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 14 November 2014

The Ostrich Position

Bluebeard: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath by Valerie Ogden: a review

It is a red-letter day when a new English language biography of Gilles de Rais appears; the last was Leonard Wolf's serious and largely accurate, but entirely soulless, effort over a third of a century ago. Valerie Ogden's book promised so much, notably a sympathetic fresh interpretation of Gilles' life, but it is a sad disappointment. Like so many biographers before her, she has been led down the primrose path that leads to the ubiquitous Bibliophile Jacob and his “more circumstantial” copy of the trial record. Ogden does not list him among her sources, but it is not necessary to read the Bibliophile, Paul Lacroix, to be seduced by him. Bossard, for his own transparent reasons, accepted this obvious forgery as a genuine text; most biographers and novelists since have been strongly influenced by the Bibliophile, either by reading him directly or via Bossard and his imitators.

Ironically, the fatal flaw of this Bluebeard book is a lack of curiosity, specifically about sources. Ms Ogden dismisses Prouteau's radical biography as a “novel”, which indeed it is in parts, but is happy to cite Huysmans' novel Là-Bas and even Tragedy in Blue by Richard Thoma, which is nothing but a short story. Huysmans, like the Bibliophile, has much to answer for when it comes to muddying the waters of Raisian studies. The life of Gilles de Rais has long been obscured by myths, mostly created by these two writers and retailed unthinkingly by almost all subsequent biographers. Ms Ogden is no exception. So Gilles is arrested by Labbé and makes his witty pun, as invented by Lacroix; only here the joke is botched because “abbé ” is mistranslated as “priest”. And of course the Bishop of Nantes veils the crucifix, just as Huysmans had him do in an elaboration of a less dramatic moment in Lacroix.

Really, this is a book out of its time. It would be wrong to criticise it for failing in something it never set out to do, and I am fully aware that I come at it from an opposing camp. However, it must be said that slowly public opinion has shifted in favour of a revisionist stance, and it seems impossibly quaint in the 21st century to read a text that fully accepts the validity of an Inquisition trial with the use of torture. Ogden never fully faces the twentieth century movement towards rehabilitating Gilles de Rais; the only revisionist writer she addresses is Reinach, who is easy to discredit. Fleuret, Bayard and Prouteau, who make a more detailed case, are ignored. In particular, she cannot bring herself to mention the 1992 retrial that resulted in his unofficial acquittal. The ostrich position is never a good look; a writer can accept the verdict of the modern tribunal or argue against it, but to simply pretend it never happened is a wilful denial of reality.

Gilles is a difficult topic for a modern writer in any case. Roland Villeneuve could happily wallow in sodomy and black magic in the Satanism-obsessed 1970s; in the 21st century, sodomy is a taboo word and nobody believes in magic. Leaving only murder, repositioned as a response to that fashionable diagnosis Post Traumatic Shock Disorder. “Somehow he became a homicidal sexual psychopath”. There is a world of evasion in that word “somehow”. The psychology is vague and fails to gel. Because Ogden has fallen for some rather bizarre, novelettish fantasies about Gilles' childhood and youth, he is presented as a latent psychopath from his earliest days. He is then traumatised by some unknown event, possibly the death of Jehanne d'Arc, resulting in PTSD. However, since the primary trait of a psychopath is lack of human feelings, it seems unlikely that this could happen. The PTSD theory is a good one, but it remains a theory; there is no evidence at all to back it up. It is one more author attempting to explain away the complete transformation of Gilles' character which supposedly took place in 1432.

The errors are manifold. At one point we are told, wrongly, that brother René de la Suze was born the year before his parents died, in 1414. In the chronology, the date is correctly given as 1407; but this is said to be the same year as Jehanne, who was famously not yet twenty when she died in 1431. She was actually born in 1412. At another point, a horrible mistranslation has Henriet suggesting the idea of killing children by cutting their throats, as if this would never have occurred to a serial killer in the five years or so before his valet was initiated. This is not merely a mistranslation; it is a strong indication, and not the only one,  that Ogden is not at all familiar with the trial record, which is her only primary source, either in French or in English. She also conflates the two exhumations that allegedly took place at Champtocé and Machecoul; in her account, Roger de Bricqueville arranges his peep-show at the former and the latter never takes place. This is simply sloppy reading of the text, or possibly an ill-judged attempt to simplify the story by removing a confusing duplication. What it is not is a serious attempt at writing history.

A thread that runs through the book is Gilles' apparent obsession with the “black planet” that ruled his destiny. Several times Ms Ogden stresses that he mentioned it more than once, that both his valets heard him talk about it, that Gilles himself hinted at it in his out-of-court confession. Not so. It is mentioned once only, by Henriet at the ecclesiastical tribunal; this is one of the few points on which his and Poitou's evidence differs. Neither is there any implication that this was a regular theme with his master; he said it once. Allegedly.

This biography occupies an uneasy no-man's-land between genuine history and novel. There are impossible descriptions that seem to come from works of fiction and at every turn we are told what Gilles is wearing – at one point, “rose-pink tights”. Some of this comes from the Bibliophile Jacob, who has Gilles wearing first white and then black before the court at symbolic moments; though  here the details are elaborated upon, Gilles is seen in five different shades of white and later in three shades of black, including “corbeau-damask”. There is a lurid and completely uncanonical description of Poitou's initiation, involving hanging from a hook and a “serrated” dagger, and also one of Ms Ogden's not-infrequent lapses of tone which has this young boy described as “sinewy and stunning” and “this loopy young man”.  Almost all of the missing boys have a couple of words of description, which would be perfectly justifiable in a novel but has no place in a historical work. It also makes this section of the book conspicuously formulaic and adjective-heavy. More worryingly, the murders are dealt with in a manner that is gleefully gruesome (“slashing and bashing”) and not wholly accurate – that Gilles squatted in the entrails of his victims was an exaggeration by Huysmans, and there is no mention of “violated anuses” in the trial record; sodomy is not necessarily buggery. On a lighter note, the poor people are said to decorate their hovels with henbane flowers – of all the flowers they could have chosen, this is possibly the least likely, as henbane is poisonous in all parts and even its scent is intoxicating. A sceptic might remark that this is one explanation for some of the more outré testimony.

It would be tedious to continue. Inaccuracy, minimal grasp of the facts as related in the trial documents, a fatal weakness for a well-turned myth, poor translations from the French (Memory of the Heirs is clunking as well as incorrect) numerous verbal infelicities (“ominous omens” should never have made it past the first draft), and most of the accents missing from the names, which does not add to the authority of the book. At the end, Valerie Ogden explains how she came to be interested in Gilles de Rais; she is related by marriage to a family who claim descent from him, although they “run away” when she tries to question them. One can hardly blame them at this point. It is tempting to wonder if her in-laws were playing a joke on her, since de Rais had only one daughter, who was childless, and the family died out completely in 1502. As she would have known if she had read Bossard attentively. Although Ms Ogden has dutifully parroted the Abbé's official myth that Gilles was named “Bluebeard” because of his war-horse, or barbe, which was bluish-black, she clearly clings mutinously to the Bibliophile's description of him as literally blue-bearded, since these self-styled descendants have “cobalt-blue hair”...

Read a sample of the book here
Not just me - another bad review here

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Select bibliography: books in French

The English reader, exasperated by the poor biographies available in their own language, might imagine that Gilles de Rais is better served by French writers. Sadly, this is far from the case.

1 Eugène Bossard  The Abbé Bossard was Gilles' first real biographer - previous writers had more or less fictionalised him. Bossard did not entirely reverse this trend. His biography is often called authoritative or comprehensive; it is certainly long. One tends to imagine the abbot as an elderly, bearded man bringing  the knowledge garnered in a long life to bear on his subject. In fact, the book began life as a thesis, written over six years by a relatively young man - he was in his early thirties when it was published. As a thesis, it had to make a new, striking, possibly contentious point, hence the connection between Gilles de Rais and Bluebeard, which had never been mooted before and which Bossard invented single-handed. This is a major flaw in the book. Other weaknesses are the virtual canonisation of the Bishop of Nantes, the mealy-mouthed refusal to print the more lurid accusations even in the original Latin and a certain lack of academic rigour in accepting the lively account by the Bibliophile Jacob to add colour to the dry court proceedings, although it is self evidently a forgery. Gilbert Prouteau rightly regarded Bossard as a myth-monger and fabulist, but his tome did at least revive interest in Gilles.

2 Georges Bataille  Pauvert should be applauded for publishing Klossowski's modern French language translation of the trial record and for keeping it in print. It is truly invaluable as the only translation of the mostly Latin original manuscripts without any obvious bias or agenda. The chronology, too, is extremely helpful. Bataille's introductory essay, however, is a disaster; a chaotic, rambling piece of anti-revisionist propaganda, at times aspiring to the state of utter meaninglessness. Discerning scholars will read the trial record and the chronology only.

3 Gilbert Prouteau, LudovicoHernandez/Fernand Fleuret, Jean-Pierre Bayard  Of the revisionist biographies, Prouteau's is by far the most influential - I have reviewed it in full here. However, he drew heavily on his predecessors for his best-selling book. "Dr Ludovico Hernandez", the pseudonym of Fernand Fleuret, is witty and urbane and an entertaining read. His book was written in 1921, part of an astonishing wave of affection for Gilles that culminated in an attempt to have him canonised.  It consists of a long essay and a full translation of the trial, the first to include the passages Bossard censored. Bayard's 
biography was written in 1985, although reissued in 1992, and it seems a pity that his considered work was overshadowed by the somewhat less substantial opus of the great showman Prouteau. Any of these books is worth reading as an insight into the revisionist argument: as we have seen, nothing similar is available in English. However, I do feel that they only scratch at the surface of the case for Gilles' innocence. If this blog is less regular than it might be, that is because there is a book to be written...

Paul Lacroix, "The Bibliophile Jacob"  True obsessives might like to look up the Bibliophile for entertainment value. Again, I have dealt with him in more detail elsewhere. His colourful elaboration on the trial is well worth reading, if only for the light it sheds on the origin of so many of the myths that cling to Gilles. Lacroix was, for instance, the first to describe him as having a blue beard, hence the attraction for Bossard. Since so many writers who should know better cite the Bibliophile as a legitimate source, it is helpful to read him at first hand and see exactly why he really is nothing of the kind.

[Several of these books are out of copyright, so links will lead to FREE e-books. Jean-Pierre Bayard is sadly out of print and may be difficult to find, but secondhand copies are usually available.]

Saturday 24 May 2014

Michel Tournier: révisionniste malgré lui

There are few revisionists among the biographers and novelists who have taken Gilles for their subject. Nonetheless, it is difficult to find a book that ignores the near certainty of a conspiracy against him and next to impossible to find one with a good word to say about Jean V. This extract is from a novella by Michel Tournier. He is in no way a revisionist. And yet for some reason, in his necessarily telescoped account of the trial, he felt the need to put an eloquent, concise summary of the case for the defence into the accused's own mouth. One is left feeling that perhaps the truth is too powerful to be suppressed...

From the first day, at the hearing of the forty-nine articles of the indictment, Gilles charged at the prosecutor, Jean de Blouyn, and Bishop Jean de Malestroit like an angry bull. To Malestroit's question, 'Have you anything to say regarding these charges?' he replied: 'I have nothing to say regarding these charges, because I have too much to say regarding the mouths that have pronounced them. Seigneur Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes, and your brother Jean de Blouyn, and your brother Guillaume Mérici, and you others sitting on the right and left of those eminent persons, like so many birds of ill omen on the same perch, I shall say this: I am as good a Christian as you and have as much right to divine justice as you and I declare, before God, that you are not judges. You are butchers! What is in question here is not my crime, nor even my person, but my fortune and it alone — my lands, my castles, my forests, my farms, my coffers and the gold that you suspect they contain. If I were poor, do you think that I would be here to answer charges of supposed murders and other heresies? No, if I were poor, I would now be as free as the air, because all of you here present care not a fig for crimes and heresies. What is at stake is something else — something much more serious than crimes and heresies. What is at stake is the immense loot that your quivering nostrils can scent. All of you have already stooped to sordid manoeuvres intended to bring about my ruin. Behind transparently false names, you have negotiated the buying of this or that parcel of my goods on fabulously profitable terms. No, you are not judges: you are debtors. I am not a defendant: I am a creditor. When I have gone, you will fight over my remains, as dogs after the death of the deer tear out its guts and entrails. Well, I say no! I reject your presence. I appeal to a higher authority. Get out! Leave this place!' 

This furious attack coming from so prestigious a lord as Rais disconcerted the judges. A movement of hesitation ran through their ranks. In the end, one of them rose, soon imitated by the others. Downcast, they left pitifully, one after another ... 

Michel Tournier, Gilles & Jeanne
(English translation by Alan Sheridan)

Sunday 13 April 2014

Select bibliography: books in English

There is no one book about Gilles de Rais, either in English or French, that gives all the known facts free of myth and with no agenda. All accept Bossard as an authority, and Bossard knowingly used the forged trial account by "The Bibliophile Jacob", Paul Lacroix, and invented a Bluebeard folklore that simply did not exist at that time. Also, there is no revisionist biography in English.

With these reservations, this mini bibliography may be helpful:

1 Jean Benedetti  This was the first book about Gilles that I read and I still have a soft spot for it. It is a short book, possibly too short, but it does sketch in the background to the life. Its weakness is that it deals too briefly with the trial. Its strength is that it does point out the likelihood of a plot between Jean V and Jean de Malestroit. I would recommend this as a starter book; if, like a few internet commentators, you find it "boring", you should accept that this is not the subject for you.
[My earlier blog post about Benedetti's book can be found here.]

2 E A Vizetelly The nearest to a revisionist biography in English, although not that near. Vizetelly occasionally expresses astonishment at some of his material - "This might be taken almost for the cry of an innocent man..." - but is unable to accept that Gilles might not have been guilty. This puzzled scepticism is the strength of his book; he also gives a detailed account of the other contender to the Bluebeard title, Comorre the Cursed. But it is an older book and not as free from myth as later biographies.

3 Leonard Wolf The most recent biography in English, it is comprehensive but entirely lacking in soul. It does not pretend to be a work of original scholarship, but nor does it bother to hide the author's borrowings from other sources. Wolf simply puts his material on the page unquestioningly and has no truck with dissenters. The book is dedicated "To the victims", which tells you all you need to know about his attitude.

Georges Bataille It is essential for anybody who wants to get to the truth about Gilles de Rais to familiarise themselves with the trial record. I have dealt with this book in my French bibliography, but there is also an English version. Kudos to Amok Books for making this crucial text available to us monoglot English speakers, but the translation is poor and in places confusing - that a man who died before his thirty-sixth birthday should be accused of committing unspeakable crimes for forty years is symptomatic either of supernatural precocity or a schoolboy error on the part of the translator...

[Click on the author's name to see the book on Amazon. E A Vizetelly is out of copyright, so the link goes to a free ebook.]

Update: my own biography is now available, paperback only, £12 - 

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Style and crime, by Quentin Crisp

Quentin Crisp's take on Gilles de Rais was about as un-revisionist as it is possible to get. It does, however, illustrate beautifully the pitfalls of taking your "facts" from Bossard, Huysmans and other myth-mongers. And it is witty and politically incorrect and seems to be unavailable anywhere else on the internet, so it is valuable in itself. It is regrettable that there seems to be no video of Mr Crisp delivering this monologue and that posterity will be deprived of the melodramatic climax of that final pseudo-quote.
The divine Quentin Crisp in 1941, by Angus McBean

In modern life a stylist does not even need virtue. It is no longer necessary to be an object of public veneration or even affection. He can be the focus of contempt or even downright hatred. Illustrations of this abound. As a test of whether you're in touch with somebody, being loved can never be a patch on being murdered. That's when somebody really has risked his life for you. If you have chosen depravity as the fluid in which you will suspend your monstrous ego, then you have the most wonderful examples before you — or rather behind you, because most of the ones we can best identify are in history.

M. Gilles de Rais murdered at least a hundred and forty boys in a lifetime. Numbers are not style, but it's difficult not to be impressed. He was a nobleman, and the projection of his life-style was made easy for him by the fact that, while he was rich and owned more than one castle, most people in France were so poor that whole families of peasants left their homes to wander about the countryside in search of food much as, according to Comrade Boris Pasternak, the Russian bourgeoisie did during the early days of the Revolution. M. de Rais caused it to be known that he was not only wealthy but also an extremely religious man who maintained a large boys’ choir in his castle in Tiffauges. This was a way of luring into his grasp victims of the age that suited his tastes. When the boys arrived, hoping to become part of the choir, he murdered them and ravished them while they were dying or, if they died too quickly, when they were dead.

I expect that rape and murder, either separately or mixed together, fill the fantasies of most men and all stylists. They are the supreme acts of ascendancy over others; they yield the only moments when a man is certain beyond all doubt that his message has been received. Of the few who live out these dreams, some preface rape with murder so as to avoid embracing a partner who might criticize their technique.

M. de Rais was a very different manner of man. He occasionally gave select ravishment parties. He would never have done this if he had been physically inadequate. Orgies are for sexual athletes. 

After a while not even a pinch of exhibitionism could prevent his desire from outrunning his delight. He took to riding into the countryside and hunting down his little friends. (Here once again we see the strong connection between crime and sport.) In these sorties he was accompanied by a certain M. de Sillé, not so much, I feel, because he needed help as in order to have his prowess in the field admired by his peers. 

When he was finally brought to trial, it was for quite another offense, but by this time rumors about his life-style had begun to spread across the land. On a journey through France he had murdered a boy while staying at an inn and this child had parents who noticed his disappearance.

If proof were needed that style engenders style, it could be found in accounts of M. de Rais’s trial. His confession was so long and so lurid that the Bishop of Nantes ordered the face of the crucifix on the wall behind him to be covered. Moreover, style was not confined to the courtroom. People came from far and wide throughout France to pray for his soul. Some of these people were the parents of the children he had murdered. If this is not style, it is at least gesture on a national scale, all brought about by one man.

At the last M. de Rais cried out, ”I am redeemable.” Into what shade is the whole of Mr. Oscar Wilde's De Profundis flung by this single sentence! 

Text taken from The Wit and Wisdom of Quentin Crisp, edited and compiled by Guy Kettelhack and required reading for all.

Monday 6 January 2014

A curious find

 très probablement Gilles de Rais .. de Montmorency Laval

non chiffré / usure d'age/ légère désargenture / sans casse
 hauteur 11,8 cm environ

This mysterious little object is a seal which may (or may not) depict Gilles de Rais and Jehanne d'Arc. There are no markings and the actual seal has been removed, making it impossible to date or place, although it was bought from vendors in Provence, France. It seems to be reasonably old and to have been used for its intended purpose, judging by the wear.

Looking at the iconography of the piece, it is highly likely that it is meant to represent Gilles and Jehanne. Both figures have fleur de lys markings on their armour. The taller figure is leaning on a double-headed battleaxe in what appears to be a deliberate allusion to Féron's imaginary portrait of 1835. He is bearded; Gilles is almost always depicted with a beard, uniquely among Jehanne's companions. The smaller figure is clinging to him for support; we know that Gilles rescued Jehanne on the battlefield twice and the second time she had a leg injury. This little piece might well represent that moment at the nadir of the Loire campaign when Paris had failed to fall, Jehanne was wounded and the next day Charles VII broke up the army, leaving both Gilles & Jehanne to go on alone to their respective fates. No wonder the male figure has such a solemn, melancholy air.

This would have been a controversial piece to own at any time, since Gilles de Rais is the dominant figure and Jehanne is leaning on him. It might have been made in the 1920s, when Jehanne was canonized and there was much revisionist interest in Gilles, or possibly in the late 1890s when Huysman's Là-Bas had such a succès de scandale. But to speculate further would be to make up fairy stories, like Bossard. 

It is a beautiful object and it is posted here for its beauty and its rarity. 

(The pictures and description were taken from the eBay listing. Obviously this item is now sold, but it was bought from this shop.)