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)

Sunday 22 May 2016

Gilles as werewolf: the Bibliophile Jacob anglicised

It is a given that all biographies of Gilles de Rais have been influenced by Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob, either directly or indirectly. However, since there is no English translation of Lacroix's febrile prose, it is not easy for an English language blogger to underline the point.

Enter, with a roll of drums and clash of cymbals, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. Writing his Book of Werewolves in 1865, he was clearly short of a few pages, and had the ingenious idea of padding it out with three lengthy chapters about Gilles de Rais. Of course, Gilles was no werewolf and Baring-Gould makes no attempt to show that he was; the only vaguely lycanthropic element is the extreme savagery of the alleged murders and the odd description of his features, which at certain moments become inhuman -

No one at a first glance would have thought the Sire de Retz to be by nature so cruel and vicious as he was supposed to be. On the contrary, his physiognomy was calm and phlegmatic, somewhat pale, and expressive of melancholy. His hair and moustache were light brown, and his beard was clipped to a point. This beard, which resembled no other beard, was black, but under certain lights it assumed a blue hue, and it was this peculiarity which obtained for the Sire de Retz the surname of Blue-beard, a name which has attached to him in popular romance, at the same time that his story has undergone strange metamorphoses.

But on closer examination of the countenance of Gilles de Retz, contraction in the muscles of the face, nervous quivering of the mouth, spasmodic twitchings of the brows, and above all, the sinister expression of the eyes, showed that there was something strange and frightful in the man. At intervals he ground his teeth like a wild beast preparing to dash upon his prey, and then his lips became so contracted, as they were drawn in and glued, as it were, to his teeth, that their very colour was indiscernible.

At times also his eyes became fixed, and the pupils dilated to such an extent, with a sombre fire quivering in them, that the iris seemed to fill the whole orbit, which became circular, and sank back into the head. At these moments his complexion became livid and cadaverous; his brow, especially just over the nose, was covered with deep wrinkles, and his beard appeared to bristle, and to assume its bluish hues. But, after a few moments, his features became again serene, with a sweet smile reposing upon them, and his expression relaxed into a vague and tender melancholy.

For Baring-Gould's purposes, this is sufficient proof of Gilles' wolfish nature. Without it, the book would have been some fifty pages shorter, which must have been a consideration.

Now, in 1858 Lacroix had printed his Grand Guignol version of Gilles' trial, which Baring-Gould mentions as an influence; the description of those lycanthropic facial contortions comes direct from the Frenchman's overheated imagination. On closer examination, the whole text is a condensed translation of the Bibliophile into English. In what would now be regarded as flagrant copyright theft, the Reverend merely stole his content from the earlier writer.

For Gilles de Rais it was a posthumous public relations disaster that a sensationalist hack like Lacroix was the first to pen a detailed account of his life, influencing both his first true biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and the scandalously popular novelist J-K Huysmans. The misfortune was compounded when Baring-Gould, one of the earliest English writers to address his case, swallowed the Bibliophile's fantasies piecemeal, including (as we see in the extract) the controversial identification with Bluebeard. Every contentious myth that makes the study of his life so fraught with difficulties can be found in this 19th century text: the description of his clothes, the prototype veiling of the cross, the characterisation of Poitou and Henriet, the Barbe Bleue connection...

The one consolation is that all this mythologising has left a clear trail, both in French and English, for anybody who wants to know the truth. The chapters in The Book of Werewolves are a useful aid for those who are interested in finding the truth about Gilles de Rais but whose French is not up to reading the Bibliophile in his entirety.

Read chapters X-XII in The Book of Werewolves 
Or read the whole text of Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob in French

Whichever you choose, it will be a revelation; those myth-ridden biographies, from Bossard to Bataille, will never be the same again.

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