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)

Monday 10 December 2012

The Guardian 10th November 1992

This is how UK national newspaper The Guardian reported Gilles de Rais' acquittal twenty years ago. It should be taken with a large pinch of salt; as you see he is hanged and burned in the first column and by the fourth he is disembowelled, a new embellishment. The passage about Gilles being given vast quantities of strong wine while imprisoned is also garbled. Prouteau's argument is that he was first, as a heavy drinker and possible dipsomaniac, deprived of alcohol completely for a long period and then allowed to drink all he wanted. This would certainly have deranged his senses to the required degree, but although Prouteau was given access to all the trial records, he does not back up this extraordinary allegation.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Le Procès Inquisitorial de Gilles de Rais, Maréchal de France, avec un essai de réhabilitation

Full text of this 1921 revisionist work now available here. Various formats available. Language: French. Ludovico Hernandez was the nom de plume of Fernand Fleuret.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Noble, valiant, gentle prince...

Bossard, in trying to date the Mystère du Siège d'Orléans, goes to great lengths to establish that it must have been written and staged prior to Gilles de Rais' disgrace in 1440. After that time, he insists, the playwright could not have shown Gilles at Jehanne's side, praised by her as one of her nobles, vaillans princes gentilz, and playing a decisive part in her victory. Nor would any audience have tolerated the spectacle.

The picture below was published in International History Magazine in 1974. It shows a pageant in honour of Jehanne d'Arc and riding by her side is a dark, bearded figure who clearly represents Gilles de Rais. So, although Gilles was expunged from French history books and, indeed, from many contemporary chronicles for reasons that Bossard makes all too plain, evidently he has always played a part in local celebrations. Orléans celebrated its liberation yearly and Gilles was a principle agent in that victory. He was fond of Orléans, once spending almost a year there, and the Orléanais were fond of him, and bought his standard to use in their reenactments. His reputation there was that of a hero and a generous patron of the arts. It seems quite likely that, in the general disbelief at his fall from grace, the Orléanais were likely to be more cynical than most and that he would have kept his place in the annual celebrations, as he does today.

Friday 16 November 2012

The Bibliophile Jacob

Anybody who has read about Gilles de Rais in a biography or on a website and later gone on to read the trial records will have wondered why the latter seem so pallid in comparison. The small details that so enliven other accounts are simply absent. In particular, anybody who has read The Bloody Countess by Valentine Penrose, with its counterpointed story of Gilles de Rais, will have marvelled at the first person quotes and the colourful anecdotes and descriptions.

The reason is that Penrose and other biographers leaned heavily upon a "more circumstantial" record of the trial, penned by Paul Lacroix, The Bibliophile Jacob, in the mid-nineteenth century. It is a very strange document, entirely bogus. M. Lacroix claimed to have had access to a far more detailed copy of the record than the one kept in the archive at Nantes. Instead of being written in a distancing third person, he uses first person speech throughout. Henriet and Poitou come out best in this account, they are clearly distinguished as personalities and their motives for confessing are explained. These do not include torture, the Bibliophile is far from a revisionist. On the down side, we do lose Prelati's testimony as he has unfortunately died before coming to trial. There is a prototype for the veiling of the cross, but it is done by Pierre de l'Hôpital before Henriet gives his evidence; J-K Huymans much improved upon and dramatised the scene.

It is, in short, a piece of fantasy loosely based on Gilles' trial. But it is highly entertaining and of interest, so a link to the full text is given here. Only in French, unfortunately, but not difficult to decipher if you have a little French from school days. If not, you can get the flavour of it from Penrose's book (which deals mainly with Elisabeth Bathory) or from the extracts from that book in Dark Star: the Satanic Rites of Gilles de Rais, edited by Candice Black.

And is the Bibliophile Jacob's work of fiction relevant to our theme? Yes, because it is so obviously and consistently in error throughout that anybody reading it in parallel with a genuine account of the trial would immediately realise that it is unreliable. Yet several reputable biographers, including Bossard, borrow from it to add a bit of colour to their story; and that is how Gilles de Rais has come to be surrounded by myths and untruths, and why a truly authoritative biography does not exist. 

Monday 12 November 2012

Interesting article (French and English versions)

In 1975 this article appeared in Reader's Digest magazine. It is very revisionist for an English-language piece at that time. Not surprisingly, it seems to have been translated from the French. The original article is here. The final paragraph, speculating on Gilles' relationship with Jehanne, is not present in the English version and looks as if it was added at a later date. There are obvious inaccuracies, but it is a very enlightened article for the mid-seventies.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Money matters

It is often said that the men who brought Gilles de Rais to supposed justice had an interest in his downfall. This was financial as well as political. As Jean Benedetti, among others, has pointed out, his trial was not properly disinterested because most of his judges, in particular Jean de Malestroit, had entered into business deals with him.

Jean V, who feigned friendship with Gilles up until the moment when he handed him over to the Church and the Inquisition, had even more irons in the fire than the judges. He had long coveted the fortresses of Champtocé and Ingrandes, as had his father before him. They were of great strategic interest, being situated on the border between Brittany and France. For several years, the Duke had been buying up Gilles' properties, often through proxies because it was against feudal law for him to buy properties from his vassals. St Etienne de Mer Morte, for instance, was bought for Jean V by Geoffroi Le Ferron.

Eventually, he pulled off the deal he had been scheming for - Champtocé and Ingrandes were his, in exchange for waiving a mortgage he held on Gilles' properties, including Machecoul, in his barony the Pays de Retz.

There was a catch, however. These castles were sold with the proviso that Gilles had the option of buying them back within six years. Jean V passionately did not want this to happen. He therefore had good reason to hope that something might happen to put Gilles in a position where it was impossible for him to redeem his properties.

Most biographers discount this as a motive. After all, they argue, Gilles was virtually bankrupt: how would he ever raise the money? But this is to look at the matter through modern eyes.

Gilles was confident that he would succeed in transmuting base metals to gold, and sooner rather than later. If Jean V and Jean de Malestroit were searching for evidence that they could use to get rid of him, the first thing they would have discovered was that Gilles had dealings with alchemists. At that time, alchemy was universally credited as a science. Jean V would have felt he had good reason to fear that Gilles would recover his fortune and buy back his lands.

The question is not: why would the Duke of Brittany and the Bishop of Nantes have plotted together to destroy Gilles de Rais?  The question is: given the heady mix of political and financial motives, how could they ever have done anything else?

The ruins of Champtocé

Monday 22 October 2012

The Veiling of the Cross

The one thing that everyone knows about Gilles de Rais is that, at the most lurid moment of his confession, the Bishop of Nantes veiled the crucifix out of shame. It is a set-piece of several biographies and novelisations.

J-K Huysmans describes it thus -

He seemed to see nothing, hear nothing. He continued to tell off the frightful rosary of his crimes. Then his voice became raucous. He was coming to the sepulchral violations, and now to the torture of the little children whom he had cajoled in order to cut their throats as he kissed them.

He divulged every detail. The account was so formidable, so atrocious, that beneath their golden caps the bishops blanched. These priests, tempered in the fires of confessional, these judges who in that time of demonomania and murder had never heard more terrifying confessions, these prelates whom no depravity had ever astonished, made the sign of the Cross, and Jean de Malestroit rose and for very shame veiled the face of the Christ.

                                            (from Là-Bas)

It was a moment of high drama.

And it never happened.

Gilles de Rais is a magnet for myths and this is one of the most persistent. There is no reference in the record of his trial to Jean de Malestroit veiling the cross. The biographies that mention it do not cite their sources - even Emile Gabory, who was a serious historian and gave proper citations for everything except this claim. There is an similar incident in the Bibliophile Jacob, but in his account the cross was covered by Pierre de l'Hôpital so that Henriet could give his testimony without inhibition.

The veiling of the cross is a myth and it seems to have been invented in its usual form by - J-K Huysmans! Who was writing a novel and not a factual work and may be forgiven for adding a little colour to the dry bones of the trial record and playing fast and loose with the Bibliophile's already fictional version.  There is no contemporary account that includes this touching little scene and no reason to suppose that it is anything but a piece of novelettish whimsy. The genuine historians who have slavishly disseminated this fairy tale have no excuse for their gullibility and lack of research.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Alias Poitou

Considering that their forced confessions put the rope round both Gilles de Rais' neck and their own, Henri Griart and Etienne Corillaut (alias Poitou) are given short shrift in most accounts. If they are distinguished at all, Henriet was possibly Gilles' librarian and Poitou possibly his lover.

Their evidence is identical in almost every respect, a sure sign that they were tortured into telling the story that the prosecution wanted to hear. Poitou, however, is distinct from Henriet in one crucial respect. He had, he said, survived Gilles' allegedly murderous sexual attentions once. Or twice...

The story he told the ecclesiastical tribunal was that he was assaulted as soon as he came to be Gilles' page, at the age of ten. He was threatened with a dagger, he said, but spared because of his good looks. This would be around 1427, which accords perfectly with the prosecution case that the murders began in 1426, when Gilles was still Jehanne's companion and protector. This timing was critical to Jean de Malestroit's plot to smear the Pucelle by implying that she knowingly consorted with a sodomite and murderer.

Gilles' confession, given under threat of torture and excommunication, not surprisingly follows the template of his servants' statements in every detail - except one. For whatever reason, he insisted that his supposed crimes began in the year of Jean de Craon's death, that is around 1432, five years after Poitou claimed to have been assaulted and almost killed. The discrepancy is glaring.

Apparently the judges were content to let this pass. Magnanimously, they allowed Gilles de Rais to decide the exact timing of the crimes he never committed. An obvious attempt to tidy the matter up was made, however, at the civil trial. Under interrogation for the second time, Poitou once more divulged that he had been raped and threatened. This time, however, it was not when he was a child and new to Gilles' service, but as a young man of twenty, after he had seen incriminating evidence in the form of two dead children. In this case, the sex was a form of initiation into the sport of Caesars.

Almost all biographers ignore or conflate these incidents. Jean Benedetti makes a game effort to square the circle by theorising that there might, in fact, have been two attacks on Poitou, so similar that he confused them. This seems highly unlikely. Rape at knifepoint as a child of ten would have left a profound impression, not likely to be muddled with something, however traumatic, that happened less than three years before.

The best explanation is the simplest one. Poitou was tortured into reciting the words that were put into his mouth. When those words did not fit with his master's "confession", his torturers merely changed the script.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Gilles at Louviers

One of the few things we know for certain about Gilles de Rais is that he spent the winter of 1430 at Louviers, less than sixteen miles from Rouen, where Jehanne was imprisoned. We know he was there because of a document which states that he owes to "Rolland Mauvoisin, his squire, captain of Le Prinçay, the sum of eighty gold crowns for the purchase of a black horse, saddled and bridled, which he promised to give to his very dear and well-beloved squire, Michel Machefert, captain of the men-of-arms and bowmen of his company, directly they arrived at Louviers, to induce him to come with him on that journey." (Quoted from E A Vizetelly)

Most biographers suppress this detail. Where they mention it, they gloss over it - Benedetti, for instance, quotes this document but omits the last part, so that it ends "...and bowmen of his company at Louviers" (my italics), thus making it appear as if Gilles went to Louviers specifically to buy a horse.

Now, Louviers is in Normandy, which at that time was controlled by the Anglo-Burgundians. It was occupied territory and was in a state of guerrilla warfare. Louviers itself had been taken by La Hire twelve months previously (it fell to the English again in October 1431.) Some of the towns to the south had been liberated by Jehanne's Loire campaign, but Louviers (and Rouen) were further north.

It is also between 330 and 391 kilometres (205-243 miles), depending on the route, from Champtocé, the closest of the castles Gilles habitually inhabited: further from Machecoul, Tiffauges and the Hotel de la Suze in Nantes. A car journey today would take three to four hours. In 1430, that would have meant at least a week on horseback, allowing for stops to rest the horses, for much of the time through hostile terrain.

It seems highly unlikely that Gilles would go to these lengths simply to buy a horse - which, in any case, he seems to have bought before he set off as a bribe to his squire for accompanying him on this perilous journey.

He had an army with him - necessarily so, travelling through Normandy - and was later joined by La Hire, also at the head of an army. It seems almost certain that there was a plan to rescue Jehanne, which failed for some reason.

But the anti-Gilles faction cannot bear the thought that he ever did a brave or noble deed or had a generous impulse. So when he keeps open house and gives his guests expensive gifts, or puts on a free show for the groundlings, or endows a hospice, he is prodigal rather than good-hearted. And when he rides through Anglo-Burgundian Normandy, with an army, to stay in tenuously-French Louviers across the river from Rouen - he is merely there on a whim to buy a horse.

The first map shows the location of Rouen - Louviers, not marked, is on the other side of the river and slightly to the east - in relation to Brittany.  The second shows the location of Gilles' estates; most are clustered to the south of the Loire. (Both maps taken from Gilles de Rais The Authentic Bluebeard by Jean Benedetti.)

The modern map I consulted, showing the distance from Champtocé to Louviers, can be seen here.

Thursday 13 September 2012

The Beast of Extermination: a numbers game

This is the list of "known victims" published in Gilles de Rais The Authentic Bluebeard by Jean Benedetti. There are fewer than forty. Of those, a full name is given for only a dozen. The rest have only a family name and sometimes an age. Three are simply "unknown boy" - there are no girls listed.  Apparently there were no known victims in 1434 to 1436 (and only one in 1437). We know that from the autumn of 1434 Gilles was travelling for a year, but according to the trial record this did not curb his insensate lust; he killed in hostelries, in private houses, in a field once, even under the roof of Jean V. Which in itself seems strange: did nobody hear or see anything amiss?

This is the Beast of Extermination, so-called by Michelet, who decimated the countryside, abducting and killing probably more children than were living there at that time. We have already looked at charge XV of the indictment - that "for the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour... [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls..." and pointed out that this means 1426 and not 1432. Jean de Malestroit had scoured the region searching for proof that Gilles de Rais was some kind of child-devouring ogre. Days had been taken up with witnesses giving evidence, much of it what Prouteau calls ouï-dire, hearsay. And the end result of all that labour, of that "public rumour" - thirty-seven boys missing, of which three are anonymous, in fourteen years. No more than you would expect, probably, in a country still at war and roamed by marauding gangs of armed brigands as well as dangerous wild animals.

Benedetti is the only biographer who lists the known victims, and one can see why. The numbers themselves are pathetic, before one even examines the quality of the evidence. No, if we are to keep our Beast of Extermination, far better to quote long, confusing chunks of the trial, with some witnesses brought in solely to back up the evidence of others and all that hearsay and rumour. It sounds so much more impressive than a bald list of thirty-odd names and half-names standing in for the hundred and forty, two hundred, even eight hundred that legend insists on and logic demands.

Thursday 30 August 2012

A very strange omission (postscript)

In a grisly confirmation of the impossibility of completely destroying a human body by fire, the bones and teeth of two children, aged two and six, have been found in a home-made outdoor furnace in Spain. Temperatures in it were estimated at around 800C. Gilles de Rais was supposed to have burned multiple bodies in a large fireplace which would never have attained these temperatures.

Full story here .

This issue was addressed in an earlier blog post, A very strange omission.

Monday 27 August 2012

Jean Benedetti: on the side of the angels

Jean Benedetti, author of Gilles de Rais the authentic Bluebeard (1971) died on March 27th of this year (obituary here.) This book was the first I ever read on the subject and I have a considerable soft spot for it. (Here is my review on Amazon.) It is concise and sympathetic towards its protagonist. Its only fault is that it completely omits any mention of the revisionist theories, which were in the ascendant in the early 1970s when Benedetti wrote this biography.

However, a close reading of the text shows Benedetti flirting with revisionist ideas without ever committing to them. For instance -

Jean V had sound personal reasons for refusing to ratify Charles' edict [banning the sale of Gilles' property]. He had noted Gilles' increasing dissipation and had decided to use it to his own advantage. Gilles' estates cut right across the frontier between France and Brittany, giving some of his possessions, Champtocé and Ingrandes in particular, considerable strategic importance. Even at the time when Jeanne Chabot was looking for an heir, Jean IV, the present Duke's father, had tried to get hold of them. Jean V inherited his father's ambition. By lending Gilles money, he was prepared to lead him deeper and deeper into debt, so that he could, later, present an ultimatum. It might take years but he was willing to pursue a long-term policy. There was only one difficulty from his point of view; the Dukes of Brittany were forbidden, by law, to acquire property from their subjects. This he circumvented by using proxies, and it is more than probable that many of the undistinguished merchants who bought estates from Gilles were in fact Jean's agents. At all events he took possession of La Mothe-Achard in Poitou on August 11 [1435], although officially it had been sold to Guy de la Roche-Guyon.

Later we find this -

At some date which it is difficult to determine, Jean V joined forces with Jean de Malestroit, who had been on bad terms with Gilles since the fiasco of Saint-James-de-Beuvron in 1427 [when de Malestroit was flung into prison as a traitor], and began to engineer Gilles' downfall.

The indictment is described thus: "It was, in some ways, a confused document; dates were sometimes inaccurate and the chronology of events inexact." After quoting the principle charges, Benedetti continues -

The indictment insists time and time again, in spite of all statements to the contrary, that Gilles' crimes had begun in about 1426. The reason for this may have been political. Jean de Malestroit, who was mainly responsible for drawing up the document, had always been pro-English and had opposed the Duke's frequent alliances with the French. Now, eleven years after the siege of Orléans, he found an opportunity of attrubuting Gilles' success, like Joan's, to witchcraft and the devil. Even his high honours, Marshal of France and later Lieutenant-General of Brittany, had been obtained by the same trickery. Paragraph XXIV states quite explicitly that, aided by de Sillé, he had employed wizards so that they could 'obtain money for him, reveal hidden treasure, initiate him into other magic arts, obtain honours for him and enable him to take and hold castles and towns...' Gilles would be condemned and burned just as Joan had been condemned and burned, and the legend of their success would be undermined. De Malestroit's own policies would be vindicated and proved to be in accord with divine will. 

Having clearly shown that the trial was motivated by both mercenary and political reasons, Benedetti goes on to underline the machinations of the Duke and the Bishop -

There had been fifteen paragraphs out of forty-nine in the indictment establishing the court's authority, but it was suspect. The members were neither impartial, nor disinterested. Most of them had done business with Gilles, most of them would profit by his downfall.

This is the revisionist case in a nutshell. Yet at no point does Benedetti ever touch upon the arguments for Gilles' innocence. Possibly he felt that this was a discussion that had no place in his brief  account of Gilles de Rais' life. 

Rest in peace, Jean Benedetti. Your book lives on and will continue to sow a small seed of doubt in anyone who reads it with an open mind. You were on the side of the angels without knowing it.

Jean Benedetti became an honorary professor at Rose Bruford College in 2001

Saturday 11 August 2012

The Elephant in the Room

On September 13th, 1440, Jean de Malestroit wrote this -
"...we listened repeatedly to the shocking complaints made by as many good and discreet synodic by several other credible people of probity, at the same time as by many well by the oft-repeated public rumor as as by the preceding denunciations, we discovered that the said nobleman, Milord Gilles de Rais, baron of the said lands in our diocese, had killed, cut the throats of, and massacred many innocent children in an inhuman fashion, and with them committed, against nature, the abominable and execrable sin of sodomy, in various fashions and with unheard-of perversions that cannot presently be expounded upon by reason of their horror, but that will be disclosed in Latin at the appropriate time and place; that he had often and repeatedly practised the dreadful invocation of demons and took care that it be practised; that he sacrificed and made offerings to these same demons, contracted with them; and wickedly perpetrated other crimes and offenses, professing doctrinal heresy against Divine Majesty, in the subversion and distortion of our faith, offering a pernicious example unto many."
(The Trial of Gilles de Rais, by Georges Bataille, translated by Richard Robinson, Amok Books)

On October 13th, the Bill of Indictment was read and, as promised, did indeed go into more detail.

The interrogations of François Prelati, Eustache Blanchet, Etienne Corillaut (Poitou), and Henriet Griart took place between the 16th and the 17th of October. At the point when Jean de Malestroit wrote his initial letter, and when the Bill of Indictment was drafted, the only evidence before him was from the "public rumour" that children had gone missing and from his own interviews with parents and other concerned parties. All that they could tell him was that children were allegedly disappearing in the area, not what had happened to them. What de Malestroit writes is inside information and we are not told where it comes from.

Most writers do not address this discrepancy; I suspect that many do not even notice it. Among the ones who do is Frances Winwar, in The Saint and the Devil, who makes the logical assumption that somebody from Gilles's household had informed on him.

It is possible that François Prelati, Eustache Blanchet or André Buchet (who is named in the Bill of Indictment and was working for Jean V when he allegedly procured a child to be murdered) voluntarily gave information because they realised that Gilles de Rais was about to be arrested and sought to save their own skins. It is equally possible that they were tortured or threatened with torture. Or bribed. Or told that they would save their lives if they made a private confession inculpating their master. It is just as likely that the accusations were pure invention.

The only thing we know for certain is that Jean de Malestroit made allegations, later confirmed by confessions under torture, which he seems to have produced out of thin air and chose not to source.

Monday 6 August 2012

Death of Gilbert Prouteau

Sad to report the death of Gilbert Prouteau on August 2nd at the age of 95. Obituary, in French, here . Rest in peace, fierce warrior of the Vendée.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

The Monsterisation of Gilles de Rais (postscript)

On the face of it, just a particularly ingenious uglification of the Feron portrait of Gilles de Rais, by Joseph A Smith.

However, it illustrates the book Witches by Erica Jong, and what Jong has to say about Gilles de Rais is borderline revisionist -

Most history books slavishly repeat the charge that Gilles de Rais was a sexual deviate who murdered young boys in satanic rites. It is rumored that he practiced black magic in the hopes of restoring a squandered fortune.

Like Joan's, his story serves many purposes. A valiant soldier and nationalist hero, he was instrumental (with Joan of Arc) in bringing about the victory of Charles VII. He was Joan's protector in battle and shares with her the glory of having turned the tide in the Hundred Years' War.

Yet, ten years after Joan's trial for heresy, he too was charged with heresy. When he determined to refute that charge, he found himself charged with sodomy and murder. In the language of the accusation against him by the ecclesiastical authorities, Gilles de Rais was said to be "heretic, sorcerer, sodomite, invocator of evil spirits, diviner, killer of innocents, apostate from the faith, idolator."

He was threatened with torture, but it is not clear whether torture was used or not. (Joan of Arc was not physically tortured, though she was chained, confined, and subjected to mental anguish.) In any case, it is notable that not long after being charged, he made a complete about-face from hauteur to humility, confessed to having killed at least eight hundred children, and went to his death in great penitence, having twice been excommunicated as a heretic and apostate.

Margaret Murray claims that the evidence against Gilles de Rais was clearly trumped up, and that he, like Joan, was simply a member of the Old Religion, a leader of the Dianic cult. She suggests that his death was again the ritual sacrifice of one whom the people saw as the incarnate god or Divine King. According to Murray, the deaths of Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais were substitute sacrifices that ensured the continued reign of the French kings: the deaths of two token kings in lieu of the real ones. This is an attractive theory, but we do not have enough clear evidence either to accept or deny it. What is interesting, however, is what these two examples teach us about the nature of received historical wisdom. Since all the contemporary chroniclers told the stories of Joan and Gilles from an ecclesiastical point of view, we can only speculate about a possibly pagan interpretation of the facts, and consequently we will probably never really know the truth about these figures.

Murray writes with an antiecclesiastical bias; the histories err in the other direction. From the stories of both Gilles and Joan, we learn only that what is usually called "history" is merely what the rulers of society have deemed to be true. In order to find out what really happened, we must go to other sources - census figures, account books - data set down with relative neutrality, if these indeed still exist. With Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais, even the bare facts are in dispute. But the historian's loss is the poet's or playwright's or novelist's gain. Joan and Gilles are ideal figures for poetic interpretation because their stories can be made to serve a variety of imaginative ends.

Erica Jong - writing in the early 1980s, before the contentious 1992 rehabilitation of Gilles de Rais - allows the reader to make up his or her own mind. What a pity her illustrator felt unable to do likewise.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

The Monsterisation of Gilles de Rais

This is the whole of the cartoon by Steve Vance/Eddie Newell that I referred to in the Common errors post at the end of last month. It is an excellent example of how Gilles de Rais is monsterised throughout the media. Note how, after the first page, he appears to be in his forties or fifties, in spite of having died in his thirty-sixth year. Even the excellent Paul Gillon falls prey to this fallacy, making Gilles look much older than Jehanne, when in fact there was only seven years between them. He is also shown as gluttonous and grossly overweight, although the only evidence we have for this are the pious platitudes attributed to him at his trial. Monsters have to be as ugly outside as they are inside, otherwise how would we recognise them? A handsome ogre would turn the moral universe upside-down.

Gilles de Rais was no ogre, as this blog tries to demonstrate. We have no portrait of him. But  Eugène Bossard  writes: Les historiens le représentent comme un des hommes le plus instruits de son temps. Ils s'accordent à voir en lui une des plus belles intelligences du siècle.

Does that sound like a monster?

[But do click on the link to the cartoon, anyway. If you missed it, here it is again.]

Tuesday 3 July 2012


This article was published anonymously in Curious, a sex magazine, in the early 1970s. At that period, just after Pierre Klossowski translated the full trial records into French for the first time, scepticism was growing about the validity of the charges against Gilles, and the anonymous author reflects this. It is an excellent article overall; there are a few errors, but it is a better account than the average rawhead and bloody bones web page.

Because this is a photocopy of a magazine article it is not easy to present online in a readable form. This link is to Dropbox.


Friday 29 June 2012

Dead man walking

Gilles de Laval, Lord of Rais 1404-1440, Arrested for his Strange Crimes by Lucien Napolean Francois Totain, 1838-1900 

Gilles de Rais was arrested on September 15th 1440.

He was at Machecoul. He could have resisted almost indefinitely behind its fortifications, but he gave himself up for arrest. This was not the action of a guilty man. In all probability he thought that his arrest was a mere formality in connection with the affray at St-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte - he had had a meeting with Jean V in July to discuss the fine he had been given for this matter. Clearly the meeting had given him no reason for serious misgivings. 

Initially, Gilles accepted his judges, but at this point he did not know the true nature of the charges against him. It was not until October 8th - a full three weeks after his arrest - that it was revealed to him that he stood accused of murder and sodomy. And it was at this point that he railed against his judges, calling them simoniacs and ribalds. This has always been taken to be another example of the madness of Gilles de Rais; in context, it would appear to be the shocked and frustrated outburst of a man who realises that he has fallen into a trap. He was now in the clutches of the Inquisition. He had no counsel for the defence. He was denied the right of appeal because he had necessarily, because unforewarned, attempted to appeal orally instead of in writing. He denied these charges until the point when he was shown the forced confessions of his servants and threatened with torture himself. 

Jean V had already confiscated and disposed of Gilles's property on September 3rd, twelve days before he was arrested. 

The cynicism is breathtaking.

Long before he was arrested, Gilles de Rais was a dead man walking.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Common errors

There are literally hundreds of web pages about Gilles de Rais and more are being made every day. Many of them are lurid and inaccurate, cutting and pasting phrases from other sources which may or may not be reliable. How can you tell the good ones from the bad?

There are certain errors which are frequently made by cut-and-paste web sites. For some reason, the date of Gilles's death is commonly given as October 25th - actually the day he was sentenced. Presumably one person initially made this slip and others copied it without researching the facts. 

It is claimed that he had a blue beard, which is a myth - there is no contemporary portrait of him and descriptions are vague and general. An unusually-coloured beard would certainly have been remarked upon!

Often his date of birth is given - usually as November 15th, which was when his brother was born. Weirdly, although the month can vary, the date is always given as the 15th. In fact, the date of Gilles de Rais's birth is not known.

But by far the commonest error is that he was hanged and burned, or often just burned. He was not. His body was removed from the flames and laid to rest with full honours in the church of Notre Dame des Carmes in Nantes, among the heroes of Brittany. 

This post is illustrated with the final frames of an Eddie Newell cartoon, written by Steve Vance. In this case the error was not accidental, as the bibliography for the cartoon cites biographies by  Jean Benedetti  and Leonard Wolf. Giving Vance the benefit of the doubt, it seems probable that this change was made for dramatic effect. As a rule, however, it is an attempt to gloss over the final privileges granted to Gilles - the grand procession to the gallows with the people praying for his soul, the entombment in sanctified ground - because these sit uneasily with his reputation as evil child-killer. It was a cynical gesture on the part of his judges to allow his body to be removed from the flames because as a convicted practitioner of black magic he should have been burned to ashes in order to destroy the physical integrity of his body. He should certainly not have been allowed to rest in a tomb inside a church. But then, neither his judges nor the people who wept and prayed for his salvation ever believed him to be a heretic, a sorcerer or a murderer.

Monday 18 June 2012

Why did Gilles not proclaim his innocence in the moments before dying?

This press cutting is extracted from the Milwaukee Sentinal, 12th April 1936. It deals with an attempt to rehabilitate Gilles de Rais in the mid 1920s, on rather strange grounds. What concerns us here is the final paragraph, which dismisses the claims of Gilles's innocence because he failed to speak the truth at the foot of the gallows.
So did Gilles have nothing more to fear from telling the truth? Not at all. He had made a deal with his judges and if he had gone back on his word and retracted his confession, the consequences for him would have been appalling. He would have been excommunicated on the spot, which to his mind would have consigned him to Hell. Instead of dying the swift death of a cooperative prisoner, his neck broken instantly, he would have been allowed to strangle slowly over the flames which would consume him. Then his ashes would have been thrown into the Loire instead of resting in the cathedral of Notre Dame des Carmes alongside other Breton heroes. From his point of view, as a mediaeval Christian, if he remained silent he would die relatively painlessly and be received into Heaven; if he spoke out he would suffer a prolonged and agonising death that would plunge him into Hell. A last-minute profession of innocence was not an option that a sane man would take.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Quotes about Gilles de Rais

The wizard or warlock is on a higher plane. Often he is scientifically far in advance of his generation; as we may suspect that Gilles de Laval, usually known as de Rais (or Retz) really was, though the Church made him out to be an inhuman, Devil-worshipping monster, and burnt him as such. - Philip W. Sergeant: Witches and Warlocks, 1936

 At least two lobbies also have no interest in seeing this [the traditional] version revised. Some French newspapers reported that, unwilling to reopen a ruling by the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church sees the hand of Freemasons behind the creation of the 'arbitration court.'
For the villagers who live off tourists visiting the ruined castles at Tiffauges, Machecoul and Champtocé, on the other hand, the very notion of transforming Gilles de Rais from monster to martyr poses a threat to their trade. "We're not interested in reopening the affair," Georges Gautier, a guide to Tiffauges castle, proclaimed. - N Y Times, November 1992

I think, then, it is not altogether unfair to assume that Gilles de Rais was to a large extent the victim of Catholic logic. Catholic logic: and the foul wish-fantasms generated of its repressions, and of its fear and ignorance. He wanted to confer a boon on humanity; therefore he consorted with the learned; therefore he murdered little children. - Aleister Crowley: The Banned Lecture

The overwhelming probability, of course, is that Gilles de Rais was innocent; like all the other famous victims of sorcery trials he was framed by his enemies, who used the same vicious slanders to discredit and destroy him as the English had used to discredit & destroy his companion-in-arms Joan of Arc. Because his trial was a domestic affair, later generations of Frenchmen were content to let his conviction stand so that the Church might use it as a terrible example to those who faltered in the faith. - Brian M Stableford

...The presence of Rais at Louviers - less than sixteen miles from Rouen, where Joan was imprisoned - is a very significant circumstance. Some writers have suggested that, being a mere spy employed by La Trémouille, Rais abandoned the cause of the Maid after the failure of the attempt on Paris. We think otherwise, and are inclined, moreover, to give Charles VII credit for some desire to save the unfortunate Joan. - E A Vizetelly
(Gilles was at Louviers, with an army, while Jehanne was on trial, & he was later joined by Dunois, also at the head of an army. It is inconceivable that a rescue attempt was not being plotted. This is something that has been suppressed in later biographies in order to separate de Rais from Jehanne & make him a spy & a villain from the start.)

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: Gilles de Rais ou La Gueule du Loup, 1992

...Voltaire classes Gilles de Rais with the Princess of Gloucester and and Baron Cobham as an unfortunate victim of fanaticism compounded of ignorance and superstition.
En Bretagne, on fit mourir le maréchal de Rais, accusé de magie et d'avoir égorgé des enfants pour faire avec leur sang de prétendus enchantments. [In Brittany, the Maréchal de Rais was put to death, accused of magic and of having slit the throats of children to use their blood, allegedly, in casting spells.]
As one who had reason to doubt the validity of the judicial system of his own day, Voltaire had even less reason to imagine that the medieval Inquisition would have delivered a reasonable judgement. - Val Morgan: The Legend of Gilles de Rais...

The expiatory monument erected by Marie de Rais at the site of her father's execution. "...miraculous powers were ascribled to the Virgin in the niche, she became known as the 'Bonne Vierge de Crée-Lait,' 'the Milk-Giver'; and until the Reign of Terror mothers and nurses flocked to the spot to pray her for an abundance of milk..."  - E.A.Vizetelly

There was a Marshal of France, Gilles de Rais, a nobleman who fought beside Joan at Orleans, at Les Tourelles, at Jargeau, at Pathay, and at Paris, and who carried the sacred vessel which the Angel brought, long ago, with holy oil, at the King's coronation. Later this man was accused by the Inquisition of the most horrible crimes. Among other things, he was said to have sacrificed children to the devil, and to have killed hundreds of little boys for his own amusement. But hundreds of little boys were not proved to be missing, and none of their remains were ever found. Gilles de Rais denied these horrible charges; he said he was innocent, and, for all that we know, he was. But they took him to the torture vault, and showed him the engines of torment, and he confessed everything, so that he might be put to death without torture, which was done. - Andrew Lang: The Story of Joan of Arc, 1906

Qu'ont-ils détecté, déniché, découvert au cours de leurs exploration? Rien, pas un indice. Pas une dent. Pas un vestige, pas un cheveu. Pas un témoin qui puisse dire: «J'ai vu». Pas une mère en pleurs qui clame: «Voilà la robe souillée de sang de ma fille morte.» Pas un père qui vienne apporter un coeur d'enfant arraché de la poitrine et enveloppé dans un linge maculé. [What did they find, unearth, discover during their exploration? Nothing, not a clue. Not a tooth. Not a trace, not a hair. Not one witness who can say: "I have seen." Not a weeping mother who claims: "There is the dress stained with the blood of my dead daughter" Not a father who brings a child's heart ripped from its chest and wrapped in a spotted cloth.] -  Gilbert Prouteau

Sentenced to be hanged, his repentance and the resignation with which he went to the gallows were acclaimed at the time as an example of Christian penitence, although it is equally possible that Rais simply wished to avoid being tortured to death by the ever-busy French torturers. The fact is that the Duke of Brittany, who instigated the proceedings against Rais, had a significant financial interest in Rais' ruin: it seems that accusations of witchcraft were a convenient method of getting rid of awkward people, and that Rais' reputation, passed down the centuries, is a gross slander. - Nigel Cawthorne: Witches, History of a Persecution
[A fairly standard point of view. The interesting part is that a year earlier a different edition of this book was published in which this passage ended with the word "penitence". Cawthorne clearly had a change of heart between 2003 and 2004, which is encouraging...]

An hypothesis no better founded is that which consists in identifying Bluebeard with the Marshal de Rais, who was strangled by the arm of the Law above the bridges of Nantes on 26th of October, without inquiring, with M. Salomon Reinach, whether the Marshal committed the crimes for which he was condemned, or whether his wealth, coveted by a greedy prince, did not in some degree contribute to his undoing, there is nothing in his life that resembles what we find in Bluebeard's; this alone is enough to prevent our confusing them or merging the two individuals into one. - Anatole France

Thursday 26 April 2012

A very strange omission

This illustration (from a French bande dessinée, the title of which is unknown to me) depicts Gilles de Rais burning multiple bodies in a large fireplace, exactly as described in the trial. This is, if not impossible, then at least highly improbable. The temperatures required to incinerate a human corpse are very high indeed - crematoriums take one and a half hours to incinerate an adult corpse at temperatures of 1600-1800°C. By comparison, a house fire would usually reach 1200°C and casualties would not be burnt to ashes. Even a large fireplace in a castle could not hope to achieve these temperatures. And then there is the stench - not just of burning flesh, but also of hair, nails, blood, wet internal organs, the content of the gut. Given the length of time it would take to reduce a body even to a skeleton, and the number of alleged victims, this would have been almost a full-time activity. Yet, although there had been a "public rumour" that Gilles de Rais murdered children, nobody at the trial commented on any foul smell or dense smoke around his castles. And that seems a very strange omission.

Sunday 22 April 2012

A little inconsistency

From Jehanne la Pucelle, by Paul Gillon

This is the usual explanation for Gilles' abrupt change in personality - that he was deranged by Jehanne's capture and execution. Such a shame that charge XV at his trial specified that "for the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour... [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls..." That would be 1426, not the 1432 of the "confession" that would have chimed so sweetly with Jehanne's death. Just one little contradiction among many.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The church at Saint Étienne de Mer Morte

The plaque reads:
   "Gilles de Raiz, Maréchal de France pénétra en cette Église
    le jour de la Pentecôte 1440, en armes à la tête de ses routiers
    pendant la grand-messe.
    Il s'emparait de Jean Le Ferron, clerc tonsuré qu'il enfermait
    en sa forteresse toute proche.
    Jean de Malestroit Évèque de Nantes le citait à comparaître
    devant son official par mandement du 15 septembre.
    Jean V, Duc de Bretagne, faisait arrêter Gilles dès le lendemain.
    Il avouait ses crimes, jugé, condamné, il fut mis au gibet
    en Prairie de Biesse à Nantes le 26 octobre 1440."

Saturday 7 April 2012

The Spokane Daily Chronicle 1926

It is fairly well known that Gilles de Rais was unofficially re-tried in 1992, and acquitted. What is not so well known is that a similar attempt to rehabilitate him was made, with less success, in the mid 1920s. This lighthearted article belies the seriousness of the attempt. The people involved included Salomon Reinach and Maurice Garçon, the mentor of Gilbert Prouteau...

Sunday 1 April 2012

The overwhelming probability, of course, is that Gilles de Rais was innocent...

The overwhelming probability, of course, is that Gilles de Rais was innocent; like all the other famous victims of sorcery trials he was framed by his enemies, who used the same vicious slanders to discredit and destroy him as the English had used to discredit & destroy his companion-in-arms Joan of Arc. Because his trial was a domestic affair, later generations of Frenchmen were content to let his conviction stand so that the Church might use it as a terrible example to those who faltered in the faith.
Brian M Stableford

Monday 12 March 2012

From The Story of Joan of Arc by Andrew Lang (1906)

There was a Marshal of France, Gilles de Rais, a nobleman who fought beside Joan at Orleans, at Les Tourelles, at Jargeau, at Pathay, and at Paris, and who carried the sacred vessel which the Angel brought, long ago, with holy oil, at the King's coronation. Later this man was accused by the Inquisition of the most horrible crimes. Among other things, he was said to have sacrificed children to the devil, and to have killed hundreds of little boys for his own amusement. But hundreds of little boys were not proved to be missing, and none of their remains were ever found. Gilles de Rais denied these horrible charges; he said he was innocent, and, for all that we know, he was. But they took him to the torture vault, and showed him the engines of torment, and he confessed everything, so that he might be put to death without torture, which was done

The whole book is online, this is the relevant page:

Monday 20 February 2012

The final two columns of an article published in a sex magazine called Curious in 1970. Going by the introduction, the magazine wanted something much less revisionist. The anonymous writer did not oblige...