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The Infamous ‘Beast’ That Ravaged 18th Century France May Have Been Something Else Entirely

It was the summer of 1764 when the hideous and often fatal animal attacks started in Gévaudan in south-central France. The unfortunate victims, in many cases horribly mutilated, had fallen prey to some ravening beast. In the 18th century, wolves roamed across France, especially in rural backwaters like Gévaudan. But could these frenzied and brutal attacks really be the work of a wolf? Many were doubtful, to say the least.

A remote, isolated backwater

In his 2011 book Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast, historian and author Jay M. Smith wrote, “Gévaudan had the reputation for being a remote, isolated backwater where the forces of nature had not been…[fully] tamed, where the forests were indeed enchanted. It’s fascinating, it’s powerful, it’s scary, it’s sublime.” The region, part of the modern-day French department of Lozère, was clearly the ideal setting for the roamings of some untamed and bloodthirsty creature. 

A heavy toll

The killings went on for three years in an area of some 2,800 square miles and the toll on the people of Gévaudan was heavy. Exact figures for the number of victims are hard to come by, with different sources giving a variety of totals. A report by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research noted that one source claimed there were 210 attacks resulting in 113 dead and 49 injured, an appalling tally.

First recorded victim

The first recorded victim on the last day of June 1764 was a 14-year-old shepherdess called Jeanne Boulet, attacked and killed as she watched over her flock. But Smith has uncovered another apparent victim from two months earlier, another young woman who was tending cattle and was attacked by an animal “like a wolf, yet not a wolf.” Her herd defended her and she survived. 

“A horrible beast”

Another attack came just a month after Boulet’s tragic end. This time it was yet another girl, this time aged just 15. She too was killed by the creature, apparently describing it as “a horrible beast” in her dying words. Animal attacks in Gévaudan were not entirely rare, but the number of attacks that were now happening was clearly out of the ordinary.