INTRODUCTION TO SABINE BARING-GOULD'S BOOK OF WEREWOLVES
First published in 1865, Sabine Baring-Gould's classic study of werewolves is a revelation on the subject, being written at a time when werewolves were still taken very seriously in the wilder corners of Europe and, indeed, most other parts of the world. Since then, werewolves have largely retreated into fiction and famously into films where, along with vampires, they have become purveyors of macabre entertainment. But what this book demonstrates is that the werewolf was once the object of very real terror. And with good reason.
The spark of this study was Baring-Gould's close encounter in the remote French countryside with, if not quite the creature itself, a first-hand and very solid belief in its existence. (He describes this belief in an opening worthy of a Gothic novel.) This led him to wonder about the roots of the belief and thus to an investigation which trawls an enormous range of sources dating from antiquity up to the nineteenth century, skipping lightly from Norse saga to African and American folktales.
The author's own position is robustly modern, couched though it is in the leisurely and polished language of his day. The viewpoint to which he regularly returns is that lycanthropy, the condition of being a werewolf, is primarily a mental disorder often accompanied by hallucinations in both sufferers and their victims. But in his various digressions he builds a strong case for something much more tangible than this, giving a chilling taste of the reality of the condition for those in its thrall and for whom scepticism and urbane detachment were as remote as the moon.
Lycanthropy was a criminal offence in much of Europe during the late Middle Ages and those convicted of it usually met a horrible end. The records of such cases, almost because of their legal soberness, provide much of Baring Gould's most disturbing and fascinating material. In the light this the story of Little Red Riding Hood changes from a cautionary poetic fable into a worryingly direct warning of what was liable to happen to children who went straying in the woods.
Bloodthirstiness, cruelty, shapeshifting and cannibalism all come under examination, both as manifested in werewolves and in a wider context. Given his subject, the author's curiosity is almost by definition slightly morbid, but he stops short of salaciousness. The true stories he tells are terrible enough without the finer grisly details, in particular that of Gilles de Laval, also known as the Marechal de Letz, whose tale was here presented to the English reading public for the first time with any accuracy.
And grim reading it makes too. The Marechal was also known as 'Bluebeard', under which soubriquet he passed rapidly into folklore. But the true story as related in some detail by BaringGould is hardly less fantastic and is told with a verve any storyteller of old would admire. Champion of France against the English in the fifteenth century, marshall, councillor and chamberlain to the king, lord of wide estates in Brittany and possessor of a vast fortune, the Marechal nevertheless ended his life on a fiery gallows amid one of the scandals of the century. His dark appetites had been woken, he claimed, by his reading of the cruelties practiced by the ancient Caesars whom he sought to emulate.
One by one the author carefully examines the various strands of the werewolf legend and many of his conclusions are as valid today as when he was writing. For example, one theory has it that lycanthropy is simply one form of a human condition quite able to adopt other guises. Reading the examples in this book, many modern parallels spring to mind.
As wild wolves died out on the margins of European civilisation, so too did the fear of werewolves. But under different masks they continue to prowl in our midst, stunning the world from time to time when they are exposed.
Sabine Baring-Gould (1834 - 1924) brought an immense authority and energy to his subject as well as an interesting viewpoint, for he was by profession a parson as well as a celebrated author, archaeologist and folklorist. One of the foremost collectors of British folksongs, he also composed the famous anthem Onward Christian Soldiers, published a monumental sixteen-volume edition of Lives of the Saints in addition to about thirty novels and a hundred other books on a wide range of topics. This combination of talents endows his study of werewolves with an enduring quality which has rarely been matched.
For developments of the legend since the nineteenth century one has to look elsewhere, but for its foundation this, the first in-depth examination in the English language, remains almost necessary reading. One only wishes it were longer.
Thanks to the wonder of the internet you can read the book online below. I love the bit in the first chapter where the French peasants shake their heads at Sabine's plan to walk home through werewolf territory after dark. He thinks they're marvelling at his English courage. Whereas of course they were obviously just thinking 'these rosbifs are all mad'.
THE BOOK OF WEREWOLVES