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)

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. 

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Was Gilles de Rais tortured?

We are told that Gilles de Rais confessed "voluntarily and without coercion", but this was merely an Inquisition formula; the same is said of his servants, and it is quite clear that their testimony was extracted forcibly. Most biographers state that Gilles' confession was produced merely by the threat of torture, and often there is an implication that he was a coward. It seems unlikely that he was allowed to escape physical interrogation, however, since at that period torture was used routinely, often merely to confirm a confession that had already been made.

On October 20th, after Gilles had made a rudimentary confession in court, in which the only crime he admitted to was alchemy, the prosecutor announced that he had established the case for the prosecution with this confession and the production of witnesses and their evidence. However, “in order that the truth might be further scrutinised and elucidated”, he asked the judges to have Gilles tortured. Malestroit and Blouyn then consulted with experts and concluded that Gilles should be put to the Question.

The court assembled at terce the next day and the previous day's events were recapped. Although the next day was already fixed for Gilles to present his argument, the judges decided to proceed with the torture immediately. The accused was then brought in and “humbly begged” for the torture to be deferred until the next day, reasonably pointing out that this was the day they had set aside for the purpose. He promised to deliberate on the transgressions he stood accused of, in the hope that he could satisfy them and so make torture unnecessary. He asked that the Bishop of St-Brieuc and Pierre de l'Hôpital – representing respectively the ecclesiastical and secular courts – should hear what he had to say. He made two stipulations: that this must be done somewhere away from the torture chamber, and that he would not talk to Malestroit and Blouyn, only to their representative. The judges readily assented, but would only delay the torture until 2pm of that same day. They conceded that if Gilles were to confess to all or even some of the charges, perhaps they might postpone the torture until the next day “because of their great affection for him”.  Note that at no point did they promise that he would not be tortured at all.

It is noticeable that apart from two passages of direct speech, there is very little in this so-called “out-of-court confession” that could not have been extracted from the articles of accusation, the statements of complainants, or various other points during the course of the trial; all of which were based on  Malestroit's secret letter of the 30th July. The only new information is the dating of the crimes, and even there Gilles refers only to sodomy and differs from the articles by six years. The rest is a mere formula, which Gilles was required to assent to in order to avert the threat of torture.

Gilles' public confession took place the next day, October 22nd, not in the morning, but in the evening; only one other sitting took place at vespers rather than terce, on October 17th, after the interrogation of Gilles' friends. It is almost certain that he was tortured in the interim. His judges had only promised that the torture would be deferred if he confessed, not waived. The most likely method would have been the water torture, an early form of waterboarding in which water was forced into the victim's body through a funnel in the mouth.

Gilles' rank did not spare him from being put to the Question. The confirmation comes in an unexpected form in Charles VII's letters patent of January 1443.  These documents are often dismissed as insincere, but the King expressed himself with great forcefulness for a man making a cynical political gesture. The key word in his letters is attentats, outrages, meaning that Gilles was subjected to severe ill treatment while in prison. This is the strongest possible implication that he was tortured.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Montfaucon portrait: a wild theory

There is a mystery about the Montfaucon portrait of Gilles de Rais, which should properly be called the Bonnier portrait, from Gilles le Bonnier, who commissioned it; Dom Bernard de Montfaucon merely published a version of it in his Les Monumens de la Monarchie Françoise in the early 18th century.

The portrait was almost certainly made after Gilles' death, but Bonnier had been familiar with him, at least by sight. He was otherwise known as Berry-King-at-Arms, or First Herald of France, under Charles VII and his father. The manuscript of which the portrait forms a part was presented to the former, who also knew Gilles.

Montfaucon clearly labels the portrait "Gilles de Laval", adding that this is the Marshal who was executed at Nantes; the text apparently was taken from Berry. So it seems from its provenance that this is the only authentic portrait of Gilles de Rais in existence. The problem is that, instead of his familiar arms - d'or à la croix de sable - we see the arms of Montmorency: or on a cross gules, cantoned with sixteen alerions azure. The addition of five scallop shells specifies the Montmorency-Laval family, but not Gilles' branch of it.

Since Bonnier knew Gilles, and was an expert in heraldry, it seems unlikely that he would have allowed such a grave error to slip by, so most scholars have assumed that the figure in the portrait is actually Guy de Laval,  his cousin. However, this also involves a serious error, since the original text was very specific - it was not simply a question of a scribe accidentally writing "Gilles" instead of "Guy", since the latter was not a Marshal of France and nor was he executed.

E A Vizetelly, the biographer most vexed by this issue, favours the theory that a scribe erred, but adds: If our surmise be inaccurate, and the figure be really that of Gilles de Rais, we can only assume that he, on entering the service of France, discarded the arms of his Breton barony to bear those of his Montmorency ancestors, regardless of any agreement into which his father had entered. 

Obviously he thinks this theory to be quite outlandish, but is it? Gilles would have been a Laval if his father had not covenanted with Jeanne La Sage to take the name and arms of Rais. We know that he identified as French, espousing the unpopular and apparently lost cause of the Dauphin. We also know that Brittany allied with England as often as with France. Perhaps Gilles found it more appropriate to fight under French arms rather than Breton ones. 

There may be a link to the sale of Blaison in 1429. This was the first property Gilles sold, probably to finance his troops, and it seems significant that it was his father's patrimonial estate. This looks like a meaningful gesture that indicates some animus between father and son. Possibly Gilles resented having to bear the arms and name of a Breton barony when his loyalties lay with France, or possibly there had been some other dispute. In either case, since he disposed of Blaison without a qualm, he would certainly not have hesitated to dump the Rais arms and break his father's covenant. 

Would Gilles really have turned his back on the black cross of Rais and the agreement that had made him the heir to massive estates in the Pays de Rais? It would have been a shocking and controversial move, but it would not be the first or last on his part. We should not rule out the theory that the Montfaucon portrait represents him bearing arms that had been renounced by his father before he was born.

Gilles de Rais was a man who made a career of the improbable.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Gilles de Rais Day 2017: a celebration

My book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais is now on sale as an ebook. A paperback copy will be available soon. 

This is the only revisionist biography of Gilles de Rais in English. It is comprehensive, addressing not only all the known facts of Gilles' life but the myths that surround him, not least the spurious Bluebeard connection. 

In memoriam 

Gilles de Rais, 

Etienne Corillaut, 

Henri Griart