The Tortured Confession of a "Werewolf" Horrified 1500s EuropeHistorians in the News
tags: moral panics, German history, werewolves
On October 31, 1589, a large crowd gathered in the German city of Bedburg, near Cologne, to witness an execution. The condemned man was Peter Stump, a 50-year-old farmer who had confessed to making a pact with the devil. He wasn’t seeking riches; he wanted the ability to turn into a werewolf. His shocking crimes included multiple murders and cannibalism. Of the 16 people he killed, 13 were children–his own son among them, whose brain he allegedly devoured. He also admitted to having had sexual relations with his daughter and with a succubus (a demon in the guise of a beautiful woman). “Of all other that ever lived, none was comparable unto this Hellhound,” an account of his execution said.
Stump (called Stubbe and Stumpf in some sources) suffered terribly during his execution, one of the most brutal on record. He was strapped to a wheel and skinned alive. His bones were broken. He was decapitated and then his body burned at the stake. As a warning, his head was impaled on a post in the centre of the village.
The lurid nature of Stump’s crimes and punishment captured the public imagination. Although Stump’s trial and execution stand out, his was not an isolated case. Between the 15th and 18th centuries in Europe famine, plague, war, and religious struggle gave rise to superstitious beliefs, which included fears of witches, usually women, and werewolves, typically men.
Accusations of lycanthropy were often intertwined with—but far less frequent than—witchcraft. In some areas of Europe there is no record of werewolf trials at all. In England, where wolves were almost completely eradicated in the 16th century, there are no records of werewolf trials. Nor are there any in the Mediterranean region of Europe.
European werewolf panics were centred in areas with wild wolves, forested regions, as well as a strong culture of livestock herding, such as Germany and France. Fears of real wolves preying on animals and children grew into fears of demonic wolves. If rabid wolves were present, werewolves might be blamed for their “crimes.”
The most comprehensive list of werewolf trials in early modern Germany contains about 300 cases. While not inconsiderable, that number pales in comparison with the 30,000 to 45,000 executions for witchcraft in Germany during the same period.
Accused werewolves were mostly, but not exclusively, male, and most were shepherds. “Wolves were viewed as strong, violent, and aggressive, traits usually associated with men,” said Brian Levack, professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas at Austin. In most contemporary accounts about Stump, the man transformed himself into a wolf by wearing a wolfskin belt given to him by the devil. By removing the belt, Stump could return to human form. Levack points out that werewolves all used some instrument to effect their transformation, which is typical of male witchcraft. “All of them used some sort of instrument in their magic, such as Stump’s use of a magical belt ... whereas the lower forms of village magic allegedly practiced by female witches consisted mainly of charms, curses, or various concoctions.”
Despite the curiosity stirred up by the trial, the historical evidence left behind of Stump’s ordeal is thin. No interrogation transcripts or court records from the trial have survived. For details about Stump, historians must rely on a collection of pamphlets and handbills. The longest is an English pamphlet published in 1590; the 16-page text asserts to be a translation of a German work, but historians have not found the original document.