A beast that terrorized the French countryside is one of history’s greatest mysteries. The Beast of Gévaudan is the subject of this episode of Unpleasant Dreams.
Apprehensive they went, clasping each other tightly, into the night. It was so, so quiet outside of the footsteps of their papa, clomping along hurriedly, unsteadily ahead. The unnatural still of the night seeped into all three children’s blood, making them shiver as the moon poured silver upon them. They didn’t need to go out to l ook for her. They knew. The Beast had butchered someone in the village not even two days ago. And now, tonight, maman hadn’t come home with the flock.
Papa, now far up ahead, let out a strangled cry, indecipherable. It was followed by the sound of vomiting. They ran to their father and tried not to look at whatever was up ahead of them, but they looked. They quickly buried their small, tear-streaked faces against their papa’s generous, sturdy body. But they saw, and it would be years before they would be able to close their eyes without seeing it again. Their maman’s body lay ahead of them, twisted and mauled. Where they expected to see maman’s sweet face and her tumbling waves of reddish hair, there was only a dark smear. It took her head.
The youngest, huddled behind papa, widened her eyes in wonder and whispered, “loup garou.”
During the 18th century, the denizens of France found themselves living in very interesting times. Nestled in between the Seven Years War and the French Revolution, the bucolic region of Gévaudan and surrounding area (modern day Lozère and Haute-Loire) were host to a series of violent attacks attributed to a creature or creatures referred to as the Ferocious Beast (la bête féroce). Gévaudan was a rugged, mountainous region where the chief industry, due to poor soil and difficult growing conditions, was animal husbandry, particularly that of sheep. As the savage onslaught continued for three years in the mountains, there would be 100 people slain and 30 or more injured, mostly children and solitary women. Sixteen of those were fully decapitated.
The first known sighting of the Beast was in the early summer of 1764. A lone young woman, grazing her cattle peacefully, was attacked by an extremely large animal, which she characterized as being “like a wolf, yet not a wolf.” Her herd protected her, fortunately, and she survived the assault. Weeks later, a 15 year old shepherdess, Jeanne Boulet, was attacked and killed. More lethal attacks came swiftly, with six deaths in total by the end of that summer.
Etienne Lafont, a government official for the region of Gévaudan, kept a careful eye on this slaughter of the French peasantry. Wolves were a problem for the Gévaudanais. Wolf attacks were and are very common in rural France, though generally on herd animals and less often on the humans accompanying them. It was uncommon for this many humans to be attacked this quickly. Lafont began to work to solve the problem, gathering the details of the attacks from lower-ranked officials and clergy, organizing hunts for the Beast, and offering rewards.
King Louis XV heard the tale of young Jacques Portefaix, all of 12 years old, who led his younger friends to fight back against the Beast when it attacked them, and through Jacques’ leadership, all of the children survived the assault. The King sent 300 livres to young Portefaix as a reward for his bravery as well as education at the expense of the state. The other children involved were given 350 livres to be split amongst them.
Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel and his troops were the first sent to try to kill the monster or monsters responsible for all the carnage. Duhamel organized wolf hunts, and claimed to have very nearly shot the beast. He would, of course, have dispatched the Beast, were it not for the ineptitude of a guard. Duhamel spent several months organizing wolf hunts, blaming all who surrounded him for the failure of these hunts, and eventually left sometime after the arrival of Jean d’Enneval (den-ay-val), le Grand louvetier (loo-vuh-tee-ay) (the Grand Wolfcatcher), and his son Jean-François. They arrived along with their eight trained and experienced wolf-killing bloodhounds. The d’Ennevals believed the Beast to be a Eurasian wolf, and so they focussed their efforts on hunting Eurasian wolves. When the attacks continued, they were recalled and the King sent in François Antoine, the king’s own gunbearer and lieutenant of the hunt. After a period of months, Antoine killed an unusually large grey wolf, which was 1.7 metres long and weighed 60 kilograms; slightly larger than a wolf’s average of 1.6 metres and 40 kilograms, but not properly monstrous. He also killed that wolf’s mate, and their adult cubs, which were also unusually large. Antoine was celebrated as the man who killed the Beast and rewarded handsomely.
Until months later, when the attacks resumed.
That same summer, while Antoine was stalking the Beast, young Marie-Jeanne Valet, who would later be known as the Maid of Gévaudan, was attacked while crossing the river with her sister. She held the beast off with a bayonet, eventually impaling it. Injured, though apparently not mortally, the Beast ran off to tend to its wounds. There is a monument to Valet, erected in 1995, by artist Philippe Kaeppelin (cap-lun), that depicts her battle against her fearsome foe standing today in modern day Haute-Loire.
The terror finally ended for the people of the Gévaudan when innkeeper, farmer, and accused poacher Jean Chastel shot and killed the Beast on 19 June 1767, less than a fortnight before the third anniversary of the killings. In the animal’s stomach, it is said that there were still traces of its last victim.
The Beast made its way into literature and film; such a dramatic and terrifying tale, how could it not? Amongst the dozens of references to it in fiction, celebrated French short story author Guy de Maupassant brought not only the Beast into his short story The White Wolf, but two brothers named Jean and François, a clear reference to the two monster slayers, in the year 1764. The 2001 French movie released in English-speaking countries as The Brotherhood of the Wolf, tells the tale of two friends called upon to solve the mystery of the Beast and to put an end to the slaughter. The Teen Wolf series also told the story of Marie-Jeanne Valet, in the episode the Maid of Gévaudan.
There are a few things that are remarkable about the Beast. There were of course some variations in the descriptions left by survivors, but there were a few common traits throughout: it was very large and very powerful, its size variously compared to cattle and calves – smaller in Gevaudan in the 18th century than modern cattle, but still very large animals -, and capable of great leaps not normally seen in wolves. Its fur was very thick and a dark rusty bronze colour, with some red and black spotting on its sides, and a black streak from the back of its head to its tail. The head was described as flat, and the tail as being thick and very, very long. Its breath was foul, and its claws and teeth were unusually large and unusually sharp. Marie-Jeanne Valet reported that it looked like a huge dog. The most startling thing about the Beast, aside from its remarkable tendency to target humans specifically, is its one peculiar habit: decapitation. There were 16 confirmed decapitations among the roughly 100 victims, very rare in wolf attacks on humans.
Almost everything we know about the beast is due to the work of Pierre Pourcher and François Fabre. The two abbots collected the surviving materials from the attacks – all the newspaper articles, correspondences between officials, and church records, and they published them, leaving us with a great deal of evidence of the incidents in Gévaudan.
There are a lot of theories on what, exactly, happened in Gévaudan.
The relatively straight-forward explanation is that this was a monstrously large, powerful wolf. Some have suggested that perhaps it was a survival from an earlier era to account for its size and ferocity, but there’s little evidence to support that theory. Rural historian Jean-Marc Moriceau, believes it could in fact be a wolf or wolves, because of the choice of territory (grazing land, often) and that the surprise attacks only involved one attacker and one victim at a time. The creature, which carried off body parts as a wolf would, avoided herding dogs.
Dr. Karl-Hans Taake (tok-ay) a biologist with a special interest in behavioral ecology, disagrees. While the Beast displayed some wolf-like behavioral characteristics, there are enough reasons to doubt it having been a wolf. Taake points out that a comprehensive study of modern wolf attacks, which compared hundreds of attacks by non-rabid wolves on humans, doesn’t match the pattern of the Gévaudan attacks in a number of ways. One victim, an adult woman, was found half-devoured, which would have exceeded the capacity of a wolf’s stomach considerably. The eight wolf-hunting bloodhounds reportedly did not show any interest in the Beast’s tracks, and weren’t able to locate the Beast. Certainly the wolves killed by Antoine and Chastel were just that: wolves. Taake suspects fraud, particularly on the part of Chastel; there were convenient scars noted on the wolf that matched the wounds that various survivors reported having inflicted on the Beast, and there wasn’t a recent enough death of a child of the right age to match the bone “found” in the stomach. There were also sheep remains in the stomach, but the Beast had not been accused of eating sheep.
The Beast sought out the humans in particular. It showed no interest in the herds and thus, the shepherds weren’t attacked trying to protect them. Additionally, wolf attacks were very, very common; the Gévaudanais knew what wolves looked like, and how they moved, and how they fought. And yet. No one called it a wolf.
What Taake does find interesting is other bits of description: in addition to the long leaps, spots on its body and flat head, the Beast had been described as having a long tail that twitches like a cat’s, with a tassel, and it was reported to have fought using its claws. The answer to Taake is clear: it was a male juvenile lion, who would have been able to leap, matches the rough physical description, and with a rough cat tongue to scour the remaining flesh off the head, leaving the skulls “polished” as at least one was upon discovery. He believes it could have easily escaped from captivity along the trade route through the Rhône valley. The escape of a lion would have been concealed as much as possible to avoid legal fallout, and the route was in the east, where the earliest attacks occurred. The isolated Gévaudanais would not be familiar with lions; a great many of them lived and died in those mountains without once having seen the world beyond.
Many have suggested that the Beast may well have been a Hyena. Etienne Lafont, government official and one of the lesser sung heroes of the Gévaudan attacks, leaned toward the hyena theory. The stripes and colouring are certainly reminiscent of the striped hyena, and hyenas are widely thought of as vicious creatures. They’re large, they’re agile, and certainly carnivorous. Taake’s animal escape from the trade route theory could also apply to a hyena. However, Hyenas are much less aggressive in reality than they’re commonly believed to be, particularly the striped hyena, and hyenas tend to not prey on humans.
French naturalist Michel Louis believes that the Chastels may have bred the family mastiff (MAA-stiff) with a wolf and trained the hybrid cub to hunt humans, clad in boar hide to protect it from blades and bullets, seeking revenge for the wrongs they felt done to them. Whether or not this was a plan they had carried out, there is some evidence that there were hybrid animals running free in Gévaudan; one of the pups killed by Antoine had double dew claws, a feature in the French herding dog, the Beauceron. The Chastel family were known to be unpleasant, violent, and lawless. One of the Chastel sons, Antoine, was said to be a werewolf. Later myths would turn Jean Chastel into a warrior of God, loudly heaping praise on God as Chastel shot the Beast with a silver bullet.
Another theory, set forth at the time by Gabriel Florent de Choiseul-Beaupré, Bishop of Mende, is that the Beast was God’s punishment to the Gévaudanais for their sinful ways. He cited the prevalence of attacks among women and children as proof that the attacks were caused by insufficiently Christian parenting.
Dr. Jay M. Smith suspects that hysteria fueled the legends of the Beast more than any hybrids or hyenas or the wrath of God did. Newspapers, relatively new in France and just hitting their stride, spread word of the attacks in a way not before experienced. Smith believes the words of the church blaming the victims for the onslaught, and the newspapers promoting a dramatic read of the situation with newspaper headlines screaming of a monstrous Beast, and the pre-existing legends of the area, combined to turn an unusually rough few years of wolf attacks into a dark fairy tale.
And then there is the wonderful, fanciful theory that I think we’d all like it to be, at least a little: a werewolf. The French werewolf is known as the loup garou, and was quite a problem for the French throughout their history. In France from 1520 – 1630, there was an epidemic of (alleged) werewolves, roughly analogous to the European witch trials of the same era. Over 110 years, 30,000 people found themselves accused. The vast majority of those were executed. Certainly, a literal belief in loups garous was a part of the history of France.
Those legends, as well, say that wolves and lynxes, even those who don’t turn into other forms, have magic. Looking into the intelligent, golden-green eyes of a wolf, who’s to say they do not?
-SOURCES AND FURTHER READING-
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Black, Annetta. “Monument to Jean Chastel, Beast Slayer.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 11 Sept. 2013. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
Black, Annetta. “Marie-Jeanne Valet vs. the Beast of Gévaudan.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 14 October 2013. Retrieved 16 October, 2021.
Boissoneault, Lorraine. “When the Beast of Gévaudan Terrorized France.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 26 June 2017. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
“Could Be Worse: The Beast of Gévaudan and the French ‘Werewolf’ Epidemic.” Dangerous Minds, 26 Aug. 2020. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
History.com Editors. “Seven Years’ War.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 12 Nov. 2009. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
“Jean-Charles-Marc-Antoine Vaumesle D’Enneval, Grand Louvetier De Normandie.” Betedugevaudantruehistory.over, Betedugevaudantruehistory.over-Blog.com. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2021.
Linnell, JDC, et al. “The Fear Of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans.” Wolf Und Wild, Norsk Institutt for Naturforskning, January 2002. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
Maupassant, Guy de. “The White Wolf.” Literature Network. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
San Diego Zoo. “Striped Hyena.” San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Animals and Plants. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
Schwalb, SR, and Gustavo Sánchez Romero. Beast: Werewolves, Serial Killers, and Man Eaters. Skyhorse, 2016.
Sée, Henri. “Economic and Social Conditions in France During the 18th Century.” Translated by Edwin H Zeydel, Social Sciences McMaster University, Batoche Books, 2004. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
Smith, Jay M. Monsters of the Gévaudan: the Making of a Beast. Harvard University Press, 2011.
Taake, Karl-Hans. The Gévaudan Tragedy: The Disastrous Campaign of a Deported ‘Beast.’ Self Published, 2015.
Whitlow, Simone Toni. “Jacques Portefaix.” Tales of History and Imagination, 19 Jan. 2021. Retrieved 16 October 2021.
Williams, Joseph A. “What Was the Beast of Gévaudan?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 28 May 2020. Retrieved 16 October 2021.