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, 13 April 2014

Select bibliography: books in English

There is no one book about Gilles de Rais, either in English or French, that gives all the known facts free of myth and with no agenda. All accept Bossard as an authority, and Bossard knowingly used the forged trial account by "The Bibliophile Jacob", Paul Lacroix, and invented a Bluebeard folklore that simply did not exist at that time. Also, there is no revisionist biography in English.

With these reservations, this mini bibliography may be helpful:

1 Jean Benedetti  This was the first book about Gilles that I read and I still have a soft spot for it. It is a short book, possibly too short, but it does sketch in the background to the life. Its weakness is that it deals too briefly with the trial. Its strength is that it does point out the likelihood of a plot between Jean V and Jean de Malestroit. I would recommend this as a starter book; if, like a few internet commentators, you find it "boring", you should accept that this is not the subject for you.
[My earlier blog post about Benedetti's book can be found here.]

2 E A Vizetelly The nearest to a revisionist biography in English, although not that near. Vizetelly occasionally expresses astonishment at some of his material - "This might be taken almost for the cry of an innocent man..." - but is unable to accept that Gilles might not have been guilty. This puzzled scepticism is the strength of his book; he also gives a detailed account of the other contender to the Bluebeard title, Comorre the Cursed. But it is an older book and not as free from myth as later biographies.

3 Leonard Wolf The most recent biography in English, it is comprehensive but entirely lacking in soul. It does not pretend to be a work of original scholarship, but nor does it bother to hide the author's borrowings from other sources. Wolf simply puts his material on the page unquestioningly and has no truck with dissenters. The book is dedicated "To the victims", which tells you all you need to know about his attitude.

Georges Bataille It is essential for anybody who wants to get to the truth about Gilles de Rais to familiarise themselves with the trial record. I will deal with this book in detail in my French bibliography (forthcoming), but there is also an English version. Kudos to Amok Books for making this crucial text available to us monoglot English speakers, but the translation is poor and in places confusing - that a man who died before his thirty-sixth birthday should be accused of committing unspeakable crimes for forty years is symptomatic either of supernatural precocity or a schoolboy error on the part of the translator...

[Click on the author's name to see the book on Amazon. E A Vizetelly is out of copyright, so the link goes to a free ebook.]