“Men Turned into Wolves”: Did Werewolves Plague 16th Century Europe?

A 13th century illustration from depicting the story of a travelling priest who meets and communes a pair of good werewolves from the kingdom of Ossory. (Image source: Public Domain)
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Olaus Magnus was a sixteenth century Catholic ecclesiast and writer. He was known as a man with a great sense of scientific scrutiny, having created the most accurate map of the Baltic northern regions of the time. However, after the success of the religious Reformation in Sweden, Magnus was forced to flee, exiled to Poland and eventually to Italy. There, he wrote and, in 1555, published his most famous work, the title of which translates into English as A Description of the Northern Peoples.1

In this text, Magnus detailed a general phenomenon that occurred in the Baltic regions of northern Europe. 

As he described it, “the inhabitants suffer considerably from the rapacity of wolves throughout the year.” However, these numerous and aggressive wolf attacks were not regarded “as such a serious matter,” for there was something far more destructive and dangerous that northern Europeans had to “endure”. According to Magnus, far worse than natural wolves were “men turned into wolves”.2

Supposedly, it was around Christmastime that “a multitude of wolves transformed from men gather[ed] together […] and then spread to rage with wondrous ferocity against human beings”.

Far from being at the mercy of ordinary wolves, the ecclesiast stated villagers could tell the difference between wolfmen and “true and natural wolves”. The werewolves’ behaviour was easily identifiable. According to the text, “when a human habitation has been detected by them isolated in the woods, they besiege it with atrocity […] they devour all the human beings, and every animal which is found within.”

Magnus wrote how werewolves supposedly “congregate[d]” at a ruined castle in the “thousands”, assaulting the fortification by jumping over the walls. He also related the story a nobleman who supposedly had in his retinue a peasant with the ability to turn into a wolf. 3

According to Magnus, werewolves were known to congregate at castle walls. (Image source: Public Domain)

Magnus’ writings are often dismissed as a series of unsubstantiated accounts based on local superstition. When speaking about his observations, it is more preferable for academics to focus on what they are certain he was correct about, such as his geographical observations. Werewolves, they conclude, couldn’t possibly be a reality.

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And indeed, it could be said that Magnus’ descriptions of werewolves gathering together and attacking villages were superstitious rationalisations for bandit attacks during the Christmas period. After all, around Christmas many labourers found themselves unemployed and often took to drinking and committing crimes. Historically, this has resulted in the holiday season having a mixed reputation, inspiring tales of Krampus and other demonic beings bent on destruction and wrong-doing. Magnus even stated that the so-called werewolves that ravaged the Baltics “empty tuns of beer or mead” from village cellars. 4

However, as convincing as this explanation may first seem, there is a major flaw. Whilst bandits marauding across the countryside are of course a common occurrence in history, they are not commonly known for devouring human flesh en mass. This is a far more bestial, far darker trait. A trait which is perhaps only reserved for unnatural creatures like werewolves.

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About Erik Rowton 57 Articles
A life-long dabbler in the paranormal, Erik researches other-worldly phenomena to sate his curiosity. A habitual fence-sitter, he is of the opinion that only through science can the reality of the paranormal be confirmed. Some of Erik's main interests are demonic possession, occult groups and the possibility of parallel dimensions.