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)

Tuesday 25 June 2019

FAQs #4

Do we know for certain that Gilles was homosexual?

We know few things for certain about Gilles de Rais. Everything we are told about his sexual tastes comes from the trial and is automatically suspect. The main charge against him in the ecclesiastical court was heresy. At that time, sodomy and heresy were virtually synonymous. If Gilles was a heretic, he was necessarily a sodomite, and vice versa; the two charges went together.

It is important to understand that this particular FAQ would have been incomprehensible in 15th century terms. The word homosexuality, and probably the very concept of same-sex preference, is anachronistic. The word used was sodomy, which, to the Church, meant any sexual act which was not open to procreation. Bestiality was also sodomy, and even marital sex was sinful unless it was vaginal and no contraception was used.  In all its forms, sodomy was regarded as a hideous crime against nature,  worse than murder, since it had the potential to spread and wipe out the human race.

There is an indication in the Acts of Indictment (#39) of exactly how seriously this offence was taken: unpunished “crimes against nature” would lead to divine retribution in the form of natural disasters, earthquakes, famines and plagues. This was probably an allusion to a remark by the Emperor Justinian, via the fire and brimstone that rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. No community would wish to risk incurring the wrath of the deity, and there had recently been a widespread famine, affecting much of Europe, for which Gilles' apparent crimes were a most convenient scapegoat.

Gilles' accusers were in no way interested in whether or not he was primarily attracted to men; the idea would never have crossed their minds. Their sole concern was to accuse him of acts of sodomy. Since his alleged victims were (mostly) male, (mostly) pre-pubertal and all assaulted in a manner that avoided penetration, they certainly succeeded in their aim.

Nothing in the trial indicates that Gilles was what we would now call homosexual. He may have been, or he may not. There are certainly few women mentioned in accounts of his life, but one might say that of most men of the period. One of his closest comrades, however, was one of history's most famous androgynes, and this has certainly influenced how we see him...

I heard that he was in love with Joan of Arc and went mad when she died? 

This is an appealing myth, beloved by fiction writers and bandes dessinées, and leapt on with indecent enthusiasm by the band Cradle of Filth. There is no evidence whatsoever of any relationship between the two other than that of close comrades, and given Jehanne's commitment to her virginity, none was likely. Gilles was charged with looking after her, probably at her own request. He went to her rescue at Orléans and Paris and it is indisputable that he and La Hire planned to try and liberate her from prison while she was on trial. Beyond these sparse facts, everything is speculation or fiction.

Further reading -
Gilles at Louviers

From a bande dessinée by Paul Gillon

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