Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Gevaudan, solved

18th century print.
UNC Chapel Hill historian Jay M. Smith has published a new book, Monsters of the Gevaudan, which purports to have solved the centuries-old mystery of the identity of the grisly murderer of some 100 peasants in northern France (modern-day Lozere and Haute-Loire) in 1764-5. The legend has grown over the years, with new manifestations as recently as a smash film in 2001 (Brotherhood of the Wolf - very scary, beautifully shot). The public discourse about this figure was explosive, even in the 18th century - naturalists, hunters, academics, theologians, aristocrats, even the King got involved in researching and speculating on the nature of the beast. There were many eyewitnesses and survivors of the beast's attacks, who described a huge, horrifying predator. Three hunters went forth to slay the beast - two killed large wolves. Here are some of explanations that were proffered as serious alternatives over the centuries:

1. A huge wolf;
2. An unknown species of bear or wolf, possibly a crossbreed between a wolf and a domestic dog;
3. A hyena, brought to France for inclusion in a nobleman's menagerie;
4. A last surviving member of the extinct Eocene predator, the Mesonychid;
5. A sorcerer capable of transforming himself into a monster;
6. A werewolf, of course;
7. A psychotic human who had trained a wolf, bear, hyena, or even a lion; and, ever popular,
7. The wrath of God.

Dr. Smith has crafted a work that is threatening to become very dear to my heart. He argues that there is a clear preponderance of evidence to lay the blame for the murders clearly at the feet of a pack of wolves, which is why killing one or two did not stop the predations. He demonstrates that the eyewitness accounts are deliciously entangled - for example, one of the hunters heard an eyewitness account and later repeated it as if it were his own account. But far more interesting to me is his further discussion of why the story of the beast would grow from the actual events, brutal and horrifying as they were, into a great myth and legend. This convincing discourse engages the birth of modernism in a country suffering from the hangover of a horrendous war; in short, all the elements that Cohen's "Monster Theory" encourages us to pursue as we attempt to decode the secrets of monsters. Wolves are wolves; they do what they do. Monsters live in the human psyche, and they do what we do.

In my study of monsters I try to maintain a balance between rational skepticism and an open mind. My students ask me all the time, "do you believe in monsters?" I reply, "I don't have to believe in them, I know for a fact they exist." Monsters bodies, as Cohen recognizes, are purely cultural, but that does not mean they do not have real effects on real people. There are many strange things in the historical record that, as events, defy explanation; but I am actually much more interested in the way stories move and morph through cultures and time. I'm much more interested in what the Beast of Gevaudan can tell us about the people of 18th century France. Dr. Smith has done a brilliant job of this, and I thank him for his contribution.

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