Ever since the mid-eighteenth century, when a string of grisly murders took place in southern France, the perpetrator, quickly named "the beast [End Page 459] of the Gévaudan," has straddled the worlds of myth and history. In his exhaustively researched, sometimes exhaustingly detailed, but always remarkable micro-history, Smith deftly situates the beast within the context of its time, revealing how a wolf (or wolves) metamorphosed into a monster that darkened the imagination of enlightened Frenchmen and women.
Smith's quarry is less the beast itself than the "mental environment of the times" that shaped the understanding of the actors pulled into this drama (3); his ammunition is not a single cache of documents that, until now, were hidden or ignored but well-known sources that have been "underexploited" (4). Few scholars of the era are better armed: Not only has Smith ransacked the departmental and national archives, but he has also read a staggering number of secondary sources that cast light on his quarry.
Like Arthur Conan Doyle's dog that did not bark, Smith begins his account with a series of curious incidents—a string of victims, mostly shepherds and farmers, who were killed by wolves between from 1764 to 1765 in the isolated region of the Auvergne. Why would these events be noteworthy? After all, wolves were notorious predators, responsible for hundreds of deaths in rural France.
Yet, news of these deaths soon galvanized the imagination of France; within short order, the predator metamorphosed into a monster. According to Smith, the sources for this transformation were not just rooted in peasant lore; they also rippled out from political, intellectual, and social preoccupations in Paris. Thus, the scientific debate among savants on the nature of the unnatural, be it hybrids or monsters, provided a lens to view events in the Auvergne. This lens was polished by the work of George-Louis Buffon, whose popular Natural History (Paris, 1749-1796) dwelt on nature's penchant for creating the prodigious. As Buffon affirmed, "It is necessary to see nothing as impossible" (33). In addition, the theological battles between Jansenists and Jesuits—and, more deeply, the enduring schism between Protestants and Catholics—spilled into the local bishop's effort to ally the alien nature of the "beast" with the foreign character of the Jesuit order.
These events from la France profonde were welcomed, as well as magnified, by the press. Recently founded newspapers, like the Courrier d'Avignon, depended on sensationalism, especially after peace had broken out in the wake of the Seven Years'War: "For a journalist confronting a barren postwar landscape . . . the ongoing mystery in the Gévaudan must have appeared as a godsend" (71).
It was certainly a godsend for Louis XV. His throne, weakened by France's humiliation at the hands of the British and the Austrians, not to mention the loss of its overseas possessions, needed to regain honor and respect. By ridding the Gévaudan of this terrifying monster, the monarchy could prove that it was capable of guaranteeing the lives and well-being [End Page 460] of its subjects. For the nation and the army, the "beast's conquest was supposed to bring a measure of redemption" (105).
By the time Smith reaches the tale's dénouement, all of the people involved—the king, advisers, commentators, and hunters—had found that the political, personal, and popular investment in the beast's existence was too immense to allow the inconvenient fact that it was only a slightly bigger than average wolf that intruded. As Smith concludes, everyone had a compelling reason for the end to be equal to the great expectations raised by the narrative.
Smith so deeply immersed himself in the literature surrounding this event that even the slightest of oversights registers. Thus, he notes that Horace Walpole, who provided a sharp-tongued commentary on the affair, thought it belonged to a "gothic romance" (250), apparently unaware that Walpole fathered this genre with his novel The Castle of Otranto (London, 1765). Smith's...