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.

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