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, 23 March 2018

"History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there."

Now that an increasing number of people know that the case of Gilles de Rais was history's foulest miscarriage of justice, the last resort of the people who need their Bluebeard monster is "but historians say".

(Click to enlarge)
"Others"? Who can they mean?

Who are these historians? We are never told. The only historians who wrote biographies of Gilles were Emile Gabory, Jacques Heers and Thomas Wilson, none of them free of the most egregious errors. Jean Kerhervé wrote a diatribe against Prouteau's Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, and he is a mediaeval historian, but his case was hardly bulletproof and mostly consisted of  nit-picking tiny mistakes that had nothing to do with the central issue. In fact, he seemed less concerned with the enormity of innocence or guilt than the fact that a pesky novelist was intruding on his patch. 

Whoever these hypothetical historians were or are, they must be mediaevalists who have studied all the relevant documents, otherwise their opinions would be of even less value than those of us others who have merely spent nearly a decade studying the subject.

Is it true, then, that "historians are all pretty darned convinced of his guilt, even if others arent"?

Well, this one isn't - “It’s my impression that Gilles’ actual guilt is much held in doubt by historians today,” says John D. Hosler, an Associate Professor of History at Morgan State University who specializes in the European Middle Ages and the history of warfare.

And then, in 2016, Thomas Fudgé pitched into the fray with a scholarly book called Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages, which includes a chapter on Gilles de Rais. This chapter makes the revisionist case; only as a possibility, but as a very real possibility. Do click on his name and check out his impeccable credentials; Professor Fudgé is the mediaevalist's mediaevalist, with an interest in heresy, which makes him perfect to examine Gilles' trial. His book, sadly, is an academic title with a limited print run, and therefore costly: nearly £70 hardback and not much less as an ebook. This review gives you the taste of it -

Chapter three ("Piety, perversion, and serial killing: the strange case of Gilles de Rais") is a tour de force of historical writing, blending narrative with analysis. Gilles is perhaps best known as the model for Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, the subject of a book about his trial by Georges Bataille (which Fudgé draws upon) as well as a central figure in J.-K. Huysmans’ novel Là-bas. Fudgé’s foreshadowing is immediately made evident: ‘If the criminal prosecution of animals figures in the other Middle Ages, there are equally disturbing juridical proceedings involving people underscoring social anxiety’. The story of Gilles de Rais is one of infamy; he is, perhaps, one of the better known characters on display here, ‘comrade-in-arms to Joan of Arc’, but Fudge is more concerned with the portrait that emerges from the historical past, the picture that emerges from folk memory, historical sources, legal documents which position Gilles de Rais ‘rather firmly in the shadows of the other Middle Ages and consign him to a type of perpetual infamy’. Fudgé tells how a quarrel over property had unforeseen consequences for the wealthy and outwardly pious Gilles and how the ‘idea, expounded in canon law, that arrest on charges of heresy also implied seizure of property had significant ramifications for Gilles and tremendous advantage for his enemies’. Like all the chapters in this volume, the author’s abundant research is lightly worn throughout the narrative but firmly underpins the whole enterprise, attesting to a careful close reading of the sources as he forensically analyses the trial of Gilles de Rais, and others, on charges of the murder of children and sexual depravity. Controversially to some perhaps, Fudgé asks whether it was all a stitch-up. Was the trial of Gilles and others a travesty of justice, or worse, was there a conspiracy, a land grab? The author highlights the various elements that point in such direction and skilfully extracts the full value of story from the history within. It is a most useful addition to the English language works available on this subject.   

Excerpt taken from this review.

This particular other is no historian. I have never claimed to be any more than a dogged amateur who has read up on the case of Gilles de Rais obsessively over many years. However, "Team Gilles" is no longer a ramshackle band of mischief makers, Satanists, novelists, poets, mystics and lunatics. The historians are getting on board. I am confidently expecting someone with a relevant history degree to produce a book on the subject before too long. 

Postscript: The single chapter Piety, Perversion, and Serial Killing: The Strange Case of Gilles de Rais is available separately as a PDF at a rather more pocket-money price than the whole book. 

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