The results of the werewolf fact poll over on my Patreon are in, and now we have this month’s werewolf fact: all about werewolves in historical medical treatises of the Renaissance/Early Modern period and the term “clinical lycanthropy,” as well as what all that means and how it still impacts werewolf studies and werewolf pop culture today.
I’ve done several posts touching upon subjects similar to this before, you might be familiar with them, such as how werewolves in folklore are the result of a curse instead of a disease, and my big post on when werewolves became associated with insanity. You can also read a whole lot more about that topic and my arguments regarding it in my thesis, which was on werewolves, and can be found here on Amazon.com (hardback coming soon!).
However, I have never really delved in detail into a few of the actual medical treatises written during the Renaissance/Early Modern Period – in other words, primary sources – of which we have several. In this post, I will cover a few, but not all. I’m also going to make mention of a few more modern ones in regard to clinical lycanthropy, but let’s start with older first…
First of all, there was a lot of discussion of “melancholy” in the 1500s in regard to werewolves. This was even referenced in the play The Duchess of Malfi (and I actually have an academic article dedicated to the discussion of the lines involving werewolves in said play). This is, of course, related to the ancient Greek theory of humors, in which the composition of the human body and health required the balance of four humors: black bile (earth), blood (air), choler (fire), and phlegm (water), each related to one of the classic elements.
Throughout the Renaissance, “wolf-madness” was attributed to a case of melancholy, or an excess of black bile. There are many examples of this. And, of course, there are also many attributions to Satan… which was not a thing at all before this time period, as before this, werewolves were even sometimes associated with Christianity (see: werewolves of Ossory, among others).
An oft-referenced source in both werewolf studies at large as well as my own works is “Admirable and Memorable Histories” by I. Goulart, from around 1607 and translated from French by Ed Grimeston; I use this source from my book A Lycanthropy Reader by Charlotte F. Otten. Please note that the language of the piece is dated, so it will read funny to modern audiences.
Goulart discusses “Licanthropes and mad-men, the which wee will consider of two sorts,” not necessarily equating those suffering from “lycanthropy” as mad-men, but as those “in whom the melancholike humor doth so rule, as they imagine themselves to be transformed into Wolves.” He refers to them as “counterfet Wolves” and discusses how they “runne into Church-yardes, and about graves,” something not uncommonly seen in the newfangled werewolf sources of the 1600s onward but not commonplace in werewolf legends of previous time periods.
Goulart also discusses men “tormented with an evill spirit, that at a certaine season of the yeare, hee imagined himselfe to bee a ravening Wolfe,” and references other elements seen only in the later werewolf trials as opposed to previous werewolf legends. I also can’t help but wonder if the “certain season” element is something Curt Siodmak saw and carried over into the original werewolf in The Wolf Man turning during a particular season (when wolfsbane blooms in autumn)…
Anyway, another of Goulart’s sources is Job Fincel in 1541, who describes werewolves in ways we see around a lot when googling and finding garbage on the internet but not so much in legends previously, such as how those afflicted with the “disease” of believing themselves to become a wolf (but not actually turning into one) “are pale, their eyes are hollow, and they see ill, their tongue is drye, they are much altered, and are without much spittle in the mouth.” This is consistent with particular illnesses rather than anything seen in werewolf legends, as these are not the people who truly become wolves, only those who believe that they do – and Goulart was still drawing lines between those with hallucinations, those who actually change shape, and those who are werewolves by other means. For example, Goulart also discusses the idea of people whose souls fly from their own bodies and enter into the forms of wolves instead.
There are other examples that discuss these same topics, of course, including but not at all limited to “Diseases of the Mind” by Robert Burton and “A Treatise” by Robert Bayfield, both of which are also featured in A Lycanthropy Reader, and there are plenty of others in assorted other werewolf studies publications.
Now, in addition to these older examples, we also have much more recent medical studies regarding what is known in modernity as “clinical lycanthropy.”
Here’s a fun fact: the term “lycanthropy” wasn’t ever used in antiquity to refer to werewolf legends. It was created by the medical profession in the 1500s to refer specifically to a form of madness, not shapeshifting. It referred to what was recognized as a mental illness that they called lycanthropy: someone believing that they turned into a wolf,not to someone actually turning into a wolf (as in, not referring to the legends in which this happened).
Today, we call this “clinical lycanthropy,” because the term “lycanthropy” was basically taken by werewolf media and werewolf studies and retroactively applied to werewolf legends. But the term “lycanthropy” was never actually used in said legends.
The term “lycanthropy” to refer to a “werewolf disease” is just another way in which medical studies and Renaissance writings turned werewolf legends into a “werewolf disease” instead of a magical curse, as it always used to be.
Now, of course, the medical world doesn’t really recognize “clinical lycanthropy” anymore. It’s considered to be a part of other mental conditions, the result of drug-induced hallucinations, or something entirely different. Several cases were attributed to schizophrenia instead, for example. So the term “clinical lycanthropy” in itself is all but outdated.
I won’t be including or directly quoting from the case reports from the 1970s in this discussion, as this post is already enormous and, frankly, the case reports are not things that could be easily discussed in today’s environment, as the language in the reports would certainly be considered offensive today, and that’s not something I want to navigate. So I won’t get into all that. They’re out there if you want to read them, but I won’t bother breaking them down here.
There are also certainly other examples of medical history relating to werewolves and werewolf legends, but I’ll save all that for the werewolf facts book or another publication of mine!
Medical treatises are just another example from the Renaissance (and for quite a while after, into at least the 1800s and even early 1900s) of trying to rationalize and find “scientific explanations” for all manner of folklore and mythology. This also resulted in a considerable amount of condemnation for those who still believed in this sort of thing, as well as those who believed themselves to be experiencing it. As mentioned in some of my other werewolf facts, this didn’t always include punishment (many victims of clinical lycanthropy at the time were actually well taken care of), but it did include things like being locked away from society for being declared insane. And, of course, if the victim in question was not a victim but a perpetrator, then it would result in a trial and punishment – and often execution. However, this was much more likely to happen to witches rather than werewolves. Just another way in which the trial of Peter Stubbe were very obviously witch/sorcerer trials and had nothing to do with werewolves at all.
Now, of course, you’ll also recognize that a lot of the things you see in the treatises I used as examples don’t follow up with many or evenany werewolf legends you’re very familiar with. Things were getting a bit weird at this point in history in regard to folklore and the like, and the reaching for rationalizing something like a person turning into a wolf or wolf-monster of any sort certainly resulted in some wild connections.
While this is far from the werewolf legends that personally fascinate me most, they are an important part of werewolf studies – hugely so. In fact, they’re often discussed more than almost anything else, because unfortunately werewolf scholars are overly obsessed with later time periods that I personally find less fun and interesting than the Middle Ages and ancient times. But, hey, I love all of it.