A character in Neil Mackay’s new novel The Wolf Trial is reminded that
You are in the land of the mad here
And at times that is exactly what this brutal yet intriguing historical novel feels like, with a relentless parade of murder, rape and violence told in graphic detail, presenting 16th century Europe as a hopeless vista of superstition, cruelty and religious fanaticism.
The Wolf Trial tells the real life story of Peter Stumpf who was executed in 1563 for the murder of more than 70 people over a number of decades in the town of Bideburg. Not only was he a prolific and violent serial killer. Stumpf was believed to be an actual werewolf, possibly to try and quash the belief that anyone human could have carried out such horrific crimes. The story of Stumpf’s trial is told in meticulous detail through the eyes of William Lessinger who assisted the lawyer Paulus Melchior on the case.
Paulus does not believe in the supernatural and wants to try Stumpf as a man. Fromme, the Church representative believes otherwise and the secular and religious clash in an age when revenge and superstition were the currency of the land. The Church have another reason for wishing Stumpf to be tried as a werewolf, they would inherit his wealth and land.
‘Perhaps it is being rich, which makes you lie’, said Fromme, wiping a dab of grease from his chin, clean-shaven and cool. ‘An executed rich man will still be rich in death. An executed creature, which has consorted with the Devil, though – why, the Church will have your holdings, sir, and all you have’
As Paulus and Willie come into conflict with the Church and the local community who have long resented Stumpf his standing, their situation becomes precarious as they try to bring some form of justice to Stumpf’s family at the risk of being killed as heretics.
The fascinating story of Stumpf’s trial is narrated by Willie, now an old man who is haunted by his experiences in Germany and is interspersed with vast historical detail about the beliefs of the time and the impact of the religious warfare and the Reformation that had gone before. Mackey is insightful in his exploration of the superstitions of the time and his research must have been exhaustive. Through pamphlets we learn of the local belief in revenants (people returning from the dead) and golems both of which are fantastical tales told to excuse or obfuscate accidental burials alive, or the work of an abortionist.
The writer had taken the fabric of the real story and turned it into something spun on a different loom.
Through Willie’s reconstructions of Paulus’ time fighting in the 1535 Siege of Munster, we also hear of state and Church sanctioned violence that is as shocking as anything committed by Stumpf.
I killed many more back when I was wearing a military badge….I skinned a man once – back when I was in uniform. On the orders of my commander. And that does not count as a crime in the eyes of your masters.
It’s a clever juxtaposition and Mackay allows Stumpf and his crimes to become a symbol of the terrible horror of the Reformation and asks us to question what is worse. Church sanctioned violence, or the violence of a man who wears no mask – religious or military – a man who is following his basest desires and has become a manifestation of the dark cruelty at the heart of humanity. The Church uses religious righteousness as a reason for murder and in ignoring their own culpability, also want to ignore Stumpf’s by branding him a wolf.
This is a Europe where violence and brutality have become routine, where casual cruelty is shocking, common place and ignored. Travellers coming into Bideburg are hired as ‘dummies’ – human scarecrows – and are raped and mistreated at will. A young boy is used as bait in a failed attempt to catch the werewolf. Stumpf’s sons are murdered, simply for being his sons. This is a picture of a society unmoored and rotten and while Peter Stumpf may be one of the worst of them, he is not trying to hide his true self and this is what is frightening to those in power. This is not a simple tale of good and evil, state versus church or reason versus superstition – it’s an exploration of human nature and the notions of justice and revenge.
Paulus felt his soul empty and all sense of good and hope leave him, filled up in their place by fear – not fear and hate, he said, but just cold fear. Fear for himself, but fear most of all for what he could not do, and what he would be made to be a part of, to witness and agree to, as if the sins of others were his own work, his own will, when they were now – and that made fear a dark, black bath that swallowed the self.
Mackay’s prose has captured the style and tone of the times, but the swathes of historical and philosophical musings can at times slow the pace and take away from the main thrust of the story. The often heavy handed and incessant descriptions of violence and death can also wear thin, but admittedly, such detail is needed to convey the horrifying reality of what life was like in that place at that time and to remind us what human beings have been and still are capable of, both on a personal and state level if they succumb to their basest desires.
All in all, this is a bloody and brutal piece of historical fiction about a fascinating case.
I was given a copy of The Wolf Trial by the publishers through Netgalley in return for an honest review.