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 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.]

No comments:

Post a Comment