Medieval Serial Killer or Werewolf?

In the present day, in general, society looks back at the Middle Ages and sees things like a belief in witchcraft, werewolves, and even sea monsters as confusing and even childish. How could they have truly believed in any of this? That is what this blog post will be discussing; the truth behind the legends. 

In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Christianity had brought forth a more widespread belief in God and the devil. Medieval authorities were still executing people for witchcraft, but a different form of the witchcraft than we think of today. Instead of flying broomsticks, the witchcraft of the Middle Ages was causing harm through occult means. This was known as maleficium in Latin which translates today to “mischief.” So authorities were persecuting individuals for their crimes of maleficum; not necessarily because they thought they were our stereotypical version of witches. 

The concept of a werewolf was thought of in a similar fashion as they were being influenced by Satan to commit wrongdoings. However, throughout the Middle Ages many, including priests, physicians and monks, believed that lycanthropy (becoming a werewolf) was actually a form of madness or mental illness. Paul of Aegina, a Byzantine physician, wrote:

“Those suffering from lycanthropy go out during the night imitating wolves in all things, and lingering about tombs until morning. You may recognize these person by these marks; they are pale, their vision feeble, their eyes dry, tongue very dry and the flow of the saliva stopped; but they are thirsty, and their legs have incurable ulcerations from frequent falls. Such are the symptoms of the disease. You must know that lycanthropy is a species of melancholy.”

Between 1450 and 1650, there was a sort of werewolf “epidemic” in Europe, similar to the witch hunts of the same period, although on a much smaller scale. During this period there were at least 300 werewolf trials throughout Western Europe (compared to the tens of thousands of witch trials), most of them located in France and Germany, that can be argued to have truly just been trials of medieval and early modern serial killers. Here are some of the stories of serial killer werewolves.

In the late sixteenth century, Peter Stubbe was a resident of Bedburg, Germany. Peter was a friendly face within the community and would check in with his neighbors and friends on a  regular basis. While reports from after his arrest point to him being greatly inclined to evil throughout his youth and that he had given both his soul and body to the Devil, this was most likely untrue as he had been an upstanding member of society (or so they thought). In 1589, Stubbe was accused of making a deal with the devil to transform himself into a werewolf. In truth, Stubbe was arrested for the rape, murder and cannibalization of eighteen victims, including two pregnant women. 

The sixteenth century report of Stubbe’s crimes claims that through his pact with the devil he was given a magic belt that would transform into a werewolf so he could more easily murder and eat his victims. Stubbe was seen escaping from his last murder by two hunters, who apparently saw him in his human form because he had slipped the belt off during his attempted escape. Stubbe was apprehended by the hunters and taken to the town magistrates.

On October 18, 1589, Peter Stubbe was executed. His body was laid on a breaking wheel and in ten places his flesh was pulled from his bones with red hot metal pinchers. His arms and legs were then broken with a hatchet and his head was struck from his body. They then burned his body. 

A little over sixty years earlier, in France, two men were also accused of being werewolves. Pierre Bourgot and Michel Verdung were known as the Werewolves of Poligny. It was claimed that they had also made a deal with the Devil so that they could transform into werewolves and indulge in their homicidal tendencies. Supposedly, the pair killed a woman who was in her garden, a four year old girl who they later ate, and two other young girls whose blood they drank. Both men were arrested and executed in 1521 for their crimes. 

Another man, Jacques Roulet, was arrested after murdering and cannibalizing a fifteen year old boy outside of Angers, France. Unlike the previous werewolf stories, during his trial Roulet claimed he used a magical ointment to transform into the murderous beast. He also confessed to the murder of several children and adults. Roulet was originally sentenced to death but in 1599 he pleaded insanity, which was accepted by the French parliament.

A more well-known story of a “werewolf” was the Beast of Gevaudan. This happened much later in history, after the medieval period, between 1765 and 1767. Gevaudan was a rural region in the South of France. What makes this story stand out from the others, however, was that the best may actually have been a wolf, not a man. In May of 1764, the Beast of Gevaudan made his attack on a young girl tending to a herd of cattle. The girl was unhurt, but described the beast as “like a wold, yet not a wolf.” On June 30th, just a month later, the beast committed his first fatal attack on a fourteen year-old sheep shepherdess. 

Throughout the rest of that summer the beast attacked and ate many young women, and a few young adult men. Many hunters attempted to catch the beast but to no avail. In January of 1765, a young boy, Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the wolf-like beast but he and his friends fought it off until it retreated back into the forest. King Louis XV heard of the boys bravery and rewarded him with a funded education. The King then sent hunters into the woods to catch and kill the beast.

In the late summer of 1765, a large wolf was shot and killed in the Gevaudan region that was believed to be the beast. The wolf was stuffed and sent to royal court in celebration. However, not long after, the attacks started again. The attacks continued throughout the year until the next summer when another wolf was shot and killed. This time human remains were found inside the wolf and the animal had non-wolf like features as his first victim had described. After it’s death the attacks stops, but no one knows whether it was truly a wolf or a werewolf.

Historians have argued that the beast may have been a Eurasian wolf, a dog wolf hybrid, a hyena, and even a lion. Others have argued that it was actually a serial killer, not an animal at all, that committed the attacks as most of its victims were decapitated. Unfortunately, we will never know. 


Schulte R. (2009) “The Persecution of Men as Werewolves in Burgundy.”  Man as Witch. Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Vronsky, Peter. Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present. United States: Penguin Publishing Group, 2018.

Gilles de Rais: A Medieval Serial Killer

The late medieval period saw the death of thousands of people through plague, famine, and war; and while this period also saw an expansion in trade and commerce, and philosophy, science and the arts, I would like to focus on a byproduct of these tragedies: Gilles de Rais. 

Gilles de Rais was born sometime in the early 1400s in Champtocé-sur-Loire, France. He was born into a life of feudal lordship, a life of education and of wealth. Both of his parents died when he was just a child and at the age of eleven he was taken in by his grandfather Jean de Craon, one of the richest lords in the Anjou valley. Jean de Craon was a greedy and cruel man who taught his grandson to be the same. For example, when Gilles was just sixteen years old, his grandfather took two young women captive. He threatened to sew the older, Beatrice, into a sack and have her thrown into the river to drown. The two girls were put up for ransom and when three soldiers came to claim them, they were also imprisoned by Craon’s soldiers and thrown into a deep pit where one dies. Eventually the elder sister was released once the ransom had been paid, while the younger sister was forced to marry on of Craon’s soldiers. Gilles witnessed and took part in all of this cruelty, along with many more throughout his childhood with his grandfather.

Gilles de Rais’ grandfather also left him with a lot of time to himself at a young age. So not only was he witnessing cruelty and even murder, he was also not being raised in a family setting. Shortly after the kidnapping of the two sisters, Craon successfully arranged that Gilles de Rais marry Catherine de Thouars of Brittany who was a very wealthy heiress. They had a daughter, Marie in 1434. 

When Gilles was in his early twenties he was made leader of an Angevin army during the Hundred Years’ War. It was at this time that he met Joan of Arc, who requested he fight in her regiment due to the way he fought with fury and bloodlust. His success in the battle lead him to receive the highest military honor in France; the Marshal of France. Soon after Gilles became Marshal, the power went to his head and he began spending his inheritance recklessly and living in extravagance. His grandfather, Jean de Craon, was so disappointed that when he died he left his sword to not Gilles, but his younger brother, Rene. 

This slight seems to have resonated with Gilles. After he retired from the military in 1435, he began to put more significance in religion and in trying to save his dwindling fortune. He funded the construction of a private church, which he named the Chapel of Holy Innocents. This chapel became home to a choir of young boys from the local area, all of whom were hand selected by Gilles himself.  It was at this same time that he began to toy with occult; searching for men who could practice alchemy and demon summoning for him. It is thought this was to save his fortune; but a darker truth would come to light later. 

While Gilles had attempted to disappear from public life after he retired from the military, rumors were circulating about him throughout France. Young boys had been going missing around Gilles castles and the locals believed he and his servants were involved. The disappearances began in the early 1430s. It wasn’t until 1440, however, that people came forward, claiming to have seen Gilles’ servants disposing of the bodies of young children. Gilles de Rais was arrested in September of 1440 for an unrelated kidnapping of a priest. 

Gilles was tried for heresy, sodomy, and murder. Under threat of torture, and possibly due to a guilt, Gilles immediately confessed to all charges. He claimed that the killings began in 1432, the year his grandfather died. He would make his servants kidnap young boys, usually members of the choir, and have them brought back to his castle in Champtocé-sur-Loire. One room was dedicated to torture. It was in this room that Gilles would torture these young boys for hours, with the help of two companions, and then kill them in a variety of ways from blunt force to the head to strangulation to decapitation. After he had killed them, he would drink himself into sleep and his servants would clean the room and dispose of the bodies. 

The parents of the children who had disappeared, witnesses to the servant dumping bodies, and even his accomplices testified against him. During his trial, Gilles himself testified that: 

“…when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed.”

While Gilles admitted to the murder of over a hundred boys aged between 6 and 18, it is thought that the number may be closer to two hundred. 

Gilles de Rais was convicted on all charges and sentenced to death. On October 26th, 1440, Gilles de Rais was executed by hanging and burning with tears running down his face in a show of guilt and Christian piety. Gilles accomplices were also executed in the same manner; but Gilles was executed first as he asked not to see them die.

Some historians have argued that Gilles de Rais may not have been guilty of being a serial killer and was set up by either the Catholic Church or the French monarchy, most likely to get his wealth and lands. However, there is no proof of this and due to his confession most historians believe he was guilty.


Bataille, Georges., Rais, Gilles de. The trial of Gilles de Rais. United Kingdom: Amok, 1991.

Benedetti, Jean. The Real Bluebeard: The Life of Gilles de Rais. United Kingdom: Sutton, 2003.

Parsons, Ben. “Sympathy for the Devil: Gilles De Rais and His Modern Apologists.” In Fifteenth-Century Studies 37, edited by Gusick Barbara I. and Heintzelman Matthew Z., 113-38. Rochester, NY; Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2012.

Penney, James. “Confessions of a Medieval Sodomite.” In Perversion and the Social Relation: Sic IV, edited by Rothenberg Molly Anne, Foster Dennis, and Žižek Slavoj, 126-58. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2003.

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