Saturday, April 28, 2012

Book Review: Monsters of the Gévaudan

Monsters of the Gévaudan The Making of a Beast
Jay M. Smith, Harvard, 2011.
A popular intellectual pursuit of cyptozoologists is wondering what the beast was that was responsible for as many as a hundred deaths in rural France from 1764 on.  Jay Smith, a historian of high repute, has turned his formidable powers on this topic. He has succeeded admirably in explaining the cultural forces which made this mystery a huge national story that demanded the attention of the King and his best soldiers and huntsmen.  I am not quite sure he has nailed the Best, though.  Smith opens by saying that he will not ascribe the Beast "myth" to the backwardness of the peasants living under its spell, but he ends by doing pretty much exactly that.  He shows that killings of humans by wolves certainly happened in that region, then proceeds to the conclusion that the press (just freed from royal shakles, it was a beast all its own) and peasant tall tales and panic shaped ordinary events into an extraordinary affair.  In other words, peasants whose lives were at stake became convinced their tormentor was some kind of monster rather than a series of ordinary wolves.  Despite the enormous research displayed here, the monster still needs a better explanation to me. The locals grew up knowing wolves and the dangers they posed: very few people. farmers or officials, thought this was what they were dealing with.  A theory that it was either a really exceptional wolf or wolf-dog hybrid is possible, as is the possibility of an exotic escaped/released animal, a hyena.  There are museum hyena specimens of this period, their origins lost in poor record-keeping over the centuries.  In the end, I think Smith is too dismissive of the possibility of the extraordinary here.  Occam's razor cuts both ways: a hyena loose in France seems unlikely, but so does a farming region becoming panicked over a routine threat.  It may be we will never nail this particular hide to a barn. 


Clark said...

Really you missed half the book! He explains at length the major roles played by the rulers and the need evidently felt by the French nation at the time to compensate for their recent defeat at war. Don't forget that the attacks took place in a particularly wild plateau region and that similar episodes of wolf depredation on humans are in the historical record before then in France.

Matt Bille said...

He did go into all that, and I should have mentioned that rulers felt a need to look competent after war went badly. He did document wolf attacks on people - apparently not uncommon then in rural France. Still, he did not quite 100% convince me that this was just a series of ordinary wolf attacks blown out of proportion.