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“Do Not Cross the Door . . . It Is Black Outside”:
Stories of la Bête du Gévaudan

[1]

Contemporary illustration of the Beast of the Gévaudan

6,404 words

“The consternation is universal throughout this district,” began a frenzied letter dashed off from the French town of Marvejols. Sometime “in the night we had a great storm here attended with lightning and thunder such as we have scarcely known in the greatest heats of summer.” The “wild Beast which hath long” haunted the forests “of St. Come, four leagues from hence,” has carried off “a shepherdess 18 years of age, who was celebrated for her beauty.”[1] [2] Non, my friends, ce n’était pas un film de Disney. C’était vrai! Dated November 23, 1764, this note spread word of a true horror that had for months stalked the southern gorges of France. A terrible Beast, which had already claimed dozens of lives, had ripped another victim to pieces. Was it a wolf? A wolfpack? An escaped leopard or hyena from some menagerie?[2] [3] A lunatic? Or, most unnerving of all, could it have been un monstre? Despite all the best guns in the country beating the bushes and aimed at anything there that moved, the fiend was still at large in the Gévaudan.[3] [4] What in that cursed country could be done?

That cursed county, as nineteenth-century author Élie Berthet wrote in his La Bête du Gévaudan (1858), was situated on terrain 3-4,000 feet above sea level, a mountainous and wooded land in which travel was difficult, even in fair weather. Everywhere, the water seemed to lay just below a thin crust of earth, sucking one in, or slipping one up. Outcrops of limestone and steep escarpments of granite were interspersed between badlands and peaty meadow.

Most white nations are possessed somewhere of such solitary country — the foggy moors where sharpened thistle grass and stark pines straggle among the hills. Wild mountains where none but equally wild men roam from rock to crag. Forests with few footpaths and many shadows. It is no coincidence that these regions have been the traditional setting of the dark and blood-soaked ground of our folk tales. But in the mid-1700s, it was also the scene of real and recent violence.

[5]

The Gorges du Tarn, landscape typical of many areas in the Gévaudan

The sixteenth and seventeenth-century Wars of Religion had devastated the Gévaudan.[4] [6] After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes,[5] [7] persecutory “soul-searching” turned it into a “backwards” province whose infertility and lack of resources kept it from making the kind of commercial progress that was gradually transforming many of the more populous areas of France. It remained a medieval society, while its people (less than 120,000 of them spread amongst the Massif Central) spoke Occitan[6] [8] and lived within tiny villages as subsistence/grain farmers and shepherds. Most of the once-wealthy noble families there had either been killed, run off, or plunged into impoverishment by the Wars. Before the 1760s, few people in the rest of the nation ever thought much about the sparse Languedoc territory hugging, but not a part of, the Provençal.

Yet during the twilight years of the ancien régime, all eyes in France (and many abroad) were suddenly riveted to the dramatic episode that plunged the Gévaudan into regional chaos, which then boiled over into a national crisis. The disturbance marked “one of the last moments in French history when a cross-section of educated elites,” as well as humble peasant folk, could all readily and unselfconsciously confront “extraordinary monsters as something other than make-believe expressions of the unconscious.”[7] [9] For all that the Enlightenment has given us — a serious grounding in reason and science — I cannot help but think that seriousness itself has since been lost, along with the Beast.

La bête féroce

During one of the first days of that summer of 1764, and “beyond the eastern edge of the Gévaudan, in the lush hills of the Vivarais,” 14-year-old Jeanne Boulet was out minding a small number of livestock in her family’s fields when a wild animal emerged from the treeline.[8] [10] It kept its keen eyes trained on her as it crept closer and closer through the grass. The creature then made a giant leap through the air. It mauled and killed her. The incident attracted no notice from the authorities and no documentary evidence about the nature of her death remains, save a burial notice written by the parish priest.[9] [11] On August 8, another young girl died in the same manner near the parish of Puylaurens; then, at the end of that month, a 16-year-old boy fell to a vicious attack while working outside the Mercoire Forest.

Afterwards, events quickened, and the incidents became distressingly frequent and diabolical. By the end of September, the Gévaudansis had a crisis on their hands. The first adult victim — a 36-year-old woman in Arzenc — was overtaken by a ferocious assailant at sunset, and not but a few paces from her front door. The fact that almost all of the victims were women and children heightened the sense of responsibility and alarm. Concerned seigneurs[10] [12] and residents began to form town watches; a small invasion of the southern woods began. Yet while bands of armed locals managed to hunt down more than a few wolves, like the work of a deranged madman, the attacks continued to escalate.

In general, undomesticated animals run or hide from humans, for they know what we are: the most dangerous animal. We are predators who kill them for meat, thrills, or simply because they are in our way. But exceptions abound: alligators and grizzly bears have a bad reputation for a reason. Cottonmouth snakes, smelling rank of water and death, will wait for boats to pass underneath the trees around which they lay coiled and sunning themselves. Then, they will drop into the craft and wreak havoc for no good reason. I’ve sometimes wondered how many Yankee soldiers besieging Vicksburg died not of disease or battle, but of venom as they waded knee-high day after day in infested swamps, the ugly ol’ cottonmouths having become temporary (and the most aggressive) enlistments for the Glorious Cause. Besides critters like these, animals have usually attacked humans only out of desperation. Famine or drought in the African serengeti have driven lions to prey on tribesmen; injured tigers whose habitats have shrunk have terrorized Indian villages. Like serial killers, these large cats would get a taste for human meat, the sport of it, and then begin to crave it and hunt it until put down.

But in white lands, it wasn’t the big cat (not since the last Ice Age, anyway) that was feared. It was the wolf. And the wolf, in packs or alone, was a terrifying reality that French rustics had long had to combat while out in their fields, or when the roaring blackness of the pre-modern night swallowed the countryside whole. The 1590s Wars of Religion and the Nine Years’ War a century later may have caused higher incidents of lupine predation. One scholar has estimated that 9,000 French victims succumbed to wolf attacks from the late sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries[11] [13] — to say nothing of the Middle Ages, when wolves were more common and their forest cover fuller. Our modern calls to preserve these animals are praiseworthy, but claims that wolves have not or do not attack humans are untrue. France had a long and bloody history associated with the wolf, one memorably committed to print in Charles Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” (”Le petit chaperon rouge,” 1697).

[14]

Harry Clarke, Little Red Riding Hood, ca. 1920

Unlike later versions, in Perrault’s story, no strapping woodsman saved the day: “Et, en disant ces mots, ce méchant Loup se jeta sur le petit Chaperon rouge, et la mangea [And after saying these words, that mean Wolf fell upon Little Red Riding Hood, and ate her all up.]”[12] [15] Fin. The moral was clear. Unchaperoned girls should beware strangers — on two legs, certainly — but death or ravagement could just as easily come by way of the four-legged beasts in their midst. In the 1740s the lower Limousin had been the grotesque scene of human carnage when a wolf there killed nearly thirty victims, “devouring every child it encountered, especially girls.”[13] [16] Indeed, due to their size, children and females were the more common prey. Nevertheless, the men who tried to fight them off sometimes died agonizing and prolonged deaths by way of rabies. But what was now going on in the southern hills? This was unprecedented.

Horrific scenes spread to the environs of Saint-Chély, Saint-­Alban, and Malzieu. A woman in October 1764 was decapitated, her skull discovered by relatives in the woods more than a week after they found her body. That same month, six adolescents succumbed to stomach-turning wounds in their faces, necks, and abdomens. Four of these children survived, but one boy’s head was completely severed and the rest of his 10-year-old body shredded beyond recognition. As one journalist put it, the Beast had a habit of “seiz[ing] its unfortunate victims by the nape of the neck, chok[ing] the life out of them, and drink[ing] their blood before separating the head from the trunk of the body.”[14] [17] On November 26, an article in the Paris Gazette related that “a wild beast . . . [had] already devoured 20 persons, chiefly children and particularly young girls; and scarce a day [had] pass[ed] without some accident.”[15] [18] So great had the Beast’s reputation grown among the villagers that the “terror it occasion[ed] prevent[ed] the wood-cutters from going to work in the forests, so that wood [became] very scarce and dear . . .”[16] [19] Though reports of the Beast’s appearance varied in the extreme, this detailed account from a local seigneur described him

much [taller] than a wolf, low before and his feet are filled with talons. His hair is reddish, his head large, long made, and the muzzle of it shaped like that of a greyhound, his ears small and straight, his breast is wide and of a grey color, his back streaked with black, and his [large] mouth . . . is provided with a set of teeth so sharp that they have taken off several heads as clean as a razor could have done. He has amazing swiftness, but when he aims at his prey, he crouches so close to the ground that he hardly appears bigger than a large fox, and at the distance of one or two [yards], he rises upon his hind legs and springs upon his prey, which he always seizes by the . . . throat.[17] [20]

A description that only a fellow-hunter could have given.

[21]

Contemporary French engraving of la Bête (ca. 1765), its short-haired look part hyena and part greyhound

The savage animal that caused “such trouble and consternation in the Gévaudan and Auvergne” not only engaged their amateur hunters, but also employed overtime the professional surgeons of their hospitals, “furnish[ing] [doctors] with cases which” were in a manner entirely “new to them.” Indeed, by early February 1765, they had in Saint-Flour “two girls who [had] been terribly wounded by the Beast.” One named Catherine Boyer, aged 20 years, was “in a most dismal spectacle, and her cure [was] doubtful.” The other patient, 14 years old and brought in after the first, was “not so badly wounded,” for she “[was] as bold as a dragon, having had the courage to struggle with the Beast when it flew upon her.” Standing beside her sickbed, the girl’s proud father remarked “that as young as she [was], she got the beast by the paw and would have cut it off if she had had a knife; [and even making] a much better defense than if she had been provided by arms of any kind.”[18] [22]

But relief was short-lived, for the monster proved insatiable. The very next day, perhaps angered and hungrier than before, it then “killed and partly devoured a girl of ten . . . near the town of Malzieu,” many miles away.[19] [23] Several more strange stories arrived by post about a boy who had narrowly “[escaped] the fury of this animal by getting hold of the tail of a bull” and thus taking flight.[20] [24] None who had attempted to trap it succeeded. What was this monster? No ordinary wolf had caused such wrenching scenes, nor had a felon, besmirched with so much death on his hands, escaped justice so many times. The authorities, led by administrative intendent Etienne Lafont, ran notices in town squares and during church services that women and children should be accompanied by men, preferably armed, when venturing outdoors. One must remember that comparatively poor diets made these people more “gaunt and undersized” than they should have been. But no one, Lafont proclaimed, was to take any “imprudent” risk.[21] [25] Whatever it was, la bête féroce had by then become the intimidating La Bête of popular imagination. Its depredations put the entire province of the Gévaudan under a cloud of dread.

But abandoning the traditional roles of sheep- and cattle-herding was out of the question for most Gévaudan residents. They relied on them for their survival. Peasants in the area lived cheek-by-jowl. Grain harvests in the unforgiving rocky soil were inconsistent at best, and they owed what little they did manage to yield to seigneurs, who were also their market competitors. Turnips, gruel, chestnuts, parsnips, carrots, onions, and whatever meager amounts of cheese and milk could be squeezed from livestock supplemented a malnourished diet based on rye bread. Often sleeping beside them in their houses, peasants needed these animals to stave off the worst of the winter chill high in the hilltops, and they used them in the regional cottage industry of wool-weaving. While the men toiled at the harder labor in the fields, isolated women and children did the gardening, wool-shearing, weaving, and sheep-herding. They could hardly do any differently, even with a known predator on the loose.

The “known” factor itself was a question mark, for at the beginning of the crisis, the inertia of early-modern information-spread (and to those in such a mountainous area) meant that few would have been forewarned in any case. Compounding the problem, firearm ownership among the populace was next to nil. Noblemen restricted their use to themselves (along with the carrying of swords). So, the only means of protection were residents’ sickles, spades, staffs (bâtons) — sometimes affixed with pike or bayonet — and the speed of their legs, which, considering the uneven, brackley ground of the Margeride Mountains, was not much of a defense. To say that Gévaudan residents were worse than sitting ducks during the summer and autumn of 1764 would not have been an exaggeration. Still, they were a serious folk, and not to be dismissed lightly.

[26]

Map of Gévaudan area and estimated locations of known attacks, though it is likely there were many more (personally, not professionally drawn)

La Bête des cauchema

Mountain people can seem strange to outsiders [27], and the Gévaudansis had a history of defiance that its people directed against anyone looking to interfere in general, and against Paris, in particular. It still housed a large minority of Huguenots and Jensenists,[22] [28] and during the Wars of Religion, they fought furiously against Royalist troops, a fury that the Royalists had not forgotten a century-and-a-half later. In 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, a memoir about the south of France, he declared tha

people of this tough and simple stock will not . . . prove variable . . . When Louis XVI, in the words of an edict,[23] [29] ‘convinced by the uselessness of a century of persecutions, and rather from necessity than sympathy,’ granted [Huguenots] at last a royal grace of toleration, Cassagnas [an area hard by the Gévaudan] was still Protestant; and to a man, it is so to this day . . .

Matching their disposition, the landscape

was perhaps the wildest view of all [Stevenson’s] journey. Peak upon peak, chain upon chain of hills ran surging southward, channelled and sculptured by the winter streams, feathered from head to foot with chestnuts, and here and there breaking out into a coronal of cliffs. The sun, which was still far from setting, sent a drift of misty gold across the hill-tops, but the valleys were already plunged in a profound and quiet shadow.[24] [30]

“It is a bad idea for a man to change,” everyone there repeated.[25] [31] A community of Rip van Winkles hobbled along the cliffs. And when the sun sank like a red stone down from the sky, the Catholics crossed themselves and the rest simply refused to “cross the door,” for, they whispered, “it is black outside.”[26] [32] Le loup a faim, les enfants. Like old habits, old nightmares die hard. It is true that during the Beast’s bloody reign, some of the inhabitants of the Gévaudan responded by looking to superstitious causes in order to explain their sudden calamity — ghastlier than any wolf attacks in memory. They had a belief that giants, or Gargantua himself, once scaled the heights and left megaliths behind. What else could have “carpeted the landscape” of the Margeride with such fearsome-looking rocks? Indeed, one such rock formation, “known in the local patois as ‘del Cougobre,’ was said to have sheltered a monstrous serpent that had terrorized the town of Javols in the distant past.”[27] [33] The scattered survivors who had managed to escape the Beast’s fangs helped contribute to these growing legends.

According to one girl, the Beast could walk on its hind legs, and its breath carried a stench so rotten that “no [one] could approach him.”[28] [34] A peasant from Marvejols who claimed to have wounded it pocketed as a souvenir several tufts of its hair, “which stank very much.” It had the “bigness of a young calf, chest large as a horse,” and its nocturnal braying sounded like “that of an ass.”[29] [35] An eerie sort of specimen, to be sure. And in the eighteenth-century French countryside, few doubted the reality of the werewolf, said to have the characteristics of both man and monster. In fact, the wolf-man was worse than any “normal” beast, because of his hybrid qualities. They allowed him to cover distances at great speed, to shrug off grape-shot, and to rise from blows that would have killed any normal person; his eyes were supposed to glitter in the moonlight. He was an “extremely agile and cunning” adversary, just like the 1764 monster. As one expert had reported in 1610, “people who assumed the figure of the wolf displayed ‘terrifying and sparkling eyes like wolves.’”[30] [36] Official correspondents rushed a notice that

[o]n [November] 23rd, at five o’clock in the evening, this cruel beast throttled a woman in a village two leagues from [Saint-Chély], and after having eaten the neck all the way down to the shoulders, and having sucked the blood from her body, it carried away [her] head.[31] [37]

Its claws were longer, its personality crueler and more bloodthirsty than any known wolf. Supernatural explanations lay ready at hand. Every description seemed to further prove that what the Gévaudansis were dealing with was a demonic fiend, a loup-garou.[32] [38]

But the Beast as werewolf, or some kind of monster, was not simply a product of overactive rustic imaginations, but also of the intellectual currents of the mid-1700s, also adding to the furor. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for example, had gone through at least fifteen revivals following antiquity. “Marvel collecting” and theological inquiries into shape-shifting were common sorts of activities during the Middle Ages and beyond — a sense of “labile, percolating, fertile nature” had characterized science since the twelfth century.[33] [39] And alchemy, those quintessential metamorphic experiments that sought to change base matter to higher forms, had been popular long before then. Evidence of decay, mutatio, and growth was all around. How had plant fossils, or wood turned petrified, from organic to mineral? Was it so far-fetched that Perseus could have affixed a snake-head to his shield and turned men to stone, after all? With the ability to cross-breed animals and plants, were hybrids like the minotaur so strange as to be impossible?

And these tales of metamorphosis and hybridity — youths shifting into hyacinth flowers, maidens into laurels and water springs — received renewed attention during the Baroque period (ca. 1600-1750). Hundreds of paintings by Rubens, van Dyck, Jan-Erasmus Quellinus, and others were the results. The early-modern Ovid was at once Apollonian and Dionysian: the “cosmological, philosophical, and scientific Ovid”; he was also the Ovid of myth and magic.[34] [40] How do we know what is natural unless there are transgressions of it? Did wine not regularly turn to blood, daily bread into the Eucharist? The religious, artistic, and literary courses of the day were open to such “miracles,” including the prospect that a wolf-man might have been venting his vengeance on the people of the Gévaudan.

[41]

Peter Paul Rubens’ Daedalus and the Minotaur, 1636

The “Enlightenment” — that vaguely-defined eighteenth-century movement both praised and maligned as the dawn of progress, or the descent into secular liberalism when, for better or worse, we Europeans became “modern” — had a less-discussed, cardboard-cutout side. In fact, the Enlightenment had many sides, including the one that had a cataloguing fetish for the beastly, the bizarre, and the magical. It would be wrong to pit the superstition of the peasants against the rationality of the “elite” when it came to embellishing the Beast and its exploits. For various reasons, philosophes, scientific naturalists, and aristocrats also had a stake in making the events of 1764-65 seem “supernatural.” Avowed Newtonians composing their encyclopedias were not skeptics, but believers. There was a “fluid and unbounded character of the eighteenth century’s world of ideas,” an appetite for the marvelous.[35] [42] The invisible forces of gravity and “celestial mechanics” often seemed best described in the language of the occult.

Eighteenth-century practitioners of science also “speculated about purportedly visible creatures that had simply not yet revealed themselves . . . to the scientific gaze. A wide range of strange entities came under discussion.” Benjamin Martin, a designer of microscopes whose overview of “ ‘experimental physiology’ went through successful French translations in 1741 and 1764, expressed appropriate skepticism over the existence of griffins, satyrs, dragons, and unicorns, but he refused to rule out their possibility.” Belief in mermaids and mermen was widely held, and Benoît de Maillet’s “geological work Telliamed (1748) offered startling proto-evolutionary hypotheses that featured fish-men.” In 1769, the naturalist Gabriel-François Coyer declared that the “natural history” of the “giants” of Patagonia merited the same level of study “as the shells and butterflies that fill our fashionable curiosity cabinets.”[36] [43] Fossils of extinct species fascinated everyone who saw them. Examples of matter change from plant or animal to stone! Where had these creatures gone, and were there still a few of them left beneath the oceans, or waiting to emerge from the far corners of the globe? One “Beast hypothesis” surmised that it might have been an entire pack of simian-like monsters from Malaysia set loose in the south of France. How could honest men with new imperial worlds flourishing with new creatures reject outright such theories? The idea that something novel and exotic was prowling the old-fashioned Gévaudan was too intriguing a possibility for naturalists to pass up.

Then, there was the structure of society to consider, for in 1764 France was a deeply hierarchical place in which aristocratic honor mattered more than life, and the national embarrassment caused by the loss of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) to the English was traumatic in terms of both military prestige and expense. It is hard to overemphasize the effect of this war on eighteenth-century France, overshadowed as it became by the Revolution thirty years later. The entire purpose of a nobility was to uphold the honor of its community, to defend and protect its country through acts of physical courage. But officers (nearly all of whom were from the aristocratic class) had to straggle home in defeat, feeling more than ever like mere ornamentation. While those of the Third Estate[37] [44] had scrounged for extras in order to “support the troops” through burdensome taxes, the First Estate had exhorted everyone to pray for victory and had held masses for the king. For his part, the King had bled the royal treasury dry of its funds. And the Second Estate? They had squandered it all. So, when the opportunity to engage in a hunt (a time-honored aristocratic pursuit) arose, a hunt for a man-eating beast terrorizing the country, many noblemen viewed it as a way to restore their tattered credit with the populace; to win back their approval from Louis XV. The more mysterious and monstrous the Beast’s legend was, the more glorious would be the kill. With a little too much cheer and desperation at the prospect, they sharpened their sabers, re-greased their muskets, leashed their hounds, and then galloped toward the south.

La chasse

There is nothing unusual to us about media-founded hysteria over a public menace; it happens all the time in our world. But in the pre-modern era, there was no “public consciousness” the way we understand it. There was no national media, nor the same kind of sense that there exists a sharp bifurcation between civil society and the state, and that the former should hold “the government,” or its police force, accountable.[38] [45] The Beast worked to change each of those things in mid-eighteenth-century France. Frantic (and often confused) press releases whipped up emotion around Europe, and everyone from Immanuel Kant to Voltaire to the Pope had something to say about the Beast. Inklings of a “national consciousness” began to emerge as everyone in France looked to the government — in its local, regional, and royal iterations — to solve the problem. This was not the first time the people of France had ever grumbled about their leaders. But it was the beginning of the end of the old order, the beginning of looking at one’s government as a bureaucracy that should be a dedicated committee of public safety. In these senses, the Beast was not the werewolf of medieval spectral superstition, but a very modern monster.

By late summer of 1764, the harried messages from Gévaudan administrators and continued media attention — as well as the increasing elite fascination from nearly all quarters — forced Louis XV to act. He first sent his Captain of the Clermont Prince Dragoons, a man named Jean-Baptist Duhamel. An experienced hussar, Duhamel entered the region with justifiably high expectations. He promised to have the Beast strung up by the end of autumn. But a series of accidents and episodes of local non-compliance (e.g., a hungover party of peasants near the village of Malzieu once neglected to show as the Beast crossed the Truyère River; his attendants were hilariously bad shots) prevented his success. An eager Count de Morangies, an “old maréchal de camp,”[39] [46] went so far as to spend the night next to the half-eaten body of a young girl slain the previous afternoon, convinced that the monster would return for a “second repast.”[40] [47] To no avail. Out of desperation, and knowing that the Beast preferred young and female flesh, he ordered some of his guards to attire themselves in women’s dresses. It didn’t work. The poor captain retired in disgrace, and the King sent out his personal huntsman as Duhamel’s replacement: Jean Charles d’Enneval and d’Enneval’s son. They brought with them a score of bloodhounds — alas, also in futility. The attacks persisted. The Beast hadn’t even been frightened away from the region.

In place of bagging the monster, the defeated noblemen did manage to bring back chilling tall tales. A group of men, screaming “like Scottish Mountaineers”[41] [48] (not the best approach to a sneak attack), claimed that though they’d shot the Beast at least five times, its shaggy coat had prevented its injury as if it had worn several suits of chain mail. The Beast was apparently “impervious to lead and steel.” Another party on the hunt, whose chaise descended down the hill of Credis at reckless speed, caught sight of the Beast; but their horses “fell down and the postilion was thrown off . . . [they] perceived the wild Beast [would] make a jump at the horses,” and on the “footman’s erecting his right hand, drawn up to make a strike at the Beast with his cutlass, it pricked up its ears, stood on its hind feet, shewing his teeth full of froth, turned ‘round and dealt the fellow a most violent blow with the swing of its tail. The man’s face was all over blood.” It had a tail not of fur, but of a metal-studded mace! Being close to the door of the chaise, the Beast next “reared upright, vaulted [into the carriage], and broke through the other side glass, then ran at great rate to the adjoining wood; the blunderbuss missed fire, or it is probable that this had been the last day this brute had moved,” the blustering horseman sniffed. The “stench [the beast] left behind in the chaise. . . was past description; and no care of burning frankincense removed, but rather increased, the stink . . . the beast [would] doubtless [have] destroyed some one, had not it espied the three of [them] advancing with guns . . .”[42] [49] The men had to burn their chaise, then — at the villagers’ insistence — bury its ashes outside the town walls. Irritation grew. One writer for the Gazette remarked that “the allurement of the rewards, and the love of glory, excit[ed] an emulation amongst all who keep guns and know how to use them” to go on the hunt — but “in the meantime, it is astonishing that for so many armed men as have gone against this beast, [not one has] been able to kill it . . .”[43] [50] The d’Ennevals were replaced by the King’s sole arquebus-bearer,[44] [51] François Antoine.

At last, a flurry of mail from France and Flanders spread the word across Europe, proclaiming that on September 30, 1765 (though the event probably occurred more than a week earlier) that “the wild Beast of the Gévaudan [was] certainly killed.” Confusion as to who actually shot it — Antoine or his gameskeeper — failed to stunt the enthusiasm. It was “a wolf of extraordinary size . . . male and five and a half feet in length.”[45] [52] Nodding their heads in agreement, survivors pointed to areas of the carcass where they had wounded it. “As soon as the country people have seen it,” royal messengers instructed, “it [was] to be brought to court.” The “curiosity of the King” and the elite hunger for seeing the Beast (remember, this was an era before pictures and social media) was ecstatic. An October letter ordered a chosen taxidermist “to take great care in preserving the beast’s remains . . . and the court had issued specific instructions to insure that ‘the hide and skeleton’” would be promptly “sent [to Versailles] to be placed in the King’s garden” so that “free and open” lectures on its anatomy could be given for the benefit of science and the general public.[46] [53] The reputation of the nobility, of the experts, and of the King in this queasy postwar drama seemed secured.

This was perhaps why, when the killings began all over again after a brief respite, there was a tacit agreement among all centralized authorities involved to quietly “not notice.” To little fanfare, a peasant named Valentin or Jean Chastel killed the creature on the steep rises of Mont Mouchet in June of 1767; in keeping with the story’s anticlimax, it was “found to not be near so large as a wolf, nor [did its] talons appear so formidable as they [had] been represented.”[47] [54] Nevertheless, it was professionally dissected (its stomach containing the half-digested remains of its latest victims), then stuffed. The hillside massacres finally stopped.

La vie après la mort

Fortunately for romance’s sake, the afterlife of the Beast has equaled his exploits and exceeded his death(s). For one thing, not everyone was convinced that the real killer had ever been caught; the mystery of the Beast’s identity remained, and his legend grew. By 1767, the Bishop of Mende had for years preached that God had sent him — a supernatural punishment — to smite the children of guilty parents. Plenty of fearful peasants still believed in the loup-garou myth, and more malicious skeptics even charged Chastel or a Gévaudansis count of having introduced the Beast into the villagers’ midst themselves and for their own sick amusement. One or the other had supposedly trained a large dog to aid them in their bloodthirsty revels across the Massif Central. Earlier that decade, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont rewrote a lengthy fairytale into “La Belle et la Bête” for a children’s magazine (I consider the fairytale’s enduring resonance to be a part of “the Beast” mythology). Her story featured a bankrupt man driven to sacrifice his daughter in order to pay for his crime of plucking a rose from an enchanted garden that belonged to “une bête . . . horrible.”[48] [55]

The Beast became a figure of fun safely across the English Channel, the antagonist against whom “thirty thousand regular forces and seventy thousand militia” marched. When finally caught and interrogated, investigators found him “to be a descendent, on his mother’s side, from the famous Dragon of Wantley.” But that was not where he got his temper, for on his father’s side, his grand-père was “a Scottish Laird.”[49] [56] A century later, Élie Berthet would write a horror-thriller using the facts (and much of the hyperbole) of the Beast’s case as his guide. Robert Louis Stevenson would call him “the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves!”; after sampling the inhospitality of the French peasantry, the hard looks on the men as they barricaded their doors and the impudence of several girls (“sly sluts”) who stuck their tongues at him, bidding him “follow the cows” to his destination, Stevenson began to “think of [the Beast] with sympathy.”[50] [57] Strangers and the mountains were never friends. Let the years roll by and nothing much change.

[58]

Beauty wears Beast’s glove in Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946)

But the best contribution to the myth was Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, an adaptation of de Beaumont’s classic that was at once faithful and far removed from its source. With Cocteau’s vision, the film restored to the Beast his seriousness — but it was the seriousness of a poet.[51] [59] There were the storms, ravines, and twisting woods of Gévaudan-like highlands mounting against the sky — the summer of 1764 returned. In its black-and-white frame, viewers saw Ovid’s work once again: the transformation of monster into man; of man into a horned death’s head; the shadow of an ugly claw shredded the face of Beauty; the goddess Diana pierced the youthful archer who’d dared to gaze upon her treasure, her arrow making him the hunted animal. And in the character of the Beast were all the qualities of a medieval and modern (but not “Enlightened”) protagonist — the hybrid of a “big bad” wolf and a chivalrous nobleman; the hunter and hunted in one. Of course, the fairies rewarded Belle for her virginal devotion and authored the Beast’s final transformation into a prince. But for a moment at least, it seemed as if she wanted “[sa] bête” to come back to her — le cauchemar of Fate, rather than le rêve of deliverance; la Bête, rather than le Beau. “Into what mist had the Beast disappeared?” she wondered. What strange creatures men and women are.

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Notes

[1] [60] “News,” The Paris Gazette, November 23, 1764.

[2] [61] For a time some authorities and locals suspected that the Beast was an escaped animal from the Duke of Savoy’s exotic collection.

[3] [62] The Gévaudan is a defunct district that is now roughly analogous to the Lozѐre départment.

[4] [63] Élie Berthet, La Bête du Gévaudan (Paris, 1858), 5-7.

[5] [64] Signed into law in 1598 by Henry IV (of Navarre), the Edict granted Huguenots, or French Protestants, extensive rights within the country and served to end (somewhat) the near-constant fighting that had plagued France for decades. With its revocation in 1685 by writ of Louis XIV (the Sun King), Protestants were once again the active targets of Royal-Catholic wrath.

[6] [65] Occitan, also known as lenga d’òc, is a romance language distinct from mainstream French, Spanish, or Italian, and is spoken in southern France, Catalonia, and certain areas of Calabria, Italy.

[7] [66] Jay M. Smith, Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011), 282-83.

[8] [67] Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1878), 50.

[9] [68] Monsters, 8.

[10] [69] Regional aristocrats

[11] [70] See Monsters, 12.

[12] [71] Charles Perrault, “Le [72] Petit Chaperon [72]Rouge [72]” (1697).

[13] [73] Monsters, 13.

[14] [74] Extract from an article in The Courrier d’Avignon (January 1, 1765).

[15] [75] “News,” The Paris Gazette (November 23, 1764).

[16] [76] Ibid.

[17] [77] Ibid.

[18] [78] “Mail from France.” in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (March 16, 1765).

[19] [79] Extract from a Letter from the Town of Marvejols, dated February 17, 1765.

[20] [80] “News from France,” in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (June 8, 1765).

[21] [81] Monsters, 18, 15.

[22] [82] In short, Jansenists were a Catholic order in opposition to the Jesuits — the “Society of Jesus” that since the Reformation had enjoyed the traditional privilege of having the French King’s ear; they denounced “superstition,” overuse of relics, holy water, and saints’ days, wanting to rather simplify the Church.

[23] [83] Stevenson referred here to the Edict of Toleration (1787), which granted Protestants in France civil status and the right to practice their religion openly.

[24] [84] Travels, 123.

[25] [85] Ibid., 130.

[26] [86] Ibid., 37.

[27] [87] Monsters, 18.

[28] [88] “News” in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (October 8, 1765).

[29] [89] James Grant, “The Wild Beast of Gévaudan,” in The Argosy Magazine, vol. 4, no. 1 (June 1867), pp. 54-62, 57.

[30] [90] Monsters, 21.

[31] [91] Captain Duhamel to unknown recipient, late November, 1764, in Marius Balmelle’s compiled “Lettres inédites du Capitaine Duhamel” (1967), 107.

[32] [92] A werewolf

[33] [93] Caroline Walker Bynum, “Metamorphosis, or Gerald and the Werewolf” in Speculum, vol. 73, no. 4 (October 1994), pp. 987-1013, 991.

[34] [94] Ibid., 993.

[35] [95] Monsters, 28.

[36] [96] Ibid., 30.

[37] [97] The old hierarchical system in France and elsewhere was divided into roughly three estates: the First Estate were the (high-born) clergymen — the cardinals and bishops who came from noble families; the Second Estate were the nobility, who could be of the “robe” (administrators, courtiers, judges, etc.) or the “sword” (military officers); the Third Estate was simply everyone else — the vast majority of whom were French peasants, like the Gévaudansis.

[38] [98] See Jay M. Smith’s Monsters, 11-12.

[39] [99] A general officer rank in the French armed forces; usually third in command of the army (having originated from the position of sergeant major general)

[40] [100] “The Wild Beast,” 57.

[41] [101]  Missive from Marie Joseph-Emmanuel de Guignard de Saint-Priest to Etienne Lafont, (April 6, 1765).

[42] [102] “Account of the Wild Beast in France,” from a private letter from an unknown writer (Antoine?) dated February 18, 1765.

[43] [103] Extract from a Letter from the Town of Marvejols, dated February 17, 1765.

[44] [104] The arquebus was, by then, an old-fashioned match-lock weapon with a trigger similar to that attached to medieval crossbows. Its earliest known use was by the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century; but it was a long-range gun and the forerunner of the modern rifle — which would perhaps have given a hunter lying-in-wait an advantage.

[45] [105] “Mail from France and Flanders,” in the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (October 8, 1765).

[46] [106] Monsters, 123.

[47] [107] “News” in Lloyd’s Evening Post (August 10, 1767).

[48] [108] Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, “La Belle et la Bête” in Le Magasin des enfants (1756), 3.

[49] [109] “The Wild Beast,” 59.

[50] [110] Travels, 32.

[51] [111] “Poet” was Cocteau’s self-description.