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)

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)

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