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French folklore is an amalgam of France’s culture and experiences, represented in various mediums such as fables, fairy tales, and legends. These collections date all the way back to the 11th and 12th century, beginning with the Romance language of Occitan and capturing the narratives of troubadours. In this article, we will dive into the history of French Folklore and list 5 of the most frightening creatures that have come out of the stories of the ancient French people.
French Folklore: History and Origins
The first form of literature that marked the beginning of French folklore in the Middle Ages was Occitan literature, consisting of poetry, songs, and literature in the Occitan language. Also called lenga d’oc in French, Occitan is a Romance language spoken in Southern France, Monaco, Spain’s Val d’Aran, and Italy’s Occitan Valleys. Occitan literature was also found to be written mostly in the southern region of France.
While Occitan literature originated in the poetry of the 11th and 12th centuries, it found its Golden Age in the 12th century in the form of a “rich and complex body of lyrical poetry” produced by troubadours (folk singers). It became the first literature written in a Romance language and was followed by the rise of vernacular literature throughout medieval Europe.
Songs of the Troubadours
The narratives, poetry, and songs written by the troubadours were collectively termed ‘Songs of the Troubadours.’ These encompassed the experiences of music composers and performers over the period of the High Middle Ages.
Dealing mainly with the themes of chivalry and courtly love, songs of the troubadours had flourished in the 11th century and grew throughout Europe and Southern France.
Songs of the Trouvère
While being similar to songs of the troubadours and yet different in their own ways, ‘Songs of the Trouvère‘ consisted of the songs and poetry that came from the poet composers influenced by troubadours who composed their works in the northern dialects of the country of France.
Making for some of the first oral stories to be collected and written down, French fairy tales and folk tales inspired noble storytellers such as the Brothers Grimm.
They grew in popularity mainly owing to French women. The women would gather in salons where they indulged in conversations about their own fairy tale writings and various topics that were considered inappropriate to talk about in the company of men. While the concept and the tales were popularized via oral or folk variants, French fairy tales are known more by their literary variants.
A notable name among these women was Marie Catherine D’aulnoy (also known as the Countess D’aulnoy), whose tales held a more conversational tone. She popularized the word ‘fairy tale’ since her works were described as “Conte de Fées”: French for “tales of fairies.” One of the many fairy tales is The Story of Pretty Goldilocks or The Beauty with Golden Hair (La Belle aux Cheveux d’Or).
French fairy tales were especially popular in the court of Louis XIV, viewed by the king and the upper class of society as art that promoted France’s intellectual culture.
Some of the prominent characteristics of the stories include the inclusion of fairies (alluding to the name of the genre) alongside magical, mystical, and dark elements.
Another famous name connected to the genre of French fairy tales is that of Charles Perrault, who would derive most of his tales from folk sources and rewrite them for the upper-class audience, ensuring to rid it of any rustic elements. Some of the famous fairy tales written by Perrault are Cinderella in 1697 and The Little Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge) in 1697 as well.
When it comes to French fables, a lyrical style was most prominent. The fables would typically describe animals in a personified manner, depicting human characteristics such as trickery, vanity, and cleverness.
The work of Jean de La Fontaine was also embraced in this medium of French folklore. It had gained enough popularity to make it the subject of recitals of schoolchildren over the years, also often memorized by them.
Among the mediums of French folklore are the French legends. Some of these revolve around people, such as Lancelot-Grail (Prose Lancelot) and The Account of Nicolas Flamel. Some others make for the origin of some of the eeriest yet legendary creatures of French folklore. Let us find out about 3 such creatures and what it is about them that sends chills down your spine!
French Folklore: 3 Most Frightening Creatures
Legends about secret monsters lurking in dark waters and mystical creatures waiting for travelers on lonely roads have been around for a long time. Some such stories come from the roots of French folklore legends, and here we’ll list 3 of the most frightening ones.
1. La bête du Gévaudan
Between the years of 1764 and 1767 in the former province of Gévaudan (presently known as Lozère in Haute-Loire), gruesome attacks were reported by eyewitnesses. History has recorded what witnesses described as “a beast with huge teeth and a massive tail.”
Perhaps the records of the vivid details of the victim’s state after being attacked (left with their throats torn out) are what makes La bête du Gévaudan (Beast of Gévaudan) one of the most frightening creatures from French folklore. The man-eating wolf-dog brought terror and death over rural France in the 18th century, killing over 100 people in total.
When it comes to the appearance of la bête du Gévaudan, questions have been raised on whether it was a werewolf, a giant wolf, or maybe even a leopard. Wolf attacks weren’t exactly uncommon at the time, and people even considered the possibility of it being a trueur en série (serial killer).
A royal intervention was provoked by this beast, with the king himself sending out hunters to put an end to the constant attacks. Many attempts were made, resulting in the deaths of numerous large dogs and wolves, but the beast continued to attack people. Finally, a civilian named Jean Castel shot a giant wolf in 1767, and the fatal attacks had ceased.
2. Drac de Beaucaire
Appearing in many stories and many variations, Drac de Beaucaire is a powerful sorcerer-dragon with the power of invisibility and shapeshifting to take on the form of humans. Due to the demon’s ability to become invisible, there are not many descriptions of its physical characteristics. It was also given the name ‘The Invisible Demon’ and was often considered to be the devil itself in disguise.
A majority of the dragon’s attacks took place outside a small town called Beaucaire, where it was said to reside. Killing over 3000 knights and villagers, Drac de Beaucaire was one of the most dangerously successful French dragons.
Even with the dozens of campaigns that had set out to fulfill this very motive, the dragon was never slain. Due to its ability to become invisible, it could terrify people either as a dragon or with its clever, unseen movements. It particularly took an interest in luring its subjects as a way of attacking them: sometimes taking on human form to lure them away and drown them.
3. Peluda or La Velue
Peluda literally means “hairy or shaggy beast” in Spanish, while La Velue is French for “the hairy one.” With porcupine stingers, the head and neck of a snake, the feet of a tortoise, and the tail of a serpent, this dragon is a ‘mix-and-match assortment of physical features that combine to make one monster mix.’ All of these features come together to give it the look of a ‘stinger-tipped green-colored dragon.’
La Velue is said to have terrorized La Ferté-Bernard in France during the medieval period, being mostly invulnerable due to its super abilities. The only reported weak spots of the creature were its tail and neck.
A dragon gigantic enough to cause floods by simply stepping in rivers and having the ability to spit out streams of acid, Peluda or La Velue is basically described as an ‘all-in-one military superweapon/strike team.’
It is said to have survived the Great Flood, not on Noah’s Ark, but by finding refuge in a cave. Following this, it went on a rampage across the countryside and killed everyone that crossed its path.
Collectively, these monsters make for 3 of the most frightening creatures that have been recorded in French folklore.
Beginning and flourishing in and around the 12th century, French Folklore has captured France’s adventures and encouraged the growth of vernacular literature across Europe. Even after many decades, it continues to hold an integral position in the childhood years of all generations owing to its introduction of fairy tales and makes for a wonderful escape into the mythical, mystical, and marvelous times of ancient France (overlooking some of the legends of some terrifying creatures).