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)

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Playing At Butcher

Gilles de Rais was not Bluebeard. There is no dispute about this whatsoever. The idea was first mooted by a few nineteenth century French and Breton writers, most notably the Abbé Bossard. There was never any traditional link between Gilles and Bluebeard before that time; in fact, he was seen as a kind of saint. Bossard was as ignorant of folklore as he was of history and had no idea that there were similar stories of an uxoricidal lover or spouse in other cultures. He knew of the legend of Comorre the Cursed, which was both similar to Perrault's conte and disturbingly local, but he dismissed it out of hand. 

Yet people in the 21st century still assert that Gilles de Rais was Bluebeard, and it is difficult to see why. There is no similarity between a man who kills curious wives and one who allegedly murders children, except the basic subject matter of killing. Nor is it likely that his story would have been watered down so that he “only” killed wives. Fairy tales were originally intended for adults and there was no taboo on gruesome subject matter: the Pied Piper abducted children to an unknown fate, the Erl-King's daughter (or the Erl-King himself in Goethe's ballad) snatched them, a wicked witch fattened young Hansel for her table, and the ogre who meant to kill Petit Poucet mistakenly cut the throats of his own daughters.

Illustration by Gustave Doré

The following little-known story was garnered by the Grimms from the wilder shores of the oral tradition. It is short, sharp and definitely unsuitable for children. It negates the silly idea that folklore could not have handled the story of Gilles de Rais without bowdlerising it. 

How Some Children Played At Butcher

There once was a father who slaughtered a pig, and his children saw that. In the afternoon, when they began playing, one child said to the other, "You be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher." He then took a shiny knife and slit his little brother's throat.

Their mother was upstairs in a room bathing another child, and when she heard the cries of her son, she immediately ran downstairs. Upon seeing what had happened, she took the knife out of her son's throat and was so enraged that she stabbed the heart of the other boy, who had been playing the butcher. Then she quickly ran back to the room to tend to her child in the bathtub, but while she was gone, he had drowned in the tub. Now the woman became so frightened and desperate that she did not allow the neighbours to comfort her and finally hanged herself. When her husband came back from the fields and saw everything, he became so despondent that he died soon after.

Grimm brothers 

Illustration taken from this blog, where there is also an alternative version of the story.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

FAQs #5

Why would Jean V have gone to such trouble to frame him? Gilles was broke and had already sold the Duke the two border castles he particularly coveted. 

Gilles had what we would nowadays call cash-flow problems, but he was far from bankrupt. In fact, in return for Champtocé and Ingrandes, Jean V returned the entire Barony of Rais to him (incidentally indicating how valuable those particular castles were to the Duchy). However, a clause in the contract meant that Gilles could buy them back at any time within the next six years for the price he sold them for. Modern historians dismiss this because Gilles could never have afforded to do that; however, we know that the Duke had spies in his household, and would have been informed that, in late 1439, Prelati claimed to be close to finding the Philosopher's Stone. If Gilles could turn base metals to gold, he could certainly buy back those estates.

There is also the consideration that Jean V was breaking the law; the Duke of Brittany was not permitted to enter into property deals with his vassals. For this reason he often used straw men as a cover for these illicit deals; Geoffroy Le Ferron, for instance, was acting as his proxy when he bought St-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte. Jean V's claim on the estates he had bought was precarious. In fact, a protracted series of court cases after Gilles, the Duke and the Bishop were dead saw all the disputed estates restored to the Rais family.

Further reading -

If there was a plot, why was it so elaborate? Why such extravagant accusations?

The main focus of the plot was to obtain Gilles' properties legally. However, political forces were also at play. Jehanne had already been burned – not for witchcraft, as is often supposed, but for heresy. Gilles had been the pre-eminent French captain in her army, he was closely linked to her and apparently tried to save her from her captors. He had also staged, and possibly had a hand in writing, a Mystery play in which this condemned heretic was depicted as a messenger from God. This in itself verged on heresy. He was put on trial in Brittany, an independent Duchy which more often allied with England than France. The Duke had close family ties to the English throne, his mother, Jeanne de Navarre, having remarried Henry IV of England; the Bishop was a lifelong and passionate Anglophile. To smear Gilles was to smear Jehanne, and to assert that Charles VII owed his throne to a pair of heretics and black magicians, one of whom was a perverted murderer. The mud did not stick to the maidenly Jehanne for long but, as we know, the smear campaign against Gilles was infinitely more efficient.

Further reading -

Noble, valiant, gentle prince...

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

FAQs #4

Do we know for certain that Gilles was homosexual?

We know few things for certain about Gilles de Rais. Everything we are told about his sexual tastes comes from the trial and is automatically suspect. The main charge against him in the ecclesiastical court was heresy. At that time, sodomy and heresy were virtually synonymous. If Gilles was a heretic, he was necessarily a sodomite, and vice versa; the two charges went together.

It is important to understand that this particular FAQ would have been incomprehensible in 15th century terms. The word homosexuality, and probably the very concept of same-sex preference, is anachronistic. The word used was sodomy, which, to the Church, meant any sexual act which was not open to procreation. Bestiality was also sodomy, and even marital sex was sinful unless it was vaginal and no contraception was used.  In all its forms, sodomy was regarded as a hideous crime against nature,  worse than murder, since it had the potential to spread and wipe out the human race.

There is an indication in the Acts of Indictment (#39) of exactly how seriously this offence was taken: unpunished “crimes against nature” would lead to divine retribution in the form of natural disasters, earthquakes, famines and plagues. This was probably an allusion to a remark by the Emperor Justinian, via the fire and brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. No community would wish to risk incurring the wrath of the deity, and there had recently been a widespread famine, affecting much of Europe, for which Gilles' apparent crimes were a most convenient scapegoat.

Gilles' accusers were in no way interested in whether or not he was primarily attracted to men; the idea would never have crossed their minds. Their sole concern was to accuse him of acts of sodomy. Since his alleged victims were (mostly) male, (mostly) pre-pubertal and all assaulted in a manner that avoided penetration, they certainly succeeded in their aim.

Nothing in the trial indicates that Gilles was what we would now call homosexual. He may have been, or he may not. There are certainly few women mentioned in accounts of his life, but one might say that of most men of the period. One of his closest comrades, however, was one of history's most famous androgynes, and this has certainly influenced how we see him...

I heard that he was in love with Joan of Arc and went mad when she died? 

This is an appealing myth, beloved by fiction writers and bandes dessinées, and leapt on with indecent enthusiasm by the band Cradle of Filth. There is no evidence whatsoever of any relationship between the two other than that of close comrades, and given Jehanne's commitment to her virginity, none was likely. Gilles was charged with looking after her, probably at her own request. He went to her rescue at Orléans and Paris and it is indisputable that he and La Hire planned to try and liberate her from prison while she was on trial. Beyond these sparse facts, everything is speculation or fiction.

Further reading -
Gilles at Louviers

From a bande dessinée by Paul Gillon

Saturday, 1 June 2019

FAQs #3

Did you really translate the trial record yourself? And why do I keep reading that your book was responsible for the 1992 retrial?

This is quite embarrassing. These strange misapprehensions first appeared on an otherwise-impeccable web article that I cannot now find. If there had been a comments section, I would have corrected the errors. There wasn't. I should have contacted the author, and I intended to. I forgot. I didn't think it would make much difference. I, of all people, should have known better:, I'm fully aware of how myths start and how easily they spread. Of course, others picked up on these mistakes. "What I tell you three times is true". Now it's the truth and I have to go round stamping on the pesky errors wherever they pop up. 

These are the facts. No, I didn't translate the trial record. I did, however, compare all the French and English translations available, & check them against the Old French and Latin of René Maulde's redacted transcription. As far as I know, I'm the first to do this. 

Obviously I had nothing to do with the unofficial retrial. It was twenty-five years before my book was completed! (Yes, the anniversary was kind of deliberate). The prime mover there was the glorious Gilbert Prouteau, and I have written about him often. I feel mortified to have stolen his thunder. However, I can't help feeling that the naughty old enfant terrible would find all this uproariously funny. I picture him cackling "Mort de rire!" and falling off his cloud in his hilarity. Sorry, M. Prouteau...

Further reading:
A vexing, perplexing, vital book: my review of Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup
Qui veut innocenter Barbe-Bleue?

Some web pages have Gilles de Rais performing sex acts on severed heads. Surely that isn't mentioned in the trial record?

No, it certainly is not! This is one of the silliest of the fantasies that have been circulating recently. I first saw it in 2016, on Twitter, in the rococo form of Gilles biting a hole in the child's neck and using it instead of the more usual orifices. I wondered at the time who could have come up with such a sick notion and why they would think the supposed confessions needed any such embellishment. Later I saw it a few times in its more usual form, with the "hole" where the neck had been severed forming the locus of gratification. Hole? 

Eventually, it was a most unusual podcast that helped me to understand where this strange notion had its origins. On Episode 144 of the 13 O'Clock Podcast, Jenny Ashford and Tom Ross puzzle their way through the story of Gilles de Rais, trying and failing to make the evidence cohere, as any intelligent person must. The odd story about the severed heads is mentioned and sourced, as I might have suspected, to Wikipedia, that fount of all ignorance.  At best  the Gilles de Rais page is a jigsaw of fact and fiction. Like all Wiki pages, it is a muddle of repeated and clumsy c&p and slapdash editing by many hands. At one point somebody  had deleted, or simply forgotten to add, the details of the sexual perversion Gilles had been accused of, a jejune if rather confusing form of frottage, in the correct place. The sentence skipped from the severing of heads to the phrase: According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victims' sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner ... than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner." The article did mention the perversion Gilles was supposed to have favoured, but earlier on. Anybody skim-reading might easily miss it. Nature abhors a vacuum, so somebody filled the hiatus with something that seemed to make sense. Chinese Whispers took over and a new myth was born. 

Further reading:
Bluebeardery and copypasta

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

FAQs #2

Well, if Gilles de Rais didn't kill the children, who did?

Nobody did. There is no evidence to indicate that more children than might be expected went missing in his vicinity. The country was in a state of upheaval, with bands of soldiers living off the land, and the years when Gilles was supposedly pursuing his murderous career were a kind of mini Ice Age, with long and bitter winters. The attrition rate would have been high, especially among homeless beggars. Around forty children over eight years in a wide area would not have been an alarming or unusual number. A close examination of the evidence shows that children were going missing from areas he had no reason to visit, from Machecoul when he is recorded as living at Tiffauges, and that many of the children had no link to Gilles or his entourage at all. The attempt to explain this by positing the existence of two or more female procurers ranging the countryside is unconvincing, especially as none of Gilles' friends mentions them, not even Poitou and Henriet.

Further reading:
The Beast of Extermination: a numbers game
La Meffraye

So was it all a plot by the Church?

Now that the theory of Gilles' innocence has reached a wider audience, it is quite common for internet commentators to blame the Catholic Church. But this popular scapegoat was not responsible in his case, although the ecclesiastical court was certainly weaponised against him. His judge, Jean de Malestroit, was Bishop of Nantes but he plotted against Gilles in his capacity as Chancellor of Brittany. He was a lifelong Anglophile and felt that the Duchy would be more likely to keep its independence if it allied with England rather than with France. Ironically, in 1488 Brittany was handed over to French governance by the Lavals, Gilles' family.

The Church did not profit from Gilles' demise: his estates went to the sons of Jean V.

Further reading:
L'évêque diabolique - ?

Friday, 12 April 2019

FAQs #1

Surely there's so much evidence against Gilles de Rais that his guilt is beyond doubt?

Not at all. In fact, the first hint that he may have been unjustly condemned came in January 1443, when the King made a gesture towards acquitting him. Although most of the writers who produced sensationalised versions of his life over the centuries had no interest in questioning the orthodox narrative, there have always been dissenters. In the twentieth century the trial record became easily available, first in 1921 (in a version produced by Fernand Fleuret) and then in 1965 (in Pierre Klossowski's translation). It is no coincidence that these dates marked sudden upswings in revisionist thought. Once it was possible to buy and read a modern French translation of the trial, it became abundantly clear that considerable chicanery took place. Even traditionalist writers were forced to accept that it is undeniable that there was a plot to bring about Gilles' downfall. Their case now rested on the notion that the Duke and the Bishop had conspired against a man who was a dreadful villain, and just happened to own the estates that the Duchy had coveted since before he was born. The many discrepancies and contradictions in the evidence, which had been ignored by biographers, were now exposed, although few bothered to look for them. All existing biographies contain monstrous errors and promulgate non-historical myths such as the veiling of the cross and the illustrated Suetonius.

Further reading:
An Overview:The Truth About Gilles de Rais
The Veiling of the Cross

But what about the bones that were found in some of his castles? 

There were no bones. At several points during the trial, there are claims about human remains – mass cremations at Machecoul, a conduit full of children's bones at Champtocé, a couple of skeletons found at Machecoul. These, however, are unsupported allegations; no forensic evidence was produced in court. In more recent times, there have been several rumours of bones found at one or other of Gilles de Rais' castles, but these always prove to be just that – rumours. The most recent was supposedly located at  La Suze-sur-Sarthe, which was not even part of Gilles' estates.

Further reading: 
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones...
The Beast of Extermination: a numbers game