As long winter nights stretch before us and the dark places beyond our windows seem just a little closer, our thoughts turn to old tales of the wolves.
For centuries, above raging winds and under silent moons their howl could be heard across these lands, striking fear into all that heard them.
The wolf (or loup in French) has left its mark in legends, local records, in family and village names; Chanteloup, Canteloup Canteleu …
The Louviers wolf
Our match today is Rue aux Huiliers one of the medieval streets that survive in Louviers. Once, long ago a murderous wolf walked here.
On Tuesday 17 September, 1709 the bloody religious wars that decimated Louviers may be a memory, but natural disasters were causing nearly as much damage. Five plagues swept through Louviers between 1619 and 1694. A hurricane destroyed lives and livelihoods in 1705. Unknown to the townspeople one of the most terrible winters would soon be upon them.
Now a furry, snarling danger was close by, a lone rabid wolf creeping over early autumn leaves towards them.
A wolf affected by rabies is a terrifying erratic monster. As the sickness takes over, they develop a ‘furious’ phase when they are desperate to destroy. Horribly, their instinct is not to eat but to bite, rip, shred and tear their prey into a silent unrecognisable mess.
Rabid wolves choose their victims at random but those working in the fields and forests were most vulnerable. After unattended animals, children are a popular prey. Farming changed in the Middle Ages from mostly harvest to include herds away from the village with young people sent out to mind them. Smaller, alone, trying to defend their animals, they were easy to catch and quick to kill.
That September day the busy town of Louviers did not scare a predator whose illness had destroyed its fear of men and their weapons.
Little defence against madness
The wolf had already avoided traps dug deep into forest floors. Some country roads, alleys and paths are still named for these pits ‘La rue du Fossé aux Loups’ ‘street of the wolf pit’. These holes were dug on known wolf paths; always flat routes (the wolf prefers to trot on flat ground) at the bottom or middle of valleys. Wolves only go to high ground to howl.
Over two metres deep, wolf pits that survive are lined with stones and wider at the bottom. Of course more than wolves could be captured this way and local stories mention more than one trapped inebriated local.
In Louviers that day wolf was insatiable and unperturbed by the screams of its victims. Around the narrow streets and alleys it hunted until 15 people were savaged. Five would die. The state of the survivors is lost in time. Was the wolf killed, or sated on human blood did it slink back into the forest to die a mad, rabid death? We have yet to find out. We do know the attack was so terrible all histories of Louviers mention it to this day.
The Green Wolf of Jumièges
Wolves did not always get their own way in Normandy as the Jumièges legend recalls;
In the 7th century the nuns of Pavilly led by Saint Austreberthe, provided a laundry service for the Jumièges monks. To stop the monks and nuns being distracted from their duties, a donkey was trained to collect and delivery between the two religious communities. One day the donkey did not return so Austreberthe went into the forest to search for him. Tragically she found nothing but bloody linen and signs their precious donkey had been devoured by a wolf.
Fearless Austreberthe called angrily for the wolf who, against its better judgement, padded over to the saint and lay at her feet. A strong exchange of words ensued until finally the wolf confessed his crime.
The good Christian pardoned him but imposed a humiliating penance: the wolf could never eat meat again and would take on the work of the donkey he had devoured. And so it was; from that time until the wolf lived out is natural life (about eight years) the now tame vegetarian ‘green’ wolf carried the monk’s linen.
Wearing Le Varou
Fear of the wolf in Normandy was mingled with the threat of becoming its mutant sibling ‘Le Varou’, the werewolf.
Norse sagas tell of people changed into wolves and the Vikings bought these stories with them to Normandy. Here in the Middle Ages werewolf legends follow three main themes; the dead and damned, evil spirits at play and the living sinner…
The dead and damned
In these legends those who die damned begin to suffer as soon as they are buried, so may make a leap for life and the chance to cause more trouble. Normandy priests were well versed in what to look out for and would stand vigil in their graveyards after a funeral. The number of nights probably depended on just how sinful the corpse had been in life.
During a vigil the Curé was listening for the sound of eating – buried troublemakers first eat their shroud – shouts, and the grave beginning to glow. Other signs were the soil not settling above the body and worst of all flames coming out of the ground. The next stage was for the corpse to emerge above ground as Le Varou or werewolf. To stop this horrible transformation, at the first sinister sign the Curé was forced to dig up the body (using a new spade), cut off its head (while fighting dog shaped demons) and throw it into a river. Naturally a towing column of water would appear before the head disappeared into the torments of hell and the threat for the living was over.
Evil spirits at play
Stories about evil spirits and sorcerers turning humans into animals, or for people to make animal transforming pacts with the devil, are as old as time. Cormeilles has a legend that tells how a peasant was suspected by his village of ‘running the Varou’ – becoming a werewolf. One evening a burly gang of locals loitered in his house until well after dark preventing the increasingly anxious farmer from leaving. Then at the appointed hour the unfortunate man seized a broom, straddled it and disappeared up the chimney.
Startlingly, a sound piece of Normandy research in 1952 recorded people who remembered someone they knew, or just one generation before, troubled by le Varou.
From the research – In Thury-Harcourt Mrs R. tells that in 1940 a young woman had many difficulties with her cows: ‘Her servant every night saw a sort of great hound passing by. One evening she tried to shoot him with a rifle. But the beast was invulnerable, he was a sorcerer. A mass was said and everything returned to order. No one has seen the hound again.’
Once wolves completely disappeared from the Norman landscape Le Varou became an owl, a cat or a horse, pets that anyone could encounter during a nocturnal walk.
The living sinner
The village priest holds incredible power over his congregation, the power to excommunicate. In the Middle Ages he would use the threat of this to try and uncover the identity of criminals within his parish, but with a medieval twist.
At Sunday service a monitory, warning, would be read out threatening excommunication for the culprit or those who knew their identity, unless they revealed all. The ceremony was repeated three weeks in a row. If this did not work the culprit would, for seven years on certain nights, be forced by holy powers to wear the skin of a beast (wolves were a favourite but a sheep or goat would do) and transform into the animal. Harming no-one but themselves, this creature would be driven by a supernatural energy to run wild across fields, ponds, through brambles and brushwood. At each crossroads an invisible force would whip them soundly. In the morning the sinner transformed back into their human form but still with the marks of their journey. Fairly easy to spot, they would be the ‘man who carries Le Varou’.
Fortunately the curse could be removed if someone jumped on the Varou and cut them between the eyes. If they were unsuccessful, this caused a set-back and the sinner had another seven years to be Le Varou. Although other reports suggest the Varou should be unmolested as they are suffering enough.
Hawkers of the truth
These wolfish tales were taken from village to village by hawkers stomping through the muddy Normandy lanes embellishing as they went, and retold at markets and fairs.
Of course the church was having none of this pagan nonsense. Their conviction that only God decides the fate of man was clearly stated by the archbishop of Rouen, Saint Ouen ‘God made the moon for seasons and temper my darkness of the night (…) and not to make men mad, as fools believe, them who believe that demonic suffering because of the moon.’ This didn’t stop upstanding Normandy citizens from nailing a wolf’s paw to their doors to ward off bad luck.
The wolf hunters
Unlike Burgundy, where wolf hunting was reserved for those licensed by the Duke, in Normandy groups of farmers protecting their livestock hunted around 90% of wolves killed. The most dangerous time for the wolf was late spring, as they were forced to stay in one area with their new cubs.
The French revolution of 1789 was the beginning of the end for wolves in Normandy and France. The autocrats had their heads chopped off and their self-serving rules repealed. Now the common man could carry weapons and at last defend himself with bullets against his furry foe.
When in 1859 two sheep were taken by a wolf at night near Blangy-le-Château the mayor called for a hunt. Sixty hunters and trackers answered the call and began ‘beating’ the area to flush out the predator. Within half an hour it was spotted but proved a tricky adversary. Despite being wounded three times it kept going for three hours, finally stopped by a shot to the shoulder.
Sightings of wolves had became rare some years before 1888, when the last Normandy wolf was killed in the Forêt d’Écouves of the Orne, a female weighing just 40kg.
But this could all change. In recent years a few wolves have crept over the Alps from Italy into the south of France. Could Normandy hear the howl of the wolf again one day?
A unique piece of research by the University of Caen carefully pulled together every recorded wolf attack from the middle ages until the 20th century. Attacks have been divided into those by predatory wolves, and rabid wolves. A total of 9031 victims are recorded.
University of Caen database and map of French wolf attacks from the middle ages to the 20th century.
Our information on Le Varou was mainly sourced from ’Le Varou’ by M Moricet, 1952 Volume 2, Annales de Normandie.