have been a pretty good explanation for all those symptoms, especially when there are other illnesses that could support the belief in such beasts, as well.

[00:11:55] One such condition, called congenital hypertrichosis terminalis, has even become known as werewolf syndrome.

[00:12:04] This condition causes excessive growth of dark hair and can lead to a sufferer’s entire face and hands being covered in thick dark hair that resembles animal fur.

[00:12:17] Though this condition is far rarer than rabies, it certainly would have strengthened beliefs in werewolves in the past.

[00:12:25] Even in the 19th century, sufferers of this condition were called ‘wolf-men’, and they were often put on display in circus freakshows.

[00:12:35] And while this caused no real health risks, there would clearly have been pretty serious psychological effects of being treated in such a way.

[00:12:46] There is, however, a rare illness, or delusion, that has no physical signs but does actually cause the sufferer to believe that they have become a wolf.

[00:12:58] And it’s called lycanthropy.

[00:13:01] Sure, this is a word you are incredibly unlikely to come across in any kind of normal conversation, but this is an episode about werewolves, and it’s a bit of fun trivia, so let me tell you a little bit more about it.

[00:13:15] People who suffer from lycanthropy actually believe that they have become wolves.

[00:13:21] They insist that their bodies have changed, they have grown fur and that they have large wolf-like teeth, though, in reality, none of this is true and they have not changed at all.

[00:13:34] In some cases, sufferers even begin acting like wolves walking on their hands and feet and howling.

[00:13:43] In the 4th century, the Greek doctor Oribasus even discusses the condition saying that this behaviour was a symptom of ‘melancholia’, which was sort of a catch-all term used in the past for a variety of mental illnesses.

[00:14:02] Today, scientists are not exactly sure what causes lycanthropy but they believe it is often related to illnesses such as schizophrenia, severe mood disorders or even brain injuries.

[00:14:15] Although it's an incredibly rare condition, if someone had been exhibiting such behaviour in ancient times, then they would certainly have aroused suspicion of being a werewolf

[00:14:28] And if you were accused of being a werewolf, well it wasn’t good news at all.

[00:14:34] Anyone who was accused of being a werewolf would be put on trial, and these trials were far more common than you might think.

[00:14:42] Not in Britain, I should say, for the very good reason that wolves had been hunted to extinction by the 15th century, there were no wolves living in Britain.

[00:14:53] In France, however, wolves were still a real threat at the time and this of course fuelled fears over werewolves, and France became the leader in werewolf trials and prosecutions.

[00:15:08] Some of the first to be put on trial, in the year 1521, were the shepherds Michel Verdun and Pierre Burgot.

[00:15:17] During the trial, Burgot had claimed that one night twenty years earlier, he was fearing for the safety of his sheep when three figures wearing black had rode to his farm.

[00:15:31] One of the figures had told Burgot that if he acknowledged him as his lord he would protect the sheep, so Burgot renounced God and kissed the hand of the figure who offered protection.

[00:15:45] This strange encounter was his first step on a very dark path.

[00:15:51] A couple of years later, fellow shepherd Michel Verdun brought Burgot into the woods and forced him to strip naked.

[00:16:00] Burgot was then anointed, covered in a liquid, that Verdun claimed could transform him into a werewolf.

[00:16:09] Shortly afterwards, Burgot said he had grown fur and his hands and feet turned into giant wolf-like claws.

[00:16:18] The pair then went on a murderous rampage preying on travellers, fellow farmers and children.

[00:16:26] Like Stubbe, the pair tore their victims to pieces and even ate many of the children.

[00:16:33] At trial, the pair even admitted to acts of bestiality.

[00:16:38] Their reign of terror was stopped in a similar way to Stubbe’s as a traveller had fought off Verdun and severely injured him causing him to flee.

[00:16:49] But the brave, or perhaps foolish, traveller decided to follow the trail of blood and stumbled across a man with a wound in the very same place as the beast’s injury.

[00:17:01] Both men were found guilty and burnt alive.

[00:17:06] But they were far from the only ones, and scholars estimate that around 30,000 people in France were executed for being werewolves between 1520 and 1630.

[00:17:19] Clearly, they were not actually werewolves, but they were more likely people suffering serious mental illness. Some had, perhaps, committed terrible crimes, but it seems probable that most were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

[00:17:36] And as our understanding of science and the human body improved, and belief in superstition started to wane, the belief in werewolves began to fade just like it did for vampires.

[00:17:50] Instead of being at the centre of sensational trials at court, the creatures were relegated to stories and literature. 

[00:17:59] Indeed, werewolves do appear in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

[00:18:04] But in many of these early novels, including Stoker’s, werewolves were more minor figures while the vampires took the starring roles.

[00:18:14] It was not until 1933 that werewolves in popular culture really got their starring role, with Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, a novel which has been described as the Dracula of werewolf literature.

[00:18:29] This book has all you’d expect from a werewolf story, painful transformations, secret killings, and feastings on flesh. It quickly rose to become a New York Times bestseller, it was a huge hit.

[00:18:45] Keen to jump on the trend, cinema producers did not take long to bring the beast onto the big screen and in 1935 audiences were presented with the first image of a half-man half-wolf in The Werewolf of London.

[00:19:02] However, the film was a flop, a disappointment, it was a commercial and critical failure.

[00:19:09] It was not until The Wolf Man in 1941, that a werewolf movie would be celebrated and gain critical acclaim.

[00:19:18] And from here, werewolves were on an upward trajectory.

[00:19:23] Like vampires and witches, they became a mainstay of horror, science fiction and fantasy, and rather than being portrayed only as murderous beasts, they are often portrayed in a more nuanced, more complicated way, with hopes and dreams of their own.

[00:19:43] So, to wrap up this little jaunt into the world of werewolves, werewolves were once used to make sense of barbaric human acts, appearing in sensational stories that capture the fear of deeply superstitious societies.

[00:19:59] They were used as a convenient way to scapegoat people who were probably suffering from terrible mental illnesses.

[00:20:06] But while their history can be, at least semi-rationally explained today, the idea of the werewolf has an enduring appeal.

[00:20:16] Perhaps it’s because wolves are the epitome of a wild and ravenous animal, perhaps it’s because it taps into pre-existing fears and superstitions about what happens on a full moon, or perhaps it’s because they remind us of the at times blurry, unclear, boundary between man and beast.

[00:20:41] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on werewolves.

[00:20:46] As a reminder, this was part two of a three part mini-series on the theme of Halloween.

[00:20:52] In our next and final episode of the series, we will be exploring the unfortunate history of witches.

[00:20:59] And if you missed part one, that was on Vampires.

[00:21:03] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:07] What do you think the cultural obsession with werewolves tells us about ourselves?

[00:21:12] Are there interesting and unusual stories about werewolves from your country?

[00:21:17] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:29] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:34] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:00:11] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today is part two of a three-part mini-series on the theme of Halloween.

[00:00:28] In part one, we followed the story of vampires, from fictional vampires to real-life ones, and discovered that even the real-life ones weren’t quite so real after all.

[00:00:41] In part three we will look at the unfortunate life of witches, or rather, women who have been accused of being witches.

[00:00:49] But today, in part two, we will be talking about werewolves, humans who have the mysterious power to turn into wolves, and who cause all sorts of chaos and violence.

[00:01:02] It’s an amazing story of accusation, torture, murder and cannibalism.

[00:01:08] This episode does also come with a bit of a warning that there will be some graphic descriptions, so if you would rather not listen to those, then now is the time to press pause.

[00:01:20] OK then, let’s get right into it and talk about the mysterious and horrifying history of werewolves

[00:01:29] Throughout the 1580s, around the rural town of Bedburg in Germany, there were a series of violent and strange attacks on livestock, on sheep, cattle, and other animals.

[00:01:43] At first the townspeople just blamed it on wolves, as they were known to have attacked animals in the past.

[00:01:51] But after a couple of years of the attacks on animals, fears reached new heights when the first villagers, young children no less, were killed.

[00:02:02] Wolf attacks on people had always been far less common so the town began to wonder what was to blame for the new string of casualties

[00:02:12] Before long, two pregnant women were also among the ever-growing number of victims.

[00:02:19] And they had all been killed in truly horrific ways.

[00:02:23] Both women had been sexually assaulted and their babies ripped from their wombs

[00:02:29] The children had been beaten, strangled, and some ripped open and disembowelled, in other words, their organs had been removed.

[00:02:39] Given the brutal nature of the attacks, people soon believed that no ordinary man could have possibly carried out these crimes.

[00:02:49] People began to talk of what beast could have possibly done this, some arguing it was a demon, others insisting the violence must have been the act of a werewolf, a man who had turned into a wolf.

[00:03:04] As the attacks on villagers continued, rumours began to emerge that people had actually seen a fearsome wolf-like beast stalking residents’ properties. 

[00:03:16] The town soon came to an agreement that they must take action and catch the beast.

[00:03:23] So, the villagers armed themselves in preparation for the next attack. 

[00:03:29] They also began to investigate individuals known, or I should say “thought”, to be associated with black magic.

[00:03:39] One of these individuals was a man called Peter Stubbe.

[00:03:44] Stubbe was a wealthy farmer who lived on the outskirts of the town and had kept himself to himself after the death of his wife several years before.

[00:03:54] Although he was investigated, Stubbe was one of the townspeople to have suffered terribly from the recent tragedies, as his son was one of the first children to be killed.

[00:04:07] Despite his personal tragedy, though, suspicions over Stubbe grew and they came to a head, or, reached their limit, after the events of one fateful evening.

[00:04:19] One evening, the townspeople were nervously awaiting the arrival of the beast.

[00:04:26] It arrived, but the villagers were prepared.

[00:04:29] There was a ferocious fight, and in the commotion the villagers chopped off one of the beast’s paws.

[00:04:38] But they weren’t able to kill or catch it; it ran off into the night, never to be seen again.

[00:04:46] Stubbe, however, was also nowhere to be seen during the battle with the beast.

[00:04:54] Suspicious of Stubbe’s coincidental absence that night, investigators decided to visit his home.

[00:05:02] When they arrived they were shocked to discover him treating a very serious wound, the loss of his hand.

[00:05:12] This was all the evidence they needed, they now knew the beast was none other than Stubbe himself.

[00:05:20] He was immediately arrested and brought in for interrogation but it did not take long to descend into brutal torture, which ultimately led to Stubbe confessing to the crimes.

[00:05:34] During his confession, Stubbe made a shocking claim that he had made a deal with the Devil.

[00:05:41] He said that the Devil had awarded him a magic belt made from wolf fur which transformed Stubbe into a giant, ferocious wolf with a hunger for human flesh.

[00:05:55] He admitted that he had indeed sexually assaulted the women he had killed, and that not only had he taken their unborn babies, he had actually eaten them, along with the organs of the children, children that included his own son.

[00:06:11] Grisly stuff indeed.

[00:06:14] And, as you will know, people in the 16th century weren’t exactly known for their lenient punishments.

[00:06:22] So, Stubbe was sentenced to a horrific execution on the 31st of October, yes, on Halloween.

[00:06:31] He was strapped to a large wheel. His flesh was pulled from his bones, his arms and legs were broken and only after all this, was his head chopped off with an axe.

[00:06:43] Finally, his body was burnt to ensure he could never return and terrorise Bedburg again.

[00:06:51] A truly gruesome ending to a truly gruesome tale.

[00:06:55] Now, scholars have cast doubts over whether Stubbe really was a serial killer, or whether he had made a false confession due to the agony he suffered during his interrogation.

[00:07:09] Either way, the story demonstrates how werewolves were believed to be real and were deeply feared throughout history, perhaps even more so than vampires.

[00:07:20] Indeed Stubbe was not alone, for throughout the Middle Ages tens of thousands of people were killed after facing similar accusations of being werewolves.

[00:07:33] So, let’s rewind a bit, and see where the beliefs about werewolves came from.

[00:07:39] Many consider the first account of a werewolf to be from the The Epic of Gilgamesh, the epic poem dating from around 2100 BC.

[00:07:50] The story tells of how Gilgamesh refuses to marry the goddess Ishtar because she had turned her previous lover into a wolf.

[00:08:00] Whether this story invented the idea of werewolves or was written because of existing cultural beliefs is unclear, but it is the oldest surviving example of such a legend.

[00:08:12] That’s not to say it is the only example, though.

[00:08:15] There are plenty of instances of werewolves in Greek and Norse mythology, too.

[00:08:21] The Greek god Zeus, for example, transformed the tyrant Lycaon into a wolf after Lycaon had attempted to trick Zeus into eating human flesh at a banquet.

[00:08:33] In the 13th century, one of the original Norse werewolf tales was also immortalised in the Saga of the Volsungs.

[00:08:42] This story follows a father and son who, when in the forest, had found magical wolf skins that could turn people into wolves for ten days, similar to the belt Stubbe had claimed to have received from the Devil.

[00:08:58] Unable to resist such powers, the father and son put on the wolf fur and began a killing spree which only ended when the father turned on his own son.

[00:09:11] Clearly, it’s a common feature in werewolf myths to see humans turned to ravenous beasts and who, like Stubbe, lose any human conscience or sympathy for their fellow man, and cannot not resist killing.

[00:09:26] And although these two stories are from myth there are also accounts discussing the real-life existence of werewolves, too.

[00:09:35] As early as 425 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus tells of a tribe of magical men, the Neuri, who transformed themselves into wolves for several days of the year.

[00:09:49] As you might expect, historians now believe that there was a perfectly logical explanation for this: the Neuri lived near Russia, in modern day Belarus, and their so-called transformation was them wearing wolf skins in order to stay warm in winter.

[00:10:08] All very logical.

[00:10:10] But mistaking someone wearing a wolf skin for someone who has turned into a wolf is one isolated incident, and certainly doesn’t explain the huge popularity of the werewolf myth.

[00:10:24] We might now say that it’s simply an attractive story, a great monster to invent and believe in, but modern scholars argue that the belief in werewolves may have stemmed from some fundamental misunderstandings about the human body.

[00:10:41] Specifically, misunderstandings about illnesses.

[00:10:46] For instance, the concept of someone being bitten and then acting strangely could have come from, well, you may well have guessed it, rabies, the disease that still exists today and that you can get if you are bitten by an infected dog, fox, or other animal.

[00:11:06] Rabies affects the entire nervous system and even your saliva, which means it is transferable through bites.

[00:11:14] When infected with the virus, people will often begin to act very strangely due to chemical imbalances in the brain that could even cause hallucinations.

[00:11:25] Those affected can struggle to sleep, making them active through the night just like werewolves.

[00:11:32] And that's not to mention the frothing at the mouth, dribbling, which certainly might have rang alarm bells at a time when these diseases were not at all understood.

[00:11:43] In fact, a werewolf would have been a pretty good explanation for all those symptoms, especially when there are other illnesses that could support the belief in such beasts, as well.

[00:11:55] One such condition, called congenital hypertrichosis terminalis, has even become known as werewolf syndrome.

[00:12:04] This condition causes excessive growth of dark hair and can lead to a sufferer’s entire face and hands being covered in thick dark hair that resembles animal fur.

[00:12:17] Though this condition is far rarer than rabies, it certainly would have strengthened beliefs in werewolves in the past.

[00:12:25] Even in the 19th century, sufferers of this condition were called ‘wolf-men’, and they were often put on display in circus freakshows.

[00:12:35] And while this caused no real health risks, there would clearly have been pretty serious psychological effects of being treated in such a way.

[00:12:46] There is, however, a rare illness, or delusion, that has no physical signs but does actually cause the sufferer to believe that they have become a wolf.

[00:12:58] And it’s called lycanthropy.

[00:13:01] Sure, this is a word you are incredibly unlikely to come across in any kind of normal conversation, but this is an episode about werewolves, and it’s a bit of fun trivia, so let me tell you a little bit more about it.

[00:13:15] People who suffer from lycanthropy actually believe that they have become wolves.

[00:13:21] They insist that their bodies have changed, they have grown fur and that they have large wolf-like teeth, though, in reality, none of this is true and they have not changed at all.

[00:13:34] In some cases, sufferers even begin acting like wolves walking on their hands and feet and howling.

[00:13:43] In the 4th century, the Greek doctor Oribasus even discusses the condition saying that this behaviour was a symptom of ‘melancholia’, which was sort of a catch-all term used in the past for a variety of mental illnesses.

[00:14:02] Today, scientists are not exactly sure what causes lycanthropy but they believe it is often related to illnesses such as schizophrenia, severe mood disorders or even brain injuries.

[00:14:15] Although it's an incredibly rare condition, if someone had been exhibiting such behaviour in ancient times, then they would certainly have aroused suspicion of being a werewolf

[00:14:28] And if you were accused of being a werewolf, well it wasn’t good news at all.

[00:14:34] Anyone who was accused of being a werewolf would be put on trial, and these trials were far more common than you might think.

[00:14:42] Not in Britain, I should say, for the very good reason that wolves had been hunted to extinction by the 15th century, there were no wolves living in Britain.

[00:14:53] In France, however, wolves were still a real threat at the time and this of course fuelled fears over werewolves, and France became the leader in werewolf trials and prosecutions.

[00:15:08] Some of the first to be put on trial, in the year 1521, were the shepherds Michel Verdun and Pierre Burgot.

[00:15:17] During the trial, Burgot had claimed that one night twenty years earlier, he was fearing for the safety of his sheep when three figures wearing black had rode to his farm.

[00:15:31] One of the figures had told Burgot that if he acknowledged him as his lord he would protect the sheep, so Burgot renounced God and kissed the hand of the figure who offered protection.

[00:15:45] This strange encounter was his first step on a very dark path.

[00:15:51] A couple of years later, fellow shepherd Michel Verdun brought Burgot into the woods and forced him to strip naked.

[00:16:00] Burgot was then anointed, covered in a liquid, that Verdun claimed could transform him into a werewolf.

[00:16:09] Shortly afterwards, Burgot said he had grown fur and his hands and feet turned into giant wolf-like claws.

[00:16:18] The pair then went on a murderous rampage preying on travellers, fellow farmers and children.

[00:16:26] Like Stubbe, the pair tore their victims to pieces and even ate many of the children.

[00:16:33] At trial, the pair even admitted to acts of bestiality.

[00:16:38] Their reign of terror was stopped in a similar way to Stubbe’s as a traveller had fought off Verdun and severely injured him causing him to flee.

[00:16:49] But the brave, or perhaps foolish, traveller decided to follow the trail of blood and stumbled across a man with a wound in the very same place as the beast’s injury.

[00:17:01] Both men were found guilty and burnt alive.

[00:17:06] But they were far from the only ones, and scholars estimate that around 30,000 people in France were executed for being werewolves between 1520 and 1630.

[00:17:19] Clearly, they were not actually werewolves, but they were more likely people suffering serious mental illness. Some had, perhaps, committed terrible crimes, but it seems probable that most were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

[00:17:36] And as our understanding of science and the human body improved, and belief in superstition started to wane, the belief in werewolves began to fade just like it did for vampires.

[00:17:50] Instead of being at the centre of sensational trials at court, the creatures were relegated to stories and literature. 

[00:17:59] Indeed, werewolves do appear in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

[00:18:04] But in many of these early novels, including Stoker’s, werewolves were more minor figures while the vampires took the starring roles.

[00:18:14] It was not until 1933 that werewolves in popular culture really got their starring role, with Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, a novel which has been described as the Dracula of werewolf literature.

[00:18:29] This book has all you’d expect from a werewolf story, painful transformations, secret killings, and feastings on flesh. It quickly rose to become a New York Times bestseller, it was a huge hit.

[00:18:45] Keen to jump on the trend, cinema producers did not take long to bring the beast onto the big screen and in 1935 audiences were presented with the first image of a half-man half-wolf in The Werewolf of London.

[00:19:02] However, the film was a flop, a disappointment, it was a commercial and critical failure.

[00:19:09] It was not until The Wolf Man in 1941, that a werewolf movie would be celebrated and gain critical acclaim.

[00:19:18] And from here, werewolves were on an upward trajectory.

[00:19:23] Like vampires and witches, they became a mainstay of horror, science fiction and fantasy, and rather than being portrayed only as murderous beasts, they are often portrayed in a more nuanced, more complicated way, with hopes and dreams of their own.

[00:19:43] So, to wrap up this little jaunt into the world of werewolves, werewolves were once used to make sense of barbaric human acts, appearing in sensational stories that capture the fear of deeply superstitious societies.

[00:19:59] They were used as a convenient way to scapegoat people who were probably suffering from terrible mental illnesses.

[00:20:06] But while their history can be, at least semi-rationally explained today, the idea of the werewolf has an enduring appeal.

[00:20:16] Perhaps it’s because wolves are the epitome of a wild and ravenous animal, perhaps it’s because it taps into pre-existing fears and superstitions about what happens on a full moon, or perhaps it’s because they remind us of the at times blurry, unclear, boundary between man and beast.

[00:20:41] Ok then, that is it for today’s episode on werewolves.

[00:20:46] As a reminder, this was part two of a three part mini-series on the theme of Halloween.

[00:20:52] In our next and final episode of the series, we will be exploring the unfortunate history of witches.

[00:20:59] And if you missed part one, that was on Vampires.

[00:21:03] As always I would love to know what you thought about this episode.

[00:21:07] What do you think the cultural obsession with werewolves tells us about ourselves?

[00:21:12] Are there interesting and unusual stories about werewolves from your country?

[00:21:17] I would love to know, so let’s get this discussion started.

[00:21:20] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:29] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:34] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]