Imagining the Monstrous In Eighteenth-Century France: The Case Of The Beast Of The Gévaudan

Oct 17, 2018

In early-modern Europe, wolves--both the rabid and the non-rabid kind--caused the deaths of thousands of people, most of them rural laborers who toiled in fields and meadows. In south-central France in the middle 1760s, peasant women and children suffered a seemingly endless series of attacks by a beast that eventually claimed over one hundred lives. As the tragedy unfolded, the great majority of those who paid attention, whether in the Gévaudan region that was home to the attacks or elsewhere throughout the country, agreed that the predator causing these ravages could only be understood as a "monster."

Why did they make this assumption? How did the assumption inform their responses to the emergency? Why did French people cling so insistently to the belief that a monster had to be culpable for the depredations, even as accumulating evidence pointed to wolves? Was there something about the age of Enlightenment--the 1760s saw the high water mark of this "modern" cultural phenomenon--that made people particularly susceptible to beliefs many would later label as irrational? Using the example of an unusually famous French monster, this lecture will explore the borders between lightness and darkness, knowledge and speculation, order and disorder, and the normal and the fantastic at the dawn of modernity.

Dr. Jay M. Smith, Professor of History, University of North Carolina – Chapel HillJay M. Smith is a specialist of early-modern France, especially in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He has written about the development of royal absolutism, the emergence of patriotic habits of thought under the old regime, the origins of the French Revolution, the history of the nobility, the fascinating legend surrounding the beast of the Gévaudan, and most recently, the scandalous state of big-time college athletics. He is now at work on a book that will examine attitudes toward truth-telling in the political world of the eighteenth-century north Atlantic.