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 3 August 2021

Gilles de Rais: A Case for the Defence

Almost everything we think we know about Gilles de Rais has come from corrupted sources and is false. Briefly, up until the late 19th century there was no authoritative biography. Everything written about him was fictionalised and sensationalised. Eugène Bossard, an abbot from the area round Tiffauges, seized on him as a suitably obscure subject for a thesis. His speciality was French literature: he was not a historian. And he was completely ignorant of folklore, which is why his identification of Gilles with Bluebeard is so utterly spurious. Every biographer since has leaned heavily on Bossard, assuming him to be reliable. He is not.

Bossard accepted as genuine a known forgery, the account of the trial penned by Paul Lacroix, "The Bibliophile Jacob". Lacroix was a writer of titillating fictionalized pieces, with a fascination for anything bloodthirsty or lubricious. Many of his inventions have entered later biographies as fact. To complicate matters further, J-K Huysmans plundered Bossard to write his scandalous novel, Là-Bas, and added some myths of his own. Because Huysmans has been widely translated, but Bossard has not, much of the English-speaking world takes its information about Gilles de Rais from the former.

It is often said that "most historians" believe that Gilles de Rais was guilty. There is no evidence for this whatsoever. Nobody has taken a poll. Probably most historians have never given the matter a thought. Certainly, the only historians whose opinion would be more relevant than Joe Public's would be those who specialise in that particular time and place, and preferably those who are acquainted with the relevant documents, a tiny minority. One contemporary historian who fits the bill exactly is Professor Thomas Fudge, who wrote a chapter about Gilles de Rais and researched the subject deeply. He came to the conclusion that it's a troubling case and there are strong grounds to suppose that it may have been a stitch-up.

In general, though, historians have had precious little to do with creating the legend of Gilles de Rais, and are unlikely to have much to do with his rehabilitation. Briefly, there are few primary sources, most of them are compromised and unreliable, and biographers (for the most part non-historians) simply do not look at them. The historical method has been much ignored in assembling the traditional narrative of the life of Gilles de Rais.

The story as it is presented to us has been cobbled together by a process of Chinese whispers, where each biographer copies the others and nobody bothers to check back to the primary sources. Evidence is relentlessly cherry-picked, contradictions and impossibilities ignored. That boy who supposedly disappeared while scrumping apples? Accounts vary, but this was said to have happened either on June 1st or at Easter. Apples? Really? What are referred to as "witnesses" are more properly complainants. The eye witness accounts come from inside his household and were produced by torture. The seventy-odd people who appear in court are, for the most part, not parents of the allegedly missing children. They are giving hearsay evidence. It's often as lame as "I saw a man in Machecoul looking for his son" or "I used to see these two brothers working the fairs, but I haven't seen them for a long time." Even Bataille (not a historian) naively points out a whole slew of children who apparently went missing from Machecoul when Gilles was living at Tiffauges. Those sinister old procuresses who fill the gap by ferrying boys across country? Not mentioned by any of the insiders when they were listing the other accomplices, and not produced in court even though (apparently) arrested.

In no particular order, some of the easily-dispelled myths about Gilles de Rais -

The most notorious fib, copied by Bossard and passed on to almost all of his successors, is that there was an illustrated Suetonius that had a corrupting effect on Gilles. There is evidence that such a book did not even exist at that time, but even if it did it would be irrelevent. The Suetonius story does not come from a primary source, it is a mid-19th century confection.

Another legend, which has been quoted as fact by many writers (including, shamefully, the historian-biographer Emile Gabory) is that the evidence at the trial was so shocking that the Bishop of Nantes veiled the crucifix. This derives from that notorious novel by J-K Huysmans; he got the idea from Lacroix and changed it for dramatic effect. Lacroix had Pierre de l'Hôpital covering the cross so that Henriet would not feel inhibited by it as he gave his testimony.

Almost all biographies of Gilles de Rais include the Suetonius or the veiling of the crucifix or both, indicating how very little research their authors did. They simply make no attempt at using contemporary sources. These are mistakes that could not be made by anybody who had done proper research.

At the moment, there is a craze for clickbait sites mentioning the "forty naked bodies" that were supposedly discovered - that is simply not true. At the trial there were allegations that a conduit (or barrel) of dead children was found at Champtocé; there are no eye witness accounts, the evidence was hearsay. No forensic evidence for this or any other accusation was produced in court, which means that a huge number of bodies must have been disposed of without trace. Nobody reported any foul smell or suspicious smoke.

Another falsehood concerns Gilles de Rais' military career. He never executed enemy soldiers. The ones he had hanged were French collaborators - traitors. Every commander did this. Treason was a capital offence.

Also, he never abandoned Jehanne. The army was disbanded after the failed attack on Paris. Joan never saw any of her commanders again. She was fighting her own unofficial war at Compiègne when she was captured; Gilles would probably have known nothing about it. Documents place him at Louviers, just across the river from Rouen where Joan was on trial, in the winter of 1430/1431. La Hire was with him. Both men were at the head of armies. They were in the heart of English-occupied Normandy. Clearly a rescue operation was planned - the English obviously thought so, as they threatened to throw Joan into the river and drown her if any attempt was made to save her.

Another common misconception is that Gilles de Rais confessed freely, without torture. This is untrue. He was not, as everyone insists, given exemption in return for a confession. He was told that if he confessed, the torture would be deferred till the next day, and sure enough there was a convenient gap the next morning, when the court met in the evening instead. There were only two evening sessions; the other one handily occurred after his servants were tortured.

As many people know, there was a rehabilitation trial in 1992, fronted by the Breton novelist Gilbert Prouteau, which acquitted Gilles completely. It was unofficial, and contentious. It did, however, bring the matter to the public eye and has very gradually seeped across the internet to the point where someone will bring it up on a relevant thread. I have been researching Gilles de Rais for many years and feelings about his guilt have definitely changed dramatically in the last twenty years.

See also Gilles de Rais: A Case for the Defence (Part 2)

As stated, the biographies are a poor lot. These two stand above the rest, because they at least acknowledge the possible political and financial motives for a stitch-up.

E A Vizetelly – Bluebeard: an account of Comorre the Cursed and Gilles de Rais (1902)

Jean Benedetti – Gilles de Rais, the authentic Bluebeard (1971)

The revisionist biographies are almost exclusively in French -

Fernand Fleuret/ Dr Ludovico Hernandez – Le Procès Inquisitorial de Gilles de Rais (1921)

Jean-Pierre Bayard – Plaidoyer pour Gilles de Rais (1985, reprinted 1992)

Gilbert Prouteau – Gilles de Rais ou la gueule du loup (1992)

My book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, was published in 2017


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