Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast

Article excerpt

Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast. By Jay M. Smidi. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. 378, maps, introduction, illustrations, notes, note on place names, note on sources, acknowledgments, index. $35.00 cloth.)

Folklorists should welcome any serious scholarly attention to the weird and wonderful topic of historical monsters. Jay M. Smidi 's book deals with die beast that plagued die French region of die Gévaudan during die eighteendi century and, as well as being diorough and imaginative, it is certainly serious. Where previous audiors have focused their attention on revealing die identity of die culprit, Smidi concentrates on die wider cultural contexts diat made die savage attacks on women and children reverberate beyond die local, to national and international contexts. Smidi writes clearly and evocatively, managing to combine a real interest with die psychology of die human actors in die drama with an impressive control over historiographical debates about die birth of media culture, eighteenth-century science, die crisis of confidence in die French Old Regime, die roles of honor and nobility, and die growing distance between elite and popular cultures.

Smidi convincingly demonstrates diat die beast was not just a product of rural beliefs about real wolves, werewolves, or other monsters, but also grew out of the concerns of elite scientists, journalists, military officers, and administrators. He does this in a way that will most appeal to the historians who are his explicit audience. He provides maps and illustrations and makes extensive and careful use of citations from the original manuscript sources. He includes a note on these sources and directs the reader to an online bibliography, although the URL in the book seems to be incorrect, and the bibliography can in fact be found here:

Folklorists should not, however, expect any innovations in terms of a methodology drawing together the study of folklore and history. While it may be impractical for historians to keep up to date with all of the adjoining disciplines that inform their research, it is unfortunate that Smith should have so little interest in the field of study that has done most to explore cryptozoology and lycandiropy. Smith does refer to one article by Caroline Oates, but makes no reference, for instance, to recent research on werewolves by Willem de Blécourt and Michèle Simonsen. In Smith's own explanation, this is because he wants to "[shift] attention away from the beast itself" (3). What is striking is that this shift is also one away from the rural people whose lives were plagued by the horrific killings.

Ultimately, Smith is a historian of elites, more interested in the honor of the nobility and the role of print culture in fostering what Jürgen Habermas famously called a "rational public sphere," than in the popular culture of the masses studied by historians such as Peter Burke, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Carlo Ginzburg. His main argument is that elite culture conveniently "forgot" its own role in creating the beast in order to infantilize and feminize rural culture, but this does not prevent him taking a problematic stance towards what he repeatedly calls the "superstitions" of the peasantry. …