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 August 2019

Playing At Butcher

Gilles de Rais was not Bluebeard. There is no dispute about this whatsoever. The idea was first mooted by a few nineteenth century French and Breton writers, most notably the Abbé Bossard. There was never any traditional link between Gilles and Bluebeard before that time; in fact, he was seen as a kind of saint. Bossard was as ignorant of folklore as he was of history and had no idea that there were similar stories of an uxoricidal lover or spouse in other cultures. He knew of the legend of Comorre the Cursed, which was both similar to Perrault's conte and disturbingly local, but he dismissed it out of hand. 

Yet people in the 21st century still assert that Gilles de Rais was Bluebeard, and it is difficult to see why. There is no similarity between a man who kills curious wives and one who allegedly murders children, except the basic subject matter of killing. Nor is it likely that his story would have been watered down so that he “only” killed wives. Fairy tales were originally intended for adults and there was no taboo on gruesome subject matter: the Pied Piper abducted children to an unknown fate, the Erl-King's daughter (or the Erl-King himself in Goethe's ballad) snatched them, a wicked witch fattened young Hansel for her table, and the ogre who meant to kill Petit Poucet mistakenly cut the throats of his own daughters.

Illustration by Gustave Doré

The following little-known story was garnered by the Grimms from the wilder shores of the oral tradition. It is short, sharp and definitely unsuitable for children. It negates the silly idea that folklore could not have handled the story of Gilles de Rais without bowdlerising it. 

How Some Children Played At Butcher

There once was a father who slaughtered a pig, and his children saw that. In the afternoon, when they began playing, one child said to the other, "You be the little pig, and I'll be the butcher." He then took a shiny knife and slit his little brother's throat.

Their mother was upstairs in a room bathing another child, and when she heard the cries of her son, she immediately ran downstairs. Upon seeing what had happened, she took the knife out of her son's throat and was so enraged that she stabbed the heart of the other boy, who had been playing the butcher. Then she quickly ran back to the room to tend to her child in the bathtub, but while she was gone, he had drowned in the tub. Now the woman became so frightened and desperate that she did not allow the neighbours to comfort her and finally hanged herself. When her husband came back from the fields and saw everything, he became so despondent that he died soon after.

Grimm brothers 

Illustration taken from this blog, where there is also an alternative version of the story.

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