Hunting of Jean-Baptiste

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The Hunting of Jean-Baptiste was a wolf-hunt that began in France and ended somewhere in the Duchy of Luxembourg, and is notable not only for the detailed record of the chase that survived but as an excellent representative of modernized hunting in the medieval style. The account describes a number of customs typical of the medieval hunt, and themes native to hunting episodes from medieval literature, including the pursuit as a matter of honour and a respect for the quarry elevating it to near-human status, prevalent in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, among other period works. The greater social context of the hunt cannot be ignored. Not two decades earlier the Beast of Gévaudan and other fierce wolves had engaged in rampages around the hamlets of France, and peasants feared that one could at any time become a loup-cervier, or man-eater. Consequently the hunt was undertaken, as much a utilitarian service to the subjects of the French Crown as an exhilarating pastime for the aristocrats involved.

In 1780 the wolf Jean-Baptiste had earned a reputation (and a name) in the commune of Nancy and surrounding Lorraine as a sly trickster, whose activities put the locals at unease. Meanwhile, a wealthy fief-holder from Lunéville named Foudras had gathered five separate packs of hounds with the aid of the gendarmerie in preparation for a hunt. He invited his uncle, the Marquis de Bologne, to oversee his arrangements and inspect the packs. The Marquis arrived from Bassigny and, with his blessing, Foudras and three other nobles were bid to Nancy to hunt the semi-legendary Jean-Baptiste, though they did not yet know it. During the first day of hunting the wolf eluded them with preternatural speed, losing them in rough country, or se forpaysait. With their quarry in hiding the hunting party gathered at a Cistercian abbey for the night, where the monks treated them to a fine meal with a moselle that "sang in the heads of those that drank it", according to chronicler François Bluche. When the subject of the hunt was brought up at the table, the Cistercians identified the wolf as Jean-Baptiste and compared it favourably to the Beast of Gévaudan, describing him as nothing more than a harmless prankster. Foudras and his companions were unconvinced, however, and left the abbey the following morning in renewed pursuit of Jean-Baptiste. A second day of the chase yielded nothing, and the huntsmen were obliged to spend the night in a comparatively more rustic setting with a charcoal-burner in his hut.

Leaving the deep forest on the morning of the third day, they again caught sight of Jean-Baptiste. The wolf appeared to be exhausted after two successive days of pursuit but he fled as quickly as though the hunt had only just begun. Despite injury and fatigue having reduced the number of hounds to twenty, Foudras and company agreed that abandoning their task now would be a grave dishonor, and like Bercilak de Hautdesert before them they continued after the wolf. At three o'clock that afternoon their party was stopped by a man dressed in strange livery wielding an old halberd, who emerged from the trees and barred their advance. The horses and hounds came to a crashing halt. He informed the hunters that they were trespassing into the Duchy of Luxembourg, whereupon the huntsman M. de la Tour-en-Voisvre called for his assistant Baliveau to sound the "Change of kingdom" on his horn, the music invoking an ancient right that allows hunters to pursue their quarry across national boundaries without fear of repercussion. Such was the prestige of the hunt, even in the 18th century. Baliveau is noted to have performed the similar Changement de forêt instead.

The chase continued into Luxembourg. At last Foudrac and his companions cornered Jean-Baptiste by a riverbank, and the horn-calls and shouts of the hallali, or moment when the quarry is fighting for its life, rang out over the water. Yet the wolf, indomitable to the last, leaped into the river instead of submitting to the muskets of his pursuers where he drowned in the crossing. The entire episode of the hallali had lasted three-quarters of an hour. Foudras recovered the carcass of Jean-Baptiste and had it preserved for presentation to the natural history collection at Nancy, even as the Beast of Gévaudan had been submitted to the jardin du roi at Versailles fifteen years earlier.

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References[edit]

Thompson, Richard H. Wolf-Hunting in France in the Reign of Louis XV: The Beast of the Gévaudan. Lewistown: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.