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 15 May 2022

Printing the legend

While writing my book, and indeed in this blog, I always avoided following the various Jehanne alternative narratives down their various rabbit holes. This was a deliberate decision. I was heavily invested in the theory of Gilles de Rais' innocence, which was quite controversial when I began my work, and that was enough to make me look eccentric. I didn't need any more conspiracy theories to make me seem like a crazy woman. So - was Jehanne, in fact, a by-blow of nobility? Other than pointing out that she was not a lowly peasant but a gently-raised girl who certainly never tended the flocks, as she herself  indignantly asserted, I didn't go there. On the vexed issue of the False Pucelle, Jeanne des Armoises, I had no choice, since Gilles espoused her cause, but I took a conservative view -

The question must be asked: could Claude des Armoises have been the real Jehanne, somehow saved from burning? Rumours of her survival had proliferated from the moment of her death, and one chronicler wrote finalement la firent ardre publiquement, ou aultre femme en semblable d'elle [finally she was burned publicly, or another woman who looked like her], allowing for the possibility of some substitution. Francis Leary admitted that the only way this could have been done was before the handover to the English, since they had only seen her from a distance, in armour and helmet, and had little idea what she looked like. According to this unlikely theory, a false Jehanne stood trial and went to the stake in her place. Even Leary finds this scenario improbable, and a substitution at the last minute would have been next to impossible. Sadly, it is almost certain that the real Jehanne was handed over to her enemies, subjected to an unfair trial and executed. As we have seen, Gilles' own behaviour encourages this melancholy conclusion: he behaved consistently like a man bereaved and plunged into the deepest depression. He may have been temporarily fooled by a False Jehanne, or he may have used her knowingly for his political ends. But in the end, she was a forgery, like the tinsel that Prelati tried to pass off as gold.

[From my book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais]

These contentious issues were addressed directly in a 1961 book called Operation Shepherdess, by André Guérin and Jack Palmer White, described as "ineffably surreal" by The St Joan Centre. For many years I had a copy of this book on my shelves but, inexplicably,  I never read it. Then, a decade or more ago, it disappeared during a house move. I searched diligently, but it never reappeared, and I didn't need it for the book so I put it to the back of my mind. Recently I thought I might buy another copy - it's long out of print but not hard to obtain - and finally get round to reading it. 

Well. A quick flick through the index soon explained why I didn't bother with it all those years ago. From a promising start, the text went off the rails in the third sentence - "Moscow"? What?

... Gilles de Rais, whom Charles VII named Marshal of France after the Coronation in 1429, when de Rais was but twenty-five.

A very wealthy Breton, the newly honoured Marshal assembled about him workers of precious metals, silversmiths, jewellers, weavers, lace-makers and engravers of arms, also clowns, monks, troubadours, astrologers, and alchemists. [So far, so good.] The renown of his library reached Moscow. The councillors of Henry VI of England modelled the royal stables on his. Eventually, however, he fell into the hands of unscrupulous magicians, necromancers, sorcerers, and sundry mountebanks. Increasingly excited by them, he drove the artists away and, in the countryside around his château, inaugurated a reign of terror which ended only when he was hanged and burned by the Duke of Brittany at the age of thirty-six for having offered up to the Devil numberless women, especially his wives, and over 1,000 small children. Because he not only refused to be clean-shaven like the rest of the courtiers but had recourse to dye, he was popularly known as Bluebeard.

Numberless women! Wives! A thousand children! Bluebeard! This, of course, is the heavily mythologised version of Gilles that prevailed in the early sixties - Klossowski's modern French translation of the trial record was not published until 1965. It is painfully clear that, however deeply the authors researched Jehanne, they spent not even five minutes on her second in command. The notorious beard betrays its Shavian origins - Gilles is seen  "sporting the extravagance of a little curled beard dyed blue at a clean-shaven court", and, like Shaw, the authors thereafter routinely call him Bluebeard.

Perhaps, like me, Guérin and White merely wanted to concentrate on their protagonist without being distracted by the peripheral characters. However, they could not have provided a more salutary example of the dangers of printing the legend: when the reader comes across a serially polygamous, uxoricidal, beard-dying Gilles de Rais on page twenty of Operation Shepherdess, how likely is that reader to believe anything else in that text?