By Danièle Cybulskie
For medieval people, the natural world encompassed a whole lot of wonders which modern people now call supernatural. They knew the world was a very big place, and if it could contain such strange creatures as elephants and giraffes, who was to say what was impossible? In his Otia Imperialia, Gervase of Tilbury tells of many strange creatures he knows all about. One of these creatures is the werewolf.
“One thing I know to be of daily occurrence among the people of our country,” declares Gervase, “[is] the course of human destiny is such that certain men change into wolves according to the cycles of the moon.” This is a claim that he knows will probably meet with some skepticism, so he backs it up with a very specific story of a knight named Raimbaud de Pouget who was disinherited by a real person (Pons de Chapteuil) and then became a werewolf.
Gervase also makes sure to outline the circumstances by which this occurred: “One night when he was wandering alone like a wild beast through unfrequented woodlands, deranged by extreme fear, [de Pouget] lost his reason and turned into a wolf.” (Take note, reader: do not wander the woods alone at night, and if you do, stay calm!) Fortunately for de Pouget, he encounters a woodsman who cuts off his paw, the loss of which transforms him back into a human. After this, de Pouget “confessed in public” what had transpired, so there are many more witnesses to support the story, if you don’t believe Gervase. Other people, he claims, have also talked to him of “such things”, and they have confirmed to him that werewolves can be transformed back through the loss of a limb.
If this wasn’t enough to convince the reader of the reality of werewolves, Gervase follows up with the story of another named person – Chaucevaire – who is still living with his lycanthropy:
when the time has come [Chaucevaire] parts company from all his friends, lays his clothes under a bush or secluded rock , and then rolls naked in the sand for a long time until he takes on the shape and voracity of a wolf, gaping for prey with a wide-open mouth and yawning jaws.
If poor Chaucevaire is still dealing with it every month, it must be a real condition. Chaucevaire also knows something about wolves that no one else could: why they run with their mouths open. (The secret is that a wolf “can only unlock its jaw with a great effort and with the help of its paws” – it can’t use its paws for this while running; therefore, it has to leave its mouth open.) If Chaucevaire knows this secret, he must be telling the truth, and if he’s telling the truth, then werewolves are a real phenomenon. Add to this the witnessed testimony of Raimbaud de Pouget, and it seems like proving the existence of werewolves is an open-and-shut case, and in fact, this is where Gervase leaves his telling, moving on to another subject completely.
When you think about how stories of real, amazing creatures must have been disseminated in just the same way – by traveler’s accounts and storytelling – it’s not surprising that Gervase speaks about werewolves as if they are an accepted part of everyday life: one thing he knows for sure. While there’s no way to prove whether or not Gervase himself believed in werewolves, there’s one thing I know for sure: werewolves are a great addition to any medieval miscellany.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist