So here’s a big big big topic for me. You may recall I wrote a book on it.
You’ve heard me tell you all about how werewolves were, in folklore, basically never considered the crazy, often brainless or borderline brainless, infectious, killing machines of frequently pure evil that they are in pop culture.
So since when were werewolves actually associated with insanity? Madness? Loss of control?
Let’s delve into it.
Firstly, something to understand is that a lot of people I’ve talked to, and a lot of students I’ve had, seem to think that people stopped believing in werewolves somewhere around the 1700s. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A belief in werewolves existed in many places around the world even well into the 1800s and some into the early 1900s, and some areas still believe in werewolves today.
However, those werewolf beliefs, more often than not, were not actually the “aah it’s an evil mad ravening beast, kill it!” things we get in pop culture today. During the early and mid Middle Ages, the Catholic Church started to have divides over exactly what werewolves were – but they were often still seen not as they are today.
Some stories portrayed them as good and Christian, some as a test put upon good people by God Himself, and others simply portrayed werewolves as ordinary people – being a werewolf didn’t matter at all – while still others portrayed them as noble knights, sages and healers, and some made werewolves into an allegory for how people can misunderstand and mistreat someone simply because they are different (and that, of course, is bad. The werewolf was sympathetic and wronged, and there was actually nothing bad about them being a werewolf). Wolves, as well, were portrayed similarly.
However, over the decades and centuries, as we cross into the Renaissance/Early Modern period, things begin to change. The Church ultimately decided that werewolves were malevolent creatures aligned with the Devil. They decided that werewolves could never be morally acceptable, and wolves were essentially tarred with the same brush.
All across Europe, and perhaps particularly in France, as governments and the Church both became more powerful, people were put on trial under accusations of witchcraft and werewolfery (which were not always, and in fact rarely were, the same thing!).
The idea of the werewolf came under great scrutiny and criticism. Scholars and scientists turned their interest to the supernatural, studying the would-be werewolves and attempting to justify mankind’s widespread belief in their existence while also passing judgment on the so-called werewolves of their time period, and calling “werewolves” things that were not in any way similar to the previous werewolf legends.
During this era began the connections between werewolves and madmen, as – despite the outstanding opinions and views of many individuals, and even some theologians – the Church and scholars alike ultimately found that the only reasonable explanation for the legend of the werewolf was insanity.
in the later Middle Ages during the sixteenth century, France practically became the seat of werewolf trials. As time passed, researchers began to declare that being a werewolf was a form of madness.
Specifically, the term “lycanthropy” came to be used as referring to a mental disease, particularly by those eager to disprove the idea that werewolves could ever be real, such as Sabine Baring-Gould: “It was not till the close of the Middle Ages that lycanthropy was recognized as a disease.”
Note the word “recognized.” This is not a person who wants to say that werewolves were never real, per se, or that these legends were stories with metaphor and myth. This is a person who wants to say that all werewolf stories were about madmen and were untrue – not in that werewolves aren’t real, but in that the werewolf and other storytellers in question were, in a phrase, “simply” “insane.”
And it should be noted that there is a difference between a scholarly approach to say that all werewolf legends are fascinating myths and looks into human culture, and simply dismissing them and the interesting things they have to say thanks to one’s strong desire to “prove” that all werewolf legends were just about “crazy people.” You’ll hear a lot more about this in Part 2.
However, the Church did not want to punish these madmen. It took pity on them. As Baring-Gould says in his recount of one “werewolf” (Jean Grenier)’s trial: “that Lycanthropy … [is] mere hallucination … and that the change of shape existed only in the disorganized brain of the insane, consequently it was not a crime which could be punished.”
The Church began to take in many they found who suffered from delusions of turning into a wolf or something similar. They were given food, shelter, clothing, and an education by monasteries and abbeys, and many often went on to lead good lives.
So, even at this point, werewolves were not seen truly as “evil” or beings of terrible waste and destruction. They were seen as unfortunate individuals who required care. The viewpoint, however, altered from one of fantastical tales of folklore and myth, to real-life accounts of people with hallucinations and mental issues, taken in by the Church.
Were there exceptions? Yes. But most of these came later. Even over the relatively small period of time when many werewolf legends became werewolf court trials instead, there was time enough during the Renaissance/Early Modern period for the viewpoint of these madmen to shift from lost soul with mental illness to killer madman.
Another important element of how werewolves came to be seen as manifestations of insanity stems from not just the Catholic Church. The Church was extremely divided in terms of werewolf legends, and in fact, often portrayed werewolves as good, especially in the Middle Ages, such as the Werewolves of Ossory ( – though they definitely transitioned into portraying them as evil and Satanic in later years, and they had an enormous influence on the “all evil” werewolves we get today. More on all that later!
So what’s this other important source? Scientific curiosity. People attempting to find rational and scientific reasons for a belief in werewolves warped perceptions of the folk tales and old myths, telling the religious courts that werewolves are a product of insanity rather than mere myth and metaphor (as if said courts needed anymore help demonizing them).
This does, of course, go hand in hand with a lot of other cases wherein belief in anything supernatural was rationally explained to be some kind of insanity or disease, but werewolves seemed to get it badly enough that now, in pop culture, these portrayals of them are almost inescapable.
So what’s all that about? When did all these insanity things actually take hold, and why are they still maintaining such hold today?
Let’s be blunt here: werewolf scholars themselves carry a lot of the blame for the insane werewolves of today.
The change was gradual. First we had ones like Thies, who was covered in another werewolf fact, who was another example of werewolves being written off as someone with hallucinations. This wasn’t always the case; plenty of people still believed werewolves were actual people turning into actual wolves.
Over time, we also see cases where criminals are being called “werewolves” for their crimes, whether they claim to be or not. A case in point is how lots of Templars were accused of being werewolves, when the Pope suddenly decided he didn’t want the Templars around anymore. They were killed for this “crime.” (Which is another example, too, of how not all places, religions, and local governments stopped believing in werewolves; it varied wildly.)
Most likely the single biggest influence on how the modern concept of the insane werewolf came to be so popular today, though, were scholars – namely the scholars we’re still using in werewolf studies today.
Why? Because werewolf scholars went back and – like is the case for so many legends, so many creatures – threw a very wide net in search of “werewolf legends.” They branded assorted madmen trials as “werewolf trials” even though they really had nothing to do with werewolves at all.
So what did writers turn to when they started writing about werewolves? All the latest articles, books, and research. What did they find? What did Curt Siodmak find when he started reading anything about werewolves?
He found scholars talking about madmen. What did he do? He made a madman werewolf. A werewolf who turns into a crazy monster – and who spreads a disease. (More on that in the link.)
We also have the concept of people, secular and religious, studying werewolf legends through the lens of reality. At this point in time, in the 1800s and early to mid 1900s, we have two sides pulling in opposite directions, with Sabine Baring-Gould and Montague Summers heading the charges.
These two sides had very different arguments, but they each came to the same conclusion: all werewolf legends up to this point are irrelevant lies that should be ignored. They were false. Well, of course they were. But not because of the logical reason: people don’t really go around turning into animals or animal-people. So, then, why?
If you ask the secular side, because they were silly myths and we should only be looking at current werewolf beliefs in order to figure out why people ever had such ridiculous concepts.
If you ask the religious side, because werewolves are very real but they are all pure evil Satanic monsters that need to be destroyed. (Or, in some cases, people who need help, but I am mostly going off Montague Summers’ work when I say that, as he was among the most influential scholars.)
However, neither side in this case was interested in studying and preserving all this folklore and myth for the purposes of literary study, to look at it through the lens of a study into human history and culture.
They only cared about their takes on it. They were academics with arguments. Did they help preserve some legends? Yes! Absolutely. Was that the takeaway for writers looking to tell werewolf stories, when they were trying to figure out how to write werewolves? Nope, because they put their academic spin on it.
How did things get worse? Easy.
Over time, wolves themselves – as in real wolves, not just werewolves from legend and/or the ones that some people during this time still believed in – came to be seen as “evil.” This was a massive shift in the West that’d been happening slowly over the decades, and it really took a final chokehold in the Early Modern period that resulted in many wolf deaths and extinctions (beginning around the late medieval period in Britain).
As a new modern civilization dictated that wolves and werewolves alike were evil and should all be wiped out – that they were “useless” beasts – we became stuck with entertainment media latching onto that, too. We ended up with evil wolves – and, likewise, evil werewolves, since it’s hard to have a werewolf without the wolf (although plenty of people today sure do work hard to achieve that).
And that is what we carried over into modern pop culture: these relatively recent beliefs about how werewolves are evil horrible demonic man-eating (more on the man-eating thing later, too! That is an important element of werewolves and I’ll address the folklore in regard to that) monsters that lose control when they turn and will rip and tear the countryside and are generally terrible oh no. That’s also why wolves in Japan went extinct: Western civilization came in and told them ew these horrible creatures you’ve been coexisting with are terrible and should be destroyed, and lots of other things happened from there (very long story; I can recommend a few books on the topic).
Which is why, if you ask me, these always evil and terrible portrayals of wolves and werewolves in media really need to change.
I could get all into that and talk your ears off (talk your eyeballs out, since this is text?) about how these negative portrayals talk up negative stereotypes that only serve to help hurt very real, very alive, very majestic and very shy wolves, but another time, perhaps.
Oh and another reminder that werewolves in folklore were never a disease, either. The madness thing fed into the disease concept.
For a whole lot more on this topic in a much more professional manner, please do check out my book The Werewolf: Past and Future.