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 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

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