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)

Saturday 20 April 2024

Mythbusting: check out that cliché!

 The most recent blog post is the first in what may well be a near-endless "Mythbusting" series, which will eventually have its own separate page. Inevitably, there will be some repetition. Some posts will probably be what my nemesis, Wikipedia, calls "stubs", concisely stating the facts and linking through to other posts where the matter has been discussed in detail.

This is necessary because, with the traditionalist rawhead-and-bloody-bones propagandists on the back foot, most of the disinformation comes from amateur commenters on social media who base their theories on moonshine and fairy dust. These ignorant assertions must not be allowed to stand, because if unchallenged they will spread like the plague, and having counter-arguments readily available will help me and others to quash them.

There is more absolute tosh written about Gilles de Rais than almost any other subject. For more than five hundred years, what little was written about him was fictionalized. When, in the late nineteenth century, he finally received what is often (erroneously) called an "authoritative" biography by Eugène Bossard, many errors were simply baked into the narrative. Bossard was not a historian: he was writing a thesis in the discipline of French literature. He has Gilles born in the wrong place (Machecoul rather than Champtocé), claims his mother remarried when she actually died, gets the birth year of his brother René out by seven years, and repeats as fact several legends about the corrupting book, the dead fiancées, and the veiling of the crucifix. Later biographers merely copied his errors rather than doing their own studies. 

The word cliché was originally a technical term from the early days of printing When pages had to be set up laboriously with metal type, a word that was often used was kept ready made so that it could simply be dropped into the text to save time. This is exactly how the internet works. A particularly juicy piece of misinformation will be C & P-ed everywhere. This was how a monumentally sloppy piece of Wikipedia editing became a sex act so shocking that even the Inquisition couldn't invent it - "he cut their heads off and ****ed the hole!" This little gem still crops up here and there occasionally. 

The people who repeat this drivel have never read the trial record. Some of them may never have picked up a book since they left school. They steal whatever appeals to their perverse little minds, without question or comprehension. The pieces of clickbait they steal may well have been already stolen and edited, and will be stolen and edited in their turn in a nightmare process of Chinese whispers. 

So whenever you see a literal cliché, a phrase that pops up unchanged on various sites, you are seeing undigested data that is almost certainly wrong. That there were no mediaevalists involved in the 1992 retrial, that Gilles was born "no earlier than 1405", that "most historians" believe that he was guilty... No thought at all has gone into cutting and pasting these stock phrases. Proceed with caution.  

IMPORTANT NOTE: I hope it is abundantly clear that this blog is a resource. Use it however you want. Feel free to link to it, quote it, refer to it, paraphrase it. This information needs to be out there. Spread the word, with my blessing and my thanks. 

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