Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast

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Overview

In a brilliant, original rendition, Monsters of the Gévaudan revisits a spellbinding French tale that has captivated imaginations for over two hundred years, and offers the definitive explanation of the strange events that underlie this timeless story.

In 1764 a peasant girl was killed and partially eaten while tending a flock of sheep. Eventually, over a hundred victims fell prey to a mysterious creature, or creatures, whose cunning and deadly efficiency terrorized the region and mesmerized Europe. The fearsome aggressor quickly took on mythic status, and the beast of the Gévaudan passed into French folklore.

What species was this killer, why did it decapitate so many of its victims, and why did it prefer the flesh of women and children? Why did contemporaries assume that the beast was anything but a wolf, or a pack of wolves, as authorities eventually claimed, and why is the tale so often ignored in histories of the ancien régime? Smith finds the answer to these last two questions in an accident of timing. The beast was bound to be perceived as strange and anomalous because its ravages coincided with the emergence of modernity itself.

Expertly situated within the social, intellectual, cultural, and political currents of French life in the 1760s, Monsters of the Gévaudan will engage a wide range of readers with both its recasting of the beast narrative and its compelling insights into the allure of the monstrous in historical memory.

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Editorial Reviews

London Review of Books

[Smith] turns the hunt for the Bête du Gévaudan and its mythologization by the European press into a tale of collective psychosis, patronizing aristocrats and misunderstood peasants; he recounts the decline of the credulity and the rise of skepticism, and the construction of one of the first national news stories...Smith has performed a valuable service by so thoroughly researching a story that has produced reams of mediocre fantasizing about bizarre hybrids, prehistoric survivals and serial killers in costume. He forces the beast to say everything it possibly can about the period.
— Graham Robb

Los Angeles Times

[Smith's] a skilled storyteller, bringing a distant time and place vividly to life for the reader.
— Nick Owchar

New York Review of Books

Aberrations—the collective kind composed of panic and delusions—cannot simply happen in a causeless void, but as happenings they are a challenge to historians. Jay M. Smith has taken up the challenge in a book about the beast of the Gévaudan, a wolf-like monster that haunted imaginations everywhere in Europe and spread apocalyptic fear throughout the population of the Gévaudan, a remote, mountainous region in southern France in 1764 and 1765...Smith demonstrates that the noblemen and educated clerics of the region outdid the peasants in their fanciful accounts of the killings. Crudely illustrated broadsheets featuring horrific scenes of the monster mauling helpless maids hardly serve as evidence of a culture peculiar to the common people. They circulated among all social classes...What to make of it all—a passing episode or a revealing segment of sociocultural history? Jay Smith makes a convincing case for the latter. By carefully examining every aspect of the events, he demonstrates how disparate elements came together to create a spectacular case of collective false consciousness. The beast, he shows, was something people were drawn to think about, and the trains of thought led through a rich and varied mental landscape. In the end, the crucial factor may have been the media—word of mouth at first, then letters, newspaper articles, and a flood of engravings and broadsheets...Mythology has cohabited with history since the days of ancient Greece, and they still have a lot to learn from each other. The beast of the Gévaudan may not deserve a place beside the Minotaur, but it has enriched the stock of monsters that populate our imaginations. Having once been good for fantasy, it now is good for making history.
— Robert Darnton

Literary Review

This is an impressive attempt to place the episode of the Gévaudan beast firmly in a wider frame...General readers as well as scholars will find [Smith's] analysis fascinating.
— William Doyle

Barnes & Noble Review

In 1764, as the Enlightenment dawned over Paris, a series of terrible killings in central France gave birth to a mystery that has endured for centuries. Jay M. Smith's penetrating work of history revisits a cultural turning point in which stories of werewolves competed for attention with groundbreaking works of science.

James R. Farr
Although many works have been written on the beast since it ravaged this remote and rugged corner of France, none have attempted what Smith does. He connects a discrete episode with broader historical features of the time, and his originality shines through.
Orest Ranum
Every now and then a work of history comes along that pierces through the clouds of both professional and so-called public history to create the best in historical scholarship with an edge or mood of mystery. Smith's Monsters may be just such a book! Beautifully constructed and precise, it will thrill readers.
PopMatters - James Williams
[Smith argues that] 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...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.
Dale K. Van Kley
As riveting a read as the best of detective stories, Smith's book on the beast of Gévaudan is also an important chapter in the political, cultural, and intellectual history of late eighteenth-century France.
Jeffrey S. Ravel
This stunning work has much to teach us, not only about the origins of political and scientific modernity, but also about the curious historical processes by which we remember, and forget, the passions of the past.
London Review of Books - Graham Robb
[Smith] turns the hunt for the Bête du Gévaudan and its mythologization by the European press into a tale of collective psychosis, patronizing aristocrats and misunderstood peasants; he recounts the decline of the credulity and the rise of skepticism, and the construction of one of the first national news stories...Smith has performed a valuable service by so thoroughly researching a story that has produced reams of mediocre fantasizing about bizarre hybrids, prehistoric survivals and serial killers in costume. He forces the beast to say everything it possibly can about the period.
Los Angeles Times - Nick Owchar
[Smith's] a skilled storyteller, bringing a distant time and place vividly to life for the reader.
New York Review of Books - Robert Darnton
Aberrations--the collective kind composed of panic and delusions--cannot simply happen in a causeless void, but as happenings they are a challenge to historians. Jay M. Smith has taken up the challenge in a book about the beast of the Gévaudan, a wolf-like monster that haunted imaginations everywhere in Europe and spread apocalyptic fear throughout the population of the Gévaudan, a remote, mountainous region in southern France in 1764 and 1765...Smith demonstrates that the noblemen and educated clerics of the region outdid the peasants in their fanciful accounts of the killings. Crudely illustrated broadsheets featuring horrific scenes of the monster mauling helpless maids hardly serve as evidence of a culture peculiar to the common people. They circulated among all social classes...What to make of it all--a passing episode or a revealing segment of sociocultural history? Jay Smith makes a convincing case for the latter. By carefully examining every aspect of the events, he demonstrates how disparate elements came together to create a spectacular case of collective false consciousness. The beast, he shows, was something people were drawn to think about, and the trains of thought led through a rich and varied mental landscape. In the end, the crucial factor may have been the media--word of mouth at first, then letters, newspaper articles, and a flood of engravings and broadsheets...Mythology has cohabited with history since the days of ancient Greece, and they still have a lot to learn from each other. The beast of the Gévaudan may not deserve a place beside the Minotaur, but it has enriched the stock of monsters that populate our imaginations. Having once been good for fantasy, it now is good for making history.
Literary Review - William Doyle
This is an impressive attempt to place the episode of the Gévaudan beast firmly in a wider frame...General readers as well as scholars will find [Smith's] analysis fascinating.
PopMatters

[Smith argues that] 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...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.
— James Williams

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674047167
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/1/2011
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Jay M. Smith is John Van Seters Distinguished Term Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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