Cover: Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, from Harvard University PressCover: Monsters of the Gévaudan in HARDCOVER

Monsters of the Gévaudan

The Making of a Beast

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$41.00 • £35.95 • €37.95

ISBN 9780674047167

Publication Date: 03/15/2011


392 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

25 halftones, 3 maps


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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, New York Review of Books

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, Literary Review

[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, London Review of Books

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

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.Barnes & Noble Review

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.—James R. Farr, Purdue University

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.—Orest Ranum, Johns Hopkins University

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.—Jeffrey S. Ravel, author of The Would-Be Commoner: A Tale of Deception, Murder and Justice in Seventeenth-Century France

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.—Dale K. Van Kley, author of The Religious Origins of the French Revolution

Awards & Accolades

  • Second Runner-Up, 2011 Katharine Briggs Folklore Award, Folklore Society

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