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 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.

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