Werewolves before the German courts

Photograph of the cover of "Werwolf aus Wickede."

The library has acquired a 2012 German publication, Werwolf aus Wickede.  This book is richly illustrated and details the fates of Blesien Billi of Wimbern and Franz Hellmich of Oesbern, both towns in the German province of North Rhine-Westphalia.  The two men were accused in 1628 of practicing sorcery and of being werewolves.  Their trials took place during the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict that devastated much of Europe.  The warring armies lived off the land, pillaging, raping and murdering civilians.  The war was initially a religious conflict, one which caused many to seek a religious explanation for the tremendous suffering imposed on them.  It was in this context that the many witchcraft trials of the era took place.  Between 1450 and 1782 roughly 60,000 persons were put to death because of such trials.  Perhaps a quarter of these were men. 

Among these men were our two werewolves Billi and Hellmich, accused of practicing sorcery and performing the devil’s dance near the town of Wickede.  Evidentiary standards at the time were quite different.  Spectral evidence was presented to the court.  Witnesses testified as to visions and dreams of sorcerers and the property damage that resulted.  The defendants were tortured and the resulting confessions presented to the court.  The two were convicted and sentenced  to die.  They escaped from jail after the trial.  The authorities took their wives hostage, threatening them with death.  The two returned to custody and were executed.  In the year 2011 the city council of Menden, where the trials were held, declared the process unjust and apologized.

Similar trials took place in the American colonies in this era; these are analyzed in many books, including Entertaining Satan, published in 1982 by John Demos, Professor of History at Yale University.  The social, political, religious and military tensions behind the American trials were much the same as those behind the European proceedings.

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