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, 7 August 2016

Pranks of oral tradition

"But," Chantelouve went on, "there is one point which I never have been able to understand. I have never been able to explain to myself why the name Bluebeard should have been attached to the Marshal, whose history certainly has no relation to the tale of the good Perrault."

"As a matter of fact the real Bluebeard was not Gilles de Rais, but probably a Breton king, Comor, a fragment of whose castle, dating from the sixth century, is still standing, on the confines of the forest of Carnoet. The legend is simple. The king asked Guerock, count of Vannes, for the hand of his daughter, Triphine. Guerock refused, because he had heard that the king maintained himself in a constant state of widowerhood by cutting his wives' throats. Finally Saint Gildas promised Guerock to return his daughter to him safe and sound when he should reclaim her, and the union was celebrated.

"Some months later Triphine learned that Comor did indeed kill his consorts as soon as they became pregnant. She was big with child, so she fled, but her husband pursued her and cut her throat. The weeping father commanded Saint Gildas to keep his promise, and the Saint resuscitated Triphine.

"As you see, this legend comes much nearer than the history of our Bluebeard to the told tale arranged by the ingenious Perrault. Now, why and how the name Bluebeard passed from King Comor to the Marshal de Rais, I cannot tell. You know what pranks oral tradition can play."

From Là-bas by J-K Huysmans

Joris-Karl Huysmans among his books, which did not include a reliable biography of Gilles de Rais

There is a complex relationship between the Abbé Bossard and J-K Huysmans. The latter's novel À Rebours, "the breviary of the Decadence", was published in 1884 and arguably his representation of his protagonist, Des Esseintes, influenced Bossard in his depiction of Gilles de Rais as an educated, refined aesthete. We know little enough of Gilles as a person, and to parlay his possession of a number of books into a love of literature is probably stretching the evidence; however, Bossard's attempt to show him as a cultured man as well as a warrior has been hugely influential. The Gilles de Rais we imagine today is essentially Bossard's creation. Without his intervention, Gilbert Prouteau would have been unable to present Gilles to a modern court as a man who announced the Renaissance.

When Huysmans himself wanted to make use of Gilles in a novel, he had little choice but to follow Bossard's narrative, padded out with juicy, mostly invented, details from the Bibliophile Jacob (Paul Lacroix). No other complete biography was available. Huysmans questioned almost nothing in his sources, and was responsible for spreading a number of mendacities that are still believed to this day.

The one point at which he drew the line was Bossard's ill-informed or mischievous attempt to link Gilles with the legend of Bluebeard, as we see from the above passage. The hero of  Là-Bas, Durtal, is researching for a biography of Gilles de Rais which never seems to be completed. Questioned about the Bluebeard connection, Durtal completely repudiates the notion. As an educated and well-read man, like the author he acts as a mouthpiece for, he knows that there is a far better claimant to the Bluebeard title in another local figure, Comorre.  Tactfully, he does not mention Bossard - " You know what pranks oral tradition can play". 

Even Huysmans, who swallowed every word of the Bibliophile Jacob and unwittingly unleashed so many falsehoods on the world, could see that Bossard's Bluebeard thesis was a canard. 

The English language version of Là-Bas is available here at Project Gutenberg, a great source of older and out-of-copyright books.

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