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 2 December 2013

A word about translations

(Taken from Bluebeard by Thomas Wilson, 1899. Click to enlarge.)

Few modern biographers have read the trial records in their original form. Deciphering old manuscripts is a science that has to be taught; so, although Gilbert Prouteau insisted on access to the documents, this was purely token, as he did not have the training to read them. Essentially all Gilles de Rais scholars are dependent on modern translations by Bossard (who did not feel able to render the more lurid passages into French and, indeed, in parts even censored the Latin), Klossowski and Fleuret

For the most part these translators agree. However, Fernand Fleuret - a revisionist with an axe to grind - is insistent that the phrase "I will do nothing for you as Bishop of Nantes!" was uttered not by Gilles de Rais but by Jean de Malestroit himself. This places a whole new emphasis on the dialogue and seems plausible. Others dispute this translation hotly. 

Who is correct? Who knows? This is a minor example of the mysteries that surround Gilles de Rais and his trial.  

Saturday 16 November 2013

Gilles de Retz - a poem by Sidney Keyes

Marshall of France. The prancing horses
And banners licking the air. I tell you now,
Standing in pride who have no cuirass,
That was not half the glory, not a jot of it.
Now, velvet-draped like a coffin with nothing inside
But the echo of nails, remembering the hammer's
Talk in an empty vault, all I can do is tell you
God's mercy to me when I was alive.
I have seen angels marching - others also
Armed but all strong as morning, among the trumpets;
Though I am still young, God's anger like a woman
Fought by my side three years, then was extinguished
In flame, the old sign, the old blazon shining.
It comes strange ways, the pure divine anger,
Piercing your safety like a lancet, or perhaps
A flat knife working for years behind the eyes,
Distorting vision. That is the worst of all.
Or a boy's voice flowering out of silence
Rising through choirs to the ear's whorled shrine
And living there, a light.
What if I sought that glory
When, sign forgotten, fire had darkened my image
Of pure bright anger? What if indeed I danced
Another figure, seeking pain's intricate
Movements to weave that holy exultation?
Knife in the head before, now in the hand
Makes little difference. Pain is never personal;
As love or anger unconfined, it takes
Part in each moment & person, unconditioned
By time or identity, like an atmosphere.
There is no giving or receiving, only
Pain and creation coming out of pain.
Now I have made you angry; but think of this -
Which is the stronger, my pain or your love?
Old men like towers separate in the evening.

Six score in a year, I tell you. The high white bed,
Caesar's pleasures and the dry well. See
How I believed in pain, how near I got
To living pain, regaining my lost image
Of hard perfection, sexless and immortal.
Nearer to you than living love, to knowing
The community of love without giving or taking
Or ceasing or or the need of change. At least
I knew this in my commonwealth of pain.
You, knowing neither, burn me and fear my agony
And never learn any better kind of love.
Six score, then raising Lucifer by guile,
I sinned. It was unnecessary; so
It is for you to punish me.But remember
Never a man of you fought as I those years
Beside the incarnation of mortal pride,
The yearning of immortals for the flesh.
Nor will you ever feel God's finger
Probing your soul's anatomy, as I
Have been dissected these five years; for never
Since Christ has any man made pain so glorious
As I, nor dared to seek salvation
Through love with such long diligence as I through pain.

Have mercy, Lord, on misdirected worship.
On this soul dressed for death in hot black velvet.
Bishop of Nantes, cover the Cross.


This sub-Eliot poem is far from revisionist, but it is interesting and not easy to come by, so it is included here for the sake of completeness.

 Picture of Sidney Keyes taken from this site.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Sunday 13 October 2013

Les Très Riches Heures de Gilles de Rais

The leather binding is curious,
soft and pale, of no known provenance.

Its silver clasps have tarnished into blackness,
grim as coffin furbishments.

The key is rusted red, like Bluebeard's key
indelibly stained with blood.

Inside, the pigments glow from the page
in formal miniatures: vermilion, gold.

Argent on a ground of sable
a unicorn rampant rears its horn.

Here is a serpent the size of a dog
and there a leopard with human eyes.

A heap of gold transmuting into leaves,
the heart of a child in a jewelled monstrance.

A black stake and a pile of kindling,
the white face of a virgin martyr burning.

A crowd looks on, as blank as playing cards.
The licking flames seem cool, like amber.

A human figure is split down its axis;
half gilded girl, half crowned and bearded male.

A hawk-faced Herod in his purple watches
the scarlet tableau of innocents slaughtered.

There are geometrical fountains of blood.
From the sky, blond angels look down, impassive.

A grey river crawls through a watery landscape;
three gibbets, tenanted, stand framed by fire.

A phoenix in his crimson glory poises
resurgent above a pyre of blackened bone.

Margot K Juby

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Holy Innocents

In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Matthew 2:18 King James Bible Authorized Version

The Chapel of the Holy Innocents has always been a rich source of the mythology that surrounds Gilles de Rais. Why, commentators ask, did Gilles name his private chapel after a group of murdered infants? Was it not a sign of guilt, or defiance? Why, in fact, did he have a private chapel at all, and go to such crazy lengths to ensure that his family could not dissolve it after his death? Surely that was extravagant at best, a bit mad at worst?

To ask these questions is to try and lift Gilles out of his context.

The story of the Massacre of the Innocents is based on a few verses in one gospel, Matthew 2: 16-18, which relates how King Herod attempted to kill his newborn rival as King of the Jews by having all the boy children born at the right time and place put to death: Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently enquired of the wise men. There is no further evidence for this massacre and it is almost certainly folklore.

From about 1400 onwards, the Holy Innocents were very much in vogue all over Europe. The brief account of Herod's massacre of the babies, coupled with the "Rachel weeping" verse from Jeremiah which the evangelist quoted, was widely used in sermons and mystery plays. The motif was particularly affecting in the context of a country embroiled in a seemingly endless war, which may explain its ubiquity. Many churches and chapels were dedicated to the child saints,  including one of the first churches built on the Rive Droite in Paris, and in following suit Gilles was merely indicating that he was a modern and fashionable man even in his spiritual tastes.

And the private chapel? Not as uncommon as you might suppose. The rich liked to have mortuary masses said for the repose of their souls after death. Some achieved this by bequeathing money to churches or monasteries, the wealthier ones founded their own chapels. The fact that Gilles took extreme measures to guarantee the continuation of his chapel merely shows that he had an astute and justifiable distrust for his family.

The Massacre of the Innocents at Bethlehem
by Matteo di Giovanni (c 1430-1495)

Listen to the chillingly beautiful Coventry Carol for a 16th century musical rendering of the Holy Innocents theme

Saturday 7 September 2013

A vexing, perplexing, vital book: my review of Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup

On June 17th 1992, The Guardian put a story headlined Second chance for Bluebeard on its front page. "More than 550 years after he was hanged and then burned" it began, with typical inaccuracy, "for offences ranging from sodomy to heresy, Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc's companion in arms, is to be retried in an official process of rehabilitation." This came as a pleasant shock to those of us who had long believed that Gilles was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. A few months later, the verdict was announced: Not guilty. This made news worldwide; the account in The Guardian, and also The New York Times, can be read online. Gilles de Rais' sudden return to the limelight, and rehabilitation, can be put down to one man, Vendéen novelist Gilbert Prouteau, and one book: this one.

Prouteau's masterpiece of revisionist literature has been cruelly treated by history, through no fault of his. It is easily the most influential book about Gilles de Rais ever published, as it is essentially the case for the defence which was put to a special court of appeal under the auspices of UNESCO and led to his sensational acquittal. But the book and the retrial were in 1992, before the internet, and both are mostly forgotten today. Prouteau's book, which I understand was a best-seller in France, has never been translated into English and I have been unable to find any detailed online reviews.

It is a strange book, not obviously a "biography" in the usual sense, and not at all what the tourist board of Brittany expected when they commissioned it. It opens with a recalled rant by Prouteau's late mentor, the lawyer Maurice Garçon, who memorably claims that if he had to defend Gilles de Rais in court he would get him off with "six months with remission". Prouteau then goes on to relate how a local dignitary asked him to write a biography of Gilles de Rais to tie in with a new tourist trail. By implication, Prouteau jumped at the chance.

The resulting book is a curious mish-mash of fact and fiction. Some, including the spectacularly parti pris Jacques Heers , have accused him of writing a romantic novel. It is that, in part, but it is also a lot more.

The biographical/romanesque section of the book proceeds in an eccentric fashion, opening with a character assassination of Rais's nemesis, Bishop of Nantes Jean de Malestroit, an outline of the bad feeling between the two and the trap that the bishop set for his foe. This section ends with Gilles' arrest and Malestroit arranging to have the heavy-drinking nobleman deprived of alcohol in order to weaken his resistance to interrogation.

The book then segues into a romanticised sketch of Gilles' life, written by Gilles himself as he languishes in the Tour Neuve at Nantes. In a way, this is the book the tourist board wanted for their wretched "circuit touristique" - we have the lonely boy wandering the grim castle, the parental neglect, the mother who abandons him (although it is more probable that she predeceased her husband) and, above all, the fallacy of the two young fianceés who both die, thus adding an atmosphere of doom and nodding to the spurious Bluebeard myth.

In the next section, Gilles is still writing, this time long letters to Pierre de l'Hôpital, President of Brittany and representative of the civil court. With much justification, Prouteau felt that Hôpital was sympathetic to Gilles and unconvinced of his guilt. These passages are intercut with extracts from the trial, which Gilles comments on. The final letter is followed by the words "Fin du journal apocryphe de Gilles de Rais" and a few pages describe his execution.

This is not, however, the end of the book. The most interesting section is still to come: it is titled "J'Accuse", in a very clear reference to the Dreyfus case, and it deals with Prouteau's attempt to have Gilles de Rais' name cleared. He sought out the aid of a barrister friend, Jean-Yves Goeau-Brissonnière, who agreed to represent Gilles in court at a specially-arranged tribunal, the details of which are frustratingly vague, and the next sixty or so pages record the peroration that Goeau-Brissonnière delivered before the court. Touchingly, we are not given the verdict; if the book had been held back from the publishers for a few months, it could have included the spectacular triumph of Gilles' acquittal. It seems that Prouteau did not really expect this result and wished to market the book on the sensation of the retrial, believing that the verdict would be a damp squib.

For all its dramatic effect in the real world, this is an imperfect work: Prouteau does, in the romanesque section, print the legend and to some extent play into the hands of the Vendéen tourist board, with their accursed son et lumière and "Sur les Traces de Gilles de Rais" nonsense. He does not cite his sources, so his extraordinary claim that Gilles was an alcoholic who was deprived of his drug in prison in order to extract a false confession from him can neither be challenged nor confirmed. And he does make the mistake of accepting certain parts of extorted evidence as gospel truth, which puts him in the unnecessary position of having to pen a defence of paedophilia.

Still, this is the book that forced France, if not the rest of the world, to look at her prodigal son in a new light. In this new century, one sees its influence on web sites and coffee table books even in the anglophone world. Few books have had such a resounding effect as this one, and it is worth the read, even for those of us who struggle with French as a second language. A translation seems unlikely so long after the original publication, but if one were forthcoming it would certainly repeat its success in a new market.

Gilbert Prouteau lived till the advanced age of ninety-five and died on August 2nd 2012, a round twenty years after La Gueule du Loup was published and Gilles de Rais acquitted. Shamefully, his death barely caused a ripple outside France. Let this book and its reverberations in the real world be his memorial.

Click here to see this review on Amazon.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Le Mistère du Siège d'Orléans

For the full text of the verse drama, click this link: Le Mistère du Siège d'Orléans. This is the start of the  Mistère itself; earlier pages have a dramatis personae, a summary and a lengthy introduction in French.

Monday 19 August 2013

Google gets it right

(Click on the picture to enlarge) 

An attentive reading of the trial records turns up any number of  contradictions, discrepancies, and suspicious similarities. It is apparent at many points that these are not spontaneous statements but responses to set questions. The text is a deliberately repellent combination of ugly images and tedious repetition; hardly anybody reads it thoroughly, it begs to be skimmed over.

Perhaps somebody at Google actually read it and categorized it accordingly.

Sadly, the likelihood is that it is merely a happy error.

Sunday 11 August 2013

An Overview:The Truth About Gilles de Rais

People ask why I am so convinced that Gilles de Rais was the victim of a miscarriage of justice. This is why.

The myth of Gilles de Rais has lasted over five hundred years. In this myth, the wealthiest man in France, who happened also to be one of his country´s greatest warriors, suddenly went mad and commenced the wholesale abuse and butchery of children. No real explanation has ever been given for this, apart from trauma caused by the execution of Jehanne d´Arc.

The biographers who believe that he was guilty argue that there was overwhelming proof, human remains were discovered in his castles, the trial was fair and the judges above reproach, a host of bereaved parents came forward with evidence against him, he and his accomplices confessed freely and without torture...

None of these statements is true.

Not one piece of solid forensic evidence was found, not one single bone. Tradition speaks of suspicious ashes in a hearth and a child´s bloodied shirt - but ashes are what you expect to find in a fireplace, and both the ashes and the shirt were found, not at Machecoul, but at the lodging-house of Gilles´ chief alchemist some distance away from the castle.

The court alleged that Gilles had committed around a hundred and forty murders in fourteen years - ten a year. In his confession, Gilles insisted on eight hundred murders over eight years - a hundred a year, almost two per week.

In spite of these huge numbers, and a lengthy enquiry by the Bishop of Nantes, only forty-odd cases could be found. Of these, several were anonymous and only a dozen have a full name given. The hosts of parents amounted to sixteen - the number of missing children who were attested to in court by a mother, father or both. A couple more were represented by aunts or uncles.

I repeat that this was after a full enquiry by the Bishop, another by the civil authorities, and a further appeal for witnesses while the trial was in progress. Many of the cases produced in court were hearsay, anecdotes that had no relation to Gilles at all, and were clearly introduced only to bulk up the numbers. There is no indication whatsoever that more children vanished in this particular area and time than anywhere else in Brittany during this period.

Nor was the trial remotely fair. Gilles was not originally told all of the charges he faced; believing that he was arraigned solely for heresy, he was thus duped into accepting the Vice Inquisitor Jean Blouyn as one of his judges. His anger when he realised how he had been deceived was perfectly understandable - up to this point he had been a model of politeness and calm. Moreover, as he pointed out to Pierre de l´Hôpital, President of Brittany, the ecclesiastical court was acting beyond its remit; it was wholly inappropriate for charges of abduction and murder to be heard there rather than in the civil court. De l´Hôpital seems to have had grave misgivings about the legality of the proceedings and Gilles´ culpability; not only did he allow the condemned man several unheard-of favours at the end, he also neglected to sign the pages of the transcript that contained Gilles´ confession, as he was obliged by law to do.

The judges, too, were not as impartial as they ought to have been in a capital case. Jean de Malestroit had engaged in numerous business deals with the accused, buying his estates at knockdown prices. He was the cousin of Jean V, Duke of Brittany, who had also illegally bought properties from his vassal, including the strategic border castles of Champtocé and Ingrandes. These fortified castles were vital to Brittany´s defence and Jean V´s father had coveted them before him.  Although the Duke finally obtained them, when Gilles´ finances were on the verge of collapse and he could no longer hold on to them, they were sold on condition that Gilles could repurchase them within six years if he wished. Neither Jean V nor de Malestroit was willing to risk such an eventuality, and they knew that Gilles was attempting to restore his fortune by means of alchemy.

As well as this financial motive, there was a political one. Gilles was the pre-eminent warrior of the Loire campaign, after the Pucelle. He was tried in Brittany, which was an independent duchy, allied sometimes with France and at others with England at the whim of the Duke´s politique de bascule. Although Jean V vacillated constantly, de Malestroit consistently favoured alliance with England, which he correctly supposed to offer the best chance of Brittany maintaining its independence from France. Jehanne had already been disgraced and burned, but the charges of heresy against her had failed to stick and she was still regarded as a quasi saint in France and especially in Orléans. If her protector, the brave Marshal of France, could be thoroughly smeared, found guilty not only of heresy but also of black magic, sodomy, murder and offences too disgusting to be described, then her memory might be tainted by association.

Gilles´ confession was not, as the Inquisition formula has it, given freely and without torture. His two servants produced evidence so consistent, and so outlandish, that it could only have been extracted by means of torture. Gilles´ evidence follows theirs exactly - we do not know if he was tortured, though he may have been, but he was excommunicated, which terrified him, and explicitly threatened with torture.

Finally, the reaction of the crowd to Gilles´ condemnation was not to exult and jeer. There was a solemn procession to the gallows and the people wept and prayed for his soul. Those who insist on his guilt claim that the fifteenth century was a more Christian time and a more forgiving one; so forgiving, evidently, that Gilles was buried in a cathedral and the expiatory monument commissioned by his daughter was a place of pilgrimage for three hundred years, until it was destroyed in the Terror. Women would pray there for abundant milk to feed their babies and their prayers, apparently, were answered. All this seems a very strange reaction if they really believed that the dead man had preyed on local children and, among other things, eviscerated them and masturbated over their entrails.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Citizen Gilles...

According to the splendidly wrong-headed D B Wyndham Lewis, the rehabilitation of Gilles de Rais is a purely 20th century chimera. "It seems hardly necessary to add that one or two fervent friends of Progress have...established to their own satisfaction Gilles' entire innocence, which occurred not even to his own proud, shamed family." In a footnote he adds "Nor to anyone else until 1902."

Leaving aside the rather glaring fact that Gilles' daughter Marie and her first husband made a determined effort to establish her father's innocence, as Wyndham Lewis himself records, the first writers to assert that he was the victim of a plot were, improbably, political commentators during the Revolution.

One might assume that, to the Revolutionaries, Gilles would have been the paradigm of the wicked baron, preying on his vassals in the worst possible way. After all, both his tomb and his monument were destroyed during the Revolution. However, Gilles was not singled out for special treatment - he was buried with the nobility and the heroes of Brittany and every tomb was desecrated  and the church razed. Some Revolutionary writers certainly did see Gilles as a villain, but others saw him as a victim of a plot by the Church -

Le maréchal de Rais, à l'instant de son supplice, reprit tout sa dignité, il reprocha aux juges leurs bassesse et leur avidité, et marcha à son supplice, non pas en coupable, mais en héros.
[The Marshal de Rais, at the moment of his execution, recovered all his dignity, he reproached his judges for their baseness and their greed, and walked to his execution, not as a guilty man, but as a hero.]

These are the words of Joseph La Vallée, writing in 1792. He is quite explicit: Gilles was ruined by charlatans and forced to sell his estates cheaply to the Duke of Brittany. When he was bankrupt, the Duke and the priests accused him of "impossible crimes", when his true crime was having no more money to lavish on them. Two hundred years before Gilbert Prouteau, La Vallée put the case for Gilles' innocence in a nutshell

We should not assume that revisionist views about Gilles' guilt appeared out of nowhere in the twentieth century; they have run like a golden thread through history, from the moment of his death until the present day, appearing in the unlikeliest of places.

Monday 1 July 2013

A likely story #3

One of the most striking oddities in the trial of Gilles de Rais is the deafening silence from members of his household. We are given the forced confessions of his body servants and the self-extenuating words of Prelati and Blanchet, but of his two hundred-strong army, the members of his chapel (including the allegedly abused boys in the choir) and the various other pages, squires and sundry domestics who lived at close quarters with him, we hear nothing. Surely somebody would have noticed something incriminating? Surely, for instance, the porter at Machecoul could have been summoned to court and asked to explain exactly what he imagined was going on when an elderly crone handed young boys into his care? And, although he was no longer in Gilles' choir, it would have been interesting to hear from André Buchet, who could have told us if he was sexually assaulted and might even have answered questions about whether, when Gilles was at Vannes, he supplied him with a boy for purposes he knew all too well. Buchet would have been easy to find, as he was employed by the Duke of Brittany...

The one voice speaking up for Gilles' entire household is that of a certain André Brechet, a soldier in the garrison at Machecoul. But Brechet has nothing to say about lost children, strange sounds or foul-smelling smoke. Instead we are treated to a completely irrelevant anecdote about standing sentry duty on the ramparts at Machecoul. He was clearly not a good watchman, as he fell asleep. He was woken by a small man, a stranger to him, who threatened him with a dagger & told him "You're dead." However, the stranger did him no harm and went on his way, leaving the hapless sentry in a muck sweat. The next day, Brechet met Gilles de Rais on his way to Machecoul. And, he tells us, he no longer dared keep watch at Machecoul, which must have been an easygoing kind of garrison where soldiers could pick and choose their duties.

What are we to make of this tale? It sounds as if somebody played a prank on the sleeping soldier and frightened him badly. It has no relevance to Gilles or to the charges against him - he was not even at Machecoul, since he arrived the next day. The small man with the dagger was unlikely to be one of Gilles's friends, as Brechet would have known them by sight and his testimony is firm that the man who threatened him was not known to him.

The only purpose this slight anecdote serves is to give the impression that Machecoul was a sinister place where uncanny & quasi-supernatural events were commonplace. And also, of course, to pad out the testimony with more meaningless and unsubstantiated verbiage.

Tuesday 25 June 2013

A likely story #2

Another typically improbable and unsupported anecdote from the witness statements.

In 1438 the son of Jean Bernard, aged 12, went to ask for alms at Machecoul - as Bataille helpfully points out, this is a distance of about 55 kilometres from his home in Port-Launay, Nantes, and he would have had to cross the river. He was not alone: his friend went with him, but they were clearly separated, and the Bernard boy did not turn up at their rendezvous.

Already the distance involved makes the story rather unlikely. Would a boy of twelve - we are not told how old the friend was - really have made such a lengthy journey? It is true that Gilles' almsgiving was legendary - but we are also told that there was a "public rumour" that he was abducting and killing children. No later than 1433 it was being averred that Machecoul was a place where "they eat little children", according to serial witness André Barbe.

We are not told whether the boys actually went to the castle when they arrived in Machecoul. Young Master Bernard went off in search of lodgings and for some reason his friend, the son of Jean Meugner, did not go with him. This seems odd in itself; why would they not stay together, especially as Machecoul was rumoured to be a dangerous place for children?

If he had appeared in court, the friend who survived the trip might have shed some light on exactly what did happen. But he did not. The disappearance of Jean Bernard's son was attested to by his neighbours: Jean Fouriage, his wife Jeanne and a couple of others, who had "heard the son of Jean Meugner" give his account of what happened; in other words, it was yet another example of what Prouteau dismissively calls ouï-dire, hearsay.

The boy's father was dead but his mother, very much alive, was heard complaining bitterly. In spite of her grief, she did not give evidence at Gilles's trial; she was too busy with the grape harvest.

So the two people who knew most about this case were not present in court and the boy's loss was attested to by neighbours of his dead father who produced hearsay evidence and, for good measure, added a gratuitous anecdote about seeing an old woman with a child pass through Port-Launay on her way to Machecoul and later return without the child. Without hearing from the son of Jean Meunier we have no idea whether the boys really reached Machecoul safely, how and why they came to split up, and whether they went to the castle and received alms or not.

It is a pointless and fragmentary anecdote with no real link to Gilles and no evidence other than hearsay from people with only a tenuous connection to the persons involved.

Thursday 20 June 2013

A likely story...

The testimony of outside witnesses at the trial of Gilles de Rais is supposed to constitute a cast-iron case against him. In fact, the evidence is feeble in the extreme; fragmentary, contradictory, largely hearsay and containing many improbable stories like the following:

The sixteenth recorded abduction/murder, in April 1439, was that of the son of Micheau and Guillemette Bouer. No name or age is given for him. The boy left his home near Machecoul to go to the castle and ask for alms; he never returned.

At the trial, his mother told a curious anecdote of how the next day, presumably long before she realised that her son was missing, a large stranger in black approached her as she was minding the animals in the fields and asked where her children were and why they were not doing the task. She replied that they (suddenly her son had a sibling or siblings with him) had gone begging at Machecoul.

The necessary implication is that somebody at the castle took the trouble to find out the name and home of the young presumed victim and deliberately travelled some distance to seek out his mother and ask a suspicious question.

Why? It simply makes no sense at all.

Particularly as Gilles was living at Tiffauges at the time, not Machecoul.

Illustration taken from the site of the Musée Pays de Retz, which relates Gilles life - the non-revisionist version - in French

Wednesday 12 June 2013

La Meffraye

Perrine Martin, La Meffraye, is a strange and, it has to be admitted, convenient figure in the mythology surrounding Gilles de Rais. She seems incongruous; she and her lesser-known crony Tiphaine Branchu are the only women connected to his entourage, the only representatives of old age amid all that youth and beauty. They stalk the countryside like fairytale witches, striking fear into all hearts, to the point where Martin is given her menacing soubriquet of The Terror. She wears black and covers her face with a veil, yet children are curiously drawn to her.

In spite of her inexplicable powers of attraction, the children are not allowed simply to walk with her into the castle - they are accosted by the mysterious empocheurs, anonymous henchmen who overpower them and put them into sacks. This seems rather unnecessary when they are going along with her willingly and when we know that at least one porter is in on the secret - Gilles, presented with a young boy at the Hôtel de La Suze, instructs Martin to lead him to Machecoul and hand him over to the porter. It seems that the mythmakers wanted it both ways: a sinister old crone who lures children away like the Pied Piper, but also violent abduction by thugs who lurk in the bushes.

Martin's testimony has not come down to us, say gullible biographers; like so much else in the heavily-edited trial documents, it has been lost to history. She does not appear to have given evidence in court, but her prison confession is widely broadcast. In fact, her words are often the only link between Gilles and a missing child - one wonders how so many parents came to learn of her accusations. However it came about, it is strikingly convenient for the prosecution, especially as La Meffraye is supposed to have died in prison before being brought to trial.

More strangely yet, although she must have cut an odd and conspicuous figure, the doughty married couple Jean Estaisse and his wife Michele swear that they have never heard of her; nor, indeed, of any rumours about Gilles de Rais until he was arrested.

So who was La Meffraye? Was she, as she is presented, a procuress for Gilles? Was she some witch or local lunatic who could serve as a scapegoat for local child abductions and be used to inculpate him? Did she die under torture? Was she killed? Did she collude with the authorities and earn her release? Or did this shadowy creature exist at all? May she not merely be a figment of the collective imagination, perhaps used to frighten children into obedience, and gratefully latched onto by Jean de Malestroit?

As so often, we are left with more questions than answers and an uneasy feeling that there is something not quite right here.

Illustration by Jean Pleyers
taken from this blog.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Catholic logic

On February 3rd 1930, Aleister Crowley was scheduled to give a lecture about Gilles de Rais to the Oxford University Poetry Society. The lecture was never given; it was printed as a pamphlet instead and is now universally known as The Banned Lecture. It is readily available online and regularly reprinted

Was this some artful self-publicity on Crowley's part or was it really banned? It seems that it was, by the Catholic chaplain, Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox; alternative arrangements were made for the lecture to be given off-campus, but Knox threatened sanctions against any student who attended and so cancellation was the only option.

The reason for the ban is not clear. In the unlikely event that Knox had seen a draft of the lecture,he would certainly have been outraged by Crowley's thesis that "Gilles de Rais was to a large extent the victim of Catholic logic. Catholic logic: and the foul wish-fantasms generated of its repressions, and of its fear and ignorance." However, he is more likely to have taken exception to the identity of the lecturer, the subject of the lecture, or the horrible combination of the two - the Wickedest Man in the World expatiating on the supposed monstrous child-killer Bluebeard must have been the stuff of nightmare for a staid Oxford chaplain.

Crowley reacted with amusement. He told a reporter: "Perhaps the refusal to let me lecture has come because Gilles de Rais is said to have killed 800 children in ritual murder, and in some way this was connected with myself, since the accusation that I have not only killed but eaten children is one of the many false statements that have been circulated about me in the past. Probably the authorities are afraid that I may kill and eat 800 Oxford graduates."

Having had his little jest, he went on to make a serious point, and make it unequivocally: "The main point about my lecture was to show that the allegations against Gilles de Rais were unfounded, just as they were against Joan of Arc. Those were curious times, and anyone was liable to be burned as a witch on the least evidence."

Crowley loved to provoke, and certainly his vanity would have been piqued by the thought that a Wickeder Man in the World than himself may have existed, but one feels that he was genuine in his defence of Gilles de Rais. His lecture  is frivolous and drifts around in a stream-of-consciousness manner - no doubt it would have been delightful to listen to him deliver it in person - but there is a steely logic underlying it and he makes several telling points. "Did the disappearance of the first four hundred, say, put no parents on their guard?" he asks, disingenuously, and one does wonder why so few apparently intelligent historians over the years have asked that obvious question.

It should be remembered that Crowley did not prepare his lecture in a vacuum; no doubt he was inspired by an attempt to rehabilitate Gilles only a few years earlier, spearheaded by Salomon Reinach and Maurice Garçon. It was widely reported at the time but is now virtually forgotten; only Crowley's apparently ephemeral "banned" lecture remains as its memorial

Monday 29 April 2013

1992 news reports

For the sake of completeness, here are the 1992 newspaper cuttings from The Guardian and The Times announcing the retrial of Gilles de Rais. The Guardian story that gave the verdict is already on this blog, here.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

The Algebra of Need: was Gilles an alcoholic?

According to Prouteau in Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, Gilles was an alcoholic who drank five litres of hippocras per day. This was wine fortified with spices and herbs and, at 20% by volume, twice the strength of ordinary wine. When he was imprisoned, his supply of alcohol was cut off and he was given nothing but water to drink, thus precipitating him into an attack of delirium tremens and rendering him highly susceptible to suggestion. It also meant that the court had in its gift the two things that Gilles could not live without: alcohol and the consolation of the Church. As soon as he admitted to the offences he had been charged with, he would be given hippocras and his excommunication would be revoked.

This is a seductive theory; if Gilles was an addict deprived of his drug, he would have admitted to anything to have it restored to him. As William S Burroughs described the Algebra of Need: "In the words of total need: 'Wouldn't you?' Yes you would. You would lie, cheat, inform on your friends, steal, do anything to satisfy total need. Because you would be in a state of total sickness, total possession, and not in a position to act in any other way."  Also, a man in the throes of the DTs and hallucinating would be easy to convince that he had, in fact, done the most outrageous things. However, one has to treat it with caution. Apart from the script that Gilles was made to read about the excesses of his life and the exaggerations of the Mémoire des Héritiers, both highly suspect documents, there is no real indication that Gilles was dependent on alcohol. He may have been a fairly heavy drinker who suffered from forced abstinence in prison, but there is no proof that his gaolers deliberately withheld wine from him in order to break his will, although they certainly would have done if they had thought it would help to brainwash him.

This theory has to be regarded as unproven, but it is hardly needed to explain why Gilles de Rais, after refusing for so long to submit to the will of the court, underwent a complete change of character overnight. He had seen the evidence against him. He knew that it had been extracted by torture and that, subjected to the same torture, he would inevitably break and recite the same litany of atrocities. He knew that he would be condemned and executed. He believed that if he went to his death contumacious and excommunicate, he would be plunged into Hell forever. And so he took the only option that would minimise his pain both in this world and the next; he ate humble pie and read the confession that had been prepared for him and that is so clearly based on the forced testimony of Henriet and Poitou, even though that would inevitably lead to shame and death, because shame and death were infinitely preferable to torment on earth that would continue for eternity in Hell.

Illustration from La trilogie Gilles de Rais by Jacques Martin/Jean Pleyer.

(Interestingly, although it is not too difficult to find images of Gilles feasting, representations of him drinking are vanishingly rare.) 

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Warrior and hero

Up until what Leon Daudet called the Stupid Nineteenth Century, although Gilles de Rais was seen as a murderer, he was at least given his due as a military leader. But then a rather Manichean world view took hold: everything was black or white and a man who killed children could not possibly have any redeeming features. Thus Gilles was quietly removed from the history books, to the point where Vita Sackville-West dismisses him in a footnote and Bataille argues that, really, he was not that great a commander. This would be an injustice even if he was guilty, which he was not.

                                               (Illustration by Paul Gillon)

Gilles de Rais began his military career at the age of sixteen in the battle between the Monforts & the Penthièvres - in a breach with his family tradition, he and his grandfather took the side of the kidnapped Jean de Montfort, the Duke of Brittany who was to betray his friendship so spectacularly. He acquitted himself so well that he and his grandfather were singled out for praise and reward by de Montfort.

He first distinguished himself in the war against the English at Lude, where the garrison was commanded by Captain Blackburn, who had sworn to defend it to the death. And so he did: Gilles was among the first to storm the castle, took on Blackburn in single combat & killed him. At that time, Gilles was twenty-two years old.

His part in the siege of Orléans and the Loire campaign was glossed after his disgrace; for example, at Jehanne's rehabilitation trial in 1455, only Dunois mentions him as a leading commander at Orléans. Contemporary chroniclers, however, both French and foreign, tell a different story. He is seen as pre-eminent among the commanders, often at the expense of the others. His name is always linked with Jehanne's at Orléans and a private letter indicates that he was on good terms with her.

Gilles was entrusted with Jehanne's safety at her own request. He took his duties seriously; on both occasions when she was wounded, he hurried to her side, took her to safety, and stayed with her. The reason that he was not present at Compiègne when she was captured was that the King had disbanded the army to pursue peace with England; Jehanne was acting on her own initiative and it may be significant that she fell into enemy hands as soon as her protector was absent.

As we have already seen, it is certain that he and La Hire intended to launch a rescue attempt when they were at Louviers, in occupied Normandy, just across the river from Rouen where Jehanne was imprisoned.

Apart from Jehanne herself, nobody was more covered in glory than Gilles. He was made a Marshal of France in his twenty-fifth year. He was one of the four knights who fetched the Holy Oil from Saint-Rémy to Rheims; some chroniclers of the time give this honour to Gilles alone. He was also, along with Jehanne and her family, given the right to add the French arms, a border of royal fleurs-de-lys, to his armorial bearings; this was a phenomenally rare honour, more often granted to towns than to individuals.

Nor did he, as is popularly supposed, retire to his estates sulking after the capture and death of Jehanne; he continued to campaign for some years after, although apparently with diminishing enthusiasm. As late as 1439 he was still concerned with the struggle against the English, as was apparent when he espoused the cause of the False Pucelle, Jeanne des Armoises, and briefly put her in charge of his troops.

Whatever one chooses to think about the guilt or innocence of Gilles de Rais, dismissing his military achievements is not an option. It is doubtful whether Jehanne's Loire campaign could have succeeded without his strategic genius and reckless courage.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Wrongly, unduly and without cause

Dated January 3rd 1443, the letters patent from Charles VII to Pierre de l'Hôpital and François I (who had succeeded Jean V as Duke of Brittany), summoned them to the Parliament of Paris to account for the wrongful execution of Gilles de Rais. The letters were never acted upon and were probably suppressed for political reasons. Even through the old French, the strength of the language comes across. Reference is made to the "seizure, arrest & detention of [Gilles'] person and refusal and denial of justice, and other wrongs and grievances to be declared more plainly at the [appropriate] time & place, against him and to his prejudice, wrongly, unduly and without reason"; later we read: "The said late Lord de Rais was condemned and put to death by the said de l'Hôpital, unduly and without reason." There is no sitting on the fence; Gilles has been wronged, the King says, and restitution must be made. And indeed, subsequently Gilles' confiscated estates were restored to his daughter, Marie de Rais, an eloquent gesture that seems to be at least a partial rehabilitation.

(Text of the letters patent taken from Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup by Gilbert Prouteau)

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones...

As yet another new web page insists that Gilles de Rais must have been guilty because "some time after the trial" fifty human skulls were discovered at the château of La Suze-sur-Sarthe, let us nail this persistent canard once and for all.

There were no skulls, bones or any other human remains found at any of Gilles de Rais' castles at any time. Even Bossard, that fausseur évangile as Prouteau calls him, balked at promoting this myth. He mentions it, but dismisses it as being on a par with the legend of the young girls (girls!) freed from the dungeons. It never happened. And Bossard would have loved for there to have been bones; if there had been, he would have gleefully reported it.

The sum total of forensic proof against Gilles amounted to: -

A bloodied and foul-smelling small chemise found, not at the château, but at the house on the outskirts of Machecoul where Eustache Blanchet lodged along with Francesco Prelati.  Hardly evidence against Gilles.

Some "suspicious" ashes found in the hearth at the same house. But, as Prouteau says, they might just as well have been from a suckling pig.  Ashes are what you expect to find in a hearth.

This seems very little to show for hundreds of murders. Where were the severed heads that Gilles was supposed to keep as trophies?

I repeat: there was no forensic proof against Gilles whatsoever. No credible witnesses. And a forced confession.

Anonymous French illustration, circa 1900

[Incidentally, the château of La Suze-sur-Sarthe did not belong to Gilles. Perhaps there is some confusion with the Hôtel de la Suze. But that was not a castle, it was a house in the centre of Nantes and would have lacked the extensive souterrains for the storage of multiple cadavers.]

Sunday 24 February 2013

L'évêque diabolique - ?

Although Jean V is hopelessly tainted in most biographers' eyes, because of his cupidity, his underhand financial dealings and his two-faced pretended friendship with Gilles de Rais, attempts are often made to whitewash Jean de Malestroit, the Bishop of Nantes. Bossard in particular makes him out to be a paragon, if not a saint, and consequently the trial that he presides over is fair, humane and generous.

For Gilbert Prouteau, on the contrary, Malestroit is positively satanic and the prime mover behind the plot to make away with Gilles and seize his estates.

Where does the truth lie?

Politically, he did not trim his sails to every passing wind as Jean V did; he led more than one embassy to London and was a lifelong and passionate Anglophile. Or, as Vallet de Viriville expressed it some 400 years later, "a traitor sold to the English". This is rather unfair to Malestroit, as Brittany was an independent duchy and its best interests arguably lay with the English rather than the French. He was, nonetheless, a natural enemy of the French war hero Gilles de Rais.

He also had a history of enmity towards Gilles' friends, and possibly towards Gilles himself. In 1426 the French attempted to liberate Saint-James-de-Beuvron, a small town on the Norman border. They failed because of some treachery on the part of Malestroit, who had been negotiating with the English on behalf of Brittany and had been gifted, or as one might say bribed, with a pension and lands in Normandy. Arthur de Richemont was so furious at this betrayal that he pursued Malestroit and had him flung into prison; but either the Bishop was seen as a fat ransom, or he was too useful to the duchy to lose and Jean V had him released. There is no evidence that Gilles de Rais fought at Saint-James-de-Beuvron or that he met Malestroit at that time, although most writers, including Bossard, agree that he was most likely present. More important is that he was a close ally of de Richemont and non-revisionist biographers have speculated that Gilles was collateral damage in an attempt to harm his reputation. Gilbert Prouteau's tableau of Malestroit encountering Gilles and seeing death in his eyes because he knew that if Gilles had his way he would be hanged as the archetypal collabo is a fantasy, but founded in emotional truth. Malestroit would certainly have known how Gilles dealt with traitors.

At a later date, as a result of a financial dispute between the Duc d'Alençon and his uncle, Jean V, Malestroit (in his capacity as Chancellor of Brittany) was kidnapped by the former and eventually imprisoned in Pouancé in Anjou. Jean V called upon the English for aid, which led to a minor invasion of Anjou and the release of Malestroit. This was at a time, autumn 1431 to spring 1432, when Gilles de Rais was not in Brittany, but d'Alençon was a friend of his and used several of his castles as bases while he was moving Malestroit around the country, presumably with his consent.

Malestroit also bought several properties from Gilles, so was hardly a disinterested judge. The Mémoire des Héritiers says that Gilles sold "To Jean Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes, the chateau and lands of Prigné, of Vue, Bois-aux-Treaux in the parish of Saint-Michel-Sénéché, and un grand nombre de terres situés dans le clos du pays de Rais pour une somme énorme." He also bought Brégny, but never paid for it, handing over only a promissory note.

The family motto of the Malestroits was Non male stridet domis quae numerant numas - It is not unpleasant to hear the sound of coins being counted in one's own house. Not inappropriate for a man described as "acquisitive" even by biographers who favour him. He had a financial, political and personal interest in the outcome of Gilles de Rais' trial and should never have been allowed to preside over it.

Monday 4 February 2013

Sanctified 'Bluebeard' - The Milwaukee Journal, 1944

I have no idea why, on August 13th 1944, The Milwaukee Journal felt it incumbent upon itself to publish a lengthy article about Gilles de Rais. But here is the article, wordily sub-headlined For 300 Years, French Worshiped at Tomb of Monster of Brittany Who Sacrificed 200 Children in Sadistic Rites to Propitiate the Demons. See my last post, The B Word - this is another strong indication that for many years after his death,  Gilles de Rais was seen as a quasi saint rather than a monstrous Bluebeard figure.

Sunday 27 January 2013

The B Word

That Gilles de Rais is now completely entangled with the Bluebeard myth is almost entirely the fault of the Abbé Bossard, who deliberately set out to conflate the two. His contention, based on nothing but pure conjecture, is that Gilles was linked with Bluebeard from the 15th century onwards and that Perrault's version of the story was partly inspired by him. Thus, Gilles de Rais is the real-life Bluebeard suggested by so many books.

Bossard cites three pieces of evidence in favour of his theory, a Breton complainte, a legend and a long poem. Conveniently, if improbably, two of them mention Gilles de Rais by name. The Lament of the Young Women of Pléeur, in which an old man interrogates a group of girls on the reason for their misery, is oft-quoted -

Old Man: (In terror) Bluebeard lives here! Ah! Fly quickly, my children. The ravening wolf is not more terrible than the wild Baron; the bear is more gentle than the accursed Baron de Rais.

Young Girls: We are not able to fly: we are bound to the Barony of Rais, and we belong, body and soul, to my Lord Bluebeard. 

Old Man: I will deliver you, for I am Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes, and I have sworn to defend my flock.

Young Girls: Gilles de Laval does not believe in God!

Old Man: He shall come to a bad end! I swear it by the living God!

Bossard claims that he found this lament in the works of a writer named d'Amézueil, without specifying in which book it appears. The splendid E A Vizetelly remarks that he was unable to find this particular piece anywhere in d'Amézueil's published writings, that bears and serfs would be unlikely to make an appearance in a complainte of that period, and that this is probably a "modern confection".

The second allegedly old tradition is a story where Bluebeard, also known as Gilles de Laval, attempts to marry a young woman by force and is thus tricked into pledging himself body and soul to the Devil, who turns his red beard blue as a token of their pact. (One should remark here that Bossard accepts the Bibliophile Jacob's dubious and lurid account of Gilles' trial, including the physical descriptions of the accused with his blue-black beard.) Bossard makes no attempt to source this story to any particular folklorist or historian.

Bossard then cites a long poem in which a nameless poet reflects on his blighted childhood, spent in the haunted shadow of Bluebeard's castle, which, as this is supposedly a local poet, is clearly Machecoul or Tiffauges or Champtocé. The poem is anonymous, undated, unsourced and has been rightly ignored by later commentators. It cannot have been written much earlier than the eighteenth century, since by Bossard's own admission the name of Bluebeard was never mentioned by a French writer before Perrault and the refrain - "Anne, ma soeur, ne vois-tu rien venir?" - refers to a character, a situation and a dialogue invented by him in his influential conte .

It is interesting that Bossard is so lax about supplying a provenance for these "old, traditional" tales and rhymes, as throughout his long biography he has hitherto been scrupulous about footnoting the exact page of every work quoted. Even when he mentions oral tradition he insists that it comes from "old people" and once from a particular old lady who showed him round the ruins of Tiffauges. That what appears to be his strongest evidence is unsourced is suspicious in the extreme.

There is no doubt that there is a modern tendency to regard Gilles de Rais as the real-life prototype of Bluebeard; I have some 1973 postcards from Champtocé and Machecoul and they all refer to "la château de Barbe-Bleue". What is in dispute is whether the tradition goes back beyond the French Revolution - and, indeed, whether it might not have been influenced by Bossard's own writing.

All the indications are that when Gilles de Rais died, his death was greeted with tears and mourning. One contemporary claimed that the noble ladies who prepared his body for burial took some of his bones as quasi relics.We have seen that his expiatory monument was a place of pilgrimage and there is some indication that his tomb was similarly venerated. Up until the French Revolution, when his tomb was destroyed along with the church in which he lay, he seems to have been regarded as a Breton saint. It seems highly unlikely that a Bluebeard myth could exist alongside this memory of a paragon of Christian repentance; it could only have begun after 1789, when the tomb and the monument had gone and the pilgrimages and prayers came to a forced halt. Such a tradition could not have influenced Perrault, who died in 1703 and whose highly popular version of the story was published in 1697.

Gilles de Rais was not Bluebeard. And Bossard's determination to twist the evidence to make it confirm his own prejudices is indicative of his approach throughout his notionally authoritative biography.

[In this old newspaper report, firmly based on Bossard's account but written in English, you can read The Lament of the Young Women of Pléeur, the legend in which Bluebeard marries the Devil, and much other Bluebeard-related lore. Click here for Perrault's tale, English language version. The full text of Bossard's biography is available here, French only.]