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)

Saturday 1 June 2019

FAQs #3

Did you really translate the trial record yourself? And why do I keep reading that your book was responsible for the 1992 retrial?

This is quite embarrassing. These strange misapprehensions first appeared on an otherwise-impeccable web article that I cannot now find. If there had been a comments section, I would have corrected the errors. There wasn't. I should have contacted the author, and I intended to. I forgot. I didn't think it would make much difference. I, of all people, should have known better:, I'm fully aware of how myths start and how easily they spread. Of course, others picked up on these mistakes. "What I tell you three times is true". Now it's the truth and I have to go round stamping on the pesky errors wherever they pop up. 

These are the facts. No, I didn't translate the trial record. I did, however, compare all the French and English translations available, & check them against the Old French and Latin of René Maulde's redacted transcription. As far as I know, I'm the first to do this. 

Obviously I had nothing to do with the unofficial retrial. It was twenty-five years before my book was completed! (Yes, the anniversary was kind of deliberate). The prime mover there was the glorious Gilbert Prouteau, and I have written about him often. I feel mortified to have stolen his thunder. However, I can't help feeling that the naughty old enfant terrible would find all this uproariously funny. I picture him cackling "Mort de rire!" and falling off his cloud in his hilarity. Sorry, M. Prouteau...

Further reading:
A vexing, perplexing, vital book: my review of Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup
Qui veut innocenter Barbe-Bleue?

Some web pages have Gilles de Rais performing sex acts on severed heads. Surely that isn't mentioned in the trial record?

No, it certainly is not! This is one of the silliest of the fantasies that have been circulating recently. I first saw it in 2016, on Twitter, in the rococo form of Gilles biting a hole in the child's neck and using it instead of the more usual orifices. I wondered at the time who could have come up with such a sick notion and why they would think the supposed confessions needed any such embellishment. Later I saw it a few times in its more usual form, with the "hole" where the neck had been severed forming the locus of gratification. Hole? 

Eventually, it was a most unusual podcast that helped me to understand where this strange notion had its origins. On Episode 144 of the 13 O'Clock Podcast, Jenny Ashford and Tom Ross puzzle their way through the story of Gilles de Rais, trying and failing to make the evidence cohere, as any intelligent person must. The odd story about the severed heads is mentioned and sourced, as I might have suspected, to Wikipedia, that fount of all ignorance.  At best  the Gilles de Rais page is a jigsaw of fact and fiction. Like all Wiki pages, it is a muddle of repeated and clumsy c&p and slapdash editing by many hands. At one point somebody  had deleted, or simply forgotten to add, the details of the sexual perversion Gilles had been accused of, a jejune if rather confusing form of frottage, in the correct place. The sentence skipped from the severing of heads to the phrase: According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victims' sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner ... than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner." The article did mention the perversion Gilles was supposed to have favoured, but earlier on. Anybody skim-reading might easily miss it. Nature abhors a vacuum, so somebody filled the hiatus with something that seemed to make sense. Chinese Whispers took over and a new myth was born. 

Further reading:
Bluebeardery and copypasta

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