THE WEREWOLF OF POLIGNY
Posted April 9, 2015on:
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I came across the strange case of Pierre Burgot when Listverse published a list of forgotten serial-killers of the Middle Ages, and it’s certainly one of the oddest cases to come from the legends of European werewolves. In 1521 Pierre Burgot was put on trial, alongside his accomplice, Michel Verdun, for the savage murders of people and animals in the Poligny region in eastern France. At his trial Burgot claimed he had fallen in with a bunch of devil-worshippers, who had shown him the ability to transform himself into a wolf.
Burgot claimed that, several years earlier, he had been trying to round up his sheep during a New Year’s fair, when a storm blew up, frightening the animals. He suddenly found himself being watched by three mysterious black-clad men on horseback. One of them said he would protect the sheep, and give Burgot money, if in return Burgot would accept him as his lord and master, renounce the Holy Virgin, Heaven and baptism, and promise never to enter a church until the Mass, and the sprinkling of holy water, was over. On a second meeting with his enigmatic Lord, who reportedly went by name of Moyset, Burgot kissed the man’s hand, and said it felt cold, like that of a dead man. He then “fell on my knees and gave in my allegiance to Satan”.
Burgot kept his promise to Moyset for a year, but was beginning to tire of the deal. In his classic study of the subject, The Book Of Werewolves, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould quotes Burgot as saying “This freedom from care, however, made me begin to tire of the devil’s service, and I recommenced my attendance at church”.
The devil’s henchman wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily though. Burgot met Michel Verdun, who took him to a gathering in the forest of Chastel Charnon, where everyone danced by candlelight. Burgot described them all as holding in their hands “a green taper with a blue flame” (a blue flame on a candle was traditionally supposed to denote a supernatural presence). Michel ordered him to strip naked and rubbed magic ointment all over his body.
The magical transformation from man-into-wolf began. Burgot said: “I was at first horrified at my four wolf’s feet, and the fur with which I was covered all at once, but I found that I could now travel with the speed of the wind”. Burgot and Verdun immediately began the first of several blood-soaked excursions into the French countryside. They killed a woman as she was gathering peas in her garden. When a M. de Chusnee went to her rescue, he was killed as well.
On a separate occasion they savaged a four-year-old girl, and ate her. Another girl was strangled, and they drank her blood. Two more children were brutally killed. One little boy, aged about 6 or 7, managed to escape Burgot’s clutches by screaming so loudly that “the werewolf” had to beat a hasty retreat and resume human form. Burgot didn’t restrict his killing to humans. On one occasion he found a goat in a field, and tore out it’s throat.
Michel Verdun was apprehended when he was found dripping with blood, although another story has it that it was from a wound which his wife was cleaning. Verdun was put under torture, and in the process implicated Burgot, and another man called Philibert Montot. In December 1521, the men were put on trial at Poligny, presided over by Jean Bodin, prior of a Dominican convent. During the course of the trial Burgot spun his tale of lycanthropy. It was never very clear which murders he was supposed to have committed in his wolf form, and which in human form. He said that “when we had been one or two hours in this condition of metamorphosis, Michel smeared us again [with his paws?], and quick as thought we resumed our human forms“.
The men were sentenced to death, and reputedly burnt at the stake for their crimes.
Was all this nothing more than the posturing of sadistic killers? Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, famously tried to pass himself off as mad at his trial on the grounds that he’d get a cushier sentence, but cushier sentences weren’t exactly to be found as a rule in the 16th century, mad or not. These days lycanthropy is a recognised mental illness, in which patients are convinced they can transform themselves into wolves. Did Burgot and Verdun share this delusion?
And on the folklore side of things, tales of people meeting sinister black-clad men in the countryside were not unusual in Medieval times. The most famous one I can think of is the legend that Old Mother Shipton – the prophetess of Knaresborough, Yorkshire – was conceived when her mother met a mysterious Man In Black in the woods. The Devil was also sometimes referred to as “the black man”. This was nothing whatsoever to do with skin colour, but more for his invariable taste in black clothes. Likewise Burgot’s claim that Moyset’s hands were cold, is similar to witches who said the Devil’s semen was icy-cold.
These days we have the modern version of the tales, with UFO witnesses claiming to have had disturbing visitations from The Men In Black. Bizarre though MIB cases undoubtedly are, I’ve yet to come across one which has either a sexual element, or involves the witnesses turning into savage wolves. Let’s hope not anyway.
ADDENDUM: the strong religious element to the case has also to be taken into consideration. The early 16th century was a time of huge religious turbulence. The almighty Catholic Church, which had held sway for centuries, was facing serious competition from the Protestant. It was the time of Martin Luther, and in England, under King Henry VIII, things were steadily brewing towards the Reformation. The area of Poligny would also have been in the thick of religious dissension. The men here were tried by a Catholic priest, and Verdun confessed his crimes after undergoing torture. It’s a curious aspect of the case that part of Burgot’s deal with Moyset was that he didn’t seem to be barred from church completely, but was only to go in after the Mass had been conducted. (Surely the Devil would have wanted him to stay clear completely?) Could the three men have been the victims of a holy frame-up? After all this time it is impossible to say, but certainly these days we wouldn’t give much credence to confessions extracted under torture.