Werewolf of France – Jean Garnier (1603).
The first serious references of werewolves are often commonly attributed to the Middle Ages. Of course, it’s not to say there aren’t any earlier reference in existence. In Ancient Greek literary sources, for instance, we can read about the mythical stories of the first shape shifting werewolves created by the gods. But it wasn’t until the 16th century onwards that stories about these fearsome mythical creatures truly took root in Christian communities all over medieval Europe. In short, medieval people were terrified of werewolves, especially the thought of being attacked and or turned into a werewolf, in effect damning their soul to eternal punishment in hell. In short, as werewolf hysteria grew it turned neighbour against neighbour accumulating in various werewolf trials.
In the period 1520 to 1630 in France alone, some 30,000 trials were documented in courts of supposed werewolves and witchcraft. In many cases individuals, including whole families, like the Gandillions of the Jura Mountains, were accused and convicted of lycanthropy, their confessions extracted by torture. There were, of course, instances also where individuals happily boasted about being werewolves. Often these troubled souls proudly citied the devil or his followers for granting them with transformative powers. In one of the most famous cases in France, in 1603, Jean Garnier, a young boy aged thirteen or fourteen, boasted to a girl he fancied that when asked about his disheveled appearance he said it was because of his magical wolf skin. He also claimed he could turn into a wolf at will and had killed several children to appease his lust for flesh. Soon after his bizarre admission, he was arrested over the hysteria of a string of missing children in Gascony.
In a time, long before an age of reason, Garnier would without even as much as a second thought have been tortured (burned alive) and killed because of his supposed abilities or magical powers. The justification of torture and or death by torture was almost always justified along the line of fear (moral panic) and heresy. (It wasn’t until the 18th century that the persecution of werewolves along with its association with witch trials subsided.) But in Grenier’s case, the court he was brought before in Bordeaux had the good sense to be skeptical enough to see his claim as nothing more than humbug, the rantings of a delusional boy. He was sentenced nonetheless for the murder of several children and confined to a monastery for the rest of his life, with the threat of death if he ever escaped. Grenier lived out the rest of his days in confinement believing he was still a werewolf.
The Shroud of Turin (c.1260-1390).
Was the Shroud of Turin the work of a medieval forger or was it in fact what many believe to be the burial shroud of Jesus Christ? This huge question about the truth of the Shroud of Turin was addressed at the British Museum on October 13th 1988, at a press conference in London, by Professor Edward Hall, the head of the Oxford team, who revealed that the Carbon C14 dating tests, carried out across three laboratories in Oxford, Zurich and Arizona, concluded that the Shroud of Turin was with 95% certainty a fourteenth century forgery. (Interestingly, its first indisputable appearance was not in Turin, Italy, but in Lirey, France, in 1357, in a period in medieval history when forgery was rife.)
Over the years, the carbon dating results have been vilified by disappointed shroud enthusiasts, especially in the face of other contradictory scientific and scholarly evidence. Some have also argued that the carbon dating process, in this case, was flawed because the samples that were received by the labs were inhomogeneous, making them arguably invalid for establishing the age of the shroud. Others have also argued that if the shroud is indeed a fourteenth century fake, the idea of a ‘super forger’ existing during that time, and the extraordinary feat to accomplish it, is highly improbable. Yet despite these assertions, no truly credible evidence can definitively prove that the burial shroud kept in the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, in Turin, to be that of Jesus Christ, dating back over 2,000 years.
To this day, the Catholic Church accepts the results of the 1988 tests, cautiously referring to the shroud as an icon rather than a relic. In short, the truth of it may never be determined.
Life on Mars
In 1877, an Italian astronomer, Giovani Schiaparelli, saw through his telescope what he thought were unusual markings on the surface of Mars, which he would later report as canali (channels). But not long after he presented his report and it was translated into English, channels would incorrectly be rendered as canals. From this mistranslation, people’s minds ran wild and began to entertain strange idea that included a theory that these so-called Mars canals were waterways built by a race of Martians for the purposes of carrying water over long distances. Interestingly, as talk of the possibility of life on Mars grew momentum, some of the more gullible believers planned on sending signals to Mars in Morse code, flashed by either massive mirrors or electric lights, to communicate with the Martians.
Among the most passionate advocate of this “Life of Mars” theory and in particular that the canals of Mars acted as waterways to help sustain life on the arid planet was an influential astronomer called Percival Lowell. So convinced was Lowell with Schiaparelli’s maps and report, that he built an observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1894, where he could observe and study the Red Planet’s amazing secrets himself.
Lowell was one of the first amateur astronomers to truly fuel speculation that life on Mars and its canals really existed. (He even inspired science fiction writer HG Wells to pen his famous book, the War of the Worlds.) One of his theories was that Mars had polar ice caps that melted away in the summer and filled the canals built by Martians with life-sustaining water. Most experts unfortunately failed to see what he saw, and his theories were dismissed as nonsense. Many had argued what Lowell saw was nothing more than an optical illusion, however it didn’t stop people’s belief in Martian canals until the Mariner missions to Mars in the 1960’s. It proved once and for all that these canals did not exist.
Photo credits: The header image is a drawing of werewolves by 17th century French painter Charles Le Brun. The Shroud of Turin image is the 1898 negative by amateur photographer Secondo Pia. The newspaper clipping with the headline of “There is Life on the Planet Mars” is from the New York Times, December 9, 1906. It is presumably in the public domain.