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 13 October 2021

Saints & Sinners: or, why I do what I do

Nobody will be surprised to hear that I have a little Gilles de Rais shrine; it would be more surprising if I didn't.

A few days ago I decided that I would add to it by ordering a candle and a canvas from a company that produces icons of saints with the faces of politicians and also does custom orders. I won't give them undeserved publicity, but will make sure that anyone putting their company name into the search engine will find this post. 

Within 24 hours I had a PayPal refund. Quickly followed by this -

I’m afraid we’ve got a bit of a problem with your custom request. Our candles are fun, irreverent and warmly meant - the subjects usually trigger warm and/or happy feelings – if they make us laugh we’re very gung-ho about making them and putting them out, but the immediate association here is one of pure evil.

We sometimes receive requests that we decline and while we hate not to please our customers, we also have to trust our gut. We don’t always get it right, but I’m afraid on this occasion, our call is not to do it. As a result of this decision, I have refunded your order.

Now, I'm not easily offended by ignorance - I'd have died of outrage several Bluebeardery & Copypasta seasons ago if I were. But this sticks in my craw because of a toxic combination of the judgemental and the hypocritical.

Because you can have a Margaret Thatcher icon - crowned, no less. Boris Johnson, also crowned, waving the butcher's apron. You can even have Priti "sink the immigrant boats!" Patel on a cushion. They're proud of that one.

All controversial politicians. You wouldn't look far to find someone insisting that each one has blood on their hands. All acceptable, apparently.

You can't, however, have Gilles de Rais, because somebody did an image search and clicked on the first site they found, probably Wikipedia. They chose to ignore all the recent developments since 1992 (and, in fact, before). They are blissfully and ironically unaware of the 1925 attempt to have Gilles beatified. Well, you may say, they make candles: why should they be following this somewhat arcane controversy? Indeed. I would argue, though, that they should at least make sure they know what they're talking about before they rudely turn down a £70 order.

I get that they thought I was attempting dark humour. But policing your customers' sense of humour isn't really on, either, is it? In fact, when a bespoke service tries to exercise its freedom of speech to censor its customers, for any reason, it never goes well.

I don't take offence on my own behalf. I'll get over feeling hugely disrespected. I don't think it's a great way to run a business, but it's their business, after all. If they want to turn away trade in a fit of misplaced virtue signalling, that's up to them.

(Although how you can jump on a moral high horse when you're making sizeable profits off the backs of all the photographers whose copyright you are merrily violating is beyond me. Every one of their non-custom items is based on an uncredited photograph).

But I am Gilles de Rais' representative on earth, so I have to make some kind of stand. I have spent a decade or more putting out the truth, with some effect, and what is the first impression someone gets when they search his name? "The immediate association here is one of pure evil". This is why I do what I do. This is why I carry on.

Update: It seems I was right; a business that turns away trade for dubious moral reasons isn't going to last long. This company, which I can now name as My Sainted Aunt, went into voluntary liquidation on February 21st 2022, some four months after my run-in with them. If I believed in karma, I'd be impressed with the rapidity. 

When I looked into the matter, it turned out that there is another company that offers a suspiciously similar product and that has been in business since 2016. So My Sainted Aunt - founded in June 2020 - presumably "borrowed" the idea from them. Delightful people. 

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