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)

Sunday 13 September 2020

Bernard Shaw, Bluebeard, and those crazy 1920s

Gilles de Rais, a young man of 25, very smart and self-possessed, and sporting the extravagance of a little curled beard dyed blue at a clean-shaven court, comes in. He is determined to make himself agreeable, but lacks natural joyousness, and is not really pleasant. In fact when he defies the Church some eleven years later he is accused of trying to extract pleasure from horrible cruelties, and hanged. So far, however, there is no shadow of the gallows on him.

Saint Joan (1923) by G B Shaw

Costume design by Anthony Holland circa 1940

This is how George Bernard Shaw introduces Gilles de Rais: he is thereafter called Bluebeard. This is absolutely usual for the period, to the point where Emile Gabory titled his biography Vie et la morte de Gilles de Raiz dit, à tort, Barbe Bleue (Life and Death of Gilles de Raiz, wrongly known as Bluebeardand excoriated the idiocies of Bossard and his followers. Of course, when it was translated  into English, the subtitle was the more snappy, and unforgivably misleading, Alias Bluebeard.

On the surface, Shaw's brief character gloss seems uncontroversial enough. However, there is something slightly awry about that "accused of". Works of literature are not written in a void. Just as the Bluebeard trope is absolutely typical of that time, so is the uncertainty about whether Gilles was actually guilty of the horrors he was accused of and executed for. The play was written in 1923, inspired by Jehanne's canonisation in 1920. As we have seen, her elevation to the sainthood led to a renewed interest in Gilles de Rais, and speculation about his own possible innocence. There was even talk that he, too, should be a saint. Shaw would have been well aware of the controversy and, in that uncharacteristically mealy-mouthed "accused of", one does feel he was hedging his bets. 

In fact, Bluebeard, or Gilles de Rais, features little in the play. He is conspicuously absent in the Epilogue, in which various characters, both living and dead, appear in a dream to Charles VII. The dead characters discuss their experience of the afterlife - for instance, the soldier who held up a cross made of sticks to Jehanne, to comfort her as she burned, has been consigned to Hell, but is allowed a day's holiday every year for his one good action. If Shaw had been disposed to have Gilles make an appearance, what could he have said of the posthumous condition of his soul? Would the atheist/mystic playwright have placed him in a theoretical Heaven or Hell? Setting aside complex considerations of Christian theology, that would depend on whether he was innocent or guilty, and Shaw does not seem to have had a firm opinion on that.


The Epilogue takes place in 1456, when Jehanne's rehabilitation trial had declared her innocent of heresy and unjustly burned. Please note how the news is announced to Charles VII: "Rejoice, O king; for the taint is removed from your blood, and the stain from your crown." Shaw understood completely the political reasons why Jehanne (and Gilles) had to die: if his two preeminent generals  had been dealing with the Devil, then the King owed his throne to witchcraft.