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 Court of Cassation to re-try the case, which sensationally resulted in an acquittal. As of 1992, Gilles de Rais is officially 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, 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.]

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Gilles de Rais Day


One day our descendants will find out the motives and stratagems of the sordid plot that leads me to the stake.
Gilbert Prouteau

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Bluebeardery and copypasta

In the early days of the internet, when it had a capital I and the Millennium Bug was a dark cloud on the horizon, it was sometimes called the Information Superhighway. The idea was that it would be a repository of all knowledge. That was not how it worked out. Disinformation spreads faster than facts and most people now know that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, not everything you read on the internet is true.

Gilles de Rais has suffered more from Chinese whispers than almost any other historical personage, because fiction crept into his life story so early. Since no really accurate biography of him has ever been published, and since some of the most well-known factoids derive from fiction, there has never seemed any pressing reason not to just make things up. On the internet, moreover, we find an infinite number of bloggers and tweeters desperate for something to say, and in the six weeks separating the anniversary of his arrest from that of his death there seems to be a pressing need to copy and paste something about him that may or may not be accurate. 

Thus we find tweets such as this (click on the pictures to enlarge) -


I had to reply to that bizarre fantasy -



Another example -

They can never defend their whimsical assertions.


And finally the jewel of the collection, which seems to be an entry for a competition to make the most errors in the fewest lines of text -


No doubt both families were astonished by these improbable siblings. Do note also Perrault writing in 1967 in spite of his extreme old age.

So be careful out there. Not everybody is telling you the truth.

(Names have been blurred to protect the stupid)


Sunday, 7 August 2016

Pranks of oral tradition

"But," Chantelouve went on, "there is one point which I never have been able to understand. I have never been able to explain to myself why the name Bluebeard should have been attached to the Marshal, whose history certainly has no relation to the tale of the good Perrault."

"As a matter of fact the real Bluebeard was not Gilles de Rais, but probably a Breton king, Comor, a fragment of whose castle, dating from the sixth century, is still standing, on the confines of the forest of Carnoet. The legend is simple. The king asked Guerock, count of Vannes, for the hand of his daughter, Triphine. Guerock refused, because he had heard that the king maintained himself in a constant state of widowerhood by cutting his wives' throats. Finally Saint Gildas promised Guerock to return his daughter to him safe and sound when he should reclaim her, and the union was celebrated.

"Some months later Triphine learned that Comor did indeed kill his consorts as soon as they became pregnant. She was big with child, so she fled, but her husband pursued her and cut her throat. The weeping father commanded Saint Gildas to keep his promise, and the Saint resuscitated Triphine.

"As you see, this legend comes much nearer than the history of our Bluebeard to the told tale arranged by the ingenious Perrault. Now, why and how the name Bluebeard passed from King Comor to the Marshal de Rais, I cannot tell. You know what pranks oral tradition can play."

From Là-bas by J-K Huysmans


Joris-Karl Huysmans among his books, which did not include a reliable biography of Gilles de Rais



There is a complex relationship between the Abbé Bossard and J-K Huysmans. The latter's novel À Rebours, "the breviary of the Decadence", was published in 1884 and arguably his representation of his protagonist, Des Esseintes, influenced Bossard in his depiction of Gilles de Rais as an educated, refined aesthete. We know little enough of Gilles as a person, and to parlay his possession of a number of books into a love of literature is probably stretching the evidence; however, Bossard's attempt to show him as a cultured man as well as a warrior has been hugely influential. The Gilles de Rais we imagine today is essentially Bossard's creation. Without his intervention, Gilbert Prouteau would have been unable to present Gilles to a modern court as a man who announced the Renaissance.

When Huysmans himself wanted to make use of Gilles in a novel, he had little choice but to follow Bossard's narrative, padded out with juicy, mostly invented, details from the Bibliophile Jacob (Paul Lacroix). No other complete biography was available. Huysmans questioned almost nothing in his sources, and was responsible for spreading a number of mendacities that are still believed to this day.

The one point at which he drew the line was Bossard's ill-informed or mischievous attempt to link Gilles with the legend of Bluebeard, as we see from the above passage. The hero of  Là-Bas, Durtal, is researching for a biography of Gilles de Rais which never seems to be completed. Questioned about the Bluebeard connection, Durtal completely repudiates the notion. As an educated and well-read man, like the author he acts as a mouthpiece for, he knows that there is a far better claimant to the Bluebeard title in another local figure, Comorre.  Tactfully, he does not mention Bossard - " You know what pranks oral tradition can play". 

Even Huysmans, who swallowed every word of the Bibliophile Jacob and unwittingly unleashed so many falsehoods on the world, could see that Bossard's Bluebeard thesis was a canard. 


The English language version of Là-Bas is available here at Project Gutenberg, a great source of older and out-of-copyright books.


Sunday, 22 May 2016

Gilles as werewolf: the Bibliophile Jacob anglicised



It is a given that all biographies of Gilles de Rais have been influenced by Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob, either directly or indirectly. However, since there is no English translation of Lacroix's febrile prose, it is not easy for an English language blogger to underline the point.

Enter, with a roll of drums and clash of cymbals, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould. Writing his Book of Werewolves in 1865, he was clearly short of a few pages, and had the ingenious idea of padding it out with three lengthy chapters about Gilles de Rais. Of course, Gilles was no werewolf and Baring-Gould makes no attempt to show that he was; the only vaguely lycanthropic element is the extreme savagery of the alleged murders and the odd description of his features, which at certain moments become inhuman -

No one at a first glance would have thought the Sire de Retz to be by nature so cruel and vicious as he was supposed to be. On the contrary, his physiognomy was calm and phlegmatic, somewhat pale, and expressive of melancholy. His hair and moustache were light brown, and his beard was clipped to a point. This beard, which resembled no other beard, was black, but under certain lights it assumed a blue hue, and it was this peculiarity which obtained for the Sire de Retz the surname of Blue-beard, a name which has attached to him in popular romance, at the same time that his story has undergone strange metamorphoses.

But on closer examination of the countenance of Gilles de Retz, contraction in the muscles of the face, nervous quivering of the mouth, spasmodic twitchings of the brows, and above all, the sinister expression of the eyes, showed that there was something strange and frightful in the man. At intervals he ground his teeth like a wild beast preparing to dash upon his prey, and then his lips became so contracted, as they were drawn in and glued, as it were, to his teeth, that their very colour was indiscernible.

At times also his eyes became fixed, and the pupils dilated to such an extent, with a sombre fire quivering in them, that the iris seemed to fill the whole orbit, which became circular, and sank back into the head. At these moments his complexion became livid and cadaverous; his brow, especially just over the nose, was covered with deep wrinkles, and his beard appeared to bristle, and to assume its bluish hues. But, after a few moments, his features became again serene, with a sweet smile reposing upon them, and his expression relaxed into a vague and tender melancholy.




For Baring-Gould's purposes, this is sufficient proof of Gilles' wolfish nature. Without it, the book would have been some fifty pages shorter, which must have been a consideration.

Now, in 1858 Lacroix had printed his Grand Guignol version of Gilles' trial, which Baring-Gould mentions as an influence; the description of those lycanthropic facial contortions comes direct from the Frenchman's overheated imagination. On closer examination, the whole text is a condensed translation of the Bibliophile into English. In what would now be regarded as flagrant copyright theft, the Reverend merely stole his content from the earlier writer.

For Gilles de Rais it was a posthumous public relations disaster that a sensationalist hack like Lacroix was the first to pen a detailed account of his life, influencing both his first true biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and the scandalously popular novelist J-K Huysmans. The misfortune was compounded when Baring-Gould, one of the earliest English writers to address his case, swallowed the Bibliophile's fantasies piecemeal, including (as we see in the extract) the controversial identification with Bluebeard. Every contentious myth that makes the study of his life so fraught with difficulties can be found in this 19th century text: the description of his clothes, the prototype veiling of the cross, the characterisation of Poitou and Henriet, the Barbe Bleue connection...

The one consolation is that all this mythologising has left a clear trail, both in French and English, for anybody who wants to know the truth. The chapters in The Book of Werewolves are a useful aid for those who are interested in finding the truth about Gilles de Rais but whose French is not up to reading the Bibliophile in his entirety.

Read chapters X-XII in The Book of Werewolves 
Or read the whole text of Paul Lacroix, the Bibliophile Jacob in French

Whichever you choose, it will be a revelation; those myth-ridden biographies, from Bossard to Bataille, will never be the same again.