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)

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