The Cevennes and its National Park

 

 

On the path of Camisards

On the path of CamisardsI was woken in my cave above the Tarnon by a man walking his dog who told me that it was Sunday. I rolled my sleeping-bag and ambled down the path towards Florac and a medley of bell-ringing, the peals for Catholic Mass begonning as those for the Protestant Eucharist were dying away.

'We had the wars,' shrugged the baker, as if the bitter struggle 300 years ago between the Protestant Camisards and their Catholic persecutors were yesterday.

One of the leaders of the ragged Camisards - who had used Florac as a mountain lair - was the guerrilla genius Jean Cavalier, a one-time shepherd boy who changed sides after being defeated by Louis XIV's generals and then, by a circuitous route, rose to lieutenant-governor of Jersey under the British before being buried in 1740, now a major- general, in the parish of St Luke's, Chelsea.

On the last day of September, 138 years later, a twenty-seven-year- old lapsed Calvinist walked into Florac intent on picking up the echoes of the Camisards. He was told in the cafe of cousins and nephews des- cended from Cavalier and of bones dug up where ancestors had fought. From "Clear Waters Rising" A mountain walk across Europe by Nicholas Crane (Penguin Books)

On the path of CamisardsEdict of  Nantes
1598, decree promulgated at Nantes by King Henry IV to restore internal peace in France, which had been torn by the Wars of Religion; the edict defined the rights of the French Protestants (see Huguenots).

These included full liberty of conscience and private worship; liberty of public worship wherever it had previously been granted and its extension to numerous other localities and to estates of Protestant nobles; full civil rights including the right to hold public office; royal subsidies for Protestant schools; special courts, composed of Roman Catholic and Protestant judges, to judge cases involving Protestants; retention of the organization of the Protestant church in France; and Protestant control of some 200 cities then held by the Huguenots, including such strongholds as La Rochelle (see Rochelle, La), with the king contributing to the maintenance of their garrisons and fortifications.

On the path of CamisardsThe last condition, originally devised for an eight-year period but subsequently renewed, was to serve as guarantee to the Huguenots that their other rights would be respected; however, it gave French Protestantism a virtual state within a state and was incompatible with the centralizing policies of cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and of Louis XIV. The fall (1628) of La Rochelle to Richelieu's army and the Peace of Alais (1629) marked the end of Huguenot political privileges.

After 1665, Louis XIV was persuaded by his Roman Catholic advisers to embark on a policy of persecuting the Protestants. By a series of edicts that narrowly interpreted the Edict of Nantes, he reduced it to a scrap of paper. Finally, in 1685, he declared that the majority of Protestants had been converted to Catholicism and that the edict of 1598, having thus become superfluous, was revoked.

Protestant peasants of the Cevennes region of France who in 1702 rebelled against the persecutions that followed the revocation (1685) of the Edict of Nantes (see Nantes, Edict of). The name was probably given them because of the shirts they wore in night raids. Led by the young Jean Cavalier and Roland Laporte, the Camisards met the ravages of the royal army with guerrilla methods and withstood superior forces in several battles.

In 1704, Marshal Villars, the royal commander, offered Cavalier vague concessions to the Protestants and the promise of a command in the royal army. Cavalier's acceptance broke the revolt, although others, including Laporte, refused to submit unless the Edict of Nantes was restored; scattered fighting went on until 1710.

 

The War of the Camisards in the Cevennes

On the path of CamisardsOn 19th November 1997 a program based on El Chupacabras, referred to as a weird creature in Mexican folklore, was broadcast in the X Files series but strayed from the original vampire-like monster legend. So far evidence is sketchy.

The animal as reported shows similarities to La Bete but there are big differences. Its incisions are neat, whereas hers could be untidy - you can’t call tearing-off heads neat. It has been reported as having three clawed toes; she was not often reported with three but hers were also sometimes said to be clawed. If El Chupacabras ever graduates almost exclusively to humans, operates mainly in the daytime and adopts less tidy eating habits, we can perhaps say, "La Bete has returned".

According to the TV program, explanations considered include an alien or the outcome of genetic experiments at an American military base. These trains of thought mirror those which have taken place - so far unsuccessfully - over the last 230 years to explain La Bete, for example the possibility that La Bete was an alien or caused by alien experiments has recently been studied in France and views published.

Closing scenes of the film 'Species' show a female alien who, although furless, uncomfortably resembles La Bete in speed, style and murderous intentions. Before dismissing the alien concept remember that for over two centuries clever people have unsuccessfully sought a solution to the Bete mystery. Under these circumstances the apparently impossible must be admitted as a possibility. No, that is not quite what Sherlock Holmes said, although his comment is more perceptive and but not so relevant The classic black and white film 'The Night of the Demon' has a large unforgettable clawed monster, one of the best ever.

On the path of CamisardsLa Bete can reasonably be described in appearance and behavior as a faster moving mini-version of this and also resembles other traditional demons. Funny how our concept of wolf-like monsters has changed so little over the centuries and is consistent world-wide.

The Hindus believe in a terrible blood-drinking feminine spirit called Kali, dedicated to destroying life to allow for recreation. She is sometimes represented as clawed, hideous woman and has been worshipped by Thugees for more thousands of years than Christians have centuries. Victims are left with broken necks, mutilated, in shallow graves.

To quote her fellow-worker Shiva, 'Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds'. In a hot Bengal night the life re-cycling concept of Kali does not seem as unlikely as it does by a de Quincey style Lake District fireside in November. Some writings about La Bete refer to mysterious caves, prehistoric bones, sometimes collected for fertilizer, and suspiciously knowledgeable individuals but one question apparently never researched is whether any of the famous cave drawings and paintings in the area show an animal - of known or unknown species - that might have been La Bete's ancestor?

The recent discovery of important caves containing 20,000 year-old drawings of animals ranging from rhinos to mammoths in the neighboring Vallon Pont-d'Arc region (to the South East - the direction from which she was first reported) gives food for thought. A famous Cro-Magnon cave painting of an odd, upright creature called 'The Sorcerer' exists at Les Trois Freres.

At nearby Le Moustier there is a cave containing the world's earliest known ceremonial burial, that of a Neanderthal nicknamed 'Nandy'. There is a museum at Chilhac showing remains of animals going back 2.5 million years. Prehistoric people drew and fought animals which have become extinct (or have they?) only since the council erected the new play area at Stonehenge. Like our own House of Lords, the Gevaudan district contains some of the world's best preserved and most numerous remnants of early intelligent human activity.

On the path of CamisardsIncidentally, she was last witnessed in September 1767 strolling peacefully along in Sarlat, also a prehistoric cave area. In establishing the identity of La Bete one apparently neglected information source is old family records. The use of surnames, especially those with titles, is particularly well controlled and documented in France so the descendants of most people involved are traceable. Unpublished information hides for centuries in old drawers and teenage daughters' bedrooms. Pity the French never ask you home.

Truth may sparkle one day to someone with long bar bill and pickled liver who, Western hero style, strides into local brasseries and asks questions, finally expiring as La Bete's last victim - Number 96 or 100, according to which statistics you accept. Liver (raw no onions) was always her favorite entree following a warm blood consomme - free lunch for the aristocrat of killing who dined royally in daylight.

Plump leather tomes, written in comfortable Auvergne sunshine, expansively affirm she was not hyena, wolf or human but none tells what she damn well was. Entries on a postcard please. No prizes, not after the blind dinner date. Ceci tuera cela (This will kill that) (Victor Hugo) She last definitely killed on 18th June 1767 at Desges. Fittingly her final victim is the unknown warrior - an unidentified little girl. Sadly we can never know her name or if she was meant to bear four pretty children. All right, a paradox but so is everything about La Bete.

Although there were outbreaks of killings by very similar beasts in the 17th and 19th centuries, after this last one La Bete, as La Bete, vanishes from the world scene, although some husbands might reasonably claim to have married her. A meticulous and outstandingly elegant French hunting weapons book by Dominique Venner, a man.

English comments made at the time consist mainly of newspaper articles, indignantly recorded by Abbe Pourcher in his famous book, which scathingly report that a French army of 12,000 had been routed by a beast. Some beast! It is surprising so little has been written on La Bete outside France when you consider her splendid achievements as a serial killer.