How can history accommodate the aberrational—not the irrational or the accidental, which often figure in historical studies, but the odd elements that refuse to be assimilated into coherent pictures of the past? Aberrations do not fit into available schemes of things—story lines that lead through familiar channels to anticipated outcomes such as election victories, wars, depressions, the fall of empires, or the rise of the bourgeoisie. They bring us up short and make us rethink things.
Some things, as Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, are “good to think with” (“bonnes à penser“). As examples, he cited physical objects such as totem poles and the arrangement of dwellings in villages, which convey meaning through their structural relations. But aberrations have no structure. They seem to come from nowhere and to disappear without warning, leaving confusion in their wake.
The finest historical study of this sort of phenomenon is The Great Fear of 1789: Rural Panic in Revolutionary France by Georges Lefebvre. An unrelenting rationalist who detected clear patterns in the swirl of events that made up the French Revolution, Lefebvre studied its strangest episode, a mass delusion that swept the kingdom in the spring and summer of 1789, provoking peasants to sack châteaux in a preemptive strike against imaginary brigands and foreign invaders who, according to rumors, were about to massacre the innocent. Lefebvre traced the outbursts of violence with extraordinary precision. He related them to resentments about seigneurial dues and worries about counterrevolutionary forces that threatened to destroy the National Assembly meeting in Versailles. As he told the story, it made sense; yet his account failed to assimilate bizarre episodes, such as the testimony of women who said they had seen their husbands slaughtered at their feet not long before the husbands returned safe and sound from chasing nonexistent brigands.
Equally puzzling panics have occurred closer to home. The best known is Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of October 30, 1938, which reworked H.G. Wells’s science fiction fantasy, The War of the Worlds, as a news report about an invasion from Mars. So many listeners took it seriously that police offices were flooded with phone calls and roads were jammed with people trying to get as far away as possible from the reported landing site at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. (The traffic jams probably were exaggerated, but the exaggeration was part of the collective delusion.)
The Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic provides the best-documented case of a switch in the mass perception of reality. In April 1954 the police received numerous reports of “pits and dings” that appeared in car windshields in Bellingham, Washington. The pitting spread in waves from town to town, heading for Seattle. It reached the city as expected, provoking thousands of emergency calls from panic-stricken citizens. And then it suddenly stopped—or, as some claimed, drifted out to sea. What had happened? Apparently people began to look for the first time at their windshields instead of through them, but why they did so, en masse, remains a mystery. The “epidemic,” as it is called in textbooks on social psychology, may have expressed unconscious anxieties at a time when atomic bomb tests and cold war rhetoric made a nuclear disaster appear as a genuine possibility. Or did it come out of nowhere?
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.
The local peasants had reason to be afraid. Many of them lived by tending flocks of sheep. They had experience with wolves, but not with the kind of beast that singled out women and children, decapitated them, mauled their bodies, and supposedly sucked their blood. Although the first attacks, which occurred in June and August 1764, could have been dismissed as nasty accidents, the accumulation of deaths and gruesome details reached such a pitch that some satanic force seemed to be unleashed. By October, local noblemen and army officers were speaking of a “monster” far bigger than a wolf and capable, some said, of resisting firearms by charming shot. The beast continued to strike throughout the winter, and the death toll reached sixty by the end of 1765. Meanwhile rumors spread about demons, witches, and werewolves.
The concept of a werewolf, a supernatural wolf-man (loup-garou), seemed to fit reports that the creature was far bigger than a wolf, could leap over high obstacles, glared with glowing eyes, gave off a hideous stench, seized its victims with unnaturally long claws, and often stood upright on its hind legs. On December 31, 1764, the bishop of Mende, who was also the most powerful seigneur of the region, issued a circular in which he explained to his flock that the “ferocious beast” that ripped apart children was a “monster that God has armed against them” as punishment for their sins. On January 6, he decreed that elaborate ceremonies of penance should take place throughout the diocese for four weeks in order to appease the just wrath of God.
Wolves were fairly common in early modern Europe. According to one estimate, they killed about a hundred people a year in France during the mid-eighteenth-century decades. But reports of sightings in the Gévaudan assumed the existence of a single beast rather than a pack of wolves, and the transmutation of wolves into a single monster carried the killings from the realm of the ordinary into the strange territory of the collective imagination. How did it happen?
Jay Smith, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, had the wit to pose that question. The beast had often been discussed by previous historians, who turned up most of the documentation that surrounded it. But they generally treated it as an example of superstition from a timeless, traditional past or as an element in an early modern “popular culture” expressed in chapbooks and broadsheets. Neither explanation worked, and both had the disadvantage of construing the peasants of the Gévaudan as exotic others, trapped in an archaic mentality.
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, and they cannot be read as a transparent window into a world we have lost. The disenchantment of the world, as Max Weber understood it, may have been an effective element in the creation of modern institutions, but the opposition of “tradition” and “modernity” does not go far in explaining particular cases, and the notion of a coherent popular culture now looks dubious as a way of characterizing life below the elites of early modern Europe.
Instead of beginning with standard categories of explanation, Smith reconstructs the reports about the beast and shows how they reverberated in the Gévaudan and then everywhere in France. At first, the killings did not stand out as different from earlier attacks by wolves. But as the incidents increased in number, speculation grew, fostered by individuals who had an interest in construing them as the work of a monster.
Jean-Baptiste Duhamel, a dragoon captain stationed in the area, set out to slay the beast, not merely to save the shepherds and to cover himself with glory, but also to redeem France’s military honor. He had participated in the humiliation of France at the hands of the Prussians during the Seven Years’ War, and he designed his wolf hunt as an exemplary military campaign. He drafted 20,000 peasants from nearly a hundred parishes to scour a vast territory, beating bushes and forcing the enemy into the center of an ever-shrinking circle, where he would wait to fell it.
The campaign failed, as did other episodes full of botched ambushes and faulty reconnoitering. Duhamel explained his defeats and vented his frustrations by exaggerating the prowess of the beast, which appeared increasingly in correspondence and reports as a supernatural monster rather than an outsized wolf.
Duhamel was helped in conveying his version of events by the only newspaper of the region, Le Courrier d’Avignon, edited by François Morénas, an enterprising editor who knew a good story when he saw one. The tales of the beast that got away provided irresistible copy for nearly two years. They were taken up by other newspapers, including the staid and semiofficial Gazette de France. Soon readers all over Europe were debating the nature of a hideous hybrid, perhaps a cross between a wolf and some other predator or a modern version of the harpies, griffins, and satyrs of antiquity. Duhamel had caught a glimpse of it, and he interviewed a peasant woman who had escaped from its clutches.
Piecing these impressions together, he persuaded an artist to depict it, and prints of the beast, looking more and more like a monster, circulated everywhere. They reinforced the jeremiads of the bishop of Mende. As a severe Jansenist, he was quick to spot depravity. Soon he had parishioners performing rituals of collective penitence and processing through their villages with statues of saints. They did not need to draw on their timeless stock of folklore, because they had it on good authority: the beast was sent by God to punish them for their sins.
While the religious view spread at the village level, the scientific one prevailed among enlightened readers. The biology of sexual reproduction among mammals was not understood before the nineteenth century. To leading authorities like Linnaeus (who classified various giants, dwarves, and other supposed human anomalies not as Homo Sapiens but as Homo monstrosus) and Buffon (author of Histoire naturelle), the cross-fertilization among different species could be scientifically demonstrated, although they failed in experiments intended to do so. Local savants and officials cited Buffon, giving credence to stories that an outsized hyena could have somehow migrated from Africa and eaten its way up through the French peasantry to the Gévaudan.
Loaded with supernatural and scientific attributes, the monster was ready to confront an emissary from Versailles. The French government could not dismiss the mounting death rate as unfortunate accidents, because the public, in Paris as well as the Gévaudan, had developed hostile views of the crown’s ability to fulfill its functions. The disasters of the Seven Years’ War had provoked a fiscal crisis, and the attempts to stave off bankruptcy led to unprecedented taxes, which in turn provoked political ferment. Although the government could hardly have solved its problems by hunting down the beast of the Gévaudan, it worried about public opinion, and a resounding defeat of the beast could demonstrate its efficacy to a disabused public. It therefore dispatched a renowned hunter, Jean-Charles d’Enneval, with a pack of dogs to exterminate “this public enemy already known practically all across Europe.”