Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Werewolf Transformation in the Manuscript Era

Academic journal article The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History

Werewolf Transformation in the Manuscript Era

Article excerpt


In the Renaissance there was a great outpouring of engraved and woodcut images by French and German humanist and polymath writers on demonology depicting what we might call broadly witchcraft and demonic possession. Some of this art appeared in books, and some was in anonymous broadsheets relating to Inquisitorial trials like those of the French werewolves Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun and the German Stubbe Peeter. (1) The most important of these books were Jean Bodin's (1530-1596) De la demonomanie des sorciers (1580); Claude Prieur's (d. ca. 1596) Dialogue de lycanthropie, ou transformation d'hommes en loups (1595); Jean de Nynauld's De la lycanthropie, transformation etextase des sorciers (1615); and Beauvois de Chauvincourt's Discours de la lycanthropieou de la transformation des hommes en loups (1599), as well as the arch collector of lycanthropie tales, Henri Boguet of Saint-Claude, in Burgundy's Discors execrable des sorciers (1602) and the German Johannes Weyer's (1515-1558) De Praestigiis daemonum et incantationibus. All were especially fascinated by werewolves, among other instances of the demonic irrupting into human life. (2)

As part of this Renaissance humanist interest in demonology and in portents (such as comets and monstrous births), werewolves naturally received the attentions of woodcut artists and engravers. For example, lycanthropie trials, human-werewolf encounters, and even transformations were often shown in broadsheets, pamphlets, and books. These images ranged widely in character. For example, in 1508 the Swiss humanist Johannes Geiler von Kaiserberg (1445-1510) preached in Strasbourg Cathedral on the third Sunday in Lent a sermon on superstitions in which he mentioned, among several other examples, werewolves and quoted Vincent of Beauvais and William of Auvergne; this sermon was later published, probably from memory, by another writer, Johannes Pauli, in Die Emeis (The Ants, 1516). It featured a dramatic woodcut by Hans Weiditz of an urban werewolf attack (see Fig. 1). (3)

A similar but far more gory scene appeared in the work of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) (who, incidentally, did a very fine portrait of Geiler). His woodcut of 1512, now in the New York Metropolitan Museum, shows a werewolf devouring his prey in a field of ravaged bodies, presenting him as a still-human figure in an animal posture (see Fig. 2). Werewolves even appeared among depictions of the monstrous races from Pliny's Natural History, such as pygmies, anthropophagi, cynocephali, Arimaspians, Blemmyae, Essedones, and Hyperboreans in the German Esopi appologi siue mythologi cum quibusdam carminum etfabularum additionibus Sebastiani Brant, a collection whose second part gives a variety of fables, proverbs, riddles, and portents adapted from classical and folk sources, each with an accompanying woodcut (see Fig. 3). (4) One such fable shows the story of certain Arcadians of the Xanthus family chosen by drawing lots and turned into werewolves after hanging their clothes in trees and swimming across a pond during the ancient festival of Lykaia. Their story will occupy us shortly.

The rich interchange among certain French manuscript painters of the mid- to late fifteenth century, chiefly the eminent Valois court artist Robinet Testard, and Continental engravers like the Housebook Master, as well as various playing card makers, woodcut artists, and printmakers, is well known. Indeed, manuscript painters in France and elsewhere borrowed from graphic media and were borrowed from: scenes, architectural elements, iconographic topoi such as the World Upside Down, and images of animals, birds, and flowers moved freely between the works of such painters as Testard or the anonymous but witty and ingenious French illustrator of the Livre des simples medicines, now Brussels, Bibliotheque Royale MS IV. 1024, and graphic media artists such as Israhel van Meckenem and the Initial Masters. (5)

Given this pattern of cross-fertilization between manuscript artists and those working in graphic media, one would expect to see evidence of copying of medieval lycanthropic miniatures by the woodcut makers and engravers just mentioned. …

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