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.