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 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.