And what did she see?

Graham Robb

  • Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay Smith
    Harvard, 378 pp, £25.95, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 674 04716 7

In the summer of 2007, Jay Smith, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, was in Paris collecting information for a book about a mysterious beast that terrorised the remote French province of the Gévaudan between 1764 and 1767. One day, while lunching on the place de la Sorbonne, he was warned of a terrible danger. His companion, a French academic, told him that if he published a book about the Bête du Gévaudan he would not be ‘taken seriously’ by his fellow historians, ‘the subject was so firmly associated with the realm of popular entertainment.’ Despite his own ‘trepidation’, Smith pursued his rash course: he had vowed to rescue the beast from its ‘ghettoised space’. After being ‘victimised by strategic forgetfulness’, the monster would rise again, liberated from ‘a narrow and trivialising framework of analysis’. Under Smith’s tuition, the ferocious, enigmatic creature that had inspired a thousand sensationalist articles and some of the most ridiculous animal drawings ever perpetrated would reveal itself as an involuntary historian with the power to illuminate a period that was ‘a transformative nexus’.

It’s fortunate that Smith persevered. He turns the hunt for the Bête du Gévaudan and its mythologisation by the European press into a tale of collective psychosis, patronising aristocrats and misunderstood peasants; he recounts the decline of credulity and the rise of scepticism, and the construction of one of the first national news stories. It’s less fortunate that he allows some of his excitement and good humour to be dampened by his lunch companion: ‘If I wanted to avoid supercilious stares, he seemed to say, the book would need to be so encrusted in conventional expressions of academic wisdom that no one would mistake it for yet another “theory” about the beast.’ Anyone with a taste for ‘trivialising frameworks of analysis’ should be warned that Smith gives the game away on page 6, which makes the innumerable narrations of mysterious killings less enthralling than they might have been.

The borders of the ancient province of the Gévaudan (the name comes from the Celtic Gabali tribe) are those, more or less, of modern Lozère, the least populous French département. It now uses the beast to attract tourists to its bleak and rugged landscapes – a somewhat risky policy, as the image presented by the journalists and hunters who travelled to the Gévaudan from civilised parts of France is not exactly flattering. A pikeman despatched from Normandy to join one of the hunting expeditions wrote to his patron in April 1765: ‘Snow, hail, thunderstorms, wind, wet feet … I beg you, sir, if you have not already left for the Gévaudan yourself, forget about it. This is an abominable country, with terrible food.’ The principal sustenance of the Gabalitains was bread, and the only ‘meat’ was fat, in the form of salt pork. They suffered from rickets and scrofula. Almost every year, hundreds died of malnutrition or starvation before the harvest was brought in. Many of the ravaged peasants in Smith’s tales were probably too weak to run away from the monster. For some, a quick evisceration was a desirable fate. Their villages were consistently described by travellers as hideous. Long after the disappearance of its bloody scourge, the Gévaudan was ignored by tourists: Murray’s comprehensive Hand-book for Travellers in France (first edition, 1843) doesn’t even mention it.

Like most other rural parts of France, the Gévaudan was infested with wolves. There are still about 30 place names in the Lozère derived from ‘loup’ or ‘loube’, and more than two thousand in France as a whole. The infestations were usually blamed on a human or sub-human agency: wars that sent wolves scampering into open country or caused a shortage of gunpowder; hordes of axe-wielding peasants who destroyed the wolves’ forest habitats after the Revolution; werewolves, who were still thought to be on the prowl in many parts of France in the early 20th century; and the spiteful wizards and witches called ‘meneurs de loups’, who had wolf-packs at their command. In Year 2 of the Revolutionary Calendar (1793-94), the government decreed a bounty of 40 livres for a wolf, 50 livres if it was pregnant, and 150 if it was known to have killed a man. The successful hunter was to submit his prize to the local mayor, who would send a note to the préfet with the wolf’s head. As late as 1842, huge packs were patrolling the Seine between Rouen and Jumièges. Wolves are one reason young Emma, the future Madame Bovary, finds the Norman countryside ‘less than amusing’.

It was not an especially newsworthy event, therefore, when, in June 1764, a powerful wolf began a gory spree, indulging in an orgy of what Smith, professionally, calls ‘lupine predation’. It struck first near a village now called Les Hubacs, just beyond the eastern edge of the Gévaudan, where it killed a 14-year-old girl who was tending livestock. It then moved on to Puylaurens (presumably the place now called Puylaurent), and then to the region of Langogne. A month later, it was terrorising the Margeride mountains, which would mean that it had travelled 20 miles to the north-west. The beast was distinguished by a peculiar gastronomic refinement and versatility which seemed unlupine. If newspaper reports can be believed, it preferred small girls, and was able to undress them before devouring them. Often, it removed the victim’s head and drank all her blood. It knew how to crack a skull neatly and lick out all the tissue.

By the end of 1765, the Beast of the Gévaudan had helped itself to 60 people, and was one of the most famous living things in Europe. ‘The eyes and feet of people from across France and beyond raced towards the Gévaudan like moths to a flame,’ Smith says. One newspaper, the Courrier d’Avignon, was so devoted to the story that it could have called itself the Daily Beast: it published 98 articles on the scourge in 13 months. Its editor, whose career occupies several pages of the book, seems to have been addicted to a form of lupine pornography. One ravishing maiden from the Margeride mountains, whose ‘lovely face could tame a Rhinoceros’, had been taken from behind by the cunning beast. Her sister turned to look. ‘And what did she see? The head of her dear sister falling to the ground while the body remained upright.’

It must have been pleasant to sit with one’s copy of the Courrier in the warmth of Avignon, gazing across the Rhône at the forested hills, imagining the horrors that lay beyond the wild Cévennes. As Smith points out, within living memory the Protestant Camisards of the Cévennes had themselves been hunted down and exterminated by government troops. ‘Through their intractable rebelliousness and their success in eluding the determined forces of the crown, they raised the spectre of a hidden and untameable enemy, of which the Beast of the Gévaudan would later provide unwelcome reminders.’ Shortly before the beast began its spree, troops were still being used to ‘rehabilitate’ Protestants in the region of Nîmes. The 79-year-old bishop of Mende, the capital of the Gévaudan, issued a circular in which he identified the beast as a messenger from God, sent to punish the local people for their spiritual failings. A popular French natural historian and cryptozoologist, whom Smith understandably does not mention, suggested in 1980 that the beast – or some of its incarnations – was actually a pack of large dogs or a hyena that vengeful Protestant hunters unleashed on Catholic peasants.

As the number of killings and sightings grew, a picture of the creature began to emerge and kept on emerging until it was practically unimaginable. It had the body of a wolf and the snout of a calf. Alternatively, its snout was like that of a pig, except that it pointed down. According to other reports, it had the mouth of a lion, the back of a fish and hornlike ears. No matter how ludicrous the engravings reproduced in the papers, there was always someone who had seen the creature exactly as depicted. An American woman who lived in the Gévaudan thought it was probably a monkey, but for some time the commonest theory was that the beast was a hyena (elongated muzzle, black stripe along the spine, ‘enormous, gaping mouth’, and a coat that could deflect musket balls). This was considered good news: with the onset of winter, the hyena would die or head south.

The snows came, and the carnage continued. Thanks to the unprecedented media coverage, the beast was becoming a national embarrassment. After the disastrous Seven Years’ War, France was hungry for a redemptive victory. Troops were deployed, and the newspaper-reading public pinned its hopes on a gallant dragoon captain from Amiens called Jean-Baptiste Duhamel. The gold and red of his men’s uniforms ‘truly astonish the people of this country’, he proudly observed. Duhamel’s attempts to track down the killer in an area of approximately two thousand square kilometres were less impressive. He ordered grieving parents to leave the mauled remains of their children unburied to serve as a lure. Eventually, he also used live children, which, Smith notes, ‘almost certainly contributed to the local resentments that began to flare up in early February’ 1765.

That month, a four-day hunt involving about twenty thousand people (more than a quarter of the present population of the Lozère) failed to kill a monster of any sort. There was snow on the ground, which should have made it easier to track a giant quadruped with a dark stripe on its back, but it was also foggy, and the peasants were disgruntled. At one point, the vicar of Prunières scrambled across the torrential River Truyère in pursuit of a suspected beast, but it ran away through the town of Malzieu, whose inhabitants had decided to stay indoors. Captain Duhamel, to save his honour, began to hint that the animal, whatever it was, possessed extraordinary, supernatural powers.

The famous wolf-hunter Jean-Charles d’Enneval, who succeeded Duhamel, antagonised the local worthies even more, by treating them as half-wits and failing to kill a single wolf in three months in a region where wolves seemed to outnumber human beings. By now, the nation was a laughing stock. The London Chronicle, whose satirical articles were translated and analysed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reported that the beast devours houses ‘as an Alderman eats a custard’. Pausing to smell the grapes in a vineyard, it ‘unfortunately broke wind’ and demolished a convent, ‘leaving 144 souls to die in the ruins of the collapsed building’. The French themselves were by now beginning to tire of the story. It was increasingly obvious that the fabulous monster was probably just an unusually big wolf, or several wolves. A remote and backward province was never going to interest Parisians for long. Instead, the demand was now for tales of heroic deeds. A boy called Jacques Portefaix, who had chased the beast away, was catapulted to national fame, congratulated by the king and given the chance to join the army. The new hunter-in-chief, François Antoine, finally killed a creature that could plausibly be identified as the Bête du Gévaudan. He was talked about all over France, and the corridors of Versailles echoed with his name for at least a day. He played along with exaggerated reports of the monster, and thus, Smith says, ‘rescued a construct of the popular imagination’.

A wooden effigy was made; the animal’s hide was stretched over it, and the thing sent to be displayed in the queen’s antechamber. Hundreds of people saw it, and almost everyone agreed that, as wolves went, it was undoubtedly quite big. In Smith’s account, this is an important moment in the difficult dawn of the Enlightenment: educated people felt slightly ashamed of having been taken in by tales of the supernatural. The government ‘closed the door on the publicity-fuelled story’ and instituted a modern, centralised approach to wolf infestation, involving the unheroic use of strychnine placed in dogs’ corpses. Two months later, a girl from Lorcières was attacked and killed by an animal ‘not seen around here in some time’. The beast was back (flat head, black stripe, peculiar bounding gait), but in future, any lupine monster, however large or bullet-proof, would officially be considered a wolf.

Smith has performed a valuable service by so thoroughly researching a story that has produced reams of mediocre fantasising about bizarre hybrids, prehistoric survivals and serial killers in costume. He forces the beast to say everything it possibly can about the period. Inevitably, some of his conclusions are as unastonishing as the wooden wolf: good manners were important; there was a certain ‘receptivity to ideas of the extraordinary’; the dénouement of the story ‘underscores the capacity of the mind (and of the cultural frameworks it navigates) to shape the meaning of experience’. Smith is obviously right to chide his colleagues for their disdain of certain lowbrow subjects. He shows convincingly that ‘the idea that the irrational excesses surrounding the phenomenon of the beast emanated from the misconceptions of the uncultivated is rooted in modern prejudice.’ But even in his own conscientious and sympathetic depiction, the peasants of the Gévaudan are roughly treated. Their language – the Occitan dialect called Gabalitain – is described as a ‘patois’. Their ‘conceptual environment’ was ‘disorderly’. Anyone who scraped a living in the god-forsaken Gévaudan, where inexplicable screams were heard at night, where not every household possessed a pocket guide to regional fauna, and where girls were raped with near impunity, was surely entitled to believe in werewolves. There was a surprising practicality in the peasants’ dealings with their world. Wolf hunts were sometimes joyous affairs: they brought the inhabitants of isolated parishes together. The beast apparently prevented people from going to market, but the pilgrimages to local shrines that seemed to be a superstitious response to its depredations would have helped to revive the fragile economy, and dealt a blow to that other great enemy of the benighted peasant: crushing boredom. It sounds as though some of the twenty thousand who participated in the great hunt took the opportunity to stock up on game.

The tourist office of the Lozère département may not be the first to try to profit from the beast. Smith mentions one wolf killing in order to demonstrate the hunter d’Enneval’s ‘contempt for the local inhabitants’. The dead wolf proved to contain fragments of cloth and bone. The bone had probably belonged to a rabbit, but what about the cloth? As an experienced wolf-hunter, d’Enneval would have been just as familiar with the behaviour of bounty-hunting peasants as with the habits of wolves. ‘Avid for a better reward’, the peasants, he thought, had probably rammed the incriminating items down the gullet of the alleged man-killer. Perhaps this really was an expression of contempt, or perhaps it was a recognition that not every inhabitant of the Gévaudan lived in credulous terror of the fiend.