A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Beast Of Gévaudan

The dates of the hunting season in France vary from place to place and for different types of animal. While I was there it was in full swing. Indeed I encountered more huntsmen than pilgrims. They were mainly chasing chevreuils (roe deer), sangliers (wild boar), lièvres (hares), lapins (rabbits) and colombes (pigeons). Signs such as Chasse Privée (private hunting ground) and Réserve de Chasse (deer park) are commonplace. Vast tracts of land are reserved for hunting to which public access is forbidden. At times the Auvergne and the Margeride hills resembled a war zone. The hills were alive with the sound of carnage. I saw few animals in the empty countryside. It was as though it had been swept clean. Yes, death stalks the little hills and valleys of the Gévaudan. It was always thus.

Between the years 1764 and 1767 the infamous Beast of Gévaudan terrorized this area. This huge wolf-like creature was described as being the size of a cow with red fur, fangs, a small head, a big chest, a black stripe down its back and a long tail with a tuft at the end. People have surmised it could have been a freakishly large wolf or wolf-dog hybrid, an escaped hyena, a wolverine, a bear or a baboon. What is certain is that there are around 200 recorded attacks by this fearsome predator, attacks which left more than 80 people dead and more than 30 wounded. It preferred people rather than farm animals, and women and children rather than men. It generally went for the head first and it had a predilection for sucking blood. There were many attempts to track down and kill the animal but with little success. Finally - and this is a controversial story - on 19 June 1767 a band of pilgrims made for the church of Notre Dame de Beaulieu at the foot of Mt Chauvet. They attended mass and took Holy Communion. A gun and cartridges were duly blessed. And with this sanctified weapon a certain Jean Chastel is supposed to have shot and killed the Beast, ending a 3 year reign of terror.

One can safely say that huntsmen and pilgrims are not natural allies. Indeed I was often chilled to see the sinister figure of a solitary hunter, gun on arm, motionless before some copse or spinney; and I would walk swiftly on. Yet I must be careful not to be hypocritical here. I often enjoyed a baguette with wild boar paté at lunchtime...

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