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 30 April 2024

Mythbusting #2


That there was a book so lurid that reading it tempted Gilles de Rais into crime

While sorting out the Gilles de Rais myths that need busting, I decided to give low priority to the Corrupting Book that supposedly triggered his crimes. That particular myth had died out, I thought.  Jacques Heers was peddling it in 1994, but that was thirty years ago and Heers is not as well thought of now as he was then. 

And now, voilà! Up it springs again, undead, complete with a "quote" to support it. 

The story, invented by the Bibliophile Jacob, is that  Gilles possessed an illustrated copy of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, which was the inspiration for his depravities.  Lacroix has Henriet, as his librarian, translating it to him and Gilles, aroused, committing his first crimes the same night. Bossard  enthusiastically adopted this narrative 

Anybody who has looked into Suetonius will know that there are some highly lubricious anecdotes about the Emperors, Tiberius especially. Those who claim that the Inquisition could not possibly have imagined the acts attributed to de Rais should note that  there were precedents. And also that Suetonius' claims, too, have been disputed. The human imagination is far more versatile than folks think. 

One can see why someone trying to craft a compelling story out of the trials of Gilles de Rais might want to make up a back story to account for what would otherwise be quite inexplicable atrocities. For there is a gaping hole at the heart of the allegations against Gilles - the little matter of motivation. We are offered three motives, which conflict with each other. So did he kill for pleasure? Or was he sacrificing children to the Devil? Or, as the ever-practical Henriet asserted in a seldom-quoted aside, simply to ensure that his victims could never tell tales? 

Some writers have attempted to square the circle by asserting that Gilles started with child sacrifices and grew to enjoy the bloodshed. Unfortunately, this clashes violently  with the timeline. The murders are alleged to have started in 1432 at the latest; it was Prelati who suggested offering body parts to the Devil, and he only arrived in mid-1439. This offering up of the hand, heart, eyes and blood of an already-dead child is the only example of anything resembling human sacrifices. The whole Satanic Rites of Bluebeard narrative is based on a few headers in the civil trial, and these were almost certainly added at a later date.

This is the confected quote that is suddenly appearing in a number of online articles -

Là-dessus, je décidai d'imiter lesdits Césars, et le même soir, je commençai à le faire en suivant les images reproduites dans le livre... »

[Whereupon I decided to imitate the aforesaid Caesars, and that same evening, I began to do so by following the images reproduced in the book...]

These words do not appear in the trial record or in any other contemporary source. They were written in the mid-1980s by historian Maurice Lever, closely following the myth created by Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob. Please note that although Lever was an historian, his period was the 17th and18th centuries, not the 15th. M. Lever had never laid eyes on the trial documents, far less studied them. Why would he? He was merely referencing Gilles in a book, Les Bûchers de Sodome, dealing with the criminalisation of homosexuality. 

 The quote is bogus, as is the whole narrative. It illustrates how little respect even genuine historians have shown for the truth about Gilles de Rais.

Further reading -

The Bibliophile Jacob

The AI image at the top of the page is taken from Reddit, with thanks. 

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