France is a country famous for food, wine, chauvinism, and existential dread — a sort of banal but cloying internal crisis popularized by philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre in the 20th century. It focuses on the pain of being a free-thinking and acting human being laden with responsibilities. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then good for you.
But before your average French folk had the leisure time, espresso, and cigarettes to do much deep thinking on unhappiness, there was another kind of crisis in France: the kind where hinterland-dwelling hellbeasts eviscerated women and children by the hundreds. While being crushed by the unbearable weight of your own autonomy is sort of exciting in its own way, this here is an article about hellbeasts eating French peasants.
Between 1764 and 1767, something killed a lot of people in and around the forests of Gévaudan in Southern France. Sources vary on the details, but over 100 people were maimed or killed by some devil, a roving rural nightmare with a consistent modus operandi: it preferred to attack women and children, often ripping their throats out, and then eating their heads off. While existential dread would, 150 years later, tap a human fear of living, the Beast of Gévaudan made flesh the universal animal fear of being eaten to death by predators, at a time when many people lived very close to nature.
While this murderous spree only lasted a few years, the mystery as to what—or who—killed the villagers of Gévaudan remains to this day, prompting educated speculation by modern scholars and 2001 French action films alike. But what was it, and did it act alone?
My 23andMe Results Say I’m Descended from French Nobility. What Were Their Thoughts About All This?
Look, I hate to break it to you, but the only thing 23andMe delivers more consistently than news of abnormal genetic mutations is a sense of disappointment in the sensibilities of one’s ancestors.
While French nobility in the 18th century normally would have concerned themselves more with extracting unpaid labor from peasants than with their general welfare, word of a beast stomping through the quaint French countryside and making meals of the heads of innocent women and children was macabre enough to instill a certain sense of noblesse oblige (or at least a bit of idee fixe) in the landed upper classes. The stories of the killings spread via faits divers reporting—18th-century true crime stories—and nobles, for all their other failings, could at least read.
King Louis XV must have been a true crime fan, or at least a fan of distracting his subjects from a recent string of military defeats to the British and Prussians, as well as a generally merde French economy, because he decided to make a kingly big deal out of hunting the Beast down.
After months of negotiations and budgetary deliberations among the various branches of government, Louis XV finally got a scant amount of funding to begin assembling a small group of hunters to—
OK, OK, just messing with you.
Louis XV was king! He threw a shitload of money and men at the problem, no questions asked. In fact, he was so generous on this front, that he even allowed several nobles to spend their own money on the problem. All told, a veritable army of civilians, huntsmen, bloodhounds, and also the actual army were tapped to put an end to this Beast.
I Get Why It Matters to Me Now, Thank You. But How Do You Kill Something If You Don’t Know What It Is?
The Kingdom of France had some rough ideas of what they might be looking for. Not every victim had their head gnawed off. Some, like little Jacques Portefaix or Marie-Jeanne Vallet, managed to fend off the Beast and became folk heroes as their stories spread.
Such survivor accounts led to some rough and varied descriptions of the attacker. The beast had the general physicality of a wolf, but was about the size of a calf—which, depending on exact age, can be several hundred pounds. Depending on the source, the beast had red fur with stripes on its back, or jet black that made it melt into the night. It also had a long snout that was by turns either calf-, pig-, or wolf-like; big claws, or hooves, or big paws with hooves for claws; and laser eyes. Well, no laser eyes, but you see how easily these rumors can snowball.
Artist’s renderings did little to narrow the list of suspects, then and now. Sketches of the Beast apparently predate accurate depictions of faunae, or human ability to draw a dog, so most of the images show what appears to be a bear-size squirrel with a bald tail, drawn by someone who had only read about quadrupeds in books, and who also maybe couldn’t read so good.
Abilities—some of them supernatural—were also attributed to the Beast: an amazing leap and the ability to stand on its hind legs sound like they could be leads, but bulletproof skin and a Lazarus-like knack for returning from the dead sit a bit closer to the “total bullshit” end of the truth spectrum here.
OK, So We Just Don’t Know What The Beast of Gévaudan Actually Was?
Right. Article’s over. Have a good one!
What, not good enough?
All right, there has of course been a lot of conjecture over the years. As you might imagine from the descriptions above, there’s a wide range of suspects that could be put into a lineup.
Combining all of the aforementioned characteristics yields some sort of chimera hybrid monstrosity lacking any kind of basis in zoology, rather than something real, like a rogue felid or feral jackalope. But if you cherry pick the anecdotal evidence—and who doesn’t like doing that?—and view the illustrations with a big grain of salt, consider context, and examine the more reality-based behaviors exhibited by the Beast, we can draw some of the more likely conclusions. Let’s narrow the possibilities down to the most likely candidates:
There is some rough evidence that one or two large, rogue wolves may have been responsible for at least some of the attacks in Gévaudan. In September 1765, Louis XV’s own bodyguard/gunman François Antoine shot and killed the first of these canids. He even got a reward for doing it, but relief was short lived.
After two months passed, the killings resumed, with another 30 or so dead over the course of a year and a half— and this time, without aid from the king, who assumed the problem had been solved. In June 1767, Jean Chastel, a local farmer, managed to bag the other big wolf, and the killings seem to have stopped after this. These slain wolves joined another 100 or so wolves killed in the region during this time, so it was clear that wolves were the default suspect.
At the time, wolves were like the second-most threatening animal, right after other humans. Loads of deaths were blamed on wolf attacks, and for all we know, sure, that’s what happened here. But modern wolf research doesn’t seem to back the wolf theory for Gévaudan. It’s rare for wolves to go out of their way to attack humans (they prefer to avoid us), and hunting alone isn’t typical for pack animals. It’s possible that there was more than one Beast of Gévaudan, given the timeline and locations of the attacks, as well as varying descriptions of appearance, but they don’t appear to have worked together.
Still, the wolf hypothesis holds water for some sources. In Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, author Jay M. Smith, reaches the conclusion that the Beast was actually a wolf infestation. The Norwegian Institute for Nature Research agrees in its 2002 The Fear of Wolves report, in spite of its editorial mission to reduce fear of wolves. And, in all fairness to this theory, no predator naturally hunts humans, so any culprit is going to be an outlier.
#2: Some Kind of Hybrid
Local infantry leader Captain Jean Baptiste Duhamel pushed this theory:
“You will undoubtedly think, like I do, that this is a monster, the father of which is a lion. What its mother was remains to be seen.”
French naturalist Michel Louis posited in 2001 that the Beast was sired by Jean Chastel’s red mastiff, and armored with boar skin, hence the bulletproofing and odd coloring. Cool imagination, Michel.
#3: Unknown, Unfamiliar, or Archaic Animals
Hey, maybe the Beast of Gévaudan belonged to an unfamiliar species or subspecies. Take, for example, the European hyena, or mesonychids. These animals bear an uncanny resemblance to the popular descriptions of the Beast! Job: done. More after this cool picture of the Beast of Gévaudan . . .
Oh, wait. Both of those have been extinct for a stupid long time. Let’s move on to some more likely culprits.
#4: Two Schoolboys in a Horse Costume
This one’s just a personal theory of mine, but it does account for the varying physiological traits (the boys could have taken turns being the head). Alternatively, the Beast could have also been one or more humans behind a murderous hoax. Whenever a bunch of people turn up dead, “other human” does need to be placed near the top of the list of suspects.
But a human killer would have needed some kind of functional monster suit, as well as the commitment to eat their victims; or maybe they owned the Beast, as implied by Michel Louis’ outfitted mastiff hybrid theory. But for me, we’re getting into the weeds with this one.
#5: Big Cats
I like this theory, and so does National Geographic. The Beast’s physiology, odd fur configuration, hunting methods, attack patterns, and preference for open country all point toward something like a subadult male lion. It stands to reason that the locals knew what wolves looked like, so if it actually was a wolf, would we really have so many questions about its appearance or behavior?
Things start to make more sense if you consider that this may have been an exotic animal—something rural peasants wouldn’t be able to name—that had been brought in captivity to the region by a wealthy collector. If it was indeed a juvenile male lion, its young, peach-fuzz mane could explain the odd coloring and fur. It used its claws as weapons, preferred to throttle victims’ throats, attacked large livestock by jumping on their backs, and left polished skulls behind—evidence of a rough, cat-like tongue licking them clean.
Broader context might help us figure this one out. The Beast of Gévaudan was just one (or two, or three) of a larger number of “beasts” responsible for attacks in France during the 17th and 18th centuries. Maybe this was just a public craze. Something about a primordial fear of the wild that has plagued mankind since it first adopted the social contract in a bid to separate itself from the daily murder-hustle of a Hobbesian life. Perhaps we saw in animals what we feared in ourselves: an unshakeable vestigial will for violence, and a capacity for monstrousness.
Or maybe it was just that this all happened at a time when it was fashionable for the wealthy nobility to irresponsibly keep exotic animals in private menageries, some of them escaped unreported, and a bunch of peasants were eaten.
C’est la vie.