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, 8 October 2017

Coming soon...

“Any story told three times becomes a fiction.” Julie Atlas Muz

Aleister Crowley was to have begun his “forbidden” lecture on Gilles de Rais to the Oxford Poetry Society with a conundrum:  how much prior knowledge of his subject should he assume in his audience? T H Huxley, he claimed, faced with a similar problem, consulted an experienced lecturer and was told: “You must do one of two things. You may assume that they know everything, or that they know nothing.” Huxley took the second course: Crowley affected to find this appallingly rude. “I shall assume that you know everything about Gilles de Rais; and that being the case, it would evidently be impertinent for me to tell you anything about him.

I have experienced the same problem in writing this book. Most readers are likely to have read something about Gilles de Rais, some of them in considerable depth, others on websites of variable reliability. For a few, this book will be their introduction to him. How to explain a complicated life, and literary afterlife, to these latter without boring and alienating the former? I have endeavoured to tell the story as clearly as possible without stopping the action every time a new character appears. For those reading about Gilles for the first time, there is a detailed chronology in the appendices, which I hope will be of help. All the authors cited in the text are listed in the bibliography. For those who have read earlier biographies, or the trial record itself, surprises will nonetheless be in store.

This is not a conventional biography. The biographical facts are recounted, such as they are, but often given a different interpretation. All speculation has been marked as such. In some ways this is an anti-biography, firmly crossing from the record all the myths that have accrued around Gilles over centuries of fictionalisation. At the end of the book, the thoughtful reader should feel, as I do, that he or she knows less about Gilles de Rais than they did at the start.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Bluebeard and the blood libel

Joan perished in her innocence, but the laws against 
Magic were vindicated soon after in the case of one who
was chief among the guilty. The personage in question
was one of the most valiant captains under Charles VII,
but the services which he rendered to the state could not
counterbalance the extent and enormity of his crimes.
All tales of ogres and Croquemitaine were realised and
surpassed by the deeds of this fantastic scoundrel, whose
history has remained in the memory of children under
the name of Blue Beard. Gilles de Laval, Lord of Raiz,
had indeed so black a beard that it seemed to be almost
blue, as shewn by his portrait in the Salle des Maréchaux,
at the Museum of Versailles. A Marshal of Brittany,
he was brave because he was French; being rich, he was
also ostentatious; and he became a sorcerer because he
was insane.

The mental derangement of the Lord of Raiz was
manifested in the first instance by sumptuous devotion
and extravagant magnificence. When he went abroad,
he was preceded invariably by cross and banner; his
chaplains were covered with gold and vested like prelates;
he had a college of little pages or choristers, who were
always richly clothed. But day by day one of these
children was called before the marshal and was seen no
more by his comrades; a newcomer succeeded him who
disappeared, and the children were sternly forbidden to
ask what became of the missing ones or even refer to
them among themselves. The children were obtained
by the marshal from poor parents, whom he dazzled by
his promises, and who were pledged to trouble no further
concerning their offspring, these, according to his stories,
being assured a brilliant future.

The explanation is that, in his case, seeming devotion
was the mask and safeguard of infamous practices.
Ruined by imbecile prodigality, the marshal desired at
any cost to create wealth. Alchemy had exhausted his
last resources and loans on usurious terms were about to
fail him; he determined therefore to attempt the last
and most execrable experiments of Black Magic, in the
hope of obtaining gold by the aid of hell. An apostate
priest of the diocese of Saint-Male, a Florentine named
Prelati, and Sille, who was the marshal's steward, became
his confidants and accomplices. He had espoused a
young woman of high birth  and kept her practically
shut up in his castle at Machecoul, which had a tower
with the entrance walled up. A report was spread by
the marshal that it was in a ruinous state and no one
sought to penetrate therein. This notwithstanding,
Madame de Raiz, who was frequently alone during the
dark hours, saw red lights moving to and fro in this
tower ; but she did not venture to question her husband,
whose bizarre and sombre character filled her with extreme

On Easter Day in the year 1440, the marshal, having
communicated solemnly in his chapel, bade farewell to
the lady of Machecoul, telling her that he was departing
to the Holy Land ; the poor creature was even then afraid
to question, so much did she tremble in his presence;
she was also several months in her pregnancy. The
marshal permitted her sister to come on a visit as a
companion during his absence. Madame de Raiz took
advantage of this indulgence, after which Gilles de Laval
mounted his horse and departed. To her sister Madame
de Raiz communicated her fears and anxieties. What
went on in the castle? Why was her lord so gloomy?
What signified his repeated absences? What became of
the children who disappeared day by day? What were
those nocturnal lights in the walled-up tower? These
and the other problems excited the curiosity of both
women to the utmost degree. What all the same
could be done? The marshal had forbidden them
expressly even to approach the tower, and before leaving
he had repeated this injunction. It must assuredly have
a secret entrance, for which Madame de Raiz and her
sister Anne proceeded to search through the lower
rooms of the castle, corner by corner and stone after
stone. At last, in the chapel, behind the altar, they
came upon a copper button, hidden in a mass of sculpture. 
It yielded under pressure; a stone slid back and
the two curiosity-seekers, now all in a tremble, distinguished
 the lowermost steps of a staircase, which led
them to the condemned tower.

At the top of the first flight there was a kind of
chapel, with a cross upside down and black candles; on
the altar stood a hideous figure, no doubt representing
the demon. On the second floor they came upon furnaces,
retorts, alembics, charcoal — in a word, all the
apparatus of alchemy. The third flight led to a dark
chamber, where the heavy and fetid atmosphere compelled 
the young women to retreat. Madame de Raiz
came into collision with a vase, which fell over, and she
was conscious that her robe and feet were soaked by
some thick and unknown liquid. On returning to the
light at the head of the stairs she found that she was
bathed in blood.

Sister Anne would have fled from the place, but in
Madame de Raiz curiosity was even stronger than disgust
 or fear. She descended the stairs, took a lamp
from the infernal chapel and returned to the third floor,
where a frightful spectacle awaited her. Copper vessels
filled with blood were ranged the whole length of the
walls, bearing labels with a date on each, and in the
middle of the room there was a black marble table, on
which lay the body of a child murdered quite recently.
It was one of these basins which had fallen, and black
blood had spread far and wide over the grimy and worm-
eaten wooden floor.

The two women were now half-dead with terror.
Madame de Raiz endeavoured at all costs to efface the
evidence of her indiscretion. She went in search of a
sponge and water, to wash the boards; but she only
extended the stain and that which at first seemed black
became all scarlet in hue. Suddenly a loud commotion
echoed through the castle, mixed with the cries of people
calling to Madame de Raiz. She distinguished the awe-
striking words: "Here is Monseigneur come back."
The two women made for the staircase, but at the same
moment they were aware of the trampling of steps and
the sound of other voices in the devil's chapel. Sister
Anne fled upwards to the battlement of the tower;
Madame de Raiz went down trembling and found herself
face to face with her husband, in the act of ascending,
accompanied by the apostate priest and Prelati.

Gilles de Laval seized his wife by the arm and
without speaking dragged her into the infernal chapel.
It was then that Prelati observed to the marshal:  "It
is needs must, as you see, and the victim has come of
her own accord." . . . ''Be it so," answered his master.
"Begin the Black Mass." . . . The apostate priest went
to the altar, while Gilles de Laval opened a little cupboard 
fixed therein and drew out a large knife, after
which he sat down close to his spouse, who was now
almost in a swoon and lying in a heap on a bench against
the wall. The sacrilegious ceremonies began.

It must be explained that the marshal, so far from
taking the road to Jerusalem, had proceeded only to
Nantes, where Prelati lived; he attacked this miserable
wretch with the uttermost fury and threatened to slay him
if he did not furnish the means of extracting from the
devil that which he had been demanding for so long
a time. With the object of obtaining delay, Prelati
declared that terrible conditions were required by the
infernal master, first among which would be the sacrifice
of the marshal's unborn child after tearing it forcibly
from the mother's womb. Gilles de Laval made no
reply but returned at once to Machecoul, the Florentine
sorcerer and his accomplice the priest being in his train.
With the rest we are acquainted.

Meanwhile, Sister Anne, left to her own devices on
the roof of the tower and not daring to come down, had
removed her veil, to make signals of distress at chance.
They were answered by two cavaliers accompanied by a
posse of armed men, who were riding towards the castle;
they proved to be her two brothers who, on learning the
spurious departure of the marshal for Palestine, had come
to visit and console Madame de Raiz. Soon after they
arrived with a clatter in the court of the castle, where-
upon Gilles de Laval suspended the hideous ceremony
and said to his wife: "Madame, I forgive you, and the
matter is at an end between us if you do now as I tell
you. Return to your apartment, change your garments
and join me in the guest-room, whither I am going
to receive your brothers. But if you say one word, or
cause them the slightest suspicion, I will bring you hither
on their departure; we shall proceed with the Black Mass
at the point where it is now broken off, and at the consecration 
you will die. Mark where I place this knife."

He rose up, led his wife to the door of her chamber
and subsequently received her relations and their suite,
saying that his lady was preparing herself to come and
salute her brothers. Madame de Raiz appeared almost
immediately, pale as a spectre. Gilles de Laval never
took eyes off her, seeking to control her by his glance.
When her brothers suggested that she was ill, she answered 
that it was the fatigue of pregnancy, but added
in an undertone: "Save me; he seeks to kill me." At
the same moment Sister Anne rushed into the hall, crying: 
"Take us away; save us, my brothers: this man is
an assassin" — and she pointed to Gilles de Laval. While
the marshal summoned his people, the escort of the two
visitors surrounded the women with drawn swords; and
the marshal's people disarmed instead of obeying him.
Madame de Raiz, with her sister and brothers, gained the
drawbridge and left the castle.

On the morrow, Duke John V invested Machecoul,
and Gilles de Laval, who could count no longer on his
men-at-arms, yielded without resistance. The parliament 
of Brittany had decreed his arrest as a homicide,
the ecclesiastical tribunal preparing in the first place to
pronounce judgment upon him as a heretic, sodomite
and sorcerer. Voices of parents, long silenced by terror,
rose upon all sides, demanding their missing children:
there was universal dole and clamour throughout the
province. The castles of Machecoul and Chantocé were
ransacked, resulting in the discovery of two hundred
skeletons of children; the rest had been consumed by fire.

Gilles de Laval appeared with supreme arrogance
before his judges.  To the customary question: " Who
are you ? " he answered: "I am Gilles de Laval, Marshal
of Brittany, Lord of Raiz, Machecoul, Chantocé and
other fiefs. And who are you that dare to question
me ?" He was answered : "We are your judges,
magistrates of the Ecclesiastical Court." — "What, you
my judges! Go to, I know you well, my masters. You
are simoniacs and obscene fellows, who sell your God to
purchase the joys of the devil. Speak not therefore of
judging me, for if I am guilty, it is you, who owed me
good example, that are my instigators." — "Cease your
insults, and answer us." —   "I would rather be hanged by
the neck than reply to you. I am surprised that the
president of Brittany suffers your acquaintance with
matters of this kind. You question that you may gain
information and afterwards do worse than you have done."

But this haughty insolence was demolished by the
threat of torture. Before the Bishop of Saint-Brieuc
and the President Pierre de L'Hopital, Gilles de Laval
made confession of his murders and sacrileges. He pretended 
that his motive in the massacre of children was
an execrable delight which he sought during the agony
of these poor little beings. The president found it difficult 
to credit this statement and questioned him anew.
 "Alas!" said the marshal abruptly,  "you torment both
yourself and me to no purpose."  "I do not torment
you," replied the president, "but I am astonished at
your words and dissatisfied. What I seek and must have
is the pure truth." The marshal answered : "Verily
there was no other cause. What more would you have ?
Surely I have admitted enough to condemn ten thou-
sand men."

That which Gilles de Laval shrank from confessing
was that he sought the Philosophical Stone in the blood
of murdered children, and that it was covetousness which
drove him to this monstrous debauchery. On the faith
of his necromancers, he believed that the universal agent
of life could be suddenly coagulated by the combined
action and reaction of outrage on Nature and murder.
He collected afterwards the iridescent film which forms
on blood as it turns cold;  he subjected it to various
fermentations, digested the product in the philosophical
egg of the athanor, combining it with salt, sulphur and
mercury. He had doubtless derived his recipe from
some of those old Hebrew Grimoires which, had they
been known at the period, would have been sufficient to
call down on Jewry at large the execration of the whole
earth. Persuaded, as they were, that the act of human
impregnation attracts and coagulates the Astral Light in
its reaction by sympathy on things subjected to the magnetism 
of man, the Israelitish sorcerers had plunged into
those enormities of which Philo accuses them, as quoted
by the astrologer Gaffarel.  They caused trees to be
grafted by women, who inserted the graft while a man
performed on their persons those acts which are an outrage 
to Nature. Wherever Black Magic is concerned
the same horrors recur, for the spirit of darkness is not
one of invention.

Gilles de Laval was burned alive in the pre de la Magdeleine
near Nantes; he obtained permission to go to
execution with all the pageantry that had accompanied
him during life, as if he wished to involve in the ignominy
of his punishment the ostentation and cupidity by which
he had been so utterly degraded and lost so fatally.

Eliphas Levi

This text is taken from The History of Magic by Eliphas Levi (English translation by A E Waite). It dates from 1860 and is very much of its time; aficionados can go through it picking out the myths and errors like so many succulent plums. One mistake that is not quite so obvious is that nobody in the 15th century ever referred to the Black Mass. The expression was not used before the late nineteenth century; indeed Levi is thought to have originated it himself.

This text is a classic, and particularly egregious, expression of the blood libel - the belief that Jews killed Christian children for their blood, in order to use it in mysterious rituals. Salomon Reinach was the first to note the links between the accusations against Gilles de Rais and the blood libel, accusations which were also made against other outsiders, including the Gypsies and the Knights Templar. Gilles was said to have been writing a grimoire in the blood of children, although Henriet, who saw it, artlessly remarked that it might, after all, simply have been written in red ink.

The most striking aspect of this account is that it begins with Gilles de Rais, abruptly segues into the tale of Bluebeard part way through, and then back again. This was a quirk on Levi's part, but an interesting twist in publishing history made it more influential than one might expect. In 1970s Britain there was a vogue for all things to do with witchcraft and black magic, and many old texts were republished, including the translation of Levi's opus. As a consequence, undiscerning editors copied this uniquely wrong-headed account in various encyclopaedias and compendiums, and the Bluebeard myth was reinforced in English-speaking countries. It is still possible to find apparent summaries of Gilles' life where this bizarre and complete transmogrification into a literal Bluebeard is exhibited, so it is interesting to read the original text from which it derives.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Title reveal

It is no secret that , although there have been several biographies in both French and English, Gilles de Rais has been ill served by his biographers. Most lean heavily on his first biographer, Abbé Bossard, who is unreliable, partisan, and props up his ludicrous Bluebeard theory by quoting liberally from a fictionalised account of the trial by Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob. Consequently, myths such as the "illustrated Suetonius" that supposedly had such a corrupting influence, and the wholly fictitious veiling of the cross at a critical moment during the trial, are almost universally accepted as fact. Even Gilbert Prouteau mischievously copied Bossard's errors, notably by killing off Gilles' two fiancées, whereas at least one, and probably both, outlived him.

It seemed to me that an accurate biography would not only need to retell the life, but also track down those pernicious myths to their source and debunk them.

After several years of research and writing, I am preparing to publish my alternative biography in October 2017. The title is The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais. Updates will be posted here, on Twitter, and on my Facebook page

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Article: "The Modern Movement to Exonerate a Notorious Medieval Serial Killer"

Atlas Obscura recently published an article by Sonya Vatomsky about my forthcoming book. The piece is intelligent and sympathetic; there is even an academic, John D. Hosler, supporting the view that Gilles' trial was merely one of many similar fakeries - “Personally, it all looks highly suspicious to me” - which is pretty much Reinach's position. Interesting that this is now seen as a rather standard opinion.
I hope to publish the book towards the end of the year, all being well. And then the true story of Gilles de Rais will finally be told. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Whitewashing Bluebeard 1925

Hutchinson Herald, 3rd May 1925

(click to enlarge)

Lighthearted article suggesting that anybody attempting to whitewash Gilles de Rais and other "villains" should face the death penalty. In 1925, in the wake of Joan of Arc's canonization, there was an attempt to rehabilitate Gilles, led by luminaries such as Salomon Reinach and Prouteau's mentor Maurice Garçon. Why the American press of the twenties, thirties & forties expressed such a marked interest in the matter is a minor mystery. Why Prouteau never mentioned it is another. 

Friday, 10 February 2017

Hangin' round...

Page from a French bande dessinée, title unknown.
[Click on the picture to enlarge]

A few details of the so-called confessions, low key in the testimony, have stood out vividly to posterity and are always emphasised and elaborated on by biographers. These are invariably the most Grand Guignol elements. One of the most notorious of these details is the partial hanging of a child before the attack began in earnest. According to Henriet and Poitou's evidence, a child would sometimes be suspended from a hook, either by Gilles or one of his assistants, in order to silence any cries for help. Gilles would then take the boy down and reassure him that it was only a game, a reassurance that one can hardly imagine being effective on a terrified and half-strangled child. Writers have had a field day with this scenario, hypothesising that Gilles got a certain perverse thrill out of calming and caressing a child that he was about to kill. However, the valets are quite clear and prosaic: the hanging was done to silence the child. Of course, this was one way in which the prosecution sought to explain why no member of the household was alerted to the bizarre goings-on in the master's rooms: hanging would damage the vocal cords and make the slightest sound impossible. Gilles himself, in his various confessions, does not even go as far as his servants; he merely mentions hanging from a hook as one of several methods of killing. If the sadistic charade of hanging and rescuing had been a favourite pastime of his, one might reasonably expect him to mention it.

In fact, this is yet another example of the way in which writers have ignored contemporary documents and invented their own ogreish Gilles de Rais.

Note, please, that the cartoonist has placed the potence, or gallows, outside. Obviously nobody would have an instrument of torture in their bed chamber, the idea is ridiculous! In fact, it is the only part of the episode that is supported by the trial records: the children were supposedly hung from a hook in Gilles' room...

Monday, 26 December 2016

The Trials of Gilles de Rais: short passage from new biography

The first thing to stress is that the trial record is not a reliable nor, obviously, an impartial document. Little attempt has been made to conceal the fact that it was amended after the event; how long after is not known. It is not complete: we see Perrine Martin and Tiphaine Branchu brought into court and hear other witnesses refer to what they had to say, but we cannot read their own words. Their confessions, we are told, have not come down to us. It seems unlikely that this is accidental. We will see witnesses contradict each other and themselves, and allegations of impossible deeds. We will examine clear signs that the most damning evidence was extracted by torture, or at the very  least by the threat of torture. We will see Gilles de Rais harassed, antagonised, threatened and eventually broken.

What we will not see is the Bishop of Nantes rising up in outrage to veil the face of the crucifix when Gilles' testimony is at its most lurid; this was a flight of fancy by J-K Huysmans in his popular novel Là-Bas, elaborating on a less dramatic invention by none other than the Bibliophile Jacob. Nor, sadly, do we read “Pale grey starred with gold; and if he opened his doublet, a belt of scarlet with a dagger of grey steel hidden in a red sheath” or “Gilles appeared all in black, with a hood of velvet and a doublet of black damask trimmed with fur of the same colour”, as Valentine Penrose would have it. All these symbolic couture details are fictional and come from the fevered pen of Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile. Nor will we see Gilles' beard with the bluish highlights, nor the lycanthropic grimaces of his handsome face: all this, likewise, was Lacroix's work. It is fair to say that nobody, probably not even Bossard, has so profoundly influenced Gilles' image. The trial record, in spite of the shocking nature of its content, is a dry and difficult read, which is why so few people have read it attentively. As a rule of thumb, whenever the accused is described, or the crowd's reaction is indicated, this is the hand of the Bibliophile. We are not told what Gilles wore or how he appeared; we do not even, surprisingly, have any explicit indication that the ecclesiastical trial was open to the public.

Translations of the documents are freely available in both English and French and there is no substitute for a careful study of them. The intention of this chapter is to explain clearly and chronologically what happened, to clarify any obscure points, and to examine in particular detail the passages that biographers tend to gloss over. Most commentators agree that it was a conspicuously fair trial for that period; although Reginald Hyatte, no revisionist, says “It is possible to interpret the legal action initiated against Gilles de Rais in both courts as the legitimate means by which the Duke of Brittany managed to acquire Gilles' possessions without arousing suspicion or causing a revolt among his other vassals.”  E A Vizetelly, the only English writer with a revisionist slant, remarks that “the proceedings of the court were scarcely lawful”. As we shall see, Gilles seems to have agreed with him, and for much the same reasons.

[Second brief taster of my new Gilles de Rais biography, which should be completed in 2017. The first snippet is here.]