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 9 November 2021

A Lilliputian Quarrel

In the world of Raisian studies (impossibly pseudish expression stolen from Michel Meurger) everything moves with glacial slowness. Think how long it took for word of the 1992 retrial to seep out into the English speaking world. Lately, however, a near controversy has blown up. Consider this -

We all know Gilles de Rais' dates, don't we? All the fours, as in the Britannica entry. Wikipedia, however, has recently taken an independent tack and is insisting on "unknown, not earlier than 1405". Now, this is not just a minor quibble - Wiki is saying that everybody else for nearly 600 years has got it wrong. The only citation given is Romanian historian Matei Cazacu's relatively recent biography. 

A small furore took place on the Talk page of the relevant Wikipedia entry. Personally, I have never attempted to edit Wikipedia because I am not King Canute and have no illusions that I could make a permanent difference. But I have friends who do, and one of them tried to change the date back to 1404. After a couple of attempts, he was banned from editing.

So the editor who is so determined that Gilles de Rais was born in 1405 (or even later!) is playing hardball. There will be no discussion: Cazacu is right and everybody else is wrong. It seems a strange hill to die on, but goodness knows we all have our little idées fixes and I am nobody to judge. Far be it from me to insist that Heers or Benedetti or (heaven forfend!) Bossard were right about any given point.  Something about this stinks, however.

Cazacu's dating depends entirely upon the interpretation of documents and it does clash with other information that we have. Gilles de Rais came into his inheritance - and reached his majority - in 1424, when he was twenty. His brother René inherited in January 1434, which is one reason I consider it certain that he was born in 1414 rather than the often-given 1407. We do not know exactly what Gilles' role was in the rescue of Jean V in 1420, but we do know that both he and his grandfather were lavishly rewarded, which would seem unlikely if he had been only a page or a squire. He was made Marshal of France in 1429, at a phenomenally young age even if we consider that he was in his twenty-fifth year. If he had been twenty-three or even twenty-two, that would have been quite remarkable.

This may seem an esoteric point, and in a way it is. If the Wiki entry had been amended in a less arrogant way - "traditionally 1404, although some historians argue for 1405 or later" - there would be no problem. Nobody really knows either the month or the year of Gilles de Rais' birth and probably nobody ever will. This, however, is an aggressive attempt to make the claim that Matei Cazacu is the only reliable biographer, and this cannot be allowed to stand. 

One good thing has come out of this grubby little squabble. If you see Gilles de Rais' date of birth given using the rubric "unknown, not earlier than 1405", you will know that the article has been directly or indirectly sourced from Wikipedia and should be consigned to the dustbin. 

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