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 4 November 2018

Everything you always wanted to know about Gilles de Rais (but were afraid to ask)

As my book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, nears the end of its final edit and approaches publication, this extract will tell you what to expect. 

“Any story told three times becomes a fiction.” 

Julie Atlas Muz

Aleister Crowley was to have begun his “forbidden” lecture on Gilles de Rais to the Oxford Poetry Society with a conundrum:  how much prior knowledge of his subject should he assume in his audience? T H Huxley, he claimed, faced with a similar problem, consulted an experienced lecturer and was told: “You must do one of two things. You may assume that they know everything, or that they know nothing.” Huxley took the second course: Crowley affected to find this appallingly rude. “I shall assume that you know everything about Gilles de Rais; and that being the case, it would evidently be impertinent for me to tell you anything about him.”

I have experienced the same problem in writing this book. Most readers are likely to have read something about Gilles de Rais, some of them in considerable depth, others on websites of variable reliability. For a few, this book will be their introduction to him. How to explain a complicated life, and literary afterlife, to these latter without boring and alienating the former? I have endeavoured to tell the story as clearly as possible without stopping the action every time a new character appears. For those reading about Gilles for the first time, there is a detailed chronology in the appendices, which I hope will be of help. Most of the authors cited in the text are listed in the bibliography. For those who have read earlier biographies, or the trial record itself, surprises will nonetheless be in store.

This is not a conventional biography. The biographical facts are recounted, such as they are, but often given a different interpretation. All speculation has been marked as such. In some ways this is an anti-biography, firmly crossing from the record all the myths that have crystallized around Gilles over centuries of fictionalisation. At the end of the book, the thoughtful reader should feel, as I do, that he or she knows less about Gilles de Rais as a person than they did at the start.

The first part of the book tells the story of the life and prolonged afterlife of Gilles de Rais. The material in the appendix consists in part of vital information, such as the summaries of evidence and the  details of missing children. These chapters are followed by a few short pieces that would have held up the narrative if included in the first section. There is also a chronology, a bibliography and two maps.

I have used French orthography throughout, mostly to avoid the ugly Anglicism “Joan of Arc”, which is both a poor translation of her name and a title that Jehanne herself never used; she called herself La Pucelle, the Maid. Since there is considerable variation in the spelling of some names, I have opted in these cases for the most familiar. 

Rais is the most usual spelling of Gilles' name; others are equally  acceptable, although Retz is incorrect and would cause confusion, as it is the name of a quite different and prominent family. Gilles himself gave us no help in the matter: he simply signed his first name, like a prince. 

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