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)

Thursday 29 October 2015

The Ghost of Gilles de Rais

As soon as the moon got up, I walked once
more down into the beautiful valley. to enjoy
the scenery by that peculiar light. All three
of my landladies joined in entreating me not to
think of going into or near the castle, assuring
me that it was extremely dangerous; that nobody
in Tiffauges would dream of going near
the ruins after dark, for that "il était impossible
de dire ce qu'il pouvait y arriver." lt is
curious that, of all the various names attached
to this old castle, and all the motley records
of its eventful history, the only name which
yet lives in the memory of the people, and the
only historical facts which have made a lasting
impression on the popular mind, are that
of Gilles de Laval, the wicked Marechal de
Retz, and the atrocities committed there by
him — so prone is the uncultivated mind to
the contemplation of horrors.

Throughout the neighbourhood a thousand
superstitions are current about the ruins of
the dwelling of the murderer and necromancer.
The hideous half-burnt body of the monster
himself, circled with flames, pale, indeed, and
faint in colour, but more lasting than those
the hangman kindled around his mortal form
in the meadow under the walls of Nantes, is
seen, on bright moonlight nights, standing
now on one topmost point of craggy wall, and
now on another, and is heard mingling his
moan with the sough of the night-wind. Pale,
bloodless forms, too, of youthful growth and
mien, the restless, unsepulchred ghosts of the
unfortunates who perished in these dungeons.
unassoiled, with lingering agony, as their
lifeblood flowed from their veins for the
impure purposes of' the tyrant's demon-worship
— these, too, may at similar times be seen
flitting backwards and forwards, in numerous
groups, across the space enclosed by the
ruined wall, with more than mortal speed, or
glancing hurriedly from window to window of
the fabric, as still seeking to escape from its
hateful confinement.

Despite these terrors, with which their old
tyrant still contrives to torment the descendants
of his former vassals, I enjoyed my
moonlight stroll exceedingly. The dancing
stream, the grey rocks on the side of the hill,
lying half in shade, half silvered by the cold
pale rays, ghosts of the departed sunbeams,
the ruins of the castle, exhibiting a thousand
capricious changes of light and shade, are all
well calculated to form a lovely moonlight
scene. And though possibly I might have
seen —nay, am rather inclined to think I did
see—some of the appearances of whose existence
 l had been warned, as the fitful light,
changing with every passing cloud that flitted
across the sky, brought now one part and now
another of the fantastically-shaped fragments
into relief, yet I had the comfort of knowing
that the Sévre's running stream was at
the time between me and them; and, thus
secured from their doing me a mischief, I
returned to my bed, and, I believe, to my good
hostesses' surprise, safe and sound from my

Thomas Adolphus Trollope

A little treat for the Hallowe'en season. This account of supposed hauntings at Tiffauges is occasionally quoted but never given in full. It is the only reference to Gilles or his victims walking as ghosts, and whether it owes more to the imagination of Mr Trollope or his mischievous landladies is difficult to tell. At any rate, it is at least as reliable as much of Bossard. 

Monday 26 October 2015

Gilles de Rais Day

How I became Gilles de Rais' representative on earth

Gilles de Rais has fascinated me for many years. I first encountered him when I was a teenager, in a book I had just bought, The Devil And All His Works by Dennis Wheatley; I was flicking through it idly and came across a small black-and-white picture of a dark man in armour leaning on a battle-axe. I thought he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. The caption read: “Gilles de Rais, one of the blackest sorcerers in history”. He obviously stuck in my head, because when, a few months later, I read a review of a new book, Gilles de Rais, the Authentic Bluebeard by Jean Benedetti, I immediately ordered a copy, something I had never done before and very seldom do now. I still have the clipping of that review that changed my life: it was headlined The Beast who saved Joan of Arc before he became ‘Bluebeard’.

I was on the cusp of 16 when I started reading Jean Benedetti's biography; I had my birthday while I was reading it. And I read it perfectly straight. I knew about miscarriages of justice, but I assumed that this was History and couldn't be questioned. It  must have happened, just as written. I didn't know about the revisionist viewpoint, because Benedetti doesn't mention that, and I didn't find out about it for many years. But I was sympathetic towards Gilles, because Benedetti was sympathetic; I do sometimes wonder what might have happened if my first encounter had been with a less kind biographer. I read the book, and it stayed with me, and not long after I started to wonder. Benedetti had made it quite plain that there was a plot against Gilles, that his judges had an agenda, and I began to think he might have been framed. This seemed a crazy idea, as far as I knew nobody else felt that way. I was outraged by the thought of such an injustice, because I was sixteen.

I started looking for books about him, which wasn't easy - no Amazon, no internet, just book search companies and ransacking every antiquarian book shop I could find. I still remember the helpful bookseller who sold me a book from his private library, the magical moment when I found a copy of Vizetelly in a small shop next to York Minster, the day when I had a sudden impulse to go back the way I'd come and look in a certain charity shop, where a copy of Frances Winwar's The Saint and the Devil was waiting for me on the bookshelves. What I could never find was Bataille's book, with the trial records in. That was RPND - reprinting, no date - every time I tried to order it. And when I finally did get it, well. It was in French. I  had learned French at school, but back then I "read French" in the same way I danced the polka - I had done it, but not with much success, and didn't fancy trying it again. I had to wait till a rather rickety English translation came out, in the nineties. And then I didn't want to read it, because I'd pretty much convinced myself that Gilles was innocent, but I expected the evidence against him to be overwhelming. I'd only read biographies: that's what I'd been told.

By this time, I knew I wasn't the only person who believed in Gilles' innocence, because some of the biographers addressed that issue, with a great deal of scorn. One June day in 1992 I woke to find that famous, fake picture of Gilles on the front page of my newspaper and the announcement of his retrial, based on Gilbert Prouteau's best-selling  revisionist biography; that was the greatest adrenaline jolt of my life. But there wasn't - and still isn't – a revisionist biography in English, and none of the French ones had been translated. I still had no idea how the evidence could be explained away, because I hadn't yet read the evidence and imagined that it was as I had been told: hordes of grieving parents telling their unimpeachable stories in court.

Now round about the turn of the millennium there was one revisionist website, by Kathleen Lehman; she later took it down, I suspect because trolls or other ne'er-do-wells had put pressure on her. Luckily I'd printed off a just-legible draft copy so I could still refer to it. Ms Lehman said there was no accurate biography of Gilles, that the people who wrote about him were "pseudobiographers". At the time, I thought that was hyperbole. She also strongly  implied that the evidence wasn't as watertight as it was reputed to be. At that point I had to bite the bullet and read the trial record.

I was completely blown away, because the evidence is tissue-thin. The point at which it really came home to me was when I read Poitou and Henriet's testimony before the ecclesiastical court. I knew the argument that the two statements were so similar that they could only have been produced by torture, but there's a difference between knowing something theoretically and experiencing it. The two statements are as near as damn it identical. I knew I'd been right all along. That was when I started my Gilles de Rais was Innocent blog and upped my web presence. I'm shameless, I will call out people who post mindless plagiarised articles about Gilles.

Two years ago I re-read all the books I had about him in English and then took a deep breath and decided to have a go at the Prouteau book that started all the fuss and led to the successful 1992 retrial. Then I tackled Bossard. And every other French book I could get my hands on. At some point I realised that I was researching my own book, which at that time I envisioned as a long essay more than anything. But reading all those biographies made me see that they really are a poor bunch, beset with myths. To cut through the myth, I'd have to write a proper biography.

I'm not a prose writer. I used to write poetry years ago. Short poetry. If the lines have to reach the right hand side of the page, I get uneasy. But the book has slowly taken shape. It started as a bundle of ragtag fragments, now it's a book with bits missing. That's why the blog looks so dead – all my energy is going into the book. I have gone through the account of the trial obsessively, sifting the evidence, pointing up the absurdities and contradictions. I have found unnoticed, damning details that even the revisionist writers failed to notice. When I finally present my evidence, I believe that it will be both persuasive and shocking, since I have gone much further than previous revisionists.

Nobody can prove that Gilles de Rais was innocent, after 500-odd years and with only a couple of corrupted and biased sources to rely on. But I am now one hundred percent certain that he was, and this conviction is sustained by my researches and not by the vague sense of injustice that inspired my adolescent self. I am not arrogant enough to suppose that I will be the one who finally restores Gilles to his proper place in history, but I hope that I am a strong link in the chain that goes back to Reinach and Fleuret, and that I will live to see the next biographer, or the one after, achieve that end. I am proud to be Gilles de Rais' representative on earth.

Margot K Juby 

Monday 19 October 2015

Chinese whispers

In the year 1440, all France was shocked to learn that one
of the greatest nobles in the land, Gilles de Rais, had 
participated in the rites of devil worship, in the course of which
he had sacrificed no less than a hundred and fifty victims in
homage to Satan.

De Rais was one of the élite of the Breton nobility, a man
in whom ritualism had developed into an obsession. He
never ventured abroad unless preceded by a great cross and
banner, and his retinue was invariably dressed in raiment
richly ornamented with gold. As was customary in feudal
days, he possessed a number of pages and these children began
to disappear one by one and were never heard of again. De
Rais forbade any mention of the subject, and so great was the
fear that he inspired that none cared to investigate the mystery. 
His own wife was aware that something dreadful was
taking place but was too terrified to question her husband,
and it was only when he was absent from the castle, that she,
together with her sister, dared explore for themselves. Their
curiosity was soon, terribly satisfied, for they discovered a
room in the castle entirely dedicated to the Satanic Mass, and
containing copper kettles filled with human blood. Unfortunately 
de Rais returned to the castle without warning and
entering the 'chapel' surprised the two women in the very act
of penetrating his darkest secrets. Overwhelmed with terror,
one sister fled to the roof of the tower and in desperation
signalled for help to a small party of horsemen who could be
seen approaching the castle. By a stroke of fortune the two
leaders happened to be her own brothers, who had decided to
visit their sisters during the absence of de Rais.

The horsemen entered the castle and soon learned the terrible 
secrets of the satanic chapel. De Rais's own men turned
against him and the matter was reported to the authorities.

This was an age when there was virtually no limit to the
power of the feudal lords, who might torture or kill their
subordinates as the mood took them, without fear of 
intervention by the State. It was a situation tolerated by the
Church just so long as heresy was not involved, for this 
constituted a threat to its own power, and had therefore to be
opposed with all the force at its command.

To the disgust of the nobles of Brittany, Gilles de Rais was
brought to trial before the Parliament where the whole horrid
business was brought into the light of day. It appeared that
the chapel had been used as a torture chamber, where young
children were decapitated or beaten to death to the 
accompaniment of incredible sexual perversions by de Rais, who
had liked nothing better than to sit upon the stomachs of his
victims and watch them die. The severed heads of over forty
children were discovered in the castle, together with more
than two hundred small skeletons. De Rais admitted his guilt,
under torture, and was put on trial accused of apostasy, heresy
and the invocation of demons, and sentenced to death. He was
granted the privilege of strangulation before his body was
committed to the flames on October 26th, I440.

Later historians have detected signs of some sinister 
conspiracy in the trial, torture and death of Gilles de Rais, for
this occurred at a time when new forces were developing in
the state led by new men of humbler birth to whom the 
unchecked power of the great nobility presented something of an
obstacle. The Noble Order with its vast wealth was largely
a law unto itself and this excited the jealousy of the emerging
political state, which was both impecunious and hungry for
real authority, which could only be secured by inroads into
the vested interests of the Nobility.

A Victorian illustration of Gilles de Rais, 
showing a completely imaginary scene. 

No text about Gilles de Rais is one hundred percent reliable. Before Bossard partially reclaimed him for history, while retaining certain favourite myths and adding the unwarranted Bluebeard connection, Gilles was the subject of many fictionalised biographies which extemporised loosely on the known facts, such as they are. After Bossard, other writers copied extensively from his book, believing it to be authoritative, and therefore drank in the errors that the good Abbé had adopted from the bogus historian Paul Lacroix, "The Bibliophile Jacob". A process of Chinese whispers ensured that such myths as the veiling of the cross and the corrupting influence of an illustrated Suetonius are cited as fact in the most surprising places: even the meticulous scholar Emile Gabory claims that "it has been said" that the Bishop of Nantes covered the cross, without for a moment questioning why such a dramatic moment would go unmentioned in the record of the trial. Although this story originates with Lacroix, his version is a pale prototype: Pierre de l'Hôpital
performs the symbolic gesture so that Henriet can speak without inhibition. It was a novelist, J-K Huysmans, who improved on the Bibliophile's version and gave us the dramatic account we are familiar with today. Huysmans muddied the waters by publishing the Gilles de Rais sections of his work of fiction, Là-Bas, as a factual book, which it most certainly is not, and thus introduced a few myths of his own. He was more influential in the English-speaking world than Bossard, since his succès de scandale was widely translated whereas Bossard, for some reason, never has been. 

Another misleading influence is The Bloody Countess by Valentine Penrose, which employs Gilles de Rais as a counterpoint to the story of Erzsébet Báthory. This rather trashy opus had the good fortune to be translated from the French by cult author Alexander Trocchi, and so became popular in the 1970s. The original author had merely plagiarised the most lurid and homoerotic anecdotes from the Bibliophile Jacob and generously given them a whole new audience. Not only individual incidents but the atmosphere created by Lacroix/Penrose permeated later accounts and every writer who quotes the imaginary exchange where Pierre de l'Hôpital compares the burning of bodies to the fat from a Sunday roast dripping onto the fire, or depicts Poitou as Gilles' lover and Henriet as his librarian, is in their debt. 

Given that even serious biographers have been led astray and made grave factual errors, the writers who deal with Gilles de Rais as a small part of a larger theme or as an encyclopedia entry have no chance of avoiding inaccuracy. They do not research individual topics in depth, but depend on the accuracy or otherwise of existing texts. A case in point is this passage from The Domain of Devils by the esteemed folklorist Eric Maple, where we can see the process of Chinese whispers in action. He begins well, but at a certain point in the narrative he segues quite bizarrely into the Bluebeard story, complete with plucky sister. This is a fairly common trope for the period, and betrays the author's source - Eliphas Lévi's fantasy account, which follows the exact same trajectory, from Gilles to Bluebeard and back to Gilles again. Lévi also included the Gothic detail that Gilles was planning to sacrifice his unborn son, which comes straight from an 1830's novel by Hippolyte Bonnelier and has no basis whatsoever in contemporary documents. Maple omits this &, sweetly, ends with a small gesture towards revisionism. Clearly, he was aware of the événements of the 1920s and of Reinach and Fleuret/Hernandez; it is a shame that he did not actually read them. But why would he? He had read Lévi, and Lévi was a popular author in his day: surely he would not mislead his readers...

(The History of Magic by Eliphas Lévi was originally written in French: original version here.)

Saturday 4 July 2015

Comorre the Cursed: the original Bluebeard?

Gilles de Rais was not Bluebeard. A previous post has already examined how desperately the Abbé Bossard tried to make the connection, arguably to the point of falsifying evidence to support his case. In fact, Bossard was completely ignorant about folklore: these tales seldom have one single source, and the Bluebeard motifs appear in myths from all over the world. If Perrault had been minded to take his inspiration from close to home, however, there was a tale of a Breton nobleman who was a serial uxoricide, Comorre (the name is variously spelt). Many have argued that he was a far more likely Bluebeard than Gilles. Bossard was aware of this theory, but rejected Comorre completely; he insisted that the story bore no resemblance at all to the Bluebeard legend. Here is the story: judge for yourself.

The Flight of Tryphina

Long ago, in the low, sunny, treeless land of the Morbihan,
there lived a certain Count of Vannes whose wife, after
bearing him four stalwart sons, at last gave birth to a little
daughter. Great was the rejoicing at this happy event, for
the Count had long wished for a daughter. But his
happiness was short-lived, for soon afterwards his wife died,
leaving the little girl motherless at the tender age of three
The child, who had been named Tryphina, grew into a
beautiful young maiden, resembling her mother in looks
and in the goodness and piety of her nature, and this
resemblance endeared her especially to her father, who
never ceased to mourn the loss of his beloved Countess.
Now, it happened one day that a rich and powerful
lord named Comorre, who was known throughout the
land for his wickedness and cruelty, visited Vannes and
chanced to see Tryphina as she set out with her attendants
to carry alms to the poor. Straightway he fell in love with
her and resolved to marry her at any cost.
Comorre's lands adjoined those of the Count of Vannes,
but of the two Comorre was much the more powerful,
by reason of his having gained the favour of Childebert,
King of the Franks, who had loaded him with riches and
raised him to his present status. He was a great giant of a
man and nearly twice Tryphina's age besides, and his
dark, cruel looks were enough to frighten any girl.
Moreover, Comorre had been -married four times already and
every one of his previous wives had met a violent death;
indeed it was widely rumoured that Comorre himself had
murdered them.
On his return to his own domain, Comorre lost no time
in sending two of his most trusted servants to wait upon
the Count of Vannes and to ask for the hand of Tryphina.
They brought with them gifts of valuable cattle, wine and
honey, but they also carried swords and their request was
couched more in tones of coercion than of pleading.
The Count, who knew Comorre's reputation only too
well, refused the gifts as courteously as possible and,
making the excuse that Tryphina was as yet far too young to
think of marriage, bade the messengers be gone. But the
servants were not to be put off so easily.
"You had best reconsider your words, Lord ofVannes,"
replied one. "Our master's instructions were that, in the
event of your refusing him your daughter, we were to
declare war upon you."
Then the second servant seized a bundle of straw and
set it ablaze, declaring that the anger of Comorre should
pass over the country of Vannes in like manner and all be
put to fire and sword.
"If your master sees fit to make war upon us, so be it,"
answered the Count. "I will not give him my daughter."
So the servants departed and the armies of the two
countries prepared for war.
Now when Tryphina went forth to visit the poor and
the sick, she saw everywhere blacksmiths forging weapons,
the flash of steel and glint of armour, stern-faced men and
weeping women. She was filled with distress at the thought
of the bloodshed and suffering that was to come, and
passed her days in weeping and praying. She could get no
comfort from her father or any of her four brothers, who
were busy drilling troops and making ready for war, and
mother she had none.
At last, in her loneliness and trouble, she sent for the
only one she felt might help her. This was Saint Gildas, a
holy man for whom her father had built a monastery on
the peninsula of Rhuys, and who had been her friend and
teacher when she was a child. To him she unburdened her
troubled heart and begged for advice as to what she ought
to do.
The holy man listened sympathetically, then, laying a
hand compassionately on her little, drooping head, he
said, "My child, God has given you a great opportunity
for showing your love to your people of Vannes. By becom-
ing the wife of this Lord Comorre, you may gain much
influence over him and make him a blessing instead of a
curse to the countryside. You will, besides, save your own
people from all the horrors of war."
"Alas!" cried the poor young girl. "Must I then sacrifice
all joy and happiness for the sake of my people? Oh, why
was I not born a beggar? I might then at least have mar-
ried another beggar of my own choosing. Surely there
must be some other way to avert this terrible war that is
being thrust upon us?"
"There is no other way," replied the saint gravely.
"Then, if I am to marry this giant who terrifies me so,
say over me the service of the dead, holy Gildas," sobbed
Tryphina, "for I will surely die as his other wives have
"No, my child, you will not die," said Gildas firmly.
"I give you my promise that if you make this sacrifice for
the people of Vannes, I will bring you back one day safe
and sound to your father."
Tryphina buried her face in her hands and a bitter
struggle raged in her breast.
At last she looked up and, drying her tears, said bravely,
"If you promise me that, holy Gildas, then I will make
this sacrifice for the sake of my people. I will go at once to
my father and make known to him my decision."
At first the Count of Vannes was aghast and refused to
listen to his daughter. But Tryphina pleaded so fervently,
emphasizing the horror and destruction that Comorre and
his armies would bring upon them, adding that she feared
for the lives of her own dear brothers, and telling him,
moreover, that he need have no fear for her, since she had
Saint Gildas's promise that she would return safely one
day. And at length, unwillingly, her father gave way.
So the people of Vannes were saved from war and there
was much rejoicing among the womenfolk, who blessed
Tryphina for giving back to them their husbands and sons.
Comorre lost no time in sending for his bride, and after
taking tender leave of her father and brothers, Tryphina
set forth, accompanied by a fierce band of her lord's
retainers. .
As they journeyed, the country through which they
travelled became more and more forbidding. Trackless
forests shut out the sky, rivers of black, swirling waters ran
deep and strong, and paths grew ever more rocky and
precipitous. Small wonder if Tryphina found it daunting,
after her own sunny, treeless country of Morbihan! And
when at last they came to the Castle of Comorre - a
frowning fortress perched high on a mountain top- the
poor girl shuddered to think that this was to be her future
At first, Comorre was kind to his new little bride. In his
own fierce way he loved her, and although his caresses
caused her more fear than pleasure, she submitted cheer-
fully, hoping she might gain influence over him, as Saint
Gildas had suggested, and gradually win him to better
ways. But after a time Comorre had to leave her, to attend
a meeting of the states at Rennes, and she was left alone in
the grim, forbidding castle, to amuse herself as best she
might. She employed herself by getting to know her
servants and dependants, who soon grew to love her for her
sweet disposition. And she spent many hours, too, in the
chapel of the castle, praying on the tombs of Comorre's
former wives.
Presently she began stitching at dainty little garments
and jewelled caps for the baby that was soon to come to
her. Then the days passed pleasantly for Tryphina and she
smiled and sang at her needlework, for the future looked
bright and full of hope.
One day, as she sat in her little turret-room, she heard
the noise of horses entering the courtyard at the back of
the castle, and looking out, saw that her lord had returned.
As he burst in, she raised a smiling face to welcome him
and he, radiant, stretched out his arms towards her. But
all at once, as he looked at her, and his gaze fell on the
piece of needlework she held, his face changed. A murder-
ous light came into his eyes, and uttering a terrible oath,
he rushed from the room.
Now Tryphina was frightened indeed. She could not
understand the cause of her lord's anger, for she was not
aware of having committed any offence. She passed the
rest of the day in fear and trembling, and when darkness
fell she made her way into the chapel and, falling on her
knees, began to pray.
When, somewhere in the castle, a clock struck the hour
of midnight, she raised her head, to see four ghostly
phantoms approaching. Transfixed by terror, she watched
them take the shape of four beautiful young women, each
holding something in her hand—the first a cup, the second
a rope, the third a stick and the fourth a flaming torch.
"Do not fear us, Tryphina," said the first. "We are
Comorre's former wives, whom he murdered, and we have
come to help you in your hour of need."
"You are in great danger," warned the second.
"You must flee the castle at once," urged the third.
"Fly back to your father, as swiftly as you can."
"There is not a moment to lose," echoed the fourth.
"Fly! But how?" cried poor Tryphina, in an agony of
fear. "If I should try to leave the castle, Comorre's great
dog will tear me limb from limb."
Then the first ghost wife handed her the cup she held,
saying, "Here is poison. It killed me, it will do the same
for the dog."
"And how am I to cross the wall?" asked Tryphina.
"Take this cord," whispered the second wife, handing
her the rope she held. "It was used to strangle me, it will
help you across the wall."
"But the way is so long, so long, and I am so weak,"
cried Tryphina piteously.
"This stick with which Comorre struck me shall help
you on your road," said the third wife, handing it to her.
"And who is to guide me through the darkness of the
forest?" asked Tryphina, shuddering.
"The light with which Comorre kindled the fire to
burn me," said the fourth wife, handing her the torch.
Tryphina thanked them and then they told her the
reason for Comorre's cruelty—how there was an ancient
prophecy that he should die at the hands of his son, and
how, to prevent its fulfilment, he killed his wives as soon
as there was a prospect of their becoming mothers. And
they urged Tryphina once more to flee at once, if she would
escape the fate which had overtaken them.
Then the phantoms vanished as suddenly as they had
appeared, and Tryphina was left alone in the darkness.
But now she knew what she must do and she did not
hesitate. Wrapping her cloak about her, she stole swiftly
and silently from the chapel.
When she came to the gate where the great dog lay, she
gave him the cup of poison to drink. With the aid of the
rope she scaled the wall that was so fearfully high. When
her feet slipped on the steep and treacherous path, the
stick prevented her from falling. And when she came to the
black, swirling waters of the river she ran hither and thith-
er flashing her torch, and its light showed her where there
were stepping-stones. She struggled across, sometimes
knee-deep in the water, sometimes almost swept away by
the current. At last she stood safely on the opposite side
and sought to find the long, long road that would lead her
back to her own dear country.
"Once upon the road," thought she, "there will be
bridges by which to cross the rivers; I shall be able to
travel more quickly."
But first there was a great, dark forest through which
she must pass. Bravely she pressed on through the world of
trees, her only light the flickering torch. Often she
stumbled and would have fallen but for the aid of the
stick. Her clothes were torn almost to rags, her little white
feet were cut and bleeding, but fear drove her onwards.
At dawn she found a woodman's hut and, entering, laid
herself down in utter exhaustion. By and by she fell into an
uneasy sleep in which she unconsciously bemoaned her
sad plight, crying, "Tryphina! Ah, poor little Tryphina!
Who will help her?"
While she slept, an old magpie flew down and perched
on the door of the hut. Hearing her cries, the bird repeated
them, calling, "Tryphina! Ah, poor little Tryphina!" He
was very proud of his achievement.
It was sunset when Tryphina awakened and, starting
up, set out once more on her perilous way.
Towards the second evening, she found herself at last
upon the great, white, glistening road that led in a straight
and ever-narrowing line uphill and down, away to the
"Now I shall soon find my way home," she thought.
Suddenly she stopped to listen. Was it the sound of
hoofbeats that she heard? She knelt down and laid her ear
to the ground. She was not mistaken. Quite distinctly she
heard the regular thud, thud of galloping hooves, coming
nearer and nearer.
Her eyes wild with terror, she turned swiftly from the
road and hid herself in a hawthorn bush, praying that
Comorre would not find her—for that it was he who was
following her she did not doubt.
Presently she saw through the thicket a cloud of dust
and in a few moments Comorre came thundering by on his
big black horse, a couple of fierce bloodhounds at his side.
As he passed through the forest in his search for Tryphina,
the old magpie had called her name and thus betrayed the
direction in which she had gone
The two bloodhounds ran hither and thither trying to
pick up the scent and baying horribly. The big, black horse
reared and plunged as Comorre struck vicious spurs into
him. They were so close that Tryphina could see the
murderous look on Comorre's dark face and could almost
feel the hot breath from the flaring nostrils of his charger.
Even then she might have escaped discovery, but at that
instant the old magpie came flying from the forest and
perched on the very hawthorn bush where she hid, calling,
"Tryphina! Ah, poor little Tryphina !"
With a yell of triumph, Comorre burst through the
thicket and fell upon Tryphina. With savage blows he
beat her until he was sure that she was dead. Then mount-
ing his big black horse, he galloped away, leaving her
there under the hawthorn bush, with only the old magpie
as witness of his cruel deed.
All that night Tryphina lay there, white and motion-
less. Yet, although grievously wounded, she was not dead;
a feeble pulse still beat in her temple.
At daybreak, a poor charcoal burner and his son,
making their way to the forest, found-her.
"Why, it is the sweet lady of Comorre !" exclaimed the
son. "What villain can have committed such a dastardly
"None other than Comorre himself," replied the father
sternly. "His cruelty and wickedness are a byword
throughout the country. It is well known that he killed all
four of his former wives and now he has murdered this
sweet lady."
But when they examined her more closely, they saw that
she still breathed.
"We will take her to the hermitage of La Roche-sur-
Blavet" said the father. "There is a holy man there who,
they say, has wonderful powers of healing. Perhaps he can
revive her."
So they lifted her tenderly and carried her to the
hermitage not far away.
Now it so happened that this holy man of whom they
spoke was none other than the good Saint Gildas, who was
staying at the hermitage with his friend Saint Bieuzi.
Saint Gildas had studied medicine under a great Welsh
Druid and knew of herbs that, gathered by moonlight and
distilled in a certain manner, would sometimes bring the
dead to life; and Tryphina, he saw, was not yet dead. He
dressed her wounds and for many weeks he nursed and
tended her with all his skill. And slowly, very slowly,
Tryphina came back to life again.
At last there came a day when Saint Gildas fixed his
wonderful grey eyes upon her and said, "Tryphina, I
command you to rise and follow me !"
Tryphina arose and walked and Saint Gildas led her
back to her own country, to the castle at Vannes, where
he delivered her to her father, thus fulfilling his promise.
There, shortly afterwards, Tryphina's son was born and
grew up to be a handsome and valiant young prince,
resembling his mother in the sweetness of his disposition
and being not in the least like his father, Comorre.
In course of time, Tryphina entered a convent and
devoted the remainder of her life to religious works.
As for Comorre, he continued for many years in his
wicked course. But the ancient prophecy concerning him
was destined to be fulfilled, for it happened one day that
his young son, casting a handful of stones against the old
walls of his castle, caused them to crumble and fall,
burying Comorre in the ruins. And so he died by the act
of his own son, as had long been foretold.

Agnes Ashton from Saints And Changelings - Folk Tales Of Brittany

Although Ms Ashton's version of the tale is atmospheric, she has bowdlerised it slightly, disguising the miraculous nature of Saint Gildas' healing. In most accounts Comorre cuts off Tryphina's head, as in this version

Friday 27 March 2015

Qui veut innocenter Barbe-Bleue?

 Jean Kerhervé


Gilbert Prouteau

Not everybody was delighted by Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup, Gilbert Prouteau's mischievous propaganda victory for the revisionists. Jean Kerhervé, a Breton and a professional historian, seems to have been genuinely shocked by the way in which the media so predictably fastened on to this outrage against historical process. Prouteau, he protested, was a novelist! And one writing to a commission, moreover, which apparently compounded the felony, although Prouteau makes it plain that he went beyond his brief and that the tourist authorities had not intended to open this particular can of worms.

Having sketched out a brief introduction to Gilles de Rais, in which he admits that Jean V behaved reprehensibly and offers more than a little justification for the revisionist position - Quoi qu'on en pense, on ne saurait donc dissumuler que le dossier d'accusation est chargé dans le double proces de 1440 et que Gilles, désargenté et privé de l'appui du roi, ait donné des armes pour le perdre à ceux qui avait intérêt à le voir disparaître – Kerhervé goes on to pick at historical errors in La Gueule du Loup. The most damaging of these is that he casts doubt on Prouteau's claim that Pierre de l'Hôpital signed every page of the trial transcript except the ones bearing Gilles' confession. Even this is only a minor problem, however, since l'Hôpital's ambivalence towards Gilles is transparent. Kerhervé does not, surprisingly, mention Prouteau's startling allegation that Gilles was an alcoholic and that Malestroit used this weakness to force him into confessing. This is pure speculation and anybody with a serious interest in Gilles de Rais would realise that it is unsupported by even a scrap of evidence.

The truth is that Prouteau was writing a novel, not a biography. Why would he do anything else? He was a novelist. He does not conceal the fact, from the fantasy childhood (shamelessly stolen from Jacques Bressler's Gilles de Rais ou la passion de défi) to Gilles' journal apocryphe. Kerhervé complains that Prouteau has Gilles born at Machecoul and damaged by the remarriage of his widowed mother, whereas modern scholarship has him born at Champtocé and his mother predeceasing her husband. Both these misapprehensions come direct from Bossard; the good abbot was no historian. Very few of Gilles' biographers are: apparently this only becomes a problem when they fail to follow the official line. I feel sure that Prouteau's intentions in printing the Bossardian legend were not innocent; he began by giving his employers exactly the book they wanted, which would chime perfectly with their plans for a Gilles de Rais tourist trail, and then undermined it by giving it an abrupt revisionist slant.

Kerhervé is perfectly correct when he asserts that, as a piece of original research into history, Prouteau's book is worthless. But then, Prouteau hardly pretends otherwise: his revisionist argument consists, for the most part, in rehashing the claims of Fleuret/Hernandez and Reinach. It is a magpie's nest of a book, crammed full of stolen trinkets, and it seems more than a little odd that  his antagonist fails to remark on this. What is valuable about it is that it was a splendid provocation and coup de théâtre, capturing the attention of the media world far beyond France and making front page news in the UK Guardian, for example. He flung a gauntlet and started a discussion, even in that pre-internet world of 1992. It is no longer possible to ignore the pressing questions concerning Gilles' guilt or innocence. For that, we owe Gilbert Prouteau a debt of gratitude.

It is notable that in quite a lengthy peroration, Kerhervé does not once address the issue of how compelling the evidence against Gilles was and whether or not confessions were extracted under torture, matters which are more significant than the date of Montezuma's death or a few misspelled Breton town names. He accuses Prouteau of cherry-picking the trial record for passages that support him, failing to note the irony that all Gilles' biographers have done exactly the same. He wilfully pretends that Prouteau misunderstood Jean V's politique de bascule; he did not, he merely emphasised the role of Malestroit, who was an Anglophile all his life and constantly sought to influence his cousin, the Duke. Anyway, Jean V signed an important treaty with the English on 13th October 1440, a strong indication of which way the pendulum was swinging while Gilles was on trial for his life. Matters of guilt and innocence do not greatly concern M. Kerhervé. It is sufficient, in his mind, merely to destroy the credibility of this pesky revisionist without making the case for accepting the verdict of 1440. And this speaks volumes about him.

Click here to read Jean Kerhervé's article (French language)