The case for the defence

Born 1404
Executed 1440
Exonerated 1992

It is now widely accepted that the trial of Gilles de Rais was a miscarriage of justice. He was a great war hero on the French side; his judges were pro-English and had an interest in blackening his name and, possibly, by association, that of Jehanne d'Arc. His confession was obtained under threat of torture and also excommunication, which he dreaded. A close examination of the testimony of his associates, in particular that of Poitou and Henriet, reveals that they are almost identical and were clearly extracted by means of torture. Even the statements of outsiders, alleging the disappearance of children, mostly boil down to hearsay; the very few cases where named children have vanished can be traced back to the testimony of just eight witnesses. There was no physical evidence to back up this testimony, not a body or even a fragment of bone. His judges also stood to gain from his death: in fact, Jean V Duke of Brittany, who enabled his prosecution, disposed of his share of the loot before de Rais was even arrested.

In France, the subject of his probable innocence is far more freely discussed than it is in the English-speaking world. In 1992 a Vendéen author named Gilbert Prouteau was hired by the Breton tourist board to write a new biography. Prouteau was not quite the tame biographer that was wanted and his book, Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, argued that Gilles de Rais was not guilty. Moreover, he summoned a special court to re-try the case, which sensationally resulted in an acquittal. As of 1992, Gilles de Rais is an innocent man.

In the mid-1920s he was even put forward for beatification, by persons unknown. He was certainly not the basis for Bluebeard, this is a very old story which appears all over the world in different forms.

Le 3 janvier 1443... le roi de France dénonçait le verdict du tribunal piloté par l'Inquisition.
Charles VII adressait au duc de Bretagne les lettres patentes dénonçant la machination du procès du maréchal: "Indûment condamné", tranche le souverain. Cette démarche a été finalement étouffée par l'Inquisition et les intrigues des grands féodaux. (Gilbert Prouteau)

Two years after the execution the King granted letters of rehabilitation for that 'the said Gilles, unduly and without cause, was condemned and put to death'. (Margaret Murray)



Sunday, 4 November 2018

Everything you always wanted to know about Gilles de Rais (but were afraid to ask)

As my book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, nears the end of its final edit and approaches publication, this extract will tell you what to expect. 


“Any story told three times becomes a fiction.” 

Julie Atlas Muz


Aleister Crowley was to have begun his “forbidden” lecture on Gilles de Rais to the Oxford Poetry Society with a conundrum:  how much prior knowledge of his subject should he assume in his audience? T H Huxley, he claimed, faced with a similar problem, consulted an experienced lecturer and was told: “You must do one of two things. You may assume that they know everything, or that they know nothing.” Huxley took the second course: Crowley affected to find this appallingly rude. “I shall assume that you know everything about Gilles de Rais; and that being the case, it would evidently be impertinent for me to tell you anything about him.”

I have experienced the same problem in writing this book. Most readers are likely to have read something about Gilles de Rais, some of them in considerable depth, others on websites of variable reliability. For a few, this book will be their introduction to him. How to explain a complicated life, and literary afterlife, to these latter without boring and alienating the former? I have endeavoured to tell the story as clearly as possible without stopping the action every time a new character appears. For those reading about Gilles for the first time, there is a detailed chronology in the appendices, which I hope will be of help. Most of the authors cited in the text are listed in the bibliography. For those who have read earlier biographies, or the trial record itself, surprises will nonetheless be in store.

This is not a conventional biography. The biographical facts are recounted, such as they are, but often given a different interpretation. All speculation has been marked as such. In some ways this is an anti-biography, firmly crossing from the record all the myths that have crystallized around Gilles over centuries of fictionalisation. At the end of the book, the thoughtful reader should feel, as I do, that he or she knows less about Gilles de Rais as a person than they did at the start.

The first part of the book tells the story of the life and prolonged afterlife of Gilles de Rais. The material in the appendix consists in part of vital information, such as the summaries of evidence and the  details of missing children. These chapters are followed by a few short pieces that would have held up the narrative if included in the first section. There is also a chronology, a bibliography and two maps.

I have used French orthography throughout, mostly to avoid the ugly Anglicism “Joan of Arc”, which is both a poor translation of her name and a title that Jehanne herself never used; she called herself La Pucelle, the Maid. Since there is considerable variation in the spelling of some names, I have opted in these cases for the most familiar. 

Rais is the most usual spelling of Gilles' name; others are equally  acceptable, although Retz is incorrect and would cause confusion, as it is the name of a quite different and prominent family. Gilles himself gave us no help in the matter: he simply signed his first name, like a prince. 



Friday, 26 October 2018

Gilles de Rais Day: 26th October



As a little treat, or a penance if you prefer, Gilles de Rais Day this year sees Making a Medieval Murderer: The Exoneration of Gilles de Rais, an article by Jessica Cale featuring an interview with yours truly. Since my Gilles de Rais biography is a matter of days from publication, this is by way of a taster.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Tuscaloosa News, 11th November 1992

Interesting report from The Tuscaloosa News  It adds little to what we know of the 1992 retrial, although there is a meaningless quote from the always-amusing Michel Fleury, who seems to have gatecrashed the proceedings.

It is also a reminder that the defenders of Gilles de Rais planned to appeal to the then French President, François Mitterand, to look into the matter and formalise the verdict of the retrial. There is no indication that this was ever done. The rehabilitation of Gilles de Rais remains unofficial.

Something needs to be done about that...


Friday, 18 May 2018

Talking Sh*t




The penultimate alleged murder, that of an anonymous boy in Vannes, should have been vivid in the minds of all concerned, since it happened only a few months earlier and the circumstances were exceptional. For some reason, however, there was no agreement about such crucial points as where exactly the murder took place and whether the head was severed and burned, although a burning head in a private house would surely have been memorable. André Buchet provided the child and was present throughout, so he might have been a useful person to ask, since he was living in the Duke of Brittany's household at the time of the trial. However, Buchet was quietly removed from the list of suspects halfway through the trial and never held accountable.

Wherever the boy was killed, all are in agreement that his body (with or without head) was disposed of in the latrines. The story we are told at the trial is that the corpse failed to sink into the sludge of human waste and therefore Poitou descended into the cesspool to push it out of sight. It was only with some difficulty that Gilles' other accomplices (including Buchet) pulled him out again. The episode is presented as broad farce.

Nobody has ever remarked upon the obvious dangers of this operation. The latrines would have been full of sewer gases – hydrogen sulphide, ammonia, methane, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – which would have been released in greater quantities when the body was thrown in and pushed under. These gases are extremely toxic and would have been present in high concentrations; at the highest level, one breath would be enough to cause unconsciousness. The latrines were deep enough that he needed a rope to get into them and required help to get out, so he must have been there for several minutes. He would have been dead.

This is merely one of many impossibilities in the trial of Gilles de Rais which have gone unchallenged for nearly 600 years.





[Illustration is a plaque available from this site].

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Elephant in the Room (postscript)

Although many witnesses suspected that Gilles de Rais had abducted their children, they did not know for what reason he had seized them. One reads that there were numerous rumors, all false, about the abductions: it was reported that Gilles abducted boys in order to turn them over to the English as ransom for one of his soldiers [sic], Michel de Sillé, that he ate children, and that he was writing a magical book with the blood of infants. There is no evidence in the testimony of witnesses that it was rumored that Gilles sodomized the missing children. Indeed, only a very few of Gilles' chosen servants, sworn to secrecy, were aware of how he abused children. It is surprising, therefore, that the first document relative to the prosecution, dated 30 July, refers specifically to declarations by these same witnesses that Gilles “committed the sodomitical vice” with children. It is apparent that this document and a number of others were emended after the truth of the crimes was divulged by Gilles' accomplices Etienne Corrillaut on 17 October. It is doubtless, too, that the prosecutor's articles of accusation, dated 13 October, were emended after the confessions of Corrillaut and Griart, for the accusations contain many details about the crimes, such as the number of victims, the circumstances of the murders and the secret cremation of the corpses, that only Gilles and his accomplices could have known. It is probable that these articles were emended years after the trial, since they consistently date Gilles de Rais' crimes between one and a half and four years earlier than they occurred. The emendation of the legal documents was a right which the inquisitorial court reserved for itself, as stated in the last paragraph of the articles of accusation. 

Reginald Hyatte, Laughter For The Devil, introduction


When I wrote about this discrepancy in a blog post from 2012, The Elephant in the Room, I put forward various suggestions as to how it might have arisen. Reginald Hyatte, writing in 1984, was more radical, although he may not have realised it. Anxious to avoid any implication that the trial testimony was a tissue of lies from start to finish, he advanced the theory that the minutes of the trial might simply have been altered after the event. This is a highly controversial but plausible theory; it does explain some of the odd chronological errors, such as the misdating of the incident at Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte to 1439.

Professor Thomas Fudgé, a scholar of mediaeval history, feels that it is most unlikely that the records were tampered with in this way - "There is the possibility that notaries or other court officials fraudulently manipulated the legal record of the trial of Gilles de Rais. I can find no grounds for sustaining this possibility." Hyatte differs, and for once I find myself agreeing with him. It is perfectly true that a rubric at the end of the articles of accusation reserves the right to edit the document: in Hyatte's own translation, without violation of of the rights of correction, expansion, emendation, diminution, objection, amelioration and further presentation and proof, if need be, at the opportune place and time. 

It is also true that, if the documents were edited, it poses an enormous problem for the traditionalists. The record of the trial is the only contemporary document we have concerning the supposed crimes of Gilles de Rais. If it was partially rewritten afterwards, that compromises its authority enormously. Put bluntly, if it was altered to update the charges against Gilles, which other sections may have been tinkered with? Which parts, if any, can we trust?

Excellent questions, of course, and ones that revisionists are happy to see asked. Reginald Hyatte, I suspect, not so much. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A likely story #4

Of all the likely stories presented as evidence, this may be the most startling. There is a strong implication in Jean Jenvret’s testimony that Gilles was in two places at once.

In June 1438, Jenvret's nine-year-old son disappeared. Modern writers, taking their cue from Georges Bataille, aver oxymoronically that the boy “sometimes frequented” the Hôtel de la Suze. In fact, the text says that he never at any time went there; the error seems to be with the translator, Klossowski, replacing aucune fois with parfois, an indication of how little respect has ever been shown to the original text. Obviously, if he had been a regular visitor, no intervention would have been necessary; he would simply not have come home one day. As it was, one of the mysterious procuresses was apparently involved.

According to the testimony of the child's parents, the conveniently dead Perrine Martin was supposed to have admitted to leading the child from Nantes to Machecoul; Poitou, on the other hand, said that he “could have” killed him at La Suze. Bataille gamely tries to reconcile the clear contradiction by theorising that perhaps she took the boy's dead body to Machecoul for disposal.

The most glaring error, however, is the suggestion that Gilles was in residence at La Suze when young Jenvret vanished, yet La Meffraye took him to Machecoul where she handed him over to – Gilles. If not bilocation, this is confused and confusing testimony.

Be that as it may, M and Mme Jenvret attested to their son's loss and several local witnesses confirmed that they had heard the couple lamenting and never saw the boy again thereafter.

Friday, 23 March 2018

"History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there."


Now that an increasing number of people know that the case of Gilles de Rais was history's foulest miscarriage of justice, the last resort of the people who need their Bluebeard monster is "but historians say".

(Click to enlarge)
"Others"? Who can they mean?

Who are these historians? We are never told. The only historians who wrote biographies of Gilles were Emile Gabory, Jacques Heers and Thomas Wilson, none of them free of the most egregious errors. Jean Kerhervé wrote a diatribe against Prouteau's Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, and he is a mediaeval historian, but his case was hardly bulletproof and mostly consisted of  nit-picking tiny mistakes that had nothing to do with the central issue. In fact, he seemed less concerned with the enormity of innocence or guilt than the fact that a pesky novelist was intruding on his patch. 

Whoever these hypothetical historians were or are, they must be mediaevalists who have studied all the relevant documents, otherwise their opinions would be of even less value than those of us others who have merely spent nearly a decade studying the subject.

Is it true, then, that "historians are all pretty darned convinced of his guilt, even if others arent"?

Well, this one isn't - “It’s my impression that Gilles’ actual guilt is much held in doubt by historians today,” says John D. Hosler, an Associate Professor of History at Morgan State University who specializes in the European Middle Ages and the history of warfare.

And then, in 2016, Thomas Fudgé pitched into the fray with a scholarly book called Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages, which includes a chapter on Gilles de Rais. This chapter makes the revisionist case; only as a possibility, but as a very real possibility. Do click on his name and check out his impeccable credentials; Professor Fudgé is the mediaevalist's mediaevalist, with an interest in heresy, which makes him perfect to examine Gilles' trial. His book, sadly, is an academic title with a limited print run, and therefore costly: nearly £70 hardback and not much less as an ebook. This review gives you the taste of it -

Chapter three ("Piety, perversion, and serial killing: the strange case of Gilles de Rais") is a tour de force of historical writing, blending narrative with analysis. Gilles is perhaps best known as the model for Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, the subject of a book about his trial by Georges Bataille (which Fudgé draws upon) as well as a central figure in J.-K. Huysmans’ novel Là-bas. Fudgé’s foreshadowing is immediately made evident: ‘If the criminal prosecution of animals figures in the other Middle Ages, there are equally disturbing juridical proceedings involving people underscoring social anxiety’. The story of Gilles de Rais is one of infamy; he is, perhaps, one of the better known characters on display here, ‘comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc’, but Fudge is more concerned with the portrait that emerges from the historical past, the picture that emerges from folk memory, historical sources, legal documents which position Gilles de Rais ‘rather firmly in the shadows of the other Middle Ages and consign him to a type of perpetual infamy’. Fudgé tells how a quarrel over property had unforeseen consequences for the wealthy and outwardly pious Gilles and how the ‘idea, expounded in canon law, that arrest on charges of heresy also implied seizure of property had significant ramifications for Gilles and tremendous advantage for his enemies’. Like all the chapters in this volume, the author’s abundant research is lightly worn throughout the narrative but firmly underpins the whole enterprise, attesting to a careful close reading of the sources as he forensically analyses the trial of Gilles de Rais, and others, on charges of the murder of children and sexual depravity. Controversially to some perhaps, Fudgé asks whether it was all a stitch-up. Was the trial of Gilles and others a travesty of justice, or worse, was there a conspiracy, a land grab? The author highlights the various elements that point in such direction and skilfully extracts the full value of story from the history within. It is a most useful addition to the English language works available on this subject.   

Excerpt taken from this review.


This particular other is no historian. I have never claimed to be any more than a dogged amateur who has read up on the case of Gilles de Rais obsessively over many years. However, "Team Gilles" is no longer a ramshackle band of mischief makers, Satanists, novelists, poets, mystics and lunatics. The historians are getting on board. I am confidently expecting someone with a relevant history degree to produce a book on the subject before too long. 

Postscript: The single chapter Piety, Perversion, and Serial Killing: The Strange Case of Gilles de Rais is available separately as a PDF at a rather more pocket-money price than the whole book.