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 May 2020

FAQs #8

One thing is certain, though, isn't it? The fairy tale character Bluebeard was based on him.

Absolutely false! This is one of the most persistent and idiotic myths about Gilles de Rais; a moment's thought should be sufficient to debunk it. Why on earth would a supposed murderer of children be transformed into a suave ogre of a wife-killer?

Perrault published his tale in 1692, a quarter of a century after Gilles' death. It was almost two hundred years after the publication of Bluebeard before anybody thought to link the disgraced hero with the murderous husband. Eugène Bossard, Gilles' first biographer, was not a folklorist and was spectacularly ignorant about the genesis of popular stories. He was writing a thesis on French literature; his goal was to link Gilles to the Breton Barbe Bleue legend, and he ignored any evidence that contradicted him, including the more apposite figure of Comorre the Cursed, a local supposed uxoricide. Comorre would have been a far more likely model, had Perrault been looking for one. But he had no need for such a thing: his conte is based on a tradition that is found all over the world. Bluebeard is only one of many demon lovers with a dark secret and a habit of killing wives, including the ancient Mr Fox, mentioned by Shakespeare and still a thrilling tale . As we know, Gilles had one wife, who outlived him.

Further reading -
The B Word
Comorre the Cursed: the original Bluebeard?


But he was wildly extravagant; it must have been a sign of mental imbalance that he spent so much money on a play?

Not by the standards of his day. As a nobleman, he was expected to display his wealth; he may be compared with René d'Anjou, his contemporary and another great sponsor of the arts. His brother may well have complained of Gilles ostentation in his chapel and his love of the performing arts; when the King wrote to his heirs in 1446, restoring some of their inheritance, he mentioned none of these things. He blamed Gilles' financial problems on bad servants, lack of order, poor management of rural smallholdings, and alchemy. He might have added: subsidising and providing an army to assist an impoverished Dauphin.

Further reading -
Holy Innocents
Money matters

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