On this date in 1573, Gilles Garnier was burned at the stake as a lycanthrope.
Detail view (click for the full image) of The Werewolf, or the Cannibal by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1509)
The “Werewolf of Dole” was a scavenging hermit resident on the outskirts of that Burgundian town when a little girl was strangled and partially eaten in October of 1572. Townsfolk feared a maneating wolf but a subsequent pattern of attacks would point at something even more frightful.
As kitsch as it becomes for us in modernity, it is not difficult to discern in the werewolf legend the shadow of a truly terrifying era when predatory wolves and predatory men alike prowled the dangerous byways in Europe, especially France.
And a sure way to conflate the two was through a figure like Garnier (English Wikipedia entry | French), who, in a starving winter, monstrously ate the flesh of his victims. He would later confess — we can only guess through what combination of disordered mind and torturer’s suggestion — that as he foraged one day, wracked by hunger, a phantom appeared to him and offered him an ointment that would confer the lifesaving hunting prowess of the wolf.
Like any opportunistic carnivore, the loup-garou Garnier knew enough to prey upon the weakest.
Shortly after slaying that first victim, Garnier grabbed another little girl and was in the process of a bestial hands-and-teeth attack when some villagers came upon the scene. Garnier fled, but at least some of these accidental witnesses were convinced that they had seen a wolf attack — for what man tears into his still-dying quarry with his bare teeth?
Then again, as observed by Sabine Baring-Gould* — whose The Book of Were-Wolves makes for a goosefleshing Halloween read — there would even post-Garnier in 1573 be an edict promulgated against what Parlement suspected was continuing werewolfery in the vicinity, directing all and sundry “to assemble with pikes, halberts, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and to kill, without incurring any pains or penalties.” Lycanthropy is stirring deep within this society, authorities, onlookers and offender(s?) all suggestible to one another.
Garnier killed a little boy later that same November, perhaps his most gruesome as he not only cannibalized the fresh corpse but tore off the child’s leg to save for later.
His fourth known victim was his last and resulted in his capture when he was again surprised on the scene. (This time, the witnesses saw only the man — not the wolf.)
His trial, which was for all its fantastic content notably a secular one, was a monument to the fear that must have gripped Dole while children vanished only to turn up as carrion: some fifty witnesses were summoned, many to make connections between Gilles Garnier and canis lupus that one would strain to credit as speculative but were probably quite sincere. Everyone knew there was a werewolf, and then everyone knew Gilles Garnier was that werewolf.
Like the French peasantry, posterity has seen in Garnier what it hopes or expects to see. Do we witness the grim and commonplace effects of torture upon a bystander being scapegoated for the natural incursions of wolves? The predations of a “normal” serial killer refracted through his society’s superstitions? A mentally ill man truly convinced (as with the wendigo psychosis) of his own beastliness? An entirely false confession reflecting Garnier’s own complicity in the same evolving myth that captivated his neighbors?
Or might we allow with Montague Summers the genuine historicity of the monster?
As Nabuchodonosor was so punished by God, so Heaven may also well have permitted Gilles Garnier and the sorcerers of Savoy owing to their vile appetites and their lust for human flesh to have become wolves, losing human form.
From whatever cause this shape-shifting may arise, it is very certain by the common consent of all antiquity and all history, by the testimony of learned men, by experience and first-hand witness, that werewolfism which involves some change of form from man to animal is a very real and very terrible thing. (The Werewolf)
If you prefer your rending human flesh in podcast form, Stuff You Missed In History Class covered this story in a (graphic) Halloween episode.
* An occasional Executed Today guest blogger, through the magic of public domain.