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 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.

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