Throughout the early modern period, the territory of Livonia, roughly corresponding to present-day Latvia and Estonia, was known as an abode of particularly vicious werewolves. Diabolic shape-shifting was a common feature in witch trials all over Europe, but no other country gained a similar notoriety as an alleged lycanthropy hot spot. During the last two decades, historians and anthropologists have devoted considerable attention to the topic, but their research has been predominantly focused on trial records and juridical sources. Complementing these contributions, this essay approaches the Livonian werewolves from a different angle: as a topic of theoretical considerations and scholarly treatises.
European men of letters first learned about the shape-changers of Livonia from Sebastian Münster's influential Cosmographia in 1550. Five years later, the exiled Swedish bishop Olaus Magnus expanded Münster's succinct report into a detailed and fanciful description of the Baltic werewolves and their savage nature—an account that left a lasting impression on the imagination of European intellectuals. For the next 150 years, Livonian werewolves were regularly mentioned and discussed in demonological, ethnographic, and historiographic treatises, before the skeptical attitude of the early Enlightenment banished them from scholarly literature in the 1720s.