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 25 September 2011

From Inside Bluebeard's Castle by Carl Stuart Leafstedt

The Emergence of a Sympathetic Bluebeard
in Turn-of-the-Century Literature

A French abbot named Eugene Bossard published portions of the extensive
court documents for the first time in a massive study of Gilles de Rais that appeared
in 1885 (a second edition followed in 1886). Such was the authority of
Bossard's book that it became the point of departure for all subsequent debate on
the Baron of Rais, a status earned in part due to its exhaustive coverage of the
relevant fifteenth-century source material. From archives in Paris, Nantes, and
across the Loire Valley, Bossard gathered the surviving historical records and,
with impressive scholarship, used them to build a case, surprisingly, for Gilles's
spiritual salvation.
At the 1440 trial, shortly after he was excommunicated, Gilles
had confessed to his sins and asked to receive forgiveness. The ecclesiastical
judges in charge of the proceedings looked favorably upon the confession, for
they saw it as proof that this man who had sinned so deeply had renounced his
past and now sought reconciliation with God. The Bishop of Nantes reversed the
sentence of excommunication, and Gilles was welcomed back into the fold of the
church as a repentant sinner. His conviction on other charges, however, still
stood, and he was remanded to civil authorities for prosecution and sentencing.
The notion of Christian forgiveness for such a vicious individual deeply engaged
Bossard in his review of the trial documents more than four centuries later.
He glories in the Church's compassion toward one who had fallen so far. His portrayal
of the execution reads like a biblical martyrdom scene. Before the flames
are lit, Gilles prays on his knees for God's grace and nobly insists on dying prior
to his two accomplices, who had been condemned to the same fate. As an immense
crowds watches, he recalls the words of his confessor (Bossard is not
above inventing dialogue to enliven dry facts), and, crying "Miserere," all the
while imploring his fellows to repent, he remits his soul to the Judge supreme,
flames crackling at his heels. "Here was a spectacle," Bossard concludes appreciatively,
"which has scarcely been equaled in history." As a man of the cloth
himself, Bossard might be expected to find a positive message in Gilles's repentance,
even though he condemned the baron's crimes with an appropriate sense
of moral indignation. What is of interest to us is that Bossard, in his description
of the trial, chooses to emphasize the defendant's humility and contrition, thereby
giving him sympathetic qualities that might not otherwise be suspected in such a
cruel individual. Bossard humanizes Gilles and, through him, Bluebeard.
Historical studies like Bossard's played a significant role in modifying the
Bluebeard image around 1900. Ongoing debate in France over the fairness of the
original legal case brought against Gilles de Rais kept the name of the purported
original Bluebeard in the public eye at this time. Oddly enough, his star was entwined
with that of Joan of Arc, who, like Gilles, had fallen prey to the French
Inquisition's prosecutorial zeal. An actual historic connection linked the two figures.
Joan, the celebrated Maid of Orleans who drew praise for her role in rallying
French forces against the English at a critical juncture in the Hundred
Years' War, rose from humble origins to shape the course of French history in the
fifteenth century before being burned at the stake in 1431 for the heresy of believing
herself to be an instrument of God's will. Gilles, along with many other
French citizens, had been swept up by her sudden appearance. He was one of the
commanders of her troops at Orleans and other engagements in 1429. Some historians
ascribe to him a more important role as her personal protector.
A movement was under way in the late nineteenth century to make Joan a
Catholic saint. She had been found innocent of her supposed crimes in 1456,
when Pope Calixtus III reopened her case at the behest of Charles VII. But
sainthood eluded this cherished figurehead of French national pride until in 1909
she was beatified by the Church and in 1920 formally declared a saint. Joan's
case received considerable public attention in the decades prior to her canonization.
Parisian journals were filled with essays debating subtler points about her
life and trial. One result was the magisterial two-volume biography, twenty years
in the making, by Anatole France, published in 1908. The scrutiny accorded
Joan had the effect of rekindling interest in another fifteenth-century person
who, it was felt, also may have been the innocent victim of political intrigue during
the Inquisition, Gilles de Rais. The name Bluebeard, therefore, surfaces often
in writings about Joan of Arc at this time.
Two literary works from the 1920s exemplify this trend, Georg Kaisers
Gilles und Jean (Potsdam, 1923) and George Bernard Shaw's play-cum-manifesto
Saint Joan (London, 1923), in which a certain "Bluebeard" hovers in the background
as a minor character. It was not a coincidence that Anatole France turned
to the story of Bluebeard immediately following his Joan of Arc biography, with
The Seven Wives of Bluebeard (from Authentic Documents) of 1909 (discussed in more
detail below). Another French writer, Charles Lemire, published studies of both
Gilles de Rais (1886) and Joan of Arc (1891). Writers used comparison with
Joan to leverage arguments for and against the reputation of Gilles de Rais, depending
on their point of view. Frances Winwar, in his historical novel of Joan's
life, spoke for the majority when he juxtaposed the two as case studies in evil
and saintly behavior. On the other hand, some historians invoked Joan's rehabilitation
as a prominent instance of posthumous justice; the implication was
that Gilles, too, might merit such consideration. Doubts about the validity of
the baron's original trial were widespread in the wake of Bossard s book, which
led to at least one improbable result: Gilles de Rais was briefly considered for
sainthood by the Catholic Church in the early twentieth century.
This was the time of the Dreyfus affair in France, and the fiercely partisan
public debate touched off by Alfred Dreyfus's conviction on charges of espionage
spilled over to the two most important French criminal trials of the fifteenth century, which were seen by some as similar cases of justice gone awry. In the heated
atmosphere created by France's notorious scandal, it was not long before scholarly
opinion polarized around Gilles de Rais and, to a lesser extent, Joan of Arc,
whose case had not involved murder. Proponents stepped forth to argue that
Gilles was innocent of his crimes, that the whole trial process had been corrupted
by the political agenda of the powerful Duke of Brittany, Jean V, who was bent
on annexing his neighbor's landholdings and therefore seized on the opportunity
to destroy him by capitalizing on rumors of disappearing children. Howland,
Reinach, and Monod, all writing in the early twentieth century, came to see the
trial as a miscarriage of justice and vigorously denounced the verdict based on
their reading of the trial documents. Noting that torture was frequently used in
those days to extract confessions of dubious veracity, they expressed doubt that
Gilles had even committed the murders to which he confessed.
The issue of Gilles's guilt or innocence lies well beyond the scope of this
study, for its ambiguous points are numerous and by no means easy to resolve. It
is noteworthy, however, that the controversy has simmered up to the present day.
In 1992 the New York Times reported that a panel of experts had gathered in the
French Senate to rehear evidence of Gilles de Rais's crimes. A jury of politicians,
historians, and former ministers acquitted the baron after hearing arguments
for his rehabilitation from biographers and scholars. (The verdict carried
no legal weight.) "To say Gilles de Rais is guilty is just as scandalous as denying
the innocence of Dreyfus," the chair of the honorary jury was quoted as saying.
The Nantes tourist board disputed the finding, fearing an economic loss should
travelers no longer visit their region in search of Bluebeard's past. The Roman
Catholic Church, reluctant to review a ruling by the Inquisition, alleged that the
proceeding was the work of Freemasons.
Though advocates for Gilles's canonization were ultimately unsuccessful (it
has not been determined who was behind the nomination), the fact that such a
claim could even be put forth indicates the extent to which turn-of-the-century
interpreters saw Gilles/Bluebeard in an ambivalent light, as a man whose rapacious
behavior was mitigated — and complicated—by the mental and physical anguish
he later suffered on account of his crimes and by his reputation as a model
of chivalry and intellectual attainment in the Middle Ages. Were it not for his
darker side, the reasoning went, he would have been recorded by history as a
companion-in-arms to Joan of Arc, an eager student of occult sciences, and a
well-known, if somewhat spendthrift, patron of the arts. Biographers aggrandized
the baron's virtuous qualities. "This extraordinary man had a taste for all
forms of literature and art," Vizetelly enthused. "He seems the model of a gentleman
of his time," writes Putnam. They even fabricated accomplishments:
Gabory fancied that Machaut's mass had been performed by the baron's choir, at
the request of their "artistic and sensitive" lord. No one went further in this direction
than Huysmans, whose fictional account of Gilles's life perversely glorifies
the murderer's intellectual refinement. "In an age when his peers were simple
brutes," he writes in Là-Bas, "he sought the delicate delirium of art, dreamed of a
literature soul-searching and profound; he even composed a treatise on the art of
evoking demons; he gloried in the music of the Church, and would have nothing
about him that was not rare and difficult to obtain. He was an erudite Latinist, a
brilliant conversationalist, a sure and generous friend." Even among those eager
to castigate him for his cruelty, the baron was seen as a pensive, melancholy man
whose conscience was tormented by guilt. In this they were guided by the ancient
Latin scribes who had duly noted the "copious shedding of tears" that accompanied
his final confession.
The Gilles de Rais furor, although largely forgotten today, was very much a
part of the Bluebeard topos in the early part of the twentieth century. The translator
of the first English edition of Maeterlinck's Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, Bernard
Miall, devotes several pages of his preface to possible historic precedents for Perrault's
Bluebeard. Anatole France's "Les sept femmes de la Barbe-bleue," a
clever parody of Perrault s tale, took inspiration in the current contretemps, as its
content and subtitle — "from Original Documents"—indicate. Both he and Miall
take care to point out the improbability of any actual connection between the historic
and fictional Bluebeards, a distinction that we, many decades later, might do
well to remember. But their writings are symptomatic of a larger phenomenon,
observable in many literary reworkings of the Bluebeard story from the time, in
which the psychological portrait of Gilles de Rais began to filter into, and alter,
the premises of the traditional tale.

From Inside Bluebeard's Castle by Carl Stuart Leafstedt

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