[7 March 2011]
Early on in Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast Jay M. Smith announces what the book will not be: namely, speculation about the nature of the creature or creatures that killed and frequently decapitated over a hundred peasants in the Gévaudan region of southern France from 1764 and 1767. The culprit, Smith insists, was a pack or several packs of wolves, just as government authorities concluded after the spate of attacks subsided. This conclusion dismisses a host of fictional and dramatic accounts that have offered and continue to offer a far more exotic or, in some cases, supernatural explanation of the attacks (hybrid species, hitherto unknown animals, werewolves) that circulated at the time and are still given credence by some contemporary writers.
Moreover, Smith argues that predation on human beings by wolves was not all that uncommon in late medieval and early modern France, especially in relatively secluded and rural areas like the Gévaudan. Why, then, should the attacks in the Gevaudan have stirred so much public fascination and speculation, both in their own day and in subsequent ages, including the present? (Le Pacte des Loups, a 2001 film inspired at least partially by the attacks, was enormously popular in France, a testament to enduring interest in them.)
The answer, according to Smith, lies not in the attacks themselves but rather in the social, historical, and cultural context in which they occurred. The real question, then, is not “What was the beast?” but, rather, “What confluence of forces allowed a relatively mundane, if terrible, series of events to become a phenomenon of national and even international interest?”
Smith’s answer is bold: the attacks are a locus wherein we can witness the transition from early modernity to modernity itself. In other words, rather than being simply a remnant of backwards superstition, the “beast” was made possible by an emerging news and media culture (mainly in the form of periodicals), a relatively nascent but increasingly vigorous scientific naturalism associated with the Enlightenment, and religious and political unrest and controversy, much of which foreshadows the revolution that would begin in 1790 and usher in the modern world.
The ambition of Smith’s argument has its source—at least partially—in what the author describes as skepticism among academic historians about the value of the beast as a legitimate subject of scholarly inquiry. Smith interprets a friend’s cautionary advice about tackling the subject thus: “If I wanted to avoid supercilious stares, he seemed to say, the book would need to be encrusted in conventional expressions of academic wisdom that no one would mistake it for yet another ‘theory’ about the beast of the Gevaudan.” Most basically, Smith means here that his peers would expect him to endorse the conventional explanation of the beast as nothing more than a manifestation of peasant ignorance and fearfulness if he desired to retain professional respectability.
As noted, though, Smith continuously expands the historical significance of the beast by contemplating its relation to the episteme that gave rise to it. The extent of Smith’s research and knowledge should suffice to convince any skeptical readers of the seriousness and legitimacy of his argument. The narrative structure of the study is chronological—starting at the time of the first attacks in 1764 to the more or less official closing of the case in 1767—and over its course Smith deftly introduces an eventually vast cast of characters ranging from a group of local children who claimed to repulse an attack by the beast to Immanuel Kant, who imperiously insisted that belief in the beast exemplified the ignorance and irrationality that his philosophy sought to overcome.
Therein lies both the great merit and chief challenge (note: not problem or deficiency) of the work. While Smith does a generally admirable job of balancing the academic historian’s obligation to include copious research with the popular historian’s impulse to tell an interesting story at times the study lumbers under the weight of sheer information included. Potentially, given Smith’s method and approach, the story of the beast could encompass just about everything known (or at least everything that the author knows) about 18th century France.
In fact, sometimes Smith seems far afield from the matter at hand; for example, a sustained reflection on monarchial authority and tax policy that comes roughly halfway through the work, while certainly learned and vaguely pertinent to a larger point about Louis XV’s attempt to rehabilitate his crumbling popularity through public displays of concern for the besieged residents of an obscure province, left this reader recalling the general tedium of his high school European history class. Still, even the most tangential passages of the study offer the reader the pleasure of cogent and nicely balanced prose, rendering even the diversions palatable enough.
Will Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast settle the debate about the nature of “the beast” for those interested in this strange historical episode? Almost certainly not, but the study should go a long way toward rescuing it both from oddball conjecture and contemptuous dismissal as a subject of serious inquiry.