Reviews

“Smith has put together an excellent analysis of a compelling story.  With graceful writing and a mastery of social and cultural history, he makes a successful case for lifting this monster story out of the many peasant tales long ago delegated to local folklorists.”

– Gary Kates, Journal of Modern History

 

“Monsters of the Gévaudan is a convincing reconstruction of the “making of a beast,” as Smith puts it….Smith shows that [the Gévaudan affair] can provide a useful microcosm for understanding the nature of French society at a moment when older belief systems were giving way to new ones that would come to define modernity.”

– Jeremy Popkin, H-France

 

Smith recounts the dramatic and complicated story of the making and unmaking of the Beast of Gévaudan with enormous flair and a wealth of incident….[No] reader is likely to forget the macabre and comical schemes that various parties suggested in order to ensnare an animal who preyed on women and children; they featured dressing lambs in girls’ clothing with bonnets and tying them upright to posts, heavily arming the women of Gévaudan, and even sending dragoons in drag to tend flocks….Smith has conclusively wrenched the tale out of its familiar folkloric mode by demonstrating that various elite parties were actively involved in the creation of the Beast of Gévaudan….There are few better demonstrations of the surprising links between elite and popular culture in the high noon of Enlightenment.

–Sarah Maza, Journal of Social History

 

“This excellent book provides two fundamental contributions across the disciplines. First, it introduces the events and their extraordinary resonance in France to an English-reading audience for the first time….But Smith does an even greater service in taking as his historical target not the identity of the “beast” itself—wolf, hyena, prehistoric monster?—but rather the cultural and political contexts and the “mental environment” that made the events and the animal possible….[This] informative and well-told history will be read with great interest by scholars working on media markets, animals, social elites, scientific thought, religious history, and the public sphere in France and elsewhere.”

–Peter Sahlins, Comparative Studies in Society and History

 

“[Smith] is above all a cultural historian, and his interest has always been less in what happened and who was involved than in the cultural context.  This is an impressive attempt to place the episode of the Gévaudan beast firmly in a wider frame….Historians of pre-revolutionary France nowadays see the expansion of the ‘public sphere’ as a fundamental feature of the period, and the 1760s as the decade in which it was perhaps most marked.  The hyping of the beast and its exploits, complete with the many fanciful engravings reproduced throughout this book, can now be seen as a major landmark in the process….General readers as well as scholars will find [Smith’s] analysis fascinating.”

–William Doyle, The Literary Review

 

“[Smith] turns the hunt for the Bête du Gévaudan and its mythologization by the European press into a tale of collective psychosis, patronizing aristocrats and misunderstood peasants; he recounts the decline of credulity and the rise of skepticism, and the construction of one of the first national news stories…He forces the beast to say everything it possibly can about the period.”

– Graham Robb, London Review of Books

 

“[Smith’s] a skilled storyteller, bringing a distant time and place vividly to life for the reader.”

– Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times

 

“[Smith argues that] the attacks are a locus wherein we can witness the transition from early modernity to modernity itself. In other words, rather than being simply a remnant of backwards superstition, the “beast” was made possible by an emerging news and media culture (mainly in the form of periodicals), a relatively nascent but increasingly vigorous scientific naturalism associated with the Enlightenment, and religious and political unrest and controversy, much of which foreshadows the revolution that would begin in 1790 and usher in the modern world…Will Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast settle the debate about the nature of “the beast” for those interested in this strange historical episode? Almost certainly not, but the study should go a long way toward rescuing it both from oddball conjecture and contemptuous dismissal as a subject of serious inquiry.”

– James Williams, Popmatters

 

“What to make of it all—a passing episode or a revealing segment of sociocultural history? Jay Smith makes a convincing case for the latter. By carefully examining every aspect of the events, he demonstrates how disparate elements came together to create a spectacular case of collective false consciousness. The beast, he shows, was something people were drawn to think about, and the trains of thought led through a rich and varied mental landscape.”

– Robert Darnton, New York Review of Books

 

“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….[He] has written the standard work about this fascinating story, and he has done so in a fluent and compelling manner.”

–Robert Zaretsky, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

 

“If you enjoy mysteries and history, this book has much to offer.  While the tragedy of the deaths this creature caused may have diminished over the past two centuries, this book does a great job [giving] the killings and their rise to infamy a more poignant and understandable story than I’ve previously encountered.  This book is a must-have for monster enthusiasts, media buffs, and Francophiles.”

–Blake Smith, Skeptical Inquirer

 

“The Gevaudan, a region in France’s Massif Central, was the stage for a crisis in 1764-65 that, Smith indicates, still reverberates in France.  If the story’s popular persistence attracts Smith’s scholarly explications, the story itself must be the central attraction for nonacademics, and he tells it well.  Something wicked bounded out of the Gevaudan’s mountainous forests to dismember scores of shepherdesses and children….[The] pathos of innocent rustics assaulted by–what? hyenas? werewolves?–provoked intense curiosity from gazetteers and illustrators, whose imaginative depictions of the predator vividly illustrate Smith’s narrative. …Engaging the episode’s social, biographical, and folkloric aspects, Smith crafts an incisive history, especially for readers interested in eighteenth-century France.”

–Gilbert Taylor (Booklist)

 

“So why was the Beast so special?  The answer traditionally offered by French historians such as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is that the affair of the Gevaudan resulted from the chance encounter of two worlds: popular superstition on the one hand and the modern press on the other….Dissatisfied with this simple dichotomy between superstition and modernity, Smith explores the existence of deeper, more complex relations between the emergence of the Beast and the tensions latent in pre-revolutionary French society.”

– Biancamaria Fontana, Times Higher Education

 

“Every now and then a work of history comes along that pierces through the clouds of both professional and so-called public history to create the best in historical scholarship with an edge or mood of mystery. Smith’s Monsters may be just such a book! Beautifully constructed and precise, it will thrill readers.”

– Orest Ranum, Johns Hopkins University

 

“This book is an excellent example of how minute and detailed history can tell a human story as dramatic as any novel.”

– Peter Rogerson, Magonia Book Review

 

“As riveting a read as the best of detective stories, Smith’s book on the beast of Gévaudan is also an important chapter in the political, cultural, and intellectual history of late eighteenth-century France.”

– Dale K. Van Kley, Ohio State University

 

“This stunning work has much to teach us, not only about the origins of political and scientific modernity, but also about the curious historical processes by which we remember, and forget, the passions of the past.”

– Jeffrey Ravel, MIT

 

“Smith focuses on the social context of the “beast’s” appearances and disappearances, rather than narrating a history of the monster itself.  He expertly traces…a folktale that took on local, national, and international dimensions….Highly recommended.”

–Benita Blessing, Choice

 

“[S]tudents of eighteenth-century Europe will greatly profit from reading such an adept integration of political analysis, socioeconomic description, cultural inquiry, and mnemonic narration.”

–Edward J. Woell, History: Reviews of New Books.