It was in the autumn of 1572, following a rash of animal attacks in the woods near Dole, France, that the local peasants were authorized to seek out the werewolf assumed to be responsible. There were few actual sightings of the animal but the "loup garou" had carried off several small children and attacked horsemen who had driven it away " only with great difficulty and danger to their persons". The peasants were instructed "to assemble with pikes, halberts, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and to kill, without incurring any pains or penalties". Despite their search, it was only on November 8 of that year that peasants came upon a "monstrous creature" attacking a young girl. The creature was driven off although the girl later died of her injuries. Even in the darkness, some of the peasants thought they recognized the creature as a local hermit named Gilles Garnier.
Garnier was not popular in the region and was arrested after fifty witnesses filed depositions against him. Whatever protests of innocence he had were quickly ended by a session on the rack which "persuaded" him to confess to the charges. Garnier was sentenced to be burned alive at the stake and "that his ashes be then scattered to the winds". He was also ordered to bear all court costs and the sentence was carried out on January 18, 1573.
A similar case was brought to trial in 1603 involving a mentally disturbed (and possibly intellectually challenged) boy named Jean Grenier. Following reports of animal attacks on children in Gascony, France, Grenier confessed to all of the attacks and claimed to have eaten some of the children involved. He also stated that he was part of a werewolf "coven" and transformed himself using a "wolf's skin" given to him by a mysterious stranger. Survivors of the attacks confirmed Grenier's testimony and he was found guilty. In a remarkable move for the time, the court concluded that Grenier was mentally ill (but possessed) and he was sentenced to a Franciscan monastery for the rest of his life. When visited in the monastery years later, he was reported to be "diminutive in stature, very shy, and unwilling to look anyone in the face. His eyes were deep set and restless; his teeth long and protruding; his nails black, and in places worn away; his mind was completely barren; he seemed unable to comprehend the smallest things". Jean Grenier died at the age of 20.
There were an estimated 30,000 cases of lycanthropy reported in Europe between 1520 and 1630 alone. The epidemic of werewolf hysteria that plagued Europe seemed to be linked to the witchcraft mania occurring during the same period. Witches were frequently accused of changing themselves into cats or rabbits and attending demonic Sabbaths to meet Satan. Werewolves, in turn, were accused of transforming themselves with the Devil's aid. Convicted werewolves and witches were often condemned to be burned alive (except in England where they were merely hanged).
The werewolf hysteria seemed to be largely fuelled by lurid stories of wolf attacks (which were more likely to be due to wild dogs) and only subsided when wolves were hunted to virtual extinction across Europe. The growing recognition that testimony obtained through torture was basically unreliable probably played a role as well (waterboarding advocates take note). The last major werewolf panic was in Gevaudan, France following a series of killings by a "wolflike creature" between 1763 and 1767. The killings were never solved.
While clinical lycanthropy (the delusion of changing into an animal) remains a recognized psychiatric condition, actual cases tend to be rare (I've never encountered a case myself, alas, although I remain hopeful). Reports in the forensic literature of clinical lycanthropy patients committing violent acts are even rarer (but they have happened). Modern cases of lycanthropy tend to be part of broader psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia. Along with the classic werewolf delusion, there have also been reported cases of patients believing that they have been changed into other types of animals including dogs, frogs, and bees. While werefrogs do not evoke the same superstitious terror associated with werewolves, the unusual nature of the psychopathology makes for fascinating case histories in the clinical literature.
Treatment seems to be straightforward as lycanthropic delusions respond well to medication (no burning necessary). Despite the popularity of werewolf movies in the past few years, there has been no evidence of any upsurge of cases and the condition remains rare. Although werewolves live on as a cultural phenomenon, the hysteria that condemned Gilles Garnier to death has mercifully subsided (I hope).