Good Irish Catholic Werewolves of the Middle Ages

While most werewolves are ravening beasts, some are just little old Irish Catholic ladies. Below is a medieval werewolf encounter recorded by Gerald of Wales in The History and Topography of Ireland. The translation is from John J. O’Meara. (No information on whether O’Meara is a werewolf)

About three years ago before the coming of Lord John into Ireland, it happened that a priest, journeying from Ulster towards Meath, spent the night in a wood on the borders of Meath. He was staying up beside a fire which he had prepared for himself under the leafy branches of a tree, and had for company only a little boy, when a wolf came up to them and immediately broke into these words: “Do not be afraid! Do not fear! Do not worry! There is nothing to fear!”

They were completely astounded and in great consternation. The wolf said to them something about God that seemed reasonable. The priest called on him and abjured him by the omnipotent God and faith in the Trinity not to harm them and to tell them what kind of creature he was, who, although in the form of a beast, could speak human words. The wolf gave a Catholic answer in all things and at length added:

“We are natives of Ossory. From there every seven years, because of the imprecation of a certain saint, namely the abbot Natalis, two persons, a man and a woman, are compelled to go into exile not only from their territory but also from their bodily shape. They put off the form of man completely and put on the form of wolf. When the seven years are up, and if they have survived, two others take their place in the same way, and the first pair return to their former country and nature.

“My companion in this pilgrimage is not far from here and is seriously ill. Please give her in her last hour the solace of the priesthood in bringing to her the revelation of the divine mercy.

This is what he said, and the priest, full of fear, followed him as he went to a certain tree not far away. In the hollow of the tree the priest saw a she-wolf groaning and grieving like a human being, even though her appearance was that of a beast. As soon as she saw him she welcomed him in a human way, and then gave thanks also to God that in her last hour he had granted her such consolation. She then received from the hands of the priest all the last rites duly performed up to the last communion. This too she eagerly requested, and implored him to complete his good act by giving her the viaticum. The priest insisted that he did not have it with him, but the wolf, who in the meantime had gone a little distance away, came back again and pointed out to him a little wallet, containing a manual and some consecrated hosts, which the priest according to the custom of his country carried about with him, hanging from his neck, on his travels. He begged him not to deny to them in any way the gift and help of God, destined for their aid by divine providence. To remove all doubt he pulled all the skin off the she-wolf from the head down to the navel, folding it back with his paw as if were a hand. And immediately the shape of an old woman, clear to be seen, appeared. At that, the priest, more through terror than reason, communicated her as she had earnestly demanded, and then she devoutly received the sacrament. Afterwards, the skin that had been removed by the he-wolf resumed its former position.

When all this had taken place – more in equity than with proper procedure – the wolf showed himself to them to be a man rather than a beast. He shared the fire with them during the whole night, and when morning came he led them over a great distance in the wood, and showed them the surest way on their journey. When they parted he gave many thanks to the priest for the benefit he had conferred upon him, and promised to give him much more tangible evidence of his gratitude, if the Lord should call him back from the exile in which he was, and of which he had now completed two thirds.

Bisclavret: The Original Team Jacob

Interested in a medieval werewolf tale? Check out this PDF of “Bisclavret” by Marie de France.  It’s less than ten pages long, so go ahead and read it — spoilers below the image.


(By the way, that image is from British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, Folio 29r, for those who are interested)

One of the really cool things about “Bisclavret” is that Marie de France doesn’t back away from the idea that werewolves are vicious creatures.  She tells us that they are savage, that they eat men, and they wreak evil. She doesn’t make the claim that they are falsely maligned, or misunderstood — she depicts them as monstrous.

And then there’s the wife. At the beginning, she seems really to love her husband. Again, Marie doesn’t set up the tale so that the wife was always treacherous, or that she never really loved the Bisclavret. Her questions about his frequent disappearances aren’t at all unreasonable. Later, when she gets the rival knight to do her bidding, Marie gives us a little aside to assure us that not only had she never loved the rival knight, but she had never even encouraged his advances; the wife had been completely faithful to her husband up until that point.

So the turn for her comes when she learns the truth, and her reaction is described as “terror.” Given how Marie has just described werewolves as savage man-eaters, terror seems a pretty reasonable response.

By the time we get to the end of the story, though, the usual medieval romance is turned on its head. The adulterous lovers are punished (adulterous love is commonly depicted as awesome in medieval romances and other lais of Marie de France), the knight and wife are tortured, and the wife not only gets her nose bitten off by her werewolf first husband, but her children are cursed with noselessness (no information on whether Tom Riddle is a descendant). The werewolf, on the other hand, is honored and gets back more than he ever had before.

In the end, this is a story about loyalty. The Bisclavret takes himself out to the woods to protect his family. He remains loyal to his king even when he is basically a savage animal. And in return, he receives the loyalty of everyone else, to such a degree that they defend the wolf when he mauls two people.

So be loyal, and return loyalty to those who are loyal to you. And this Halloween, if you discover your spouse is a savage monster, just chalk it up to one of those little things you learn about a person through years of marriage, and be grateful that you still have a nose.


(The featured image is from British Library, Royal MS 13 B viii, and depicts husband and wife werewolves)

Fangirling The Bad Plus

Last night I totally fangirled the best jazz trio in the world at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta.

And it was awesome.

Jazz isn’t a genre that typically has fangirls. I’m not sure, however, that it would be correct to say that jazz has fanboys, either. Maybe fangentlemen.

But for me, admitting that you have no idea who The Bad Plus are is like admitting that you have never heard of Doctor Who. And with very similar consequences, because I will immediately do everything in my power to save you from the abyss of deprivation that surrounds you. And I will do this because I am a fangirl.

Fangirling gets a bad rap. Urban Dictionary defines fangirl/fanboy as having a “compulsive dedication” and gives an example of a fan who can only talk about their fandom. Fangirldom is associated with youth and immaturity, hence fangirl, not fanwoman (and, I must point out, that “fangirl” is a newer term then “fanboy,” which left women out completely when it was coined). Fandom is not something adults do. Fandom isn’t a real appreciation for something, but a blind following of something, usually related to comics or sci-fi or gaming. Being a fangirl, in other words, makes me a less legitimate fan, and that is due, in part, to the associations of “girlishness” with “fan.”

Although I can understand where some of these concerns are coming from, I have to admit that I think  the pejorative connotations associated with fangirls and fanboys are a load of smeg. For me, fandom is about enthusiasm, passion, and, on more than one occasion, feminism. I like the term “fangirl” because I like being a fan, and many of the things I am a fan of have not always been female friendly. I like how “fangirl,” as a term, is a reminder that women can be fans (and even participants! Gasp!) in popular culture.  Jazz, for example, is notoriously male. I once asked a tenor saxophonist (whom I had seen play locally several times) to name his favorite musicians. He sized me up, taking particular note of my femaleness, and said, “Well, you’ve probably never heard of him, but I really like a guy named Sonny Rollins.”

In jazz, this is rather like saying “You’ve probably never heard of him, but I like a guy named Paul McCartney.” While I certainly won’t claim to be an expert on jazz (I have a PhD in books), I  know who Sonny Rollins is. In fact, I know who Vi Burnside is, and I think her tenor sax mastery is delicious and frenetic. And the reason I know who Vi Burnside is because I’m a woman, and I woke up one morning tired of male tenor sax players who thought I didn’t know anything, and I sought out women in jazz. And I wrote about them.

In other words, I  know who Vi Burnside is because I’m a fangirl.

After all, this is what fangirls do. I get giddy over music, just like I get giddy over books. The reason I have a PhD in English is really just because I’m a fangirl of hundreds of writers. I get giddy over great films and television and comics, too. Listening to a great band or reading a great book is like dissolving into the sun. It’s the best way of being set on fire. And being a fangirl is about fanning those flames. Removing the enthusiasm, the passions, the respect, the learning, the sharing from fandom leaves us as plain old girls and boys. Fans are, after all, fanatics. We need more fans, more people that are so excited and passionate about books and music and films that they can’t shut up. That they babble. And squee. And transcend.

And we need fangirls in particular because more women need to be involved in music and books and art; we need more women involved in writing and composing and painting. So much of the canon of great art, great books, great music, great film is male. And that’s the canon we need to join. Not the offshoot canons, not the women’s lit. and the women’s music, but the primary, main canon of GREAT works. Women need to be there, visibly, speaking and writing and painting and playing. Shakespeare courses, Shakespeare studies, the great canon of literature–this was all made by fanboys, because really, is there a Shakespeare scholar that isn’t a fan of Shakespeare? We need to own our fandoms, and women particularly need to own our fangirldom, because Canonical Greatness? It isn’t just for white men anymore.

I want to see the same kinds of fangirldom that is generally associated with sci-fi and comics and gaming within the Canons of Great Works. For me, there is no difference in my fandom for Doctor Who and my fandom for The Bad Plus. I love the devotion and exuberance of the Doctor Who fandom, the Buffy fandom, Whedon fandom, Arrow fandom, Nerf Herder fandom, TMBG fandom, and I bring that to my jazz fandom. I am, at heart, a geek. I geek out. I freak out. I squee with delight. And I am female. White, straight, and fairly cis-gendered. And I belong here, in the Canon, among jazz and classical and rock and geek rock. I belong here with all the other genders and colors and orientations and ways of being. And so do you.

So if you’ve never heard of The Bad Plus, I will remedy that for you here. Go give them a listen.

And squee.

Me and The Bad Plus. SQUEE!!
Me and The Bad Plus. SQUEE!!