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 30 April 2023

Truth knows no season: in memory of Kathleen Lehman

On June 27th 2022, Team Gilles (as I call it) lost an illustrious member with the death of Kathleen Lehman. 

I exchanged emails with her for a while in the late nineties and will always regret that we lost touch. She was an original thinker and I wish that the book she planned to write had reached fruition. For a long time, she was the only person I knew of who shared my crazy notions about Gilles de Rais. 

Her dense and thoughtful essay, which graced the internet for two or three years at the turn of the century, will probably have been seen by few. I feel privileged to have read it, and still lament its loss, although if it had remained online I would possibly not have felt the need for this blog, which led directly to my book. Lehman struck a chord in me; she had discovered Gilles at fifteen, as I had, and developed a similar conviction of his innocence. On the other side of the Atlantic, she had uncovered the same flaws in the traditional narrative that I had, and drawn the same conclusions. I felt less alone. Her closing words had a particular resonance - 

It may be argued that the details of the life of Gilles de Rais are of no importance to the modern day, but they will always ultimately be important to Gilles de Rais, and truth knows no season. To bring him in death the justice which he did not receive in life is my pre-eminent goal.

Rest In Power, Kathy. 

 Official obituary of Kathleen Lehman here

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for this appreciation. I remember you, after a fashion. Kathleen used to share some of your comments with me back when the two of you were corresponding.

    I was involved in her Gilles saga right from the start. We met at Northwestern University. The library there gave her access to some important resources for her research. She ran her ideas and manuscripts past me for many years. I'm no historian, really, but if nothing else, I could give her validation and encouragement.

    Eventually, she assembled a "magnum opus" on the subject, which I helped her post online. That would be the work you remember. She may have made some revisions to it later, but once that work was done and the official exoneration came to her attention, she no longer felt the need to continue and turned her attentions elsewhere.

    About that time, in a curious development, she received an email from a history professor in Australia asking if she had given permission to one of his students to quote her work. She had not. (I'll bet that student was in for it!) The professor thanked her for that information and praised her work. But after that incident, she decided to remove the essay from the Internet.

    I was all for her publishing it in some other format, but she didn't feel the need. She was a very good writer (and in fact edited my writing from college on through the publication of my first few novels), but she had no real interest in being published. The one thing she did publish was an edition of Henry van Dyke's classic tale "The Other Wise Man," for which she wrote an amazing afterword. (We ran a small press for about 10 years, through which we published it. I still have a fair number of copies of that book.)

    I believe there is a copy of her Gilles manuscript lying around here somewhere, possibly on my computer, possibly on paper, possibly both. Although she didn't care to publish it, she didn't want to lose it. I may have to go looking for it now.

    Again, thank you for posting this.