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, 3 February 2019

A likely story #5

Guillaume le Barbier, eighteen years old and therefore an unlikely victim, is one of a mere dozen vanished boys who is given a full name. The details of his case are contradictory, however. His father was Georget, a tailor – or, according to Blanchet, a pastrycook.  The former seems more likely, as the lad was apprenticed to Jean Peletier, the tailor to Lady de Rais and the rest of the household. A minor oddity is that the presence of her tailor implies that Catherine, who supposedly lived apart from her husband, was in residence at Machecoul while he was engaged on a murder spree. Although we are consistently told that his wife and daughter lived at Pouzauges, Abbé Bourdeaut calmly asserts that young Marie was brought up at Tiffauges où Gilles de Rais et sa femme demuraient habituellement. The presence of his family at both his favourite castles would rather mar their testosterone-soaked Sadean splendour.

The only suspicious circumstance surrounding this particular disappearance was that Blanchet saw the boy entering the castle of Machecoul – where, after all, he was employed – in the company of the automatically sinister Poitou. Nor is the date of his disappearance clear-cut; his father was firm that it was St Barnabas' Day, June 11th, whereas two other witnesses mentioned Easter. Both dates clash with Blanchet's evidence; he claimed that it happened while he was lodging with Etienne Ferron, but he only stayed there briefly and left in late February or early March. Poitou, however, affirmed before the civil court that Guillaume le Barbier was among the victims.

Blanchet asserted that the boy's possessions, including a silver coin, were returned to his father, which seems to indicate that he had died a natural death, since this would hardly have been done if he had been murdered. Although he must have come and gone from the castle at will, the descriptions of  his disappearance imply that he was abducted, which would hardly have been necessary. Even here, accounts clash: his father said that he vanished while playing with a ball of thread; the omnipresent witness André Barbe had him picking apples, which is a good trick in June, let alone at Easter.

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Bluebeard fellators vs Troll

A little light relief, on the basis that I like my revenge served icy cold. This happened a year ago and I held back from posting it at the time. Now I shall just add ice cubes, anonymise the guilty party (while making sure he can find this when he self-googles, and believe me he is big on self-googling) and post. I'm doing this not entirely out of malice -  he makes several bogus points that can be answered in a more appropriate forum. And it will be an object lesson in what happens to trolls who are stupid enough to abuse strangers in public.

On the whole, I have been very lucky on the internet, given that I'm loudly proclaiming a minority view which a few people find outrageous. Most people are polite and engage in reasoned debate. All that was to change when I saw the above Facebook post. Really? My blog is the third most stupid thing on the internet this year? Somebody's not really trying.

Now, I have a rule about commenting on Facebook posts. If it's on a Page, then it's fair game and I can try and start a discussion. If it's on an individual's wall as a public post, I sit on my hands, because it seems rude to barge in, however ill-advised I may think that public posting on controversial themes is. This was different, though. This was somebody insulting me in public and I couldn't let that go. After some thought, I decided on a lighthearted approach -

All quite civilized so far. I really didn't expect a reply; I was just advising him that I'd seen his post. He did reply, however, and from then on it all went downhill fast. He posted a long screed asserting his belief that Gilles was guilty, showing no specialist knowledge or any sign that he had read deeply into the subject or was even especially interested. I replied at half the length, essentially reiterating the arguments I have made repeatedly, on this blog and elsewhere. At this point nobody insulted anybody: we simply disputed the facts.

And then this happened -

He blocked me! Apparently he couldn't argue with all those "nitpicky little uncited and out-of-context assertions" which build up to make a strong case for Gilles de Rais' innocence. I have never been asked to give citations on a Facebook discussion (and wasn't here) and, in any case, I was only quoting evidence from the trial. Which he's surely read, right? (The ice age? It's in the book, with full citation). I have no idea what he meant by "out-of-context"; he gave his argument, I replied to the point he made in that first sentence.

This should have been the end of the matter, but Mr X had failed to take into account the vagaries of Facebook and the dangers of public posting. Several of my friends had seen the exchange and decided to pile into the thread in my defence. And a lot of them took screen-grabs for me. 

This is how he replied to one of them -

There are some perfectly crazed allegations in there. My "bizarrely hostile behavior", for one. "Going full attack dog" - not my style at all, as a simple Google search will establish. And hardly self-promoting, as I use a pseudonym much of the time - the same one I use for this blog, Morbid Morag. Research? Well, if he read the blog he'd know about that.

He just carried on getting weirder. Werewolves now! And sockpuppets - he couldn't believe that I might have friends who have been following my researches.

Note that - whole minutes of research on his part!

I think this may be my favourite insult (the innocent have been anonymised). 

"A non-trivial number of people who crave the dick of long-dead serial killers". Clearly the laws of libel hold no fear for this brave keyboard warrior.

Bluebeard-fellating! (He hasn't read what I have to say about the Bluebeard myth, obviously). By this point he was already blocking everyone who supported me. 

You may be feeling sorry for him by now. Why is this nasty lady persecuting what is clearly a precocious fifteen-year-old? Unfortunately, this foul-mouthed troll hunched over his laptop in his bedroom playing computer games and hurling libellous abuse at strangers on Facebook is actually a well-known lawyer in his late thirties.  

Sunday, 23 December 2018

A Gilles de Rais Christmas Card

Gilles de Rais by Olly Flanagan

This picture, a mash-up of several depictions of Gilles de Rais, was made for me as a Christmas card by a good friend and is shared with her permission. Enjoy! 

Saturday, 1 December 2018

You've read the blog, now buy the book

I never meant to write a biography of Gilles de Rais. All I intended to do was bring the ideas of Reinach, Fleuret, Bayard and Prouteau to an English-speaking audience. I assumed there were plenty of decent biographies out there and all I would need to do was provide an outline of his life.

Then I read (in some cases re-read) those biographies, both English and French... Oh, dear. Even the best were inaccurate, the worst were compendiums of myth and fiction. This is what I said back in spring 2014: "There is no one book about Gilles de Rais, either in English or French, that gives all the known facts free of myth and with no agenda. All accept Bossard as an authority, and Bossard knowingly used the forged trial account by "The Bibliophile Jacob", Paul Lacroix, and invented a Bluebeard folklore that simply did not exist at that time. Also, there is no revisionist biography in English."

I touched upon the works of Prouteau and his predecessors and issued the first hint of what I was planning: "However, I do feel that they only scratch at the surface of the case for Gilles' innocence. If this blog is less regular than it might be, that is because there is a book to be written..."

Four years later (and eight years after I began my research) that book is finally complete. I have tried to be as inclusive as possible and to give a taste of various biographers and novelists. There is a detailed chronology, a couple of maps, an appendix that contains all the trial evidence, translations of Bossard's Bluebeard myths (including the lengthy anonymous poem that has never, to my knowledge, been rendered into English), my own version of the tale of Comorre the Cursed, various short essays and much, much more. 

Some of the material first saw daylight in this blog. A lot more is new. If you want to know the identity of the spy in Gilles' household who took bribes from the Duke and was instrumental in spreading the "public rumour", for example, you must either read the book or research it for yourself. Also, it is fascinating how the life of Gilles de Rais takes on a completely new shape if it is not viewed through the filter of an unquestioning belief in his guilt. 

The book tells the story of Gilles de Rais' life and death, but goes beyond that to give an account of his afterlife in fiction, culture and legend. If you want all the truth, plus an examination and debunking of the lies and myths, you need to read it. 

The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais is on sale here, price £12 + P&P.

Portrait of the author
as a much younger woman

And now the book is written, what next? 

Watch this space... 

There will be more developments.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Publicity material for The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais

Gilles de Rais was executed on October 26th 1440 for a string of offences including heresy, black magic, sodomy and murder. He was revered as a saint for three hundred years after his death. Since the latter part of the nineteenth century, he has quite wrongly been regarded as the inspiration for Perrault's Bluebeard. What are we to make of such contradictions? 

Historians have long assumed that the life and death of Gilles de Rais had been thoroughly researched and held no secrets. The converse was the case. Properly examined, the dry court documents are full of contradiction and absurdity. Many supposed facts, on close scrutiny, turn out to be pure fiction. Unimportant characters sidle from the shadows, having turned out to be spies. Important ones may never even have existed. 

In 1992, there was an unofficial retrial, spearheaded by the novelist Gilbert Prouteau. Gilles  was spectacularly acquitted, but there has been a great deal of controversy about what many see as a jape or a publicity stunt and his reputation remains in limbo. 

Was he a saint, or the Devil incarnate? History is undecided.

The purpose of this book is to scrutinize the generally accepted account of Gilles' life, including the evidence given at his trial, to expose the commonly believed myths and to posit a more credible alternative narrative. There is a much stronger case for his innocence to be made than that put forward in 1992. 

However, this is not simply a rehash for English readers of the arguments put forward by various French writers. It is a work of original research. In addition, since existing biographies are inaccurate and patchy, it is an attempt at a truly encyclopaedic account of the life of Gilles de Rais. Everything you always wanted to know about Gilles de Rais (but were afraid to ask), if you like. All the facts are there, as well as all the lies and legends. 

This is not a conventional biography.  But Gilles de Rais was no conventional man.