In the year 1440, all France was shocked to learn that one
of the greatest nobles in the land, Gilles de Rais, had
participated in the rites of devil worship, in the course of which
he had sacrificed no less than a hundred and fifty victims in
homage to Satan.
De Rais was one of the élite of the Breton nobility, a man
in whom ritualism had developed into an obsession. He
never ventured abroad unless preceded by a great cross and
banner, and his retinue was invariably dressed in raiment
richly ornamented with gold. As was customary in feudal
days, he possessed a number of pages and these children began
to disappear one by one and were never heard of again. De
Rais forbade any mention of the subject, and so great was the
fear that he inspired that none cared to investigate the mystery.
His own wife was aware that something dreadful was
taking place but was too terrified to question her husband,
and it was only when he was absent from the castle, that she,
together with her sister, dared explore for themselves. Their
curiosity was soon, terribly satisfied, for they discovered a
room in the castle entirely dedicated to the Satanic Mass, and
containing copper kettles filled with human blood. Unfortunately
de Rais returned to the castle without warning and
entering the 'chapel' surprised the two women in the very act
of penetrating his darkest secrets. Overwhelmed with terror,
one sister fled to the roof of the tower and in desperation
signalled for help to a small party of horsemen who could be
seen approaching the castle. By a stroke of fortune the two
leaders happened to be her own brothers, who had decided to
visit their sisters during the absence of de Rais.
The horsemen entered the castle and soon learned the terrible
secrets of the satanic chapel. De Rais's own men turned
against him and the matter was reported to the authorities.
This was an age when there was virtually no limit to the
power of the feudal lords, who might torture or kill their
subordinates as the mood took them, without fear of
intervention by the State. It was a situation tolerated by the
Church just so long as heresy was not involved, for this
constituted a threat to its own power, and had therefore to be
opposed with all the force at its command.
To the disgust of the nobles of Brittany, Gilles de Rais was
brought to trial before the Parliament where the whole horrid
business was brought into the light of day. It appeared that
the chapel had been used as a torture chamber, where young
children were decapitated or beaten to death to the
accompaniment of incredible sexual perversions by de Rais, who
had liked nothing better than to sit upon the stomachs of his
victims and watch them die. The severed heads of over forty
children were discovered in the castle, together with more
than two hundred small skeletons. De Rais admitted his guilt,
under torture, and was put on trial accused of apostasy, heresy
and the invocation of demons, and sentenced to death. He was
granted the privilege of strangulation before his body was
committed to the flames on October 26th, I440.
Later historians have detected signs of some sinister
conspiracy in the trial, torture and death of Gilles de Rais, for
this occurred at a time when new forces were developing in
the state led by new men of humbler birth to whom the
unchecked power of the great nobility presented something of an
obstacle. The Noble Order with its vast wealth was largely
a law unto itself and this excited the jealousy of the emerging
political state, which was both impecunious and hungry for
real authority, which could only be secured by inroads into
the vested interests of the Nobility.
A Victorian illustration of Gilles de Rais,
showing a completely imaginary scene.
No text about Gilles de Rais is one hundred percent reliable. Before Bossard partially reclaimed him for history, while retaining certain favourite myths and adding the unwarranted Bluebeard connection, Gilles was the subject of many fictionalised biographies which extemporised loosely on the known facts, such as they are. After Bossard, other writers copied extensively from his book, believing it to be authoritative, and therefore drank in the errors that the good Abbé had adopted from the bogus historian Paul Lacroix, "The Bibliophile Jacob". A process of Chinese whispers ensured that such myths as the veiling of the cross and the corrupting influence of an illustrated Suetonius are cited as fact in the most surprising places: even the meticulous scholar Emile Gabory claims that "it has been said" that the Bishop of Nantes covered the cross, without for a moment questioning why such a dramatic moment would go unmentioned in the record of the trial. Although this story originates with Lacroix, his version is a pale prototype: Pierre de l'Hôpital
performs the symbolic gesture so that Henriet can speak without inhibition. It was a novelist, J-K Huysmans, who improved on the Bibliophile's version and gave us the dramatic account we are familiar with today. Huysmans muddied the waters by publishing the Gilles de Rais sections of his work of fiction, Là-Bas, as a factual book, which it most certainly is not, and thus introduced a few myths of his own. He was more influential in the English-speaking world than Bossard, since his succès de scandale was widely translated whereas Bossard, for some reason, never has been.
Another misleading influence is The Bloody Countess by Valentine Penrose, which employs Gilles de Rais as a counterpoint to the story of Erzsébet Báthory. This rather trashy opus had the good fortune to be translated from the French by cult author Alexander Trocchi, and so became popular in the 1970s. The original author had merely plagiarised the most lurid and homoerotic anecdotes from the Bibliophile Jacob and generously given them a whole new audience. Not only individual incidents but the atmosphere created by Lacroix/Penrose permeated later accounts and every writer who quotes the imaginary exchange where Pierre de l'Hôpital compares the burning of bodies to the fat from a Sunday roast dripping onto the fire, or depicts Poitou as Gilles' lover and Henriet as his librarian, is in their debt.
Given that even serious biographers have been led astray and made grave factual errors, the writers who deal with Gilles de Rais as a small part of a larger theme or as an encyclopedia entry have no chance of avoiding inaccuracy. They do not research individual topics in depth, but depend on the accuracy or otherwise of existing texts. A case in point is this passage from The Domain of Devils by the esteemed folklorist Eric Maple, where we can see the process of Chinese whispers in action. He begins well, but at a certain point in the narrative he segues quite bizarrely into the Bluebeard story, complete with plucky sister. This is a fairly common trope for the period, and betrays the author's source - Eliphas Lévi's fantasy account, which follows the exact same trajectory, from Gilles to Bluebeard and back to Gilles again. Lévi also included the Gothic detail that Gilles was planning to sacrifice his unborn son, which comes straight from an 1830's novel by Hippolyte Bonnelier and has no basis whatsoever in contemporary documents. Maple omits this &, sweetly, ends with a small gesture towards revisionism. Clearly, he was aware of the événements of the 1920s and of Reinach and Fleuret/Hernandez; it is a shame that he did not actually read them. But why would he? He had read Lévi, and Lévi was a popular author in his day: surely he would not mislead his readers...