Two books by Sabine Baring-Gould

I have been enjoying some older nonfiction books lately and I’ve been meaning to write up quick reviews of two by Sabine Baring-Gould.  Baring-Gould was a Victorian writer who wrote dozens of books on folklore, in addition to novels, sermons & hymns (he was an Anglican priest), and so on.  A number of his books are still in print, and many others are available online as scans or text transcriptions at Project Gutenburg, Wikisource, and Archive.org.

Curious myths & legends of the middle ages

A fascinating, if dated, look at some myths and legends, some very well known and some very obscure. Baring-Gould tries to find traces of the legends in earlier myths and fragments, showing off his vast erudition. A few of his conclusions are rather bizarre (he infamously claims that Methodism is a revival of Druidism) and he makes a lot of speculation to help fill in the connections between possibly connected legends.

One example that really stood out was in his analysis of the story of the Bishop Hatto, who is eaten by rats. He finds many echoes of the theme in stories taking place earlier and later, and ultimately connects it to human sacrifice among the ancient Scandinavians: the Norse “might” have sacrificed people by breaking their backs and marooning them on rat-infested islands. Well certainly there were some odd methods of sacrificing people in the north but that’s a very specific and strange scenario to assume, lacking any accounts of such a practice!

But for the most part he is convincing. The themes and motifs he finds connecting medieval myths with earlier beliefs mostly seem solid, and he makes a good case for many of his claims about pagan survivals into Christian-era folklore.

Readers unfamiliar with 19th century scholarship will be taken aback by some of the turns of phrase (for example he uses the now loaded term “Aryan” for what we’d now call Indo-European, and “race” in place of “ethnicity” or “nationality”), but he has no more bias than you’d expect for a 19th century Englishman. That is, he has the usual anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic prejudices, but does not dwell on them. He also gives extended quotes of texts in Latin and other languages without translation, which was a common 19th century practice, but for the most part he provides English paraphrases instead.

I must admit that some chapters were a bit boring and I skimmed some of them, but overall the book is recommendable for the many obscure legends it throws light on.  I found a lot of inspiration for encounters, locations, and NPCs in D&D, and will probably post more on this book later.  In the meantime you can read it in its entirety here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Curious_Myths_of_the_Middle_Ages

The book of were-wolves: being an account of a terrible superstition

This is probably the most famous of Sabine Baring-Gould’s many nonfiction books.  While many of his other books cover esoteric local folklore and Church history, it is no surprise that this one still attracts modern readers.  It is one of the first and still one of the best books on the topic, and is such a standard reference that many later books on werewolves and lycanthropy owe a great deal to his work.  In fact the Wikipedia article on werewolves appears, to me, to paraphrase a fair amount of Baring-Gould’s exposition on werewolves and lycanthropy in Scandinavian sagas as well as the paragraphs on werewolves and vlkodlak in Hungary and the Balkans.

Baring-Gould attempts at least three tasks: to summarize folklore and beliefs about werewolves and related phenomena; to collect specific cases from ancient, medieval, and modern histories; and to explain the origins of the beliefs and demythologize the superstition.   (It’s kind of surprising that feels the need to argue the point, but he published this book in 1865 and there were still records of werewolves in living memory at that time; indeed he recounts being warned against werewolves during his own travels in France.)

These tasks do not entirely determine the structure of the book — he also attempts to give the legends in chronological order, so that the first third of the book looks at linguistic/philological evidence to understand the legends, and also gives a fairly exhaustive report of instances of men and women assuming the shapes of animals in European literature as well as briefer accounts of similar stories from around the world.  He includes stories of physical transformations alongside stories of metempsychosis (the transmigration of the soul into another body) as well as legends where the transformation is only illusory.  Baring-Gould gives particular attention to the Scandinavian sagas and mythology, devoting two whole chapters on them.  I found a lot of interesting stuff there.

The next third of the book, covering the middle ages and more modern times, focuses on the details of how one becomes a werewolf, how they can be identified, and how the affliction might be cured.  Various legends of skin-changers, shape-shifters, and the like are mentioned, with a fair amount of detail on North American native legends, as well as a few legal/criminal cases in early modern times and the reports of witch-finders like Bodin.

The final third of the book is devoted to the “natural” causes of beliefs in lycanthropy, an inventive theory tying lycanthropy legends to legends of ogres and dragons and the meteorological origins of all three(!), and finally longer accounts of cannibalism and serial killing.  This book is also thought to be the first to articulate the idea that werewolf legends arose from incidents of serial murders.  (However Baring-Gould is writing at a time before “serial killers” were identified as a kind of pathological type, and he just sees sociopathy as part of a continuum of human cruelty and violence — we all have cruel, violent impulses and some people just act on the worst impulses while most others do not.  Maybe the fact that he was an Anglican priest led him to the view that all people are equally capable of sin and evil?)  Baring-Gould gives what he says is the first English account of the horrible crimes of Gilles of de Rais, expurgated of the most heinous details.  While later writers have sometimes attempted to exonerate Gilles de Rais, it is hard not to conclude that he was what we’d call a serial killer today; it is especially disturbing that the power, wealth, and prestige he wielded allowed him to carry out his crimes so openly for years.  More stories of cannibalism, grave-robbing, and murder are presented to give further credence to Baring-Gould’s theory that the werewolf legends were simply an attempt to explain the most horrible acts of men.

Throughout the book I found a lot that could fuel interesting encounters or villains in D&D (which is my main motivation for reading this stuff anyway) and maybe I’ll do a separate post or series of posts on that.  But sticking to book review mode, it’s easy to recommend this one very highly.  It’s a relatively quick read and does a great job of looking for rational bases for the werewolf legends, and summarizing the wide variety of myths and superstitions in a systematic manner.  You can read it here:  http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Were-Wolves

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Published in: on January 2, 2014 at 12:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Fascinating! I must investigate further. The only book by Baring-Gould I’ve read is Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas. In addition to giving an entertaining account of his travels in that country in 1862, he enthusiastically explores its sagas, myths and folklore. It’s a hefty 400-page tome, but well worth a look.

    • He definitely seems pretty well-read on the sagas etc. based on what I’ve seen in these two books. My library has the book you mention but it is the 1863 edition, in reference, so I’ll have to content myself with the electronic version some time.

      • I dislike doing advertising for Amazon, but – for reference purposes – this is the edition I have. It’s a chunky paperback, printed on nice thick paper, full of atmospheric illustrations (presumably also present in the first edition of 1863):

  2. […] here’s a few things I learned about werewolves and related topics from Baring-Gould’s book on werewolves.  I’d heard of a few of these before (the belts and connections between werewolves and witches […]


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