Immorality and the Rise of the Wolf Women

In the late 20th century, the concept of a link between appearance and “immoral” behaviour fully emerged, rendering the saying “never judge a book by its cover” pointless. This time, rather than mythical kings, it was minority groups that were frequently targeted. Our more modern werewolf stories show that this concept has ancient roots as we have been looking for the biological link between a person who “appears” bad or threatening to an actual harmful action, thinking that if we can find a clue in advance, we can somehow take precautions to stop the harm from happening. And how much earlier can we get a clue from someone than from the (however incorrect) first impression that we gained from them? Therefore, for centuries law enforcement, scientists and the medical community collaborated to find “cure” for what they considered socially deviant behaviours such as criminality, violence, and even homosexuality.  

An illustration from Topographia Hiberniae depicting the story of a traveling priest who meets and communes a pair of good werewolves from the kingdom of Ossory.

Werewolf trials are less well known than witchcraft trials, but they existed. Those who were executed in werewolf trials in 16th and 17th-century France were thought to have a taste for human flesh. It was not until the rise of psychoanalysis in the nineteenth century, lycanthropy came to more commonly represent the “beast within,” or everything animalistic in our human nature that we have repressed. The werewolf then is our shadow self which we wanted to be rid of. Therefore, the history of lycanthropy as we know it is inextricably linked to humankind’s treatment of wolves. For example, the case of Peter Stumpf, who was executed in Germany in 1589 for being a werewolf and was widely publicised in 16th-century Britain happens to coincide with the wolf’s extinction in England in the 1500s.

Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne.

In the early 19th century Australia, Hibernian Hall (now Storey Hall) was leased to the Women’s Political Association. Across the world, the Women’s Social and Political Union was also making its mark on London’s Suffrage Atelier. Founded in 1909 by Alfred Pearce and the Houseman siblings, Clemence and Laurence, the London’s Suffrage Atelier’s print workshop advanced feminist causes, creating and circulating pro-suffrage publications and providing employment for female illustrators.

However, the Houseman siblings are better known for their collaborative novella of 1896, The Were-Wolf. The Were-Wolf sees its title heroine, White Fell, find her way into the hearts of a Swedish family before the family find their way into her belly. White Fell is only one of the female werewolves who surfaced in Victorian gothic literature, fuelled by paranoia surrounding the suffragette movement. The female werewolves are notable for preying on families and upending the gendered status quo, recognisable by their supernaturally shining eyes, foreign accents and aristocratic penchant for white fur. Inverting contemporary werewolf conventions, these shaggy suffragettes also revert to wolves  after death, thus revealing their “true” lupine selves.

Central Italian 15th or 16th Century (Possibly Roman 15th or 16th Century), The Capitoline Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus, late 15th – early 16th century

Cultural constructions of women as intrinsically lupine have existed throughout the centuries, whether as nurturing mothers (think ancient Rome’s Romulus and Remus), ravening man-eaters (ancient Roman prostitutes and actresses), or as inherently demonic (any unmarried ladies with big teeth). The female werewolf flourished most conspicuously at times when the female gender came under attack. We see this not just in the suffragette era but also during the Early Modern witch-hunts. One of the earliest records of this nature is that of Catherine Simon of Andermatt in Switzerland. In 1459, Catherine confessed to having transformed into a wolf with the help of an ointment and causing an avalanche.

Catherine’s crimes were considered so serious that her executioner was charged to “divide her into two pieces, of which one shall be her head and the other her body, which shall be so completely severed that a cartwheel can be rolled between them.” Her remains were burned, and the ashes cast into the Reuss River as further insurance against her causing harm.

“The She Wolves of Jülich”, 1591.

This climate of paranoia and misogyny is captured in a sensational German broadsheet by Georg Kress, Of 300 Witches and Their Pact with the Devil to Turn Themselves into She-Wolves at Jülich, 6 May 1591. The broadsheet tells us of the destruction of men, boys and cattle by a horde of ravening she-wolves, complete with rhyming descriptions of brains being sucked and hearts being eaten. Kress’ introduction that this broadsheet is “published in print for all pious women and maidens as a warning and example” makes it abundantly clear that the ones who were considered in greatest need of the lessons in the text were women.

As the witch craze subsided, society’s gaze turned instead towards the aristocrats and the werewolves were swept up in the vampire wave. The vampire wave peaked in 1730s Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, with Austro-Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory setting the template for the clichéd Eastern European werewolf. Rumoured to have butchered and bathed in the blood of 600 local virgins for cosmetic purposes, Erzsébet has since been claimed by the vampire craze. However, she first came to the attention of the popular imagination in Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves in 1865.

Portrait of Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614)

In the 1980s, biochemist David Dolphin suggested that porphyria, a hereditary blood disease that causes severe anaemia, might be treated with injections of blood products, thus popularising the notion of a medical origin for vampirism. Porphyria symptoms include severe phototoxicity, demanding its sufferers avoid sunlight or risk progressively “beastly” skin tones, especially on the face and hands. Reddish teeth and extreme hairiness complete the litany of ailments. Another condition, Congenital generalised hypertrichosis (hereditary full-body hairiness), commonly known as “werewolf syndrome”, has seen Mexico’s Gomez-Aceves family listed in the 2000 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s hairiest family.  When the also hairy Gonsalvus sisters received public attention in 16th-century Europe, they did so as marvels rather than monsters. Seen as evidence of divine wit and inventiveness, they led privileged lives as members of royal retinues in France and Italy.

“Antonietta Gonsalvus” by Lavinia Fontana (1552 – 1614)

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