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, 27 March 2015

Qui veut innocenter Barbe-Bleue?

 Jean Kerhervé


Gilbert Prouteau

Not everybody was delighted by Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, Gilbert Prouteau's mischievous propaganda victory for the revisionists. Jean Kerhervé, a Breton and a professional historian, seems to have been genuinely shocked by the way in which the media so predictably fastened on to this outrage against historical process. Prouteau, he protested, was a novelist! And one writing to a commission, moreover, which apparently compounded the felony, although Prouteau makes it plain that he went beyond his brief and that the tourist authorities had not intended to open this particular can of worms.

Having sketched out a brief introduction to Gilles de Rais, in which he admits that Jean V behaved reprehensibly and offers more than a little justification for the revisionist position - Quoi qu'on en pense, on ne saurait donc dissumuler que le dossier d'accusation est chargé dans le double proces de 1440 et que Gilles, désargenté et privé de l'appui du roi, ait donné des armes pour le perdre à ceux qui avait intérêt à le voir disparaître – Kerhervé goes on to pick at historical errors in La Gueule du Loup. The most damaging of these is that he casts doubt on Prouteau's claim that Pierre de l'Hôpital signed every page of the trial transcript except the ones bearing Gilles' confession. Even this is only a minor problem, however, since l'Hôpital's ambivalence towards Gilles is transparent. Kerhervé does not, surprisingly, mention Prouteau's startling allegation that Gilles was an alcoholic and that Malestroit used this weakness to force him into confessing. This is pure speculation and anybody with a serious interest in Gilles de Rais would realise that it is unsupported by even a scrap of evidence.

The truth is that Prouteau was writing a novel, not a biography. Why would he do anything else? He was a novelist. He does not conceal the fact, from the fantasy childhood (shamelessly stolen from Jacques Bressler's Gilles de Rais ou la passion de défi) to Gilles' journal apocryphe. Kerhervé complains that Prouteau has Gilles born at Machecoul and damaged by the remarriage of his widowed mother, whereas modern scholarship has him born at Champtocé and his mother predeceasing her husband. Both these misapprehensions come direct from Bossard; the good abbot was no historian. Very few of Gilles' biographers are: apparently this only becomes a problem when they fail to follow the official line. I feel sure that Prouteau's intentions in printing the Bossardian legend were not innocent; he began by giving his employers exactly the book they wanted, which would chime perfectly with their plans for a Gilles de Rais tourist trail, and then undermined it by giving it an abrupt revisionist slant.

Kerhervé is perfectly correct when he asserts that, as a piece of original research into history, Prouteau's book is worthless. But then, Prouteau hardly pretends otherwise: his revisionist argument consists, for the most part, in rehashing the claims of Fleuret/Hernandez and Reinach. It is a magpie's nest of a book, crammed full of stolen trinkets, and it seems more than a little odd that  his antagonist fails to remark on this. What is valuable about it is that it was a splendid provocation and coup de théâtre, capturing the attention of the media world far beyond France and making front page news in the UK Guardian, for example. He flung a gauntlet and started a discussion, even in that pre-internet world of 1992. It is no longer possible to ignore the pressing questions concerning Gilles' guilt or innocence. For that, we owe Gilbert Prouteau a debt of gratitude.

It is notable that in quite a lengthy peroration, Kerhervé does not once address the issue of how compelling the evidence against Gilles was and whether or not confessions were extracted under torture, matters which are more significant than the date of Montezuma's death or a few misspelled Breton town names. He accuses Prouteau of cherry-picking the trial record for passages that support him, failing to note the irony that all Gilles' biographers have done exactly the same. He wilfully pretends that Prouteau misunderstood Jean V's politique de bascule; he did not, he merely emphasised the role of Malestroit, who was an Anglophile all his life and constantly sought to influence his cousin, the Duke. Anyway, Jean V signed an important treaty with the English on 13th October 1440, a strong indication of which way the pendulum was swinging while Gilles was on trial for his life. Matters of guilt and innocence do not greatly concern M. Kerhervé. It is sufficient, in his mind, merely to destroy the credibility of this pesky revisionist without making the case for accepting the verdict of 1440. And this speaks volumes about him.

Click here to read Jean Kerhervé's article (French language)


  1. Et quel est le rapport entre le sort de Gilles de Rais et la politique de bascule du duché de Bretagne entre France et Angleterre ?

    Les calembredaines de Reinach, Prouteau et consorts visent à transfigurer Gilles en victime expiatoire, autrement dit en héros de la guerre contre les Anglais, trahi et exécuté par de perfides Bretons anglophiles... C'est un procédé rhétorique comme un autre (blanchir le baron de Rais en noircissant ses juges) mais tous ces braves auteurs n'apportent aucune explication - en termes diplomatiques - sur la relation de cause à effet.

    Quant aux opinions de Malestroit, les chroniques médiévales sont pour le moins contradictoires à ce sujet. Ainsi, Perceval de Cagny prétend que Malestroit aurait été enlevé en 1418 par les hommes du dauphin Charles tandis que Guillaume Gruel et le Religieux de Saint-Denis prêtent à l'évêque des sentiments armagnacs à la même époque. Eh oui, toujours la politique : ménager la chèvre et le chou quand on a deux puissants royaumes ennemis pour voisins...

    Bref. Kerhervé (à l'instar du médiéviste Olivier Bouzy) pointe suffisamment d'erreurs de Prouteau dans le cadre d'un seul article. L'historien n'a certainement pas l'ambition de dresser une liste exhaustive de toutes les bêtises du "poète" ou de réécrire l'histoire des procès de Gilles de Rais à la va-vite, en devinant (dans le marc de café ?) les effets de la torture sur les aveux des serviteurs de Gilles, comme le fait l'histrion Prouteau.


  2. Et comment l'historien Jean Kerhervé peut-il deviner si les confessions de Griart, Corillaut, Prelati et Blanchet ont été intégralement dictées ou pas par la torture ou la crainte de celle-ci ? Le romancier/poète Prouteau peut imaginer tout ce qu'il veut, il n'a pas de leçons de méthodologie historique à donner (et vous non plus). Comme dirait l'essayiste Michel Meurger (en s'appuyant sur les recherches de Jacques Chiffoleau), déterminer la culpabilité ou l'innocence de Gilles de Rais n'est qu'un piège intellectuel empli d'impasses eu égard aux documents qui subsistent. Bref, plutôt que de s'arc-bouter sur des causes militantes un brin ridicules et hors-de-propos, il y a bien mieux à faire en termes de recherches historiques, notamment effectuer des comparaisons entre les procès de Gilles et d'autres procès médiévaux dans le cadre de l'histoire culturelle. Jacques Chiffoleau a tenté une telle approche, tout en étant conscient qu'au mieux il est possible de cerner la mentalité des juges, pas de dévoiler ou confirmer la culpabilité ou l'innocence du condamné.