Le Gévaudan et l'histoire de France Das mittelalterliche Gevaudan A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountains

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountains

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountains

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsLa Bete du Gevaudan was a real wolf-like monster that prowled the Auvergne and South Dordogne areas of France during the years 1764 to 1767, killing about 100 people, often in bizarre circumstances. Every effort to stop her failed and she became nationally infamous. The King - Louis XV - took a personal interest, partly because she caused unrest in an area of tension and potential revolution. Many explanations - mutant, prehistoric beast etc. - were put forward at the time and during the two centuries since but none has ever been generally accepted. The important firm fact is that sufficient evidence remains to prove La Bete really did exist and was not just a myth. Among all the popular monster mysteries she was unique - she left behind one hundred bodies proving herself real and guilty beyond doubt. This article gives a balanced view on La Bete, about whom surprisingly little has been written outside France, where she remains a household name to respect or ridicule, according to choice. We always laugh at what we secretly fear.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsA prowl with le Bete or: When twigs crack don't whistle. The true tale of La Bete du Gevaudan is like a Shakespeare play, loving a plain woman or being a member of parliament - the more you put in the more there is to take away. A greater depth of information than has previously been available in English on her career is therefore offered - all based on recorded facts and including no fiction. The French rightly claim their wine and this mystery as the world's best. You can drink more deeply of either at a price. For wine the price is only money and a headache but the price for La Bete's is never again to feel quite safe walking alone in a sunny country lane. In France she is quoted as 'The Greatest Enigma of History'. Prowl on but do look over that left shoulder occasionally. And little maids all in a row On at least 5 occasions beasts rumored to have been La Bete ranging from large wolves to a baboon-like animal were killed but in all cases except the last, a not very formidable deformed wolf-like creature killed in June 1767, she recommenced killing shortly afterwards.

For example, on 16th September 1764 a wolf known as Le Loup de Pradels was killed and assumed to be La Bete. She took only until the 26th to kill a girl at Thorts and prove the assumption wrong. Following the death of a little girl on an unlucky 13th - only her bonnet and clogs were ever found - La Bete was reported shot in an abbey estate by a M. Antoine as Le Loup de Chazes on 21st September 1765 but was seen at Marsillac on 26th, 27th and 28th of that month. She started a new two year killing career on 21st December, the shortest day of the year and a long Silent Night for little Agnes Mourges. The winter wind hid a very sharp bite indeed, and that Christmas cost Agnes more than the usual arm and a leg:- 'insufficient remains for burial' - not enough to fill even a small stocking.

La Bete had herself a merry little Christmas and stopped the carol singers from making their usual killing because A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsnobody dared open doors barricaded against her. Snowy New Year 1765 yielded, for example, the head of little Marie Jeanne Rousset of Milienettes, recognizable only by her staring eyes, everything else being cleanly gnawed away. One poor woman, over 60 years old, nick-named La Sarabande, after the triple-tempo Spanish dance, could find no grass for her cow - her only possession - because of the deep snow. She led it to a marshy area, where sometimes a little greenery penetrated through. La Sarabande's body was ambushed for three days but La crafty Bete did not return. She liked marshy areas because her agility and relatively light weight enabled easy escape from mounted pursuers, whom she often deliberately led into mires and left floundering.

Even the local men liked playing this trick on the arrogant and gaudily dressed dragoons they regarded as a costly nuisance and useless for pursuing La Bete. One father and son - Antoine and Jean Chastel, everyday countryfolk - were in fact imprisoned for it, possibly in the cellar, still to be seen, of an old school, in Saugues en route to the dungeons in Mende. They misled some hunters, proudly led by a Royal Huntsman wearing King's uniform. Guess who ended up sitting on his horse stuck in the mud? The Chastels might have got away with it had they not threatened him with a gun when he complained. Another attack with an agricultural theme was that on a farmer, who rose early and started scything his wheat harvest by moonlight.

He saw a movement coming towards him but the animal itself was hidden by the tall wheat stalks. His first thought could well have been it was one of the farm dogs coming for a fuss but it proved to be La Bete coming for his blood. He managed to fight her off with his scythe but on arriving home was unable to speak for four hours, being paralysed with terror.

One typical attack occurred at dusk - locally called 'the hour between dog and wolf' - on 6th September 1764 at Estrets. A woman was tending her humble cottage garden when La Bete seized her by the throat, beginning with her usual aperitif of blood - sucked, not stirred - and did not cease until neighbors armed with axes, sickles and forks arrived. The woman died but La Bete, having enjoyed her liquid refreshment, lived on. Another woman - a servant - going to mass at Escures on 29th April 1765 saw La Bete and tried to delay her because men were approaching fast. She paid for her bravery by losing face, throat and life. There was the mysterious case of the three women of Pompeyrac, going to church near the wood of Favart, when a dark man offered to escort them through the wood. They refused and before leaving he touched one of them with a fur-covered hand. Dragoons arriving on the scene warned the terrified women not to go into the wood, because La Bete had just been seen there. Two women of Escures also on the way to church had a similar experience in an area where, unknown to them, she had just been seen by several people.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsThis time they saw that the man accosting them was covered in fur only when his shirt blew open in the wind. It was said at the time that La Bete, instrument of the Devil, was trying to stop them from going to Mass. As with all good monster murder mysteries, there has to be the wicked aristocrat solution. In this case he was supposed to have hidden among the nuns of the abbey of Mercoire (Cheylard l'Evêque), the abbess of which was known to take contributions from fugitives. This solution to the La Bete mystery is ridiculed by serious students of the subject but perhaps he did exist. There are other instances where appearances or attacks by La Bete were associated with human presence, including a famous witnessed sighting from a cottage window by a stream in the moonlight. There were also the two bodies found roughly reclothed after death. Fact or imagination? The relationship of these occurrences to Robert Louis Stevenson and Brothers Grimm is referred to later.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsScarlet billows start to spread. Too many horrors, another being what happened to Madame Merle. She had her eyes scratched out and La Bete spat a stream of her blood over approaching rescuers. No 'toujours la politesse' that time. On 21st June 1765 - the witches Sabbath, when the weather was warm enough for the naughtier country folk to dance naked round bonfires, she killed two people and savaged a third. Was this yet more evidence of her apparent sensitivity to Gothic atmosphere - she was often reported in places with supernatural associations - or did she just fancy a hot takeaway with no French dressing?

Either way, she came back for seconds and thirds to go. Also in 1765 - her busiest year - the case occurred at Javols where a father, a tenant farmer of good reputation, was bound and imprisoned by the fiery Captain Duhamel for failing immediately to report an attack to the authorities. He had delayed doing this only to attend to his child, whose larynx had been bloodily torn open - a specialty of La Bete - and to nurse his seriously ill mother.

Many attacks remained unreported for fear of becoming involved with ponderous and ineffective bureaucracies, rather like on housing estates today. Six year old Marguerite Lebre was killed in front of six firm witnesses, all testifying to Curate Gibergue at la Pauze, Lorcieres, who also recorded reports of a smaller boar-like Bete seen 3 days later.

These records of sturdy porcine or feline beasts in addition to our rakish, wickedly graceful wolf-like lady are too frequent to ignore and add another dimension to the mystery.

Either way, as was affirmed by Denneval, the King’s Chief Wolfcatcher, the greatest expert on wolf hunting in France, La Bete was definitely no wolf. Another odd fact is that some measurements of distances between her footprints showed she could make leaps of over 28 feet on level ground. If true, this weighs in favor of the athletic build rather than the stocky one. Reserve judgment on this point. Perhaps the bravest struggle of the three most famous ones against La Bete (Portefaix, the schoolboy, Valet (La Pucelle) and La Femme Jouve) was that by the puny Madame Jeanne Jouve on 9th March 1765 at Fau de Brion, where she fought to protect 3 of her 6 children with only bare hands and rocks snatched up from the ground.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsOne child died and Madame Jouve herself was injured - the King gave her a reward of 300 livres. The incident was vividly described thus; "The skin of his skull was falling to the right, his cheek was torn, his lip and nose torn away to the root, he died within 3 days." The same evening La Bete devoured a boy at Chanaleilles and was seen again the next day at Estival. These events caused great consternation throughout Gevaudan and Auvergne. The floor of one meeting hall collapsed from the sheer weight of people crowding in, trying to organize a hunt for her. There was the case of the girl, her little brother having been snatched from her, who bravely rushed into the wood after him and found him peacefully lying there on his back, apparently intact but in fact lacking liver, entrails and blood. The girl who cried to warn her sister, "There's a big wolf behind you", turned and ran, only to see her sister's head bowling along the ground. The little boy who, on 21st July 1765 went to fetch the family cows from their walled meadow near the village of Auvert and simply never returned.

At the time La Bete was being sought locally by the wily aristocrat M. Antoine, the King's Gunbearer, who posted his hunters in pairs on paths all over the district. There has always been a question mark over his policy. Why did he post guards mainly at night, when La Bete usually attacked in the daytime? The first thing the searchers found was the boy's shoes standing in the road, then all his clothes lying almost untorn in the meadow. Of the boy himself nothing was ever found. Beast or human criminal that time?

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsEnclosed meadows were particularly dangerous because the drystone walls - similar to those of the Lake District - with their mossy covering camouflaged her perfectly before she pounced. Jumping down from the top of walls and rocky outcrops was one of her favored methods of attack, especially dangerous to those tending flocks who had built their fires up against them for a little more shelter from the Margeride mountain winds (Margeride hiking loop).

At least they died warm. It was said La Bete would plough straight through a flock of sheep, scattering them like leaves to get at the shepherdess. However, she was much more wary of cows, which were sometimes found spattered with the blood she had spat at them. Her lack of fear of fire, dogs and people, especially women and children, but fear of cattle are strange but consistent features. That so much detailed information still exists is thanks to 'le proces-verbal' or P.V., an old and sensible French legal procedure often mentioned in Maigret style detective films, where evidence is formally noted by officials in front of witnesses. There are volumes of them, often confirmed in church records of burial ceremonies, giving in detail La Bete as the cause of death and signed by witnesses, priests and other respected persons. One struggle against her is particularly clearly recorded by the Curate of Besseyre.

Another curate - Ollier of Lorcieres got even closer to the action by bandaging a girl's wounds and making a measured sketch of a footprint which was similar to but larger than those previously recorded. Suspicious isn't it how so many churchmen occupied themselves with La Bete both before and after her reign, or is it simply they were the only intellectual, literate and socially responsible people present in every sizable village? This point merits careful thought by the conspiracy theorists. Her consumption of clerics was limited to one convent novice near Grezes in 1766; no priests, although she ate the cheek of a relative of Abbe Pourcher, her most famous chronicler, whose house, by the way, with its strange Bete-like carving on the door lintel, still stands. She liked her victims in skirts but obviously knew la Difference. The preference of La Bete for women and children might have been simply because they were more readily available. They were the ones tending the lonely mountainside flocks in ones or twos, whereas the men did the heavier work in the farm fields, often in groups and armed with spades, scythes etc. All parties were experienced wolf-repellers and had only contempt for these cowardly nuisances; a few stones usually sent them packing, unless they were rabid and, if they were, their messy bites were nothing like the elegant surgical work of La Bete.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsIn March to June 1766 there were 14 attacks by her within 6 miles of Paulhac en Margeride (Lozere). Not bad for a reportedly dead Bete. Incidentally, the old village concluded its history tragically, being burned by the German army in 1944. It is perhaps now haunted by even sadder spirits than those of La Bete’s victims, who were killed by a hungry animal for food and not for the politics of greed.

First catch your Bete. Many ‘Wanted’ posters appeared, for example this one in August 1764 (only slightly parodied) made a lot of profit for the printers:- "Reward 12,000 livres if dead. Known as 'La Bete' but kills under three aliases. Reddish brown with dark ridged stripe down the back. Resembles wolf/hyena but big as a donkey. Long gaping jaw, 6 claws, pointy upright ears and supple furry tail - mobile like a cat's and can knock you over. Cry: more like horse neighing than wolf howling. Last seen by people mostly now dead. If she approaches you please leave behind a signed copy of this poster."

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsMany pictures were circulated, some very elegant ones from leading Paris art houses such as Basset, Corbie, Le Bel, Maillet and Mondhare, even some from Germany; prints are still available From August 1764 on the King's orders the world's greatest ever hunting aristocracy was ranged against La Bete with all its resources of châteaux, thoroughbred horses from royal stables for the leading huntsmen and, for others, hacks from humbler stables, wearing darned Agincourt jackets and often rode to their deaths.

There were specialist wolf, boar and bear hounds plus as many echelons of trackers, hunters and master-hunters as NHS management grades but wasting less money, having no computers. She didn't stand a chance, or did she? Note that no suspicious human footprints - sensibly shoed or otherwise - were ever found near a kill, although La Bete's own easily identifiable long, clawed prints were there too many times, including all over the riverside mud of her famous fight with La Pucelle (the servant girl who successfully fought her off with a spear made from a spindle).

These footprints, recognized on the spot by 3 leaders of different hunting parties, bloodstains and supporting evidence from a 16 year old girl witness were all recorded in the proces-verbal, helping to confirm the incident as genuine.

Contemporary pictures of the fight still exist, some simple, some stylized, as one would expect. One fresh body was found lying out in snow with no tracks or footprints round it at all. Impossible, of course but typical of the strange happenings high in the Margeride mountains, a harsh region which the locals describe as 'nine months of winter and three months of hell'.

Regarding stories surrounding La Bete, it is unlikely she founded the 'Plump Partners' dating agency but against the fiction or hoaxes (some admitted) there are 100 horrors, mostly with witnesses, graves, names, parishes and dates as evidence. Grim facts and bloodless human body parts prove her existence, even if the more lurid tales are suspect. One indisputable fact is that La Bete did succeed, aided by bad weather and econmic problems with the cloth industry, in dragging the region down to a state of poverty and famine. Women and children were too terrified to tend their sheep and cattle out on the lonely pastures and the men were constantly called away from field work to hunt La Bete. The resulting neglect was sufficient to tip the scales of such a fragile economy into a decline.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsLouis XV and his court took her very seriously. She prowled a region where Huguenot/Jesuit tensions were acute and the King feared she, plus the arms massing there, would ignite the revolution whose tumbrels were perhaps just beginning to rumble in the distance. Remember, the Gevaudan was part of the ‘Independent States’, whose recognition of the French Crown’s sovereignty was not at the time fully ratified. Problems arising from the Antipopes in Avignon and the Great Schism of 1378 to 1417 still echoed and the city was not annexed to France until 1791. Although dissolute, Louis XV was not a king who killed more people than he had to - his nickname was 'Le Bien-Aime', but whether this meant he was well liked or he got a lot of loving is subtly and Frenchly left unclear. Being King in those pre-Revolutionary years must have been one hell of a job without 'The Beast Who Is Eating Everybody' making life even more difficult - Larousse, the main French encyclopedia, even in its recent editions still states: 'the whole of France concerned itself about her for some time'.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsThe most dangerous animal in the world is the intelligent French female and poor Louis XV had at least three to contend with - Madame Pompadour, Madame la Comtesse du Barry, who dined at five, copying the King, a politically significant fact (according to Dumas - ‘The Queen’s Necklace’) and La Bete, who also dined in the daytime but less formally. One Madame lost her head but La Bete kept hers while crunching many others. Unlike the curvy courtesans she never embraced the fleshy King, who died from smallpox - a million little bites instead of one big one. His successor died of the biggest bite of all - la Guillotine, so perhaps Louis XV did not handle French affairs, including La Bete, too badly after all, even if he did, aided of course by Madame Pompadour, bankrupt the state. The importance of La Bete in French history is virtually unknown outside France. Like BSE, they couldn't get rid so each blamed everybody else. There is no lack of conspiracy theories, especially relating to the King's anti-Jesuit policies, which peaked in 1761, two to three years before she appeared. Certainly people exploited her for political purposes but equally certainly there was a real dreadful entity conveniently there to exploit.

La Bete's total effect on history was, perhaps, beneficial. If she took only 100 potentially revolting peasant’s children’s lives but stopped war between Huguenots and Jesuits, later saving from la Guillotine the aristos who were recognized as having helped starving peasants fight her, she leaves a moral credit balance. You never know, she might be canonized one day. Often two or three versions are recorded of stories about her life and presumed deaths. There are, for example, two versions of the La Pucelle (the spindle packing heroine) story when she was called upon by Antoine to identify the body of the Loup de Chazes at the Château of Besset. One says she firmly refused to identify it as La Bete, the other that she did but only doubtfully, from a wound on its shoulder possibly made by her spear.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsThere is more than one version of the Loup de Chazes story itself. One states it as genuine, another as fraudulent. Incidentally, the skin of this wolf - Antoine’s kill - is said to have been destroyed by the National Museum in Paris only early this century, it having lost all its hair. Why would they destroy one of the most famous relics in all France unless it was, as many suspected, a fake or, X File style, something people were not to know about, like the hieroglyphics on wooden tablets discovered in 1722 at the bases of the 593 giant statues on Easter Island? Controversy and mystery still follow La Bete today as persistently as she stalked her terrified victims 200 years ago. Goaded by the wrath of a King lumbered with a naked wooden rocking horse in his Versailles garden, awaiting her never-to-arrive skin, the desperate nobles were reduced to the argument that La Bete could not exist because it was impossible she had escaped their mighty searches. She did not know this so carried on killing.

Can you be completely impossible and yet exist? Certainement, if you are French. Chastel's deformed wolf-like creature, shot at Sogne d’Auvers on about 20th June 1767, must remain as one but only one of the possible answers to the puzzle. Diagrams of its deformities, for example of the jaws, still exist. If it was the solution it was almost certainly contrived and not the whole story, the remainder of which is said to involve human elements and various collusions. It is unlikely the popular Marquis d'Apcher - the leader of the hunt - cheated. It was not his elegant style and cost him the best excuse ever to miss church on Sundays. Which would you rather do as a handsome 19 year old marquis - go to church or gallop round rescuing grateful mademoiselles from the very jaws of La Bete? Suspicion falls on others. This involved tale has already created a semi-fictional novel and more arguments than Liverpool Council. It is for smoky camp fires on long nights. Keep an open mind. Incidentally, the gun which shot this creature was bought by Abbe Pierre Pourcher at St. Julien in 1888 and he writes about hearing of its whereabouts from a woman on a train. He met her by chance, having entered her carriage because he feared she might be molested by two unruly soldiers.

In the Gevaudan district wolves were often caught in deep pit-traps, dug and concealed so the wolves fell in. Bait was sometimes scattered round the traps. Because people thought La Bete could jump out of normal pits, very deep ones were dug, sometimes of complex structure, for example octagonal in shape and interconnected by tunnels; the purpose of these is not clear. The bait was often unburied carcasses, or parts, of her victims, left out in spite of protests from priests wanting early and decent burials. She never fell for it. One desperate measure adopted against La Bete was the extensive use of poison, sometimes applied across whole mountainsides. The King's Wolfcatcher, Monsieur Denneval, the surly Norman squire, who had 1274 (1200 previous ones and a share of 74 while hunting La Bete) wolves to his credit, was an early advocate of poisoning. This was after his hounds, the best in France and excellent trackers but more suited to the flat, open countryside of Normandie than the rugged, wooded Gevaudan, had failed to catch her.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsAnother supporter of poisoning, at least for a time, was M. Lafont, the Syndic, a very important local official, possibly the cleverest of all those hunting La Bete. The chief poisoner was a M. Mercier. With his assistant he was particularly busy during April and May 1767, buying live dogs, then poisoning them with very big doses to provide ready-poisoned carcasses.

The regional Governor, St. Priest, finally ordered operations to cease because so many innocent domestic and other animals were dying, including the dogs providing the poisoned carcasses that killed even more dogs. A serious matter for the mountain shepherds to whom loss of their partners could mean starvation. Specialist poisons supposed to kill only wolves were formulated but they didn't work, killing either all or nothing. Elaborate traps, decoys and ambushes proved equally ineffective. It is hard to imagine our gourmet Bete, rarely an animal eater, preferring a hard, cold, dead dog to a soft, warm, live milkmaid. Who would? The attacks did, however, taper off and finally cease at the height of the poisoning program. Like so many things connected with La Bete, or Betes, it is impossible to say what was effect and what coincidence.

By this time things had got so bad that there is even record of dogs eating human bodies left by La Bete, although the possibility was quickly ruled out that the basic mystery could be explained either by the activities of packs of wild dogs or by wolves acquiring cravings for human flesh.

The local French called the wolves that ate human flesh ‘Carnivorous’, although the ordinary sheep-eating ones could hardly be called ‘Vegetarian’. Who stole my heart away? Whoever she was, she was no maiden to choose for a goodnight kiss unless your have unusual tastes or your new Tax Return is late. With her, the Last Waltz meant just that. She killed through sheer speed and surprise, not brute strength and boldness, evidencing a careful professional judgment of risk against profit.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsThe index-linked civil servants tried to prevent her from working, like they always feel compelled to do with entrepreneurs but she survived and kept them in jobs too. The church also was ostensibly against this working girl making an honest living but she proved to be prayer-proof.

For example, several churches were the rendez-vous for processions of supplicants on 18/19 August 1765 and other dates. Besseyre, Notre Dame de Beaulieu, Venteuges, Pebrac and Paulhac (old church probably destroyed in war) were some of them. There was ceremonial movement of icons of the Madonna between various churches and some of them can still be seen in the places to which they were delivered by the processions two hundred years ago. Study of frequency and location of attacks using computers and backs of envelopes supports the contention that more than one beast prowled but locals then and now reject the idea of several, although many reports exist of smaller animals seen both alone and with their mother.

To the French, La Bete is an Edith Piaf and will remain so. Both were unique stars with neighing voices and no regrets. On the other hand, who ever heard of a French lady lacking boy friends, Joan of Arc possibly excepted.? Perhaps the Wulver - that burly but unaggressive Scottish werewolf, allegedly seen in the Shetlands this century - should have been introduced to our fiery madame to cool her temper. By now those farmers could be assailed by wicked Lady Macbete plus bairns playing bagpipes. Only French farmers deserve such suffering. It is best to laugh at dark corners. Another overseas candidate as La Bete, in addition to the legendary Nandi bear from Africa, who also had a penchant for rapid head removal, is the famous, mythical and dangerous Canadian beast called the Wendigo - elusive, frequents lonely forests and loves children. A French Canadian Bete would, after all, be appropriate.

The thylacine marsupial wolf of Tasmania, alive as recently as 1934 and still occasionally reported, for which a cooking recipe exists (no, not vin-de-loup) is easily dismissed as too puny for the job. However, tails strong enough to knock people over were possessed by larger prehistoric carnivorous marsupials like the Thylacoleo. Such an unusual tail often appears in La Bete descriptions, as do other kangaroo-like features.

Another Australian contender, although an unlikely one, being relatively small, is an animal still occasionally reported but which probably became extinct in the 19th or early 20th century. This is the Tasmanian or Queensland tiger, the subject of a TV program, which was marsupial and rather like a wolf with claws, probably resembling the extinct tiger-dog of Japan, which is another possible but uninvestigated candidate.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsOne report of La Bete describes a strange animal killed and buried in the Pinols region in July 1766. There had been deaths there since 1765. It was recorded by curate Bergier, whose description resembles that of a very large baboon but unfortunately only limited information is available and the killings did not cease with the death of this beast.

Crude drawings remain. Romulus and Remus were allegedly suckled by a wolf, so perhaps a human returned the compliment to an animal, which might explain where she obtained support, if any was needed.

There are other accounts of humans being brought up by animals. Part of the Gevaudan area was renamed Aveyron shortly after the French Revolution in 1789. Books titled The Wild Boy of Aveyron, who was allegedly a wolf-child, were published in 1962 and 1976. Not previously recorded in the La Bete saga, registered here almost certainly for the first time in this context, is the fact that a strange and haunting drawing originated in Italy in 1495 of a woman/monster with claws and horse-like head, washed up from the River Tiber. This is yet another unexplained beast story that had an effect on the Catholic church. The idea that La Bete was a human/animal hybrid rears its particularly revolting head in some books. Such are reputed to have existed, almost all degenerate and shambling creatures. For example there is even an obscure story that a man/beast monster was brought back by the Royal Navy and kept in secret on a small rocky islet off the South Coast, being led around on a leash. Obviously not her, or it would have been ''Hello sailorburger''.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsSuch an aristocrat of killing as La Bete deserves to keep her thoroughbred reputation, not that of a monster from a horror comic. On 29th January 1997 the first edition of a Fortean TV series on the 'Unexplained' was broadcast by Channel 4. The program reported on a strange vampire-like beast: 'The Goat Sucker of Puerto Rico', nicknamed El Chupacabras. This creature has killed 150 goats in the Canavoras region by sucking their blood and liver through neat incisions in the neck.

Other animals - cattle, rabbits and chickens - have also been killed but, so far, no humans. The army has been called to investigate. Drawings from eye-witness reports show it to resemble no known animal, being kangaroo-like, fast, strong and able to stand on 2 feet. Footprints of 3 clawed toes have been found at killing sites. The drawings and TV representations bear a resemblance to La Bete, who also was usually reported as first licking or sucking blood from victims, devouring them only afterwards. Reports have been received from US and elsewhere of attacks on animals by similar beasts.

Another author apparently influenced by La Bete was Jakob Ludwig Grimm of Brothers Grimm fame who published Red Riding Hood as 'Rotkäppchen' in approx. 1812, a work recognized as having deep significance. He had been librarian to Jerome Bonaparte, being expert in antiquities and mythology - not that La Bete was a myth, her 'All the better to eat you with' was backed-up by real teeth. Incidentally, the first clearly recorded Red Riding Hood fairy story is attributed to a Frenchman, Charles Perrault, a great classical historian. It appeared in his book ‘Stories of Times Past’ in 1697.

The famous Nostradamus, in spite of his Latinised pen-name, was a Frenchman named Michel de Nostradame, born 1503 in Provence, who spent most of his life studying, working in and traveling between places later associated with La Bete, such as Avignon ( La Bete was widely reported in the Avignon Gazette) and Montpellier, the city from which the military hunt for La Bete was directed by the Count of Moncan, a cautious but capable organizer, who handled very delicately an official request that the local population be armed against La Bete with weapons from his arsenals. One of Nostradamus’ prophecies for mid-18th century France states: 'Mars threatens us with the belligerent force. Blood will be made to spread out 70 times. The church will grow, suffer harm and more to those who would listen to nothing of them.' Not too far out, was he, especially as there is nothing else obviously relevant to this particular prophecy? Allow him another one: 'The lost thing, hidden for so many centuries is discovered. Pasteur will be honored almost as a demi-god.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsDishonour shall come by other winds when the moon finishes her great cycle '. Be careful with that cloning ! In the Place des Cordeliers, Marvejols there is, by the sculptor Auricoste, a contemporary style statue bringing out her cunning brutality but La Bete was never seen there so why they have a statue is another mystery. Perhaps they are jealous of the towns and villages she really did haunt. "Mon Dieu, they have Une Bete and we do not !" Shades of Clochemerle. The inscription claims the statue to be her but in fact it is of only the deformed animal killed by Jean Chastel, so perhaps it is just a cunning spoiling act. They even held a Bete exhibition in the Mairie - the Town Hall - at Marvejols in 1958. Those French!

The church at St Alban-sur-Limagnole has La Bete as its weathercock - in memoriam as in life she remains inaccessible and knows just which way the wind is blowing. Most parts of the world take particular stories or legends to heart - hero or beast, distilling them out from all the rest to reflect exactly the character of the country.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsIn England we have King Arthur and Robin Hood. In America they have Mickey Mouse and Davey Crockett. In France La Bete is still alive because she represents the tough Auvergne landscape and its independent people who often have had to fight occupying troops and oppressive bureaucracy. Maybe its not too late for her to take an evening stroll round the streets of expense account restaurants in Brussels. Bon appetit, Bete. Well, what do you think she was ? The question Bete students fear. It always feels undignified and rude simply to answer, "I don't know." Some modern experts in wolves who never hunted her think she must have been a wolf but hunters on the spot at the time held very different opinions, as did the cripples suffering in squalor and poverty from her blurringly fast wide-ranging attacks. Any article on La Bete would be incomplete unless it clearly stated the opinion of Abbe Pierre Pourcher, the meticulous author of by far the greatest, and longest, book on the subject.

Pourcher’s interpretation of the mystery is entirely religiously based, sober and critical. His concept is La Bete was probably just the deformed wolf-like animal killed by Jean Chastel in 1767 but that it had been aided by God as a Scourge to correct human wickedness, being brought on specifically by bad behaviour and unacceptable changes in church ritual. This heavenly aid, not her being a monster, explained to Pourcher her power and invulnerability. He repeats, several times, that she was something very abnormal: "Her cunning, skill and mobility, even her very existence, were completely beyond human understanding." There are many different views on what she was - about twenty books have been written - and most of the other authors do not agree with Pourcher, although the highly respected - Gabriel Florent - Bishop of Mende at the time of La Bete did. There are also differing opinions among authors on La Bete as to the character of the Chastels - father and son. Pourcher records Jean Chastel as being a man of very good character whereas, for example, Chevalley, in his semi-fictional novel, regards him with suspicion, even to the extent of surmising he might have been involved in some deception or cross-breeeding involving a hyena. It is alleged he had been a prisoner and tortured in the Middle East. Incidentally, the hyena species, which hunts as much as it scavenges, is genetically more similar to cat than dog, being of the feline family Feloidea, which certainly opens up the possibility of a terribly formidable cross-breed, such as hyena and big cat. In any event, the Chastel name is closely associated with the La Bete mystery but whether for good or evil has never become clear. To answer a difficult question like the identity of La Bete try shooting sighting-shots at the two extremes and hope your third shot lands, German navy style, correctly in the middle. At one extreme let us say she never existed, being only rumor arising from attacks by a few large wolves, which may have been cross-bred or deformed, and a rise in cases of rabies.

A medieval Gevaudan in the Cevennes mountainsThe Jesuits may have invented her to shepherd members of their flock back into loyalty to the church, which was under political pressure from 1761 onwards. Some Huguenots, terribly persecuted and almost wiped out by the Jesuits in the past, welcomed her as an excuse to be armed. Hotheads of all types used her - ultimately successfully - to foment revolution. Even Louis XV might have taken advantage of the opportunity to send his troops to an increasingly unruly district. All these possibilities have been repeatedly analysed in literature on La Bete. On the other hand, we have graves and 100 corpses - a lot compared with the modest scores of most serial killers. We have hundreds, maybe thousands, of individual and collective eye witnessings, sometimes by whole dioceses en masse - intelligent French people of all ranks reporting to every type of state and religious bodies. We have a vast quantity of manuscripts, diagrams and other records authenticated by the highest possible religious, military and state bodies and by respected individuals, such as ministers, dukes and generals. Conspirators probably could not have murdered 100 people over four years and fabricated all the evidence without being suspected at least once. The more likely situation is that all the parties took what advantage they could of the existence of a real beast rather than inventing one when there was no need to.

At the other extreme, we could accept that she was something unique in recorded human experience:- an alien, mutant or surviving prehistoric monster. Only such explanations fully satisfy the records of her speed, elusiveness and cunning. You can, of course, choose to dismiss La Bete as merely a large wolf but you will find those two very uncomfortable words ‘and yet’ keep coming to mind. It is for the reader to decide from the unbiased information honestly presented here, and any obtainable from other sources, where between the two extremes the truth lies. Nur nicht den Teufel an die Wand malen! (Talk of the Devil and he will appear) Whatever it, or she, was, something strong, fast and clever painted the French countryside red two centuries ago without being caught. A warning perhaps against genetically creating intelligent beings who regard humans as free lunches, not lords of creation. To the explanation for this particular naughty lady of shady lanes the only limitation is your imagination. After 200 years just a faint echo remains of the terrible shadow La Bete cast in the 18th century so should she still be feared? Walk thoughtfully alone in a darkening wood or on misty Bodmin moor and find the answer. When twigs crack, don't whistle.

Bibliography (mainly major publications): ‘Histoire de La Bete du Gevaudan’ by Abbe Pierre Pourcher 1889; 1040 small pages, translated for the first time into English as ‘The Beast of Gevaudan’ (ISBN No. O 9532879 0 4) by the author of this article. The following are all in French: Histoire des Armes - Dominique Venner 1984. Weapons. Brief 2 page comment only. Histoire Fidele de La Bete. Henri Pourrat. 1946. Atmospheric local author. La Bete du Gevaudan in Auvergne. Fabre, Abbe François. Saint Flour. 1901 and Paris 1930. Historical. Hunting. Magne de Marolles 1781. Wolf-hunting expert La Bete du Gevaudan. Abel Chevalley. Paris 1936. Semi-fictional. La Bete du Gevaudan. Felix Buffiere. 1994. Very comprehensive. Illustrated. La Bete du Gevaudan. Gerard Menatory. 1984. Analytical. La Bete du Gevaudan. M. Moreau-Bellecroix. Paris. 1945. La Bete qui mangeait le monde. Abbe Xavier Pic. Mende 1968 and Paris 1971. Historical. La Bete du Gevaudan unmasked by computers. Jean-Jacques Barloy. 1980. Derek Brockis.

L'Etoile Guesthouse between Cevennes, Ardeche and Lozere in the South of France

Old romantic Hotel with a beautiful park along the Allier River. L'Etoile Guest-House is located in La Bastide-Puylaurent between Lozere, Ardeche and Cevennes. Hiking trails GR7, GR70 Stevenson, GR72, GR700 Regordane (St Gilles), Cevenol, Margeride, GR470 Allier river trail, Ardechoise, Gevaudan and many hiking loops around. A mountain retreat in the South of France. The right place to relax.