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 5 November 2019

FAQs #7

The 1992 retrial was just a publicity stunt, right? After all, no mediaeval historians were involved.

Yes and no. Gilbert Prouteau was a mischief -maker, but he seems to have been sincere. He did no original research, but based his case on the writings of his predecessors, Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. There was much that was wrong with the retrial – for instance, overtly fictional material from Prouteau's novel was admitted as evidence. Also, it carried no formal weight: it did not officially overturn the verdict of the 1440 trial, as some accounts imply. However, the lack of historians was not particularly a flaw. Few historians have written about Gilles. His first biographer, on whom all subsequent biographies lean heavily, was not a historian. There is no indication that any writer has paid due attention to the contemporary documents since Bossard's day. In order to have a more informed opinion, any historian would have to have specialised in Gilles' period and to have looked closely at the trial record. It is unlikely that such a person existed in 1992; there are precious few even now. Mediaeval historians had nothing to do with creating the myth of Gilles de Rais and nothing to do with this attempt at unravelling it.

Further reading -
1992 news reports
"History is something that never happened, written by a man who wasn't there."

You say he was tortured? But he wasn't tortured, he was spared that in return for a confession.

This myth is based on a universal misreading of the trial record. At no point did his judges offer to waive the torture altogether, merely to defer it until the next day if he cooperated. He was given a few hours to think about it, and made his first (out of court) confession that same day. His second (in court) confession was given the next day, in a rare evening sitting. There is every reason to suppose that he was tortured in the morning. That would have been the norm; torture was routinely applied merely to confirm a confession.

Not much more than two years after Gilles de Rais' execution, the King wrote letters  asserting his innocence, using highly emotive language and claiming that he suffered "attentats" - outrages - in prison. Clearly Charles, too, believed that he was put to the Question. 

It is vital to correct this error, since it is often stated that Gilles confessed voluntarily, at the mere threat of torture. This has the double effect of making him seem a coward and his forced confession a spontaneous effusion of guilt.  Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Further reading -
Was Gilles de Rais tortured?
Wrongly, unduly and without cause

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