Note: some of the descriptions of true incidents in this post include images of graphic violence. Reader discretion is advised.
To some it is [...] an adaptable animal capable of living peaceably alongside humans. To others it is a demonic killing machine that ruins farmers – and whose presence is a symbol of the city’s contempt for rural life.
"The Unesasy Return of Europe's Wolves", The Guardian, 26 January 2018
Ripped from the headlines (with echoes of a distant past)
This week in France: controversy is raging about a government plan to introduce female bears into the wilds of the French Pyrenees. (There are only 2 known bears that remain in the area, and both of them are male; the plan is to bring in potential mates to give the species a chance to redevelop here.) Sheep farmers are furious about the plan, reportedly firing shots over the head of government inspectors when they came to survey the area.
It's not the first time this year such a plan has ignited passions between local farmers and the environmentalists who want to restore natural habitats. A similar program reintroduced wolves to the French mainland in 1992, and by early 2018 the population had grown so aggressively that the government announced a plan to allow "culling" up to 40 wolves each year. (Finland and Norway already have programs to kill wolves to keep their numbers under control, and Germany is reportedly considering a similar action.)
But why do bears and wolves ignite such passions among rural residents of France? Farmers cite the extreme economic and safety risks that wild predators bring, threatening their flocks and their families. But, as Halloween approaches this year, might it also be that the idea of wolves roaming freely in the countryside touches a deeper, primordial fear...a fear that reaches back over the centuries to the horrible tale of the Beast of Gévaudan in the deep heart of France?
December 20, 1764
Darkness is gathering early. This is the shortest day -- the longest night -- of the year, and the air is heavy with little pinpricks of ice. Clouds hanging behind the mountain are rimmed in violet. The only sound comes from the light slapping of the little girl’s feet on the thin, rocky surface as she slips out of the garden gate.
Then, instantly, a black shape flashes past at the very edge of her peripheral vision. She hears no sound, but scans the scrub just ahead. There is something moving in the grass, something silent and dark, something just outside the edge of her comprehension. And then the shadow is on her, something sharp and hot digging deep into the flesh of her shoulder. All around her now is a guttural snarling sound, her clothes are ripped, her arm is bleeding; two more sharp snaps of a powerful jaw tear at her hands and shoulder, she can smell the hot fetid breath of the creature before she can even understand what is happening.
Her remains are discovered in the morning. People would later say she had been eaten by the beast, although in fact her body was not devoured. It appeared the animal had concentrated its fury around the little girl’s head and neck, slashing away chunks of her throat. Her head is missing, only to be discovered “the distance of a rifle’s shot” away later in the day. The local priest says that not enough remains for a proper Christian burial.
This 12-year-old girl from Puech was a victim, they would later say, of a hell-hound, the Bête du Gévaudan, the twentieth person to be attacked, the thirteenth person to be killed since summer of that year.
The Beast of Gévaudan
The attacks had begun in June of 1764, and they seemed to be everywhere in this 900-square-mile corner of the deep heart of France. By the end of 1764, eighteen would be dead, a shocking number of them children – a 15-year-old girl from Masmejan d'Allier, a boy the same age from Pradels, the 12-year-old girl from Peuch, a little boy from Chaulhac. Adults were not spared – women in their 40s and 70s were also attacked; a farmer chased off the beast when it invaded his barn.
A kind of mass hysteria gripped the region as the numbers mounted, and descriptions of the beast by those who survived began to emerge. According to one chronicler of the events, “it was a fantastic animal, sized like a calf or a donkey; it had reddish hair, a large head similar to a pig, the mouth always gaping, short and perched ears, white and large breast, a long and white tip. Some said that its hind legs wore hooves of a horse.”
The new year of 1765 began the same way – 26 people attacked in January alone. Adult males generally survived their encounters with the Beast; of the January victims, the 11 who died were almost entirely under the age of 16, more than half were girls. Villages were on high alert across a vast swath of central France; a reward of 1,000 livres was offered, and local hunting groups were organized to track down the killer. Children began to carry knife blades tied onto sticks when they went to their work tending herds in the fields; adults armed themselves with heavier weapons as they went through their daily routines.
The Bishop of Mende ordered a day of prayer in all parish churches, hoping to mitigate this “plague sent from God to punish men for their sins.” But the spring of 1765 was horrific. In March, a young mother near St. Alban confronted the great wolf-like animal as it repeatedly lunged at her three children in the area in front of her house; she was clawed and bitten over and over in the violent, noisy conflict but managed to save two of the three before the beast carried away the third. On April 18th, a 13-year-old named Martial Charrade was found in the field near Paulhac where he had been tending a herd of cattle; local records say his body had been drained “as if by a butcher”, his cheeks, an eye, his chest, his thighs all torn and his knees dislocated “by this ferocious Beast that eats the world.” In all, 44 people were killed by the end of May.
The Panic Spreads to Paris
The horrific news could not be contained even in such a remote region of France. By the end of 1764, newspapers in Paris had picked up the story – it became one of the first truly “national” events in the country’s history, and soon appeared even in papers across the channel in London and in all the other capitals of Europe. And it reached all the way to Versailles, where King Louis XV – “Louis the Beloved” – took notice and ordered his royal army to intervene.
A series of men, all fancying themselves “the best wolf hunters in France”, took up the challenge and went to the Auvergne to track the Beast of Gévaudan. None succeeded until late September 1765, when the King’s own gun-bearer, François Antoine, and his patrol shot and killed an unusually large wolf near Saint-Julien-des-Chazes. Victory was officially declared, and the body of the “Wolf of Chazes” was packed off to be displayed to the court at Versailles in celebration….
… until, six weeks later, the attacks began again! Eight people encountered the Beast in late 1765; two young girls were dead by the end of December, bringing the total for the year to 55 dead, 28 wounded, and 56 who escaped safely. King Louis may have considered the case “closed”, but 18 more people died in 1766 and 21 more were eaten by the Beast in 1767. Naturally enough, the level of panic in the Auvergne rose to a level of hysteria, with people speculating that all the evil forces of nature had been unleashed on this isolated region of France.
Finally, on June 17, 1767, a man named Jean Chastel, a man with a reputation for piety and integrity, took up his gun and went out with a hunting party organized by a local aristocrat. One local writer describes the end of the story:
He wore his shotgun loaded with two consecrated bullets; he was saying the rosary when he saw the Beast, “the real one”. Calmly, he closes his rosary, puts it in his pocket, takes off his glasses, puts them in a case…The Beast does not move; it waits. Chastel shoulders his weapon, aims, shoots, the Beast stands still: the dogs run up to the sound, knock it down, and rip it up. It is dead. Its body, loaded on a horse, is carried to the castle of Besques ; it is examined and it is indeed « the Beast », it is not a wolf. Its feet, its ears, the hugeness of its mouth indicate a monster of unknown origin; in its innards, one finds the shoulder of a young girl, most probably the one that had been devoured two days before in Pébrac.
This animal’s body was taken on a grand procession through the countryside on its way to Paris – but by the time it reached Versailles it was in such a state of decay that no one could make out exactly what kind of animal it was. Despite the dozens of attacks that had come later, the King persisted in the story that the “Wolf of Chazes” was the real “Beast of Gévaudan” and mocked Chastel’s accomplishment. In any event, the killings in the Auvergne stopped at this point and never resumed.
What (Really) Was the Beast of Gévaudan?
So what manner of animal did Jean Chastel finally bring to ground? The panic of the era, followed by embellishments in stories told around the fireplace in the 250 years since, led to several hypotheses:
- Perhaps it really was a “devil beast”, one of a kind, sent by God to punish the people of the Gévaudan.
- Or was it just a big wolf – or a group of wolves – who somehow acquired a particular taste for human flesh?
- Could it have been some kind of escaped circus animal – a hyena, perhaps, or a cross between a lion and a tiger, or even a dog-faced baboon?
- Or was it something even more sinister – a human serial killer who put on a wolf’s skin to carry out his attacks? (This, despite the fact that not a single eyewitness account described anything at all human-like in the attacking creature!)
… and that’s without mentioning the speculations that go farther afield – extraterrestrials, a she-wolf impregnated by a human, and on and on. The decomposed body of the creature transported to Paris was, in fact, examined in as much detail as possible, and all the best evidence points to the simplest explanation: the “Beast of Gévaudan” was a wolf of unusual size and aggressiveness, an animal capable of ranging over a broad slice of the Auvergne and inflicting horrific damage on the bodies and psyches of its inhabitants.
And the numbers are astounding: in three years, from 1764 to 1767, this Beast was responsible for 240 documented attacks. Of these, 112 people died, 53 were seriously wounded, and 75 got away safely with only minor injury.
A Story That Echoes Through Time
The story has, of course, attracted many tellers of stories over time; you can get a sense of how many books have been written on the subject in the Bibliography section of this remarkable website.
It’s been told in movies and on television, too, and the Beast even shows up as a character (“History’s most vicious, most famous werewolf”) on an improbable website called “the Official Teen Wolf Wiki” (!).
There’s also a rich trove of “information” about the Beast on the internet, of which a very high percentage must be taken with a big grain of salt. In writing this post, though, I am particularly indebted to the very serious and scholarly work done by Alain Bonet, whose 656-page document in French collects all the known documents, news reports, and eyewitness accounts of the period when the Beast roamed the backroads of France. You can find his remarkable work here.
If you go there today…
For me, though, the best part of writing this story was the afternoon I spent in the one-room museum devoted to the Beast of Gévaudan in the tiny village of Auvers. (There’s also a museum, I’m told, in Saugues; I haven’t been there (yet!), but you can learn more about it here.)
There were perhaps 400 people living in Auvers at the time of the Beast’s attacks; now there are only about 60. It’s the kind of village you’d never see unless you set out deliberately to go there. An hour off the main roads, near the equally-isolated National Monument to the French Resistance, it’s a little cluster of houses around an old church on a narrow “D” road in the Haute-Loire.
The museum, the Maison de la Bête, is in the small house attached to the village church. The story of the horrors that unfolded in the Gévaudan from 1764 to 1767 is laid out in photographs and text on poster-boards.
There are a couple of implements of the type used to hunt or ward off the Beast, and many reproductions of the fantastical renderings done of the animal over the years. Local school children have constructed their own idea of the creature’s looks using pieces of old shag carpeting and rubber gloves for the paws.
The elderly gentlemen manning the table seems glad to see me on the day I visit; I’m the only visitor there for at least two hours this particular afternoon, and when I ask him if they get a lot of traffic during the August vacations he says, “No, not really.” But he’s happy to tell the story to me again, and he shows me the detailed lists of the Beast’s victims before leading me to the museum’s centerpiece:
“It’s really what the animal looked like,” he tells me confidently as we stand before the great stuffed monstrosity. “It was built exactly to the measurements that were taken when the body of the Beast was examined in Paris, and with all the colors and other features described by the eye witnesses who encountered it for themselves.”
I look into the glassy eyes, examine the fierce, curving teeth and the motley fur. When I step back outside, I look across the calm, green valley and try to imagine how people must have feared to take even one step outside their own front doors during that terrible period when the Beast roamed these mountains. And, even in the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun, I shudder just a little myself.
People still say that the reddish tint of some of the grass in the meadows here is a reminder of that time, and that animals still won’t eat it. Do you have a favorite story from the legends and history of France? Please share it in the comments section – and, while you’re here, I’d be grateful if you’d take a second to share this post with others on Facebook and Twitter using the buttons below.