How the 18th-Century French Media Stoked a Werewolf Panic

If you’ve stud­ied French (or, indeed, been French) in the past cou­ple of decades, you may well have played the card game Les Loups-garous de Thiercelieux. Known in Eng­lish as The Were­wolves of Millers Hol­low, it casts its play­ers as hunters, thieves, seers, and oth­er types of rur­al vil­lagers in the dis­tant past. By night, some play­ers also hap­pen to be were­wolves, liable to devour the oth­ers in their sleep. Though such beings may nev­er actu­al­ly have exist­ed, they loom fair­ly large in French pop­u­lar cul­ture still today — not least, per­haps, because they loomed even larg­er two and a half cen­turies ago, such that his­to­ry now acknowl­edges a peri­od called the French Were­wolf Epi­dem­ic.

“In the 1760s, near­ly three hun­dred peo­ple were killed in a remote region of south-cen­tral France called the Gévau­dan (today part of the départe­ment of Lozère),” says the Pub­lic Domain Review. “The killer was thought to be a huge ani­mal, which came to be known sim­ply as ‘the Beast’; but while the creature’s name remained sim­ple, its rep­u­ta­tion soon grew extreme­ly com­plex.”

In the press, which spec­u­lat­ed on this fear­some crea­ture’s pre­ferred meth­ods of attack (decap­i­ta­tion, blood-drink­ing, etc.), “illus­tra­tors had a field day rep­re­sent­ing the Beast, whose appear­ance was report­ed to be so mon­strous it beg­gared belief.”

By the win­ter of 1764–65, “the attacks in the Gévau­dan had cre­at­ed a nation­al fer­vor, to the point that King Louis XV inter­vened, offer­ing a reward equal to what most men would have earned in a year.” In Sep­tem­ber of 1756, a lieu­tenant named François Antoine “shot the enor­mous ‘Wolf of Chazes,’ which was stuffed and put on dis­play in Ver­sailles.” This did­n’t stop the killings, but “by now the Roy­al Court had lost inter­est. The sto­ry had played itself out, and pub­lic atten­tion had moved on to oth­er mat­ters. Luck­i­ly a local noble­man, the Mar­quis d’Apcher, orga­nized anoth­er hunt, and in June 1767 the hunter Jean Chas­tel laid low the last of what had turned out to be the Beasts of the Gévau­dan.”

“The Beast’s stom­ach was filled with human remains and, by all posthu­mous accounts, did not look any­thing like a typ­i­cal wolf,” says Dan­ger­ous Minds. “They were also able to ascer­tain that the ani­mal was sole­ly respon­si­ble for 95% of the attacks on humans from 1764 to 1767.” As to what the ani­mal actu­al­ly was, the­o­ries abound: maybe an unusu­al­ly large or rabid wolf, maybe a hye­na, maybe even a lion. As for the more fan­tas­ti­cal the­o­ries that cap­tured the pub­lic imag­i­na­tion of the time, they may have passed into the realm of myth, but those myths con­tin­ue to inspire lit­er­a­ture, film, tele­vi­sion, and games. And as any­one who’s played Les Loups-garous de Thiercelieux a few times under­stands, the were­wolf’s luck usu­al­ly runs out.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Strange Danc­ing Plague of 1518: When Hun­dreds of Peo­ple in France Could Not Stop Danc­ing for Months

The Sights & Sounds of 18th Cen­tu­ry Paris Get Recre­at­ed with 3D Audio and Ani­ma­tion

A 1665 Adver­tise­ment Promis­es a “Famous and Effec­tu­al” Cure for the Great Plague

How the Year 2440 Was Imag­ined in a 1771 French Sci-Fi Nov­el

John Stein­beck Wrote a Were­wolf Nov­el, and His Estate Won’t Let the World Read It: The Sto­ry of Mur­der at Full Moon

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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