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, 15 July 2014

Select bibliography: books in French

The English reader, exasperated by the poor biographies available in their own language, might imagine that Gilles de Rais is better served by French writers. Sadly, this is far from the case.

1 Eugène Bossard  The Abbé Bossard was Gilles' first real biographer - previous writers had more or less fictionalised him. Bossard did not entirely reverse this trend. His biography is often called authoritative or comprehensive; it is certainly long. One tends to imagine the abbot as an elderly, bearded man bringing  the knowledge garnered in a long life to bear on his subject. In fact, the book began life as a thesis, written over six years by a relatively young man - he was in his early thirties when it was published. As a thesis, it had to make a new, striking, possibly contentious point, hence the connection between Gilles de Rais and Bluebeard, which had never been mooted before and which Bossard invented single-handed. This is a major flaw in the book. Other weaknesses are the virtual canonisation of the Bishop of Nantes, the mealy-mouthed refusal to print the more lurid accusations even in the original Latin and a certain lack of academic rigour in accepting the lively account by the Bibliophile Jacob to add colour to the dry court proceedings, although it is self evidently a forgery. Gilbert Prouteau rightly regarded Bossard as a myth-monger and fabulist, but his tome did at least revive interest in Gilles.

2 Georges Bataille  Pauvert should be applauded for publishing Klossowski's modern French language translation of the trial record and for keeping it in print. It is truly invaluable as the only translation of the mostly Latin original manuscripts without any obvious bias or agenda. The chronology, too, is extremely helpful. Bataille's introductory essay, however, is a disaster; a chaotic, rambling piece of anti-revisionist propaganda, at times aspiring to the state of utter meaninglessness. Discerning scholars will read the trial record and the chronology only.

3 Gilbert Prouteau, LudovicoHernandez/Fernand Fleuret, Jean-Pierre Bayard  Of the revisionist biographies, Prouteau's is by far the most influential - I have reviewed it in full here. However, he drew heavily on his predecessors for his best-selling book. "Dr Ludovico Hernandez", the pseudonym of Fernand Fleuret, is witty and urbane and an entertaining read. His book was written in 1921, part of an astonishing wave of affection for Gilles that culminated in an attempt to have him canonised.  It consists of a long essay and a full translation of the trial, the first to include the passages Bossard censored. Bayard's 
biography was written in 1985, although reissued in 1992, and it seems a pity that his considered work was overshadowed by the somewhat less substantial opus of the great showman Prouteau. Any of these books is worth reading as an insight into the revisionist argument: as we have seen, nothing similar is available in English. However, I do feel that they only scratch at the surface of the case for Gilles' innocence. If this blog is less regular than it might be, that is because there is a book to be written...

Paul Lacroix, "The Bibliophile Jacob"  True obsessives might like to look up the Bibliophile for entertainment value. Again, I have dealt with him in more detail elsewhere. His colourful elaboration on the trial is well worth reading, if only for the light it sheds on the origin of so many of the myths that cling to Gilles. Lacroix was, for instance, the first to describe him as having a blue beard, hence the attraction for Bossard. Since so many writers who should know better cite the Bibliophile as a legitimate source, it is helpful to read him at first hand and see exactly why he really is nothing of the kind.

[Several of these books are out of copyright, so links will lead to FREE e-books. Jean-Pierre Bayard is sadly out of print and may be difficult to find, but secondhand copies are usually available.]