One September evening in 1731 a young girl in search of water stumbled out of a forest and into the outskirts of the village of Songi, near Champagne, France. As she wandered towards the centre of the settlement the country people slammed doors and windows at the sight of her, whispering of the devil. Reluctant to approach her, one man set his bull dog loose in the hopes that it might frighten her away; instead she clubbed it to death and climbed a nearby tree where she remained for several hours. When the villagers worked up the courage to approach her they discovered she could not speak and was dressed in skins and leaves. The locals (after confirming that she was not, in fact, a demon) gradually adopted the feral girl, and over time they documented her likes and dislikes, along with many of her stranger behaviours, such as her preference for raw meat and her attempts to serve the villagers an apron full of frogs she had caught for dinner.
The story of the girl and her eventual fate is contained within the pages of a little chapbook we found lurking in a corner of the stacks entitled: ‘The Surprising Savage Girl, who was caught wild in the woods of Champagne, a province in France.’ Chapbooks, similar to early broadsides, were popular printed booklets often illustrated with woodcuts and sold for a penny to passers-by. Our chapbook was produced by T Johnston around 1821 in Falkirk. The Johnston family had been printing material since 1767 and obtained their first newspaper (The Falkirk Herald) in 1846. 170 years later they are still regularly producing papers such as The Yorkshire Post and The Scotsman.
Chapbooks grew in notoriety throughout the 16th century as printed materials became more accessible and continued to sell well into the 17th and 18th centuries. The paper was often cheap and tattered and the stories often wildly inaccurate; however, they were often based on truth and some were even historically faithful. ‘The Surprising Savage Girl’ likewise insists that it contains ‘a true and faithful narrative’. In researching the feral girl we came across numerous articles and stories, many of which were more expansive than the chapbook’s version of events, but none which suggested that the story was entirely fictional – could it be possible that ‘The Surprising Savage Girl’ is built on a kernel of fact?
Written by Stephanie Bushell