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.)