Since its appearance in the south of France in the 1760s, the mysterious creature known as the Beast of the Gévaudan has been an object of lasting fascination not just for the general public, but for writers, philosophers, scientists and historians alike. Around 1764-65, in a poor, mountainous region of the Massif Central, more than 60 people - mostly youngsters tending to the flocks - were slaughtered by one ferocious wild animal. Identified at first as a large, unusually aggressive wolf, the Beast eluded all attempts by local hunters to kill it.
Unsurprisingly, its reputation grew in proportion to its elusiveness: soon stories about the Beast, its terrified victims and its heroic hunters bounced from the local papers to the Parisian ones, and later reaching the Dutch and English press. Large bounties were offered for the Beast's capture, while questions were raised about its true nature. Was it a wolf, an exotic predator imported from the colonies, or an entirely new species? Did it act alone or was it guided by some human agent? Above all, were the killings really the work of a wild animal, or were they caused by some devilish creature sent to punish the unfortunate inhabitants of the region for their sins?
Frustratingly, the mystery of the Beast was destined to remain unsolved. Responding to popular pressures, King Louis XV dispatched to the Gevaudan the court's highest-ranking hunter, the Royal Gun-Bearer Francois Antoine, with the mission of bringing the Beast back to Versailles. Antoine returned with the disappointing carcass of a large wolf, but soon afterwards, the Beast resumed its attacks.
By now the king and his ministers - engaged in more pressing political matters - had had enough of provincial monsters: they claimed the new attacks were the work of different animals, leaving the local authorities to deal with them. Thus began a campaign that over a few decades led to the destruction of thousands of wolves all over France; as to the Beast, speculations and disputes resurfaced intermittently throughout the 19th century.
In providing a detailed reconstruction of this intriguing story, Jay Smith does not, however, seek to offer further conjectures on the Beast. His book focuses mainly on the response of public opinion to this phenomenon. After all, for centuries in European rural societies, many people were killed by wild animals; fairy tales by Perrault and the Brothers Grimm bear witness to this brutal reality.
So why was the Beast so special? The answer traditionally offered by French historians such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is that the affair of the Gevaudan resulted from the chance encounter of two worlds: popular superstition on the one hand and the modern press on the other. Thanks to the expanding influence of newspapers and their readership, an item of local folklore became a major national issue. Indeed, the debate on the Beast offers a perfect illustration of the two souls of the Enlightenment: on the one hand, the modern interest in scientific phenomena and their popularisation; on the other, the continuing fascination with occult forces.
Dissatisfied with this simple dichotomy between superstition and modernity, Smith explores the existence of deeper, more complex relations between the emergence of the Beast and the tensions latent in pre-revolutionary French society. In this perspective, monsters become the unconscious focus of collective frustrations or rebellious feelings.
Smith's arguments are suggestive and to some extent persuasive, although establishing any causal relation between major events such as wars or revolutions and public emotions remains beyond the power of any historian. All one can say with confidence is that monsters both old and new have stable residence within the collective imagination of human communities.
Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast
By Jay M. Smith Harvard University Press. 392pp, £25.95 ISBN 9780674047167. Published 26 March 2011