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)

Wednesday 28 March 2018

A likely story #4

Of all the likely stories presented as evidence, this may be the most startling. There is a strong implication in Jean Jenvret’s testimony that Gilles was in two places at once.

In June 1438, Jenvret's nine-year-old son disappeared. Modern writers, taking their cue from Georges Bataille, aver oxymoronically that the boy “sometimes frequented” the Hôtel de la Suze. In fact, the text says that he never at any time went there; the error seems to be with the translator, Klossowski, replacing aucune fois with parfois, an indication of how little respect has ever been shown to the original text. Obviously, if he had been a regular visitor, no intervention would have been necessary; he would simply not have come home one day. As it was, one of the mysterious procuresses was apparently involved.

According to the testimony of the child's parents, the conveniently dead Perrine Martin was supposed to have admitted to leading the child from Nantes to Machecoul; Poitou, on the other hand, said that he “could have” killed him at La Suze. Bataille gamely tries to reconcile the clear contradiction by theorising that perhaps she took the boy's dead body to Machecoul for disposal.

The most glaring error, however, is the suggestion that Gilles was in residence at La Suze when young Jenvret vanished, yet La Meffraye took him to Machecoul where she handed him over to – Gilles. If not bilocation, this is confused and confusing testimony.

Be that as it may, M and Mme Jenvret attested to their son's loss and several local witnesses confirmed that they had heard the couple lamenting and never saw the boy again thereafter.

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