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...