Saturday, 31 October 2015

"The likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty" - Peter Stübbe, the Werewolf of Bedburg and the Legend of the Lycanthrope

31 October 1589, the serial killer Peter Stumpp or Stübbe, known as the “Werewolf of Bedburg” was executed near Cologne after confessing several murders, cannibalism, incest, having a pact with the Devil and being a lycanthrope.

“But every time we went to the evening, he was so surly that only a few people got to talking with him. At nightfall he used to be sleepy. It is said that he often bypassed by night in a transformed shape. People called him the evening-wolf." (“Egil’s Saga”, around 1240)

Lukas Mayer's contemporary woodcut, summarising the tale of Peter Stumpp

Pliny the Elder had a lot of common sense. “It is wonderful to what extent Grecian Credulity can proceed”, he wrote in his “Natural History”, summarising a paragraph about Northern shape-changing practices handed down by Greek historians and, of lately, processed into romance by his somewhat shady contemporaries of the poetic persuasion, such as Ovid and Petronius. Shady at least to an upright, rational and no-nonsense naturalist like Pliny. And in defence of Greek historians, not even Herodotus would lend them believe. He writes about the Scythians’ neighbours, the Neuri, living along the banks of the river Dniepr, that “ It seems that these people are conjurers: for both the Scythians and the Greeks who dwell in Scythia say that every Neurian once a year becomes a wolf for a few days, at the end of which time he is restored to his proper shape. Not that I believe this, but they constantly affirm it to be true, and are even ready to back their assertion with an oath.” Whether or not Pliny or Herodotus gave credence to such stories, the tales of men and sometimes women changing into wolves are usually far older than Imperial Rome and Classical Greece. The earliest written report occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh when the goddess Ishtar transforms a goat herder into a wolf after she tires of him and the motif of divine disfavour is prevalent in the ancient Mediterranean world in regards to people stalking the night in wolf-form. Lycaon, King of Arcadia, immortalised by Ovid, is certainly the most prominent case. Quite like Tantalus, he roasted one of his sons and offered the gruesome dish to Zeus to test his omniscience. The deity saw through the hybrid scheme and punished the rustic royal from Arcadia by turning him into a wolf. And while the folks up north had a somewhat different tradition of wolf-man tales, the idea of cursed shapeshifters preying on their fellow humanity was dusted off a thousand years after the end of antiquity during another turning-point in time, when the Middle Ages were finally over and the dawn of Modernity had its witch-craze all across Europe with an undercurrent of a werewolf-craze.

A Greek werewolf from an Attic red-figure vase, ca. 460 BCE

The most common conception of a werewolf in the early modern West was that of a sorcerer who had a deal with the devil that allowed him turn into a wolf, the fear of witches was blended with the old tales of shapeshifters and most of the now popular nomenclature about werewolves was compiled during the witch trials of the age. The last cases were put before a court during the early 18th century in Austria. The one of the Werewolf of Bedburg was arguably the most prominent of the 250 court cases heard between 1420 and 1720 and the accusations against Peter Stübbe, serial murder, rape, cannibalism and incest were indeed harsh and would have been sensational news in any age. If they were only partially true. Born in mid-16th century in a village near Cologne, Peter Stübbe was a well-to-do Rhenish farmer from one of the areas that had converted to Protestantism in an arch-Catholic region. Obviously, something snapped with Stübbe when his wife died around 1580. According to his later confessions in court, he began to practise black magic and struck a deal with the devil. The fiend gave him a girdle that allowed him to change into "the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws." In this guise, he allegedly killed and ate fourteen children, old Lycaon probably nodded quite in agreement with Stübbe’s archetypical behaviour since his own son was allegedly among them, had an intimate relationship with a succubus along with a female relative and his own daughter and what not. A sensationally gruesome story, a bit marred by the fact, though, that it was confessed under torture. However, Stübbe was executed for his crimes on October 31st in one of the most nasty and thorough manners that the age could devise. Broken on the wheel, his flesh torn with red-hot pincers, he was finally beheaded and his remains burned along with those of his daughter and his cousin while his head was put on top of a pole where they hung the wheel as well, carved a wolf on it and let it stand as a warning example for those who considered dealing with the devil, changing their shape or becoming a Proddy.

Lucas Cranach the Elders imagination of a werewolf attack (1512)

Stübbe’s sensational case and appetisingly gory execution went viral across Europe by means of several broadsheets and even though his tale faded into obscurity over the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, werewolves remained a popular topic in European folklore and sometimes, other traditions than that of the cursed cannibal cropped up. Shapechangers, people who turn into animals, are a common trait of shamanistic cultures all over the world and the earliest depictions of changers are found in cave paintings, several thousands of years older than even the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Norse, maybe in shamanistic reminiscence, came up with the tale of warriors who could develop animal-like traits in combat under the influence of Wodan, the famous berserkers, the bear-skins, and ulfsarks, the wolf-shirts. The idea might be as old as Herodotus and Pliny, first images of animal warriors, half wolf, half man come from the Swedish Vendel Period around 550 CE and the sagas of the later Viking Age had tales of changers even beyond that of ulfsarks, like that of Kveldulf, the “Evening Wolf”, a man from Iceland who changed into a wolf and walked the night or the Völsunga Saga and Siegfried’s father Sigmund who lived in a forest for a spell, changing into a wolf at will, a story still echoed in Wagner’s adaption. And while wolves remained a constant threat in Europe for farmers, their livestock and, ultimately, their lives, well into the 19th century and thus certainly spawned various grisly tales, from the story of Little Red Riding Hood to cases such as Peter Stübbe’s, the infamous Beast of Gevaudan and the werewolf-craze of the age, there still is the positive old connotation of the warrior blessed by the gods. In 1692, for instance, one Thiess of Kaltenbrun from Livonia claimed to be part of a tribe of werewolves known as the “Hounds of God”, who descended into Hell to fight Evil in the Nights of St Lucia’s Day.  

The video contains the whole ghastly tale read by yours truly, along with more gore images and genuine werewolf howls.

And more about Peter Stübbe on:

and Thiess of Kaltenbrun on:


Sunday, 25 October 2015

“Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint George!" – The Battle of Agincourt

25 October 1415, on Saint Crispin’s Day in northern France, the Battle of Agincourt was fought.

“This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.“ (William Shakespeare “Henry V”)

Sir John Gilbert: “Morning of the Battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415“ (1884)

Shopworn historical claims can do wonders to propagandistic justifications for going to war. Like, for instance, being the actual King of France. Thus, when Henry V was crowned in 1413 and the dynastic troubles back home were over for a spell, he decided to renew his great grandfather Edward III’s demands on the French throne, made some rather impossible suggestions in regards to a peaceful settlement and finally shipped his recently recruited small but highly professional army over to the continent to rekindle the conflict later known as the Hundred Years’ War. With the major players in feudal France locked in a bloody power struggle over influence in Mad King Charles VI’s kingdom and preoccupied with themselves, Henry was free to take his first campaign objective, the rich Norman seaport of Harfleur, once more into the breach and all that, without an interfering French relief force. However, the local warlords were well aware of Henry’s presence and while not quite the entire might of France marched towards the Somme in September 1415, since they’d rather go at each others’ throats than at the English, a considerable force, far larger than Henry’s, was on its way to cut him off and bring him to bay. To brush off the dust off his claims Henry had decided to march north to Calais along the river to show the locals that he was present and the actual potentates could do nothing about it, pretty much like his great uncle the Black Prince did in the South two generation before, albeit without his ancestor’s infamous raiding. The show of force to impress the natives was close to become a disaster for Henry, though. Spoiled shellfish consumed in Harfleur resulting in a dysentery epidemic in Henry’s army had achieved what French arms couldn’t. The English lost one third of their army on the march to Calais to disease and fatigue and when Henry, down to probably 6,000 men, most of them archers, finally crossed the river, the might of France did show in force, more than 12,000 knights and men-at-arms, fresh, well provisioned, superiorly equipped and finally ready to give battle.

John Gilbert: "King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt"

Jean Le Maingre called Boucicaut, marshal of France and nominal leader of the French army was careful, though. The English had won under similar circumstances before and he devised a reasonable plan including a quick pincer movement of his noble, knightly elite cavalry into the flanks of the English that would basically deny them to shoot a head-on charge to pieces with their feared longbows like they did at Crecy and elsewhere. The rest would be a mopping-up action. Unlike Henry, Boucicaut was commander of the army in name only and while the English spent the night before the battle in prayer, all wet in the rain without suitable camping equipment in a recently ploughed up wheat field and one Welshman named Harry Le Roi tried to boost fighting morale, the French were carousing and celebrated their coming victory on the next day. A bit prematurely. On the next day, the French lines were drawn up and did exactly nothing, forcing Henry to abandon his position and move forward to bring his longbows in range. Whether he actually made his famous speech or just said “Let’s go”, like some sources claim, he moved between two pieces of woodland that simply denied any idea of outflanking him Boucicaut might have conceived. Planting their stakes, veritable horse-killers and good cover in close combat, carried to the field all the way from Harfleur, deep into the mud, with his dismounted knights and men-at-arms to hold the centre and his archers half-covered by the woods on either side, looking over one long stretch of sludge. Then the archers, commoners all, gave the French nobles the two-finger salute since they had allegedly threatened to cut off these two fingers if they captured an archer to prevent him from ever drawing a bow again, and shot a few salvoes into the French line for good measure. Boucicaut could do nothing to prevent his nobles from charging into the English right away, head-on and straight into disaster. The attack got stuck in the mire, showered by thousands of deadly arrows and those who reached the archers’ lines had their big warhorses impaled on the stakes and were slaughtered in close combat. Boucicaut ordered his dismounted knights and men-at-arms to follow up as quickly as possible to keep at least the momentum, they were trampled by fleeing chargers, got stuck in the mud knee-deep, still showered by arrows and those who made it to the English lines were on the brink of exhaustion. Still they fought on in a deadly embrace of the two armies in the mud, the archers closing in after they had shot their last arrows and Henry V had won the Battle of Agincourt against impossible odds.

Harry Paine: "King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt" (1915)

In contrast to the custom of the day, few prisoners were taken until the battle was almost over. Noble prisoners meant rich ransoms that could set up a man for life. Those whose surrender was acknowledged were brought to the baggage train with the few men Henry could spare to guard them and when French stragglers made a sally there, he ordered the prisoners killed. A war crime, even by the standards back then. However, Henry could by no means be sure of his victory at this point and, pragmatic as he was, chose cruel necessity before honour and had not to worry about rearmed French prisoners at his back. Only when night fell at Agincourt, the magnitude of his victory became evident. Still 1,500 French nobles, from dukes to bannerets, were captured and more than 7,000 lay dead in the mud of Agincourt in contrast to 400 English and Welsh casualties, one noble, the Duke of York, among them. Henry marched on to Calais in triumph and became a myth already during his lifetime. He died just 7 years later, while on campaign, apparently of dysentery, at the age of 35, leaving a one-year old son to rule his domains of England and France, a host of aggressive nobility that would tear the country apart during the Wars of the Roses and the national Myth of Agincourt, a historical claim of winning against the odds, a bit shopworn these days, but still powerful.

And more about the Battle of Agincourt on:


Wednesday, 21 October 2015

“Do my duty? I’ve always done my duty; haven’t you, Jack?” – The Battle of Trafalgar

21 October 1805, 210 years ago, the Battle of Trafalgar was fought off the southwest coast of Spain.
 “Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter." (Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood to his officers before his flagship HMS “Sovereign” opened fire on “Santa Ana” at the Battle of Trafalgar)

J.M.W. Turner: “The Battle of Trafalgar, as seen from the starboard mizzen shrouds of the Victory” (1806 – 1808)

Nobody actually expected the Peace of Amiens to last very long. However, when hostilities ceased in in March 1802, considerable parts of the Royal Navy were ordered back home to England, battleship after battleship and frigate after frigate had her crew paid off and was either laid up in ordinary or scrapped. Admittedly, these ships usually were veterans from the American War, afloat for more than a generation and usually on blockade duty since war broke out in 1793, year in, year out in the North Sea, the Channel or the Bay of Biscay, waters actually not known for being among the gentler of the Seven Seas. The blockade never really ceased, though. While Napoleon busied himself with reordering affairs on the continent after his own goût and preparing his own coronation as emperor, his considerable navy still rotted at its moorings in French ports along the Atlantic coast and on the Med with their mostly inexperienced crews condemned to idleness. And still, British squadrons were out there, keeping a watchful eye on their former enemies and when government finally had it with Napoleon’s manoeuvrings and war was declared in May 1804, they just closed the bag and the French were bottled up again, scattered in various harbours, Brest, Le Havre, Toulon and elsewhere, along with the men-of-war of Napoleon’s new Spanish allies since the self-proclaimed Prince of Peace, Prime Minister Godoy, was bribed to side with the French. Imagining he needed just six of hours of mastery of the Channel to ferry his huge invasion force assembled in Boulogne over to England unhindered by the Royal Navy and become Master of the World, Napoleon devised various cunning plans to lure the Channel Fleet out into the Atlantic and as far away as possible. Unfortunately, none of the single squadrons available to him was able to meet the blockade off shore head on and thus, his choice finally fell on Villeneuve’s Mediterranean fleet in Toulon who was supposed to collect the Spanish in Cadiz, then passing Gibraltar and the smaller British squadron there and break out into the Atlantic, forcing the British to react and protect their rich possessions in the West Indies. Unfortunately, poor Villeneuve, while not being an incompetent admiral at all, had obviously received something along the lines of a trauma fighting Nelson at the Nile back in ’98 and did his utmost to avoid a direct confrontation. And while he did make it out to the West Indies in 1805 with his large allied fleet, September found him back in Cádiz without having achieved anything but drawing Nelson closer, in a catastrophic supply situation with demoralised crews, damaged ships, miffed Spanish allies and Napoleon biting the carpets of the Palais des Tuileries in his wrath and finally sending Admiral Rosily on his way to replace Villeneuve. When the latter learned of Rosily’s arrival in Madrid on 18 October and received intelligence that Nelson just had 20 ships of the line at his disposal while he had 33 seaworthy battleships, Villeneuve finally decided to leave Cádiz for Cartagena during a calm. It took him a whole day to bring his allied fleet to sea and during the night of October 20th, they were sighted by Nelson’s frigates who alerted the squadron, famously consisting of 27 ships of the line and not 20. 

John Constable: "H.M.S. Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar" (1805)

Nelson’s plan to attack an allied line-of-battle in two columns, break it and engage the enemy in close ranged ship-to-ship combat where the rate of fire the crack British gunners could maintain would make all the difference was anything but secret and widely discussed since 1804. Actually, the best defence against it was to keep the battle line as intact as possible, batter the approaching lead ships to pieces and deal with the rest. Unfortunately, clumsy manoeuvring tore Villeneuve’s line wide apart and leaving his van miles away and then the British approached in something of a calm, as quickly as possible, with anything close to handkerchiefs set to gain more speed, the leeward column under Admiral Collingwood led by the huge 1st rate HMS “Royal Sovereign”, the weather column with “Victory” at the head, flying the Admiral’s words “Nelson confides that every man will do his duty” from her mizzen, shortened to the somewhat scathing signal: “England expects that every man will do his duty", received almost as an insult and summarised by an unnamed sailor aboard HMS “Ajax”: “Do my duty? I’ve always done my duty; haven’t you, Jack?”, the next signal, No 16: “Engage the enemy more closely” was flown and to that nearly everyone could agree in Nelson’s navy. After having received a sound drubbing during her approach, “Victory” crossed “Bucentaure’s” stern around 12:45, fired a triple-shotted broadside into the French 3rd rate, almost wrecking her, about half an hour after “Royal Sovereign” had fired into the Spanish 1st rate “Santa Ana” to the south and the action off Cape Trafalgar began in earnest, ending with Nelson’s death in one of the bloodiest battles of the Age of Sail and a complete British victory, 1,666 British and 13,781 French and Spanish casualties, dead, grievously wounded, drowned or captured.

Auguste Mayer's (1805 - 1890) famous but somewhat fictional account of Villeneuve's flagship "Bucentaure's" last broadsides exchanged with HMS "Sandwich", actually it is a scene acted out between "Redoutable" and HMS "Temeraire"

A second battle was won by the British crews after the guns fell silent when a fierce storm rose that threatened to give the rest to the battered ships-of-the-line and the 21 prizes they had captured and Collingwood, now commanding admiral of the fleet, wrote “The condition of our own ships was such that it was very doubtful what would be their fate. Many a time I would have given the whole group of our capture, to ensure our own... I can only say that in my life I never saw such efforts as were made to save these [prize] ships, and would rather fight another battle than pass through such a week as followed it.“ The allied battleships that managed to escape from Trafalgar were brought to bay off Cape Ortegal on 4 November and thus, the Trafalgar campaign and British invasion scare ended. Ironically enough, Napoleon had to postpone his plans of invading England for an indefinite period anyway since August as he was forced to withdraw his “Army of England” from Boulogne to fight the German-speaking states in Central Europe and being direct, straightforward and brilliantly victorious there, soundly defeating the Austrians at Ulm two days before the events at Cape Trafalgar took place. French newspapers celebrated Villeneuve’s supposed victory at sea for weeks until Napoleon learned the truth that would become one of the most important nails in his coffin. The French and Spanish navies would never recover from their defeat and Britain would rule the waves, the prerequisite for a world-spanning empire, for the next 100 years.

And more about the Battle of Trafalgar on: