Graham Robb writes:
In the summer of 2007, Jay Smith, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina, was in Paris collecting information for a book about a mysterious beast that terrorised the remote French province of the Gévaudan between 1764 and 1767. One day, while lunching on the place de la Sorbonne, he was warned of a terrible danger. His companion, a French academic, told him that if he published a book about the Bête du Gévaudan he would not be ‘taken seriously’ by his fellow historians, ‘the subject was so firmly associated with the realm of popular entertainment.’ Despite his own ‘trepidation’, Smith pursued his rash course: he had vowed to rescue the beast from its ‘ghettoised space’. After being ‘victimised by strategic forgetfulness’, the monster would rise again, liberated from ‘a narrow and trivialising framework of analysis’. Under Smith’s tuition, the ferocious, enigmatic creature that had inspired a thousand sensationalist articles and some of the most ridiculous animal drawings ever perpetrated would reveal itself as an involuntary historian with the power to illuminate a period that was ‘a transformative nexus’. It’s fortunate that Smith persevered. He turns the hunt for the Bête du Gévaudan and its mythologisation by the European press into a tale of collective psychosis, patronising aristocrats and misunderstood peasants; he recounts the decline of credulity and the rise of scepticism, and the construction of one of the first national news stories.