Medieval werewolves were a popular subject, but they were quite different from the slavering, unreasoning beasts of later depictions. Werewolves weren’t necessarily bad, and retained the ability to reason. Even the transformation was different.
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. 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 – 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.
In Jim C. Hines’s Princess series, I loved that the character of Red Hood was this form of werewolf – the inside of her red cape was a wolfskin. If she flipped it so the wolfskin was on the outside, she transformed.
Medieval werewolves got along just fine in knightly and courtly sense.
‘Be a wolf, have the understanding of … a man!’
The quote above is from Arthur and Gorlagon, [English starts on page 24] 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.
Other differences were transformation triggers; Medieval werewolves were not ruled by the full moon. Bisclavret transformed at will, with no regard to the moon. There were two tales which did take a lunar trigger into account:
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 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.
In the Discworld Watch books, Terry Pratchett compromised with his primary werewolf character, Delphine Angua von Uberwald, who could transform at will, but was subject to an irresistible trigger at the full moon. Medieval werewolves also didn’t have an appearance which was distinct from natural wolves. They might have been a bit larger, but that was all, so there was no easy way to distinguish a werewolf.
I can’t help thinking that Aargh, the English Wolf would have considered them all with disdain.
From Medievalists, an article by Minji Su, Current DPhil student at Oxford university, researching on werewolves in medieval Icelandic literature.