5 Things you might not know about Medieval Werewolves

By Minjie Su

Medieval authors were fascinated by werewolves just as much as we are. Yet, despite all the ferocity, the werewolf they imagined is not quite the same monster in our era. Here are five things that you may not know about medieval werewolves.

We all know what a werewolf is and how it’s supposed to behave. Even if you’re not a monster nerd, you must have seen some films – werewolves just happen to be one of those monsters greatly favoured by filmmakers and storytellers throughout the years. More often than not, the ferocious killer walks alone among the trees, with deadly claws, hungry teeth, its green eyes shining in the shadows, and dark grey fur shimmering under the silver lights of a full moon. In perfect silence it waits, in a flash, it kills. It is the monster that howls in the distant woods, but never far enough for you to feel safe; it is the monster that haunts your restless sleep.


1. Transformative Mode

First thing’s first: how does a man turn into a werewolf? Interestingly, where in recent films and TV programmes, it’s always the wolf ripping out of the man, the medieval werewolf often ‘wears’ the wolf. One way of man-to-wolf transformation is to wear a wolfskin – this is most common in Old Norse-Icelandic literature, where the wolf-man is frequently referred to in skin-related terms, echoing the tradition of berserkr and úlfheðnar, battle-frenzied warriors wearing nothing but bear/wolf skin. Gerald of Wales (1146 – 1223) also reports a priest encountering a werewolf couple while travelling across the region of Ossory in Ireland. When the priest refused to perform last rites for the dying she-wolf, fearing that she might be some Devil’s trick, the man-wolf ‘unzips’ the wolfskin to reveal an old woman underneath, as if it were just a coat.

British Library MS Royal 12 F XIII f. 29

The difference in transformative mode results in a difference in emphasis: when the wolf comes out of the man, it is as if the wolf has been there all the time, lurking under the guise of a seemingly ordinary man; the violence it is about to unleash is heralded by the freshly torn flesh and streaks of blood. The man is but an empty shell, broken, dead, cast away – the wolf is the essence. In the medieval portrayal, on the other hand, even though in some cases the wolfskin/form does bring out the beast within, the man is only wrapped, hidden, but never destroyed, and the werewolf is more like a riddle, waiting to be solved.


2. ‘Be a wolf, have the understanding of … a man!’

The quote above is from Arthur and Gorlagon, one of the four Arthurian Romances written in Latin. In the story, King Gorlagon is turned into a wolf by his treacherous wife. She could have gotten away with the crime, had she not made the mistake of enhancing ‘the understanding of a man’ instead of ‘the understanding of a wolf’. A most unlikely mistake, and most unfortunate on the wife’s part, but it brings another major difference between modern and medieval werewolves: the medieval ones are rarely savage monsters; instead, they can be surprisingly intelligent, rational, and well-behaved. Melion, Bisclavret, and Gorlagon find no difficulty in mingling with the king’s knights and courtiers – Gorlagon even sits on the horse and waits on the king’s table ‘with his forepaws erect’. Granted, courtesy does not make werewolves mild and friendly creatures, but even when they perform some deeds of violence, that violence is well justified. Take Bisclavret for example: the wolf inflicts great harm upon his wife and her lover, but the action is read as revenge, thus confirming, rather than forfeiting the wolf’s humanity.

3. Appearance

In many modern representations, the werewolf is a gigantic creature that stands on two feet. Sometimes, there are even traces of human features lingering in its face. In the medieval world, this image is in fact closer to the Cynocephali or ‘Dog-head’, one of the monstrous races from the edge of world. The werewolves, instead, appear just like ordinary wolves. The only thing special about them is that they may be alarmingly big – and more dangerous, presumably due to their human intelligence, but nothing more. This certainly makes things trickier and an awful lot stranger: how can you ever tell? To what extent will you trust appearances?

4. Full Moon?

It’s common knowledge that a werewolf transforms whenever there is a full moon. Yet the medieval werewolves have no problems whatsoever with lunar phases. Most man-to-wolf transformation is a one-off thing; the hero is either cursed, betrayed, or punished and trapped in wolf form for a certain period of time. Once they have overpowered the evil-doer, or redeemed themselves, they are released. Bisclavret transforms regularly and repetitively, but he does so on a weekly basis and shows no concern of any astronomical phenomenon.

The only example of a full moon transformation is found in Otia Imperialia or ‘Recreation for an Emperor’, a speculum written by Gervase of Tilbury (1150 – 1220) for Otto IV (1175 – 1218). Gervase reports men turning into wolves ‘according to the cycles of the moon’. He gives two examples: The first, is a certain Pons de Chapteuil, a knight-turned-vagabond that becomes mad while ‘wandering alone like a wild beast… deranged by extreme fear’. Despite Gervase’s earlier mention of the moon, Pons de Chapteuil’s transformation is primarily a physical manifestation of his social identity and emotion. The other werewolf is Chaucevaire, who does transform under lunar influence, but does so only when there is a new moon, the opposite to a traditional full moon transformation. The connection between the werewolf and the moon possibly has its roots in the etymology of the Latin word moon, luna, which is associated with lunatics. Their loss of human reason dehumanizes them, rendering them figurative beasts, which, as the previous point shows, apparently is not the case with most werewolves.

The Werewolf or the Cannibal by Lucas Cranach the Elder – image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

5. Werewolves vs. Vampires

Either best friend or archenemy, werewolves and vampires always enjoy a special relationship. Over the years, werewolves have been servant or partner to vampires, or the only weapon with which the vampires can be vanquished, or – as in Being Human, housemates. Although vampires or vampirish beings rarely make their appearance in the literature concerned here, their bond with werewolves is still felt. Old Norse sagas see a creature called draugr, a walking-dead kind of creature that shares many features with vampires. One of the most famous draugar, Glámr in Grettis saga Ásmundarson is said to have úlfgrár – ‘wolf-grey’ – hair. The adjective is never used on natural wolves, but only on wolf-related humans such as Egill, whose entire family has the reputation of being ‘werewolves’ or ‘wolfish’. The fact that Glámr has the same hair colour certainly brings him closer to wolfishness. Moreover, Grettir, who ‘inherits’ from Glámr the draugr nature, becomes a figurative wolf when he is outlawed and is forced to feed on the sheep on the Island of Drangey.

It is intriguing to ponder just how differently werewolves and vampires have been developed throughout the years. In the medieval werewolf texts, werewolves tend to be aristocrats – knights, princes, or even kings. In most cases they are victimised, civilised, and pitied. The vampires, on the other hand, are not very high on the social ladder; and the concept of sympathetic vampires has only become in vogue in the past century. How this difference came into being is certainly something to think about. What seems to remain constant is the struggle between man and beast, forever embodied in the figure of the werewolf.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

See also: Advice from a Werewolf: Arthur and Gorlagon

See also: Eloping Lovers and A Werewolf: The Romance of Guillaume de Palerne

Click here to read more articles by Minjie

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.