Gilles de Rais

Gilles de Rais

Birth nameGilles de Montmorency-Laval
Bornc. 1405 ?
Champtocé-sur-Loire, Anjou
Died26 October 1440
Nantes, Brittany
Buried
Church Monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes, Nantes
Allegiance
Years of service1427 (or 1420 ?) – 1435
RankMarshal of France
Battles/wars
Signature
Criminal details
TargetMainly young boys
VictimsUnknown (approx. 140 ?)
Period1432–1440
PenaltyDeath by hanging

Gilles de Rais (c. 1405 – 26 October 1440), Baron de Rais, was a knight and lord from Brittany, Anjou and Poitou, a leader in the French army, and a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc. He is best known for his reputation and later conviction as a confessed serial killer of children.

A member of the House of Montmorency-Laval, Gilles de Rais was raised by his maternal grandfather. He earned the favour of the Duke of Brittany and was admitted to the French court. From 1427 to 1435, Rais served as a commander in the French army, and fought in the Hundred Years' War, for which he was appointed Marshal of France.

Rais is sometimes believed to be an inspiration for Charles Perrault's French folktale "Bluebeard" ("Barbe bleue"), but this assumption is controversial. Whatever the case, from the 19th century onwards, some travelogues, local folk tales and tourist signs reflect a popular confusion between Rais and Bluebeard.

House of Retz

Early life

Gilles de Rais (or "Retz"), the eldest son of Marie de Craon and Guy de Laval-Rais, descended from a number of great feudal houses. Through his mother, he was linked to the House of Craon, a wealthy western family, and through his father to the Laval family, one of the two most important Breton lineages in the 15th century. The Laval family's ancestors included, by marriage, the Barons of Retz (known as the "oldest barons of the Duchy of Brittany") as well as the prestigious House of Montmorency, albeit temporarily weakened at the time.

He was born "in a room called the Black Tower" at Champtocé castle, at an unknown date. His birth has been variably dated between 1396 and 1407, and more frequently towards the end of 1404. However, given the delays caused by the legal procedures before the Parliament of Paris that conditioned his parents' marriage, he was probably born not before 1405, according to archivist-paleographer Matei Cazacu. Furthermore, an archival document indicates Rais' age ("14 to 15 years old") in February 1422.

René, Rais' younger brother, was probably born in 1414. He obtained the seigneury of La Suze when his elder brother assigned him his share of the inheritance on 25 January 1434, before the ducal court in Nantes. From then on, René was known as René de La Suze, thus raising the name borne by the youngest branch of the Craon family.

Following the deaths of their mother Marie de Craon at an unknown date, and of their father Guy de Laval-Rais at the end of October 1415 in Machecoul, the young brothers Gilles and René were raised by their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, lord of La Suze and Champtocé.

The loss of his son Amaury at the Battle of Agincourt in October 1415, a battle in which several members of his household perished in addition to his sole male successor, prompted Jean de Craon to take charge of and manage the property of Gilles and René, who had become his sole heirs. In this way, Craon broke the will and testament of Guy de Laval-Rais, which appointed Jean II Tournemine de la Hunaudaye as "guardian, tutor, protector, defender and legitimate administrator" of the two orphans.

Matrimonial projects

On 4 January 1417, Jean de Craon betroths his grandson Gilles de Rais to a wealthy Norman heiress, Jeanne Paynel, daughter of Foulques VI Paynel, lord of Hambye and Bricquebec. However, the Parliament of Paris forbade the marriage until Jeanne Paynel came of age. This marriage project never materialized but not because of Jeanne Paynel's presumed death, as some authors have argued, since she was certainly one of the abbesses of Lisieux's Benedictine convent in 1449.

Craon then betrothed Rais to a niece of John V, Duke of Brittany: Béatrice of Rohan, daughter of Alain IX of Rohan and Marguerite of Brittany. The contract, dated Vannes 28 November 1418, was not followed up for some unknown reason (maybe Beatrice's death).

Related to the 4th degree, Gilles de Rais and his wife Catherine de Thouars are maternally and paternally descended from Amaury III de Craon.

Rais eventually became engaged to his cousin Catherine de Thouars, daughter of Miles II de Thouars and Béatrice de Montjean. In addition to the obstacle posed by the consanguinity of Rais and Catherine de Thouars, who were 4th degree relatives, disputes arose between the House of Craon and Miles II de Thouars, lord of Pouzauges and Tiffauges. Ignoring these constraints and without waiting for an ecclesiastical dispensation, Rais abducted Catherine de Thouars and married her in a chapel outside his parish church, without publishing banns of marriage. Despite a marriage contract drawn up on 30 November 1420, the two young people had their union annulled and declared incestuous by the Church.

After the death of Miles II de Thouars, matrimonial alliances brought the houses of Craon and Thouars closer together, helping to regularize the situation of the couple. On 24 April 1422, the papal legate approached Hardouin de Bueil, bishop of Angers, asking him to pronounce a sentence of separation against Gilles de Rais and Catherine de Thouars, and to impose a penance before absolving them of the crime of incest and allowing them to marry in due form. After conducting an investigation, Hardouin de Bueil celebrated their marriage with great pomp and ceremony on 26 June 1422, at Chalonnes-sur-Loire castle. This union strengthened Rais' position in Poitou by "linking him to the house of the Viscounts of Thouars, who dominated the Bas-Poitou region as far as the Atlantic."

Gilles de Rais and Catherine de Thouars' only child, Marie, was born in 1433 or 1434.

Family disputes

Reconstruction of the Château de Tiffauges and its surrounding walls.

In accordance with the clauses of Catherine de Thouars' marriage contract, her mother Béatrice de Montjean retained in dower a number of possessions of the late Miles II de Thouars, including Tiffauges and Pouzauges castles. Jean de Craon and Gilles de Rais hoped to recover the inheritance of all Beatrice's Poitevin castles at a later date. However, Béatrice de Montjean remarried Jacques Meschin de la Roche-Aireault, former squire to the late Miles II de Thouars and chamberlain to King Charles VII of France. This union compromised the plans of the lord of La Suze and his grandson. As a result, the two men commissioned their acolyte Jean de la Noe, captain of Tiffauges, to kidnap Beatrice. Jean de la Noe also seized Jacques Meschin's younger sister. Béatrice de Montjean was imprisoned at Le Loroux-Bottereau, then at Champtocé. Her son-in-law Gilles de Rais and Jean de Craon threatened to sew her up in sackcloth and throw her into a river if she did not relinquish her dower.

In order to free his wife and his sister, chamberlain Jacques Meschin de la Roche-Aireault had Jean de Craon and Gilles de Rais summoned several times before the Parliament of Paris, to no avail. Jacques Meschin dispatched a bailiff to Champtocé before sending his own brother, Gilles Meschin, to head the envoys. Jean de Craon jailed all the bearers of the summons, including Gilles Meschin. Craon nevertheless agreed to release Beatrice de Montjean at the request of his wife Anne de Sillé, who was also the prisoner's own mother. The other hostages were eventually released on ransom, but Gilles Meschin died a few days later, probably exhausted by the conditions of his detention in Champtocé. Jacques Meschin's younger sister, sent to Brittany, was forced to marry Girard de la Noe, the son of the captain of Tiffauges.

Jacques Meschin took legal action again before the Parliament of Paris, so Jean de Craon and his grandson compromised with their adversary. In a transaction ratified by the Parliament, the chamberlain chose to keep Pouzauges, while Gilles de Rais retained Tiffauges. Craon and Rais nonetheless extorted Pouzauges from Jacques Meschin on the pretext that Catherine de Thouars, Rais' wife, "bears the name [of Pouzauges] in the world." On his way to Pouzauges to supervise the execution of the transaction, Adam de Cambrai, First President of the Parliament of Paris, is molested and robbed by men in the pay of the two accomplices. The many subsequent sentences handed down to Craon and Rais went unheeded.

Titles, estates and wealth

15th-century marchlands, on the borders of Poitou and the duchy of Brittany.

Holder of the barony of Retz, reputed to be one of the six oldest baronies of the Duchy of Brittany, Gilles de Rais was one of the most important lords of western France, thanks in particular to his numerous estates spread across Brittany, Anjou, Poitou, Maine and Angoumois. Medievalist Philippe Contamine points out that Rais was "Breton, Poitevin and Angevin all at once, due to his fiefs". Moreover, historian Georges Peyronnet specifies that Rais' "network of family and feudal relatives" (including the houses of Laval and Craon) covered a large part of the western marchlands, border regions that were difficult to access because of the damp oceanic climate characterizing these bocage lands and the Marais breton ("Breton Marsh"). Hence the importance "as more open transport routes, of the valleys of the Loire and Sèvre Nantaise, (...) controlled by enormous fortresses." Thus, the crossroads position occupied by the barony covering the Pays de Retz "was an undeniable asset for trade, and enabled the Sires de Retz to control flows on the major axis of the Loire for the Breton economy and that of western France more generally", asserts historian Brice Rabot.

At the "southernmost point of the Duchy of Brittany", the barony of Retz comprised a "vast group of some forty parishes stretching between the Loire and the marchlands common to Poitou and Brittany". Gilles de Rais held Machecoul (the "head of the barony") as well as the castellanies of Coutumier, Bourgneuf, Prigny and half of the Isle of Bouin, domains bordering the Bay of Bourgneuf. In the Bay, salt marshes probably provide him with a not inconsiderable share of revenue. In addition, Rais held an annuity on the Paimpont forest, the townhouse named "Hôtel de La Suze" in Nantes and the lordship of La Bénate "encompassing 26 parishes in the marchlands (13 in Brittany and 13 in Poitou)", among others.

Wax seal reproducing Rais' jurisdictional seal relating to contracts for the Tiffauges estate, which he held from his wife Catherine de Thouars.

In the Duchy of Anjou, he inherited the prominent lordships of Champtocé and Ingrandes, a source of significant income from the Loire "traffic" (merchandise trade), as well as the lordships of Blaison and Chemellier, the barony of Briollay, and the lordships of Fontaine-Milon, Grez and Grattecuisse. In Poitou, he held the lordships of Cheneché, de la Voûte, Sigon, Cloué, Chabanais and the land of Breuil-Mingot, in addition to acquiring by marriage and extortion the barony of Pouzauges and the lordship of Tiffauges. In Maine, Rais owned the lordships of La Suze, Ambrières and Saint-Aubin-Fosse-Louvain, as well as the land of Précigné. In Angoumois, the lordships of Confolens, Loubert and Château Morant.

However, this census only shows Gilles de Rais at the peak of his domanial prosperity, after his marriage to Catherine de Thouars (1422) and following the death of his grandfather Jean de Craon (1432). In addition to the more or less substantial disposals Rais made, gradually reducing his estate, some lands belonged to his wife, others were only bequeathed to him on the death of Jean de Craon, not to mention those he ceded to his brother René de Rais by assigning him his share of the inheritance in 1434.

What's more, his estates were not always of good value, since the income from them could be encumbered in various ways, such as irrevocable alienations granted by previous Barons of Retz in favor of vassals or the Church; widows enjoying a dower in accordance with customary law; presumed beginnings of the saltworks' commercial decline in the Bay of Bourgneuf; annexations or ravages caused by war, whose constant threat necessitated maintaining defensive devices and paying men-at-arms... Therefore, in addition to poor asset management, several other factors must be taken into account to explain Rais' serious financial difficulties.

In any case, due to fragmentary or imprecise records, it's not easy to accurately estimate his assets, and in particular the yield of his estates despite their size. This is a matter of disagreement between historians Jacques Heers and Matei Cazacu. Minimizing Rais' wealth and social status, Heers denies him the qualifier of "great lord", arguing that to present him as "one of the richest lords of France is merely a figure of speech." Matei Cazacu, on the other hand, disputes this interpretation and reaffirms Rais' status as a great, powerful and sumptuous lord, with particular reference to a brief drawn up by the latter's heirs around 1461-1462. This legal document attributed to Rais an annual income of 50,000 livres tournois, of which around 30,000 came from his estates and almost 20,000 from his office as Marshal of France. While this amount is well below the incomes of contemporary princes (such as the Dukes of Orleans, Burgundy and Berry), it nevertheless places Rais in a high bracket, inaccessible to the vast majority of 15th-century Breton lords. Whatever the estimate, his fortune proved insufficient to support his opulent lifestyle in the space of just a few years.

Military career

First feat of arms during the Breton Civil War?

Siege of Champtoceaux, final phase of the 1420 Breton civil war (15th-century miniature, BnF).

In the decades following the Breton War of Succession (1341–64), the defeated faction refused to relinquish his claim to rule over the Duchy of Brittany and continued to plot against the Dukes of the House of Montfort. In February 1420, the House of Penthièvre led by Marguerite de Clisson and her two sons, Olivier and John, took Duke John V prisoner in violation of the Treaty of Guérande (1365). The conspirators enjoyed the temporary support of Charles, Dauphin of France and future King.

Civil war once again engulfed the Duchy of Brittany. At the call of Duchess Joan, wife of John V, the Breton nobility rallied around the House of Montfort, including former supporters of the House of Penthièvre, such as Jean de Craon. On 17 February 1420, the latter went to his suzerain Joan to swear, along with the other lords present, to protect her and deliver John V. In retaliation, armed Penthièvre bands attacked the strongholds of Craon and his grandson Gilles de Rais, notably destroying the castle of La Mothe-Achard.

After John V's release, Craon and Rais were rewarded for their "good and notable services" with generous land grants that were converted to monetary gifts. Perhaps young Rais' first feat of arms was to take part in the last remaining major conflict of the Breton War of Succession, but it remains a matter of historical debate since various authors stress that there is no documentary evidence of any personal military engagement.

It is also possible that Craon and Rais then entered the patronage of Arthur de Richemont, John V's younger brother recently released from English captivity.

Meanwhile, plagued by both the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War, and the foreign warfare against the Lancastrian monarchy, the Kingdom of France suffered a succession of political and military disasters during this phase of the Hundred Years' War. King Henry V of England succeeded in establishing himself as son-in-law and heir to King Charles VI of France, thanks to the ratification of the Treaty of Troyes in May 1420. For his part, having learned of the Dauphin Charles' compromises with his Penthièvre captors, John V nonetheless wavered between the Armagnac faction and the House of Lancaster in order to preserve the independence of his duchy. However, this seesaw policy did not prevent the Duke of Brittany to finally adhere to the Treaty of Troyes in June 1422.

Once the Dauphin Charles became King of France in October 1422, he continued the war against the English in order to recover his crown lands. During this dynastic turmoil, Craon and Rais may have taken part in the victory at La Gravelle on 26 September 1423, and the Battle of Verneuil on 17 August 1424, but this is just a supposition. In any case, the bloody defeat of the Franco-Scottish troops at Verneuil changed the political landscape, completing the military disaster of Agincourt almost ten years earlier.

Franco-Breton alliance through the House of Valois-Anjou

Arthur de Richemont, Constable of France.

In a weakened position following the Battle of Verneuil, King Charles VII of France was forced to seek new allies. He turned then to his mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon, head of the House of Valois-Anjou, a younger branch of the ruling dynasty of France. She had been working since 1423 to bring the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Brittany closer together diplomatically, with the help of her vassal Jean de Craon, Rais' grandfather. Although Craon was an important and wealthy Angevin lord, with numerous estates in Maine, Anjou and Brittany, his influence at the ducal court of Anjou seems to have begun only in 1423-1424. Prior to this, he had spent more time in Brittany, and had even had legal disputes with the Dukes of Anjou over the county of Brienne and the lands of the counts of Roucy.

In March 1425, Angevins' politics finally promoted Arthur de Richemont, the Duke of Brittany's brother, to the rank of Constable of France. In October 1425, during the meetings and festivities sealing the alliance between the Kingdom of France and the Duchy of Brittany in Saumur, Rais appeared in the entourage of King Charles VII, but he might have been introduced to the royal court before this date. As a matter of fact, in the same month, Charles VII defended Rais' interests by asking Richemont to return some Breton lands to the young baron, specifically former estates of the late Miles de Thouars, father of Rais' wife.

After the Maine conquest (1424-1425), the House of Lancaster threatened the borders of the Duchy of Anjou. These two French provinces were personally claimed by John, Duke of Bedford. Thus, the estates of the houses of Laval and Craon, Rais' relatives, were directly exposed to English raids.

In 1426, Arthur de Richemont suffered a crushing defeat at the battle of St. James. Although mentioned by some researchers, Rais' presence at this battle is not corroborated by any source. In the same vein, it's doubtful that Rais and his future judge, Jean de Malestroit, would have hated each other since this military event.

Coat of arms of Georges de La Trémoille.

In June 1427, Georges de La Trémoille, lord of Sully, became Grand Chamberlain of France. He soon gained the upper hand in the Royal Council while a bitter rivalry arose between him and Richemont. In addition, on 19 June 1427, Yolande of Aragon appointed her advisor Jean de Craon lieutenant general in Anjou and Maine; his nomination coincided almost exactly with the rise of La Trémoille, who also came from the house of Craon and, as such, was a distant cousin of Rais.

Probably back then, Craon endowed his grandson Rais with a military mentor: Guillaume de la Jumellière, lord of Martigné-Briant, also Yolande of Aragon's advisor at the ducal court of Anjou. The influence of his family seems to have consolidated Rais' commitment to the war against the English garrisons on the edges of Maine, leading to his appointment as captain of Sablé on behalf of Duke Louis III of Anjou.

As for John V of Brittany, himself under attack from the English, he negotiated in July 1427 with John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, English regent of the French realm. Consequently, on 8 September 1427, the Duke of Brittany decided again to shift alliance to the House of Lancaster, recognizing the Treaty of Troyes and ordering his vassals to stop fighting the English troops. Along with Viscount Alain de Rohan, Bishop Guillaume de Montfort and his own Laval relatives, Rais was one of the most notable Breton lords to disobey his suzerain by remaining loyal to the King of France.

Weakened by his various military and political failures, especially his brother's defection, Richemont fell into disgrace due to the lack of results from French-Breton alliance. Estranged from Charles VII, he retained the office of Constable, but left the French court. Without allying himself with the English, he entered into armed conflict with La Trémoille.

Guerilla warfare against English garrisons on the borders of Maine

From the second half of 1427, chronicles began to mention Rais' name, along with those of other French captains. With Ambroise de Loré and his own relative Jacques de Dinan, lord of Beaumanoir, Rais leads a guerrilla warfare on the borders of the county of Maine. This harassment tactic against the English troops enabled the French captains to storm the Ramefort fortress at Gennes. As soon as they had taken control of the stronghold, Rais and the other captains kept their promise to spare the English garrison, but had the "French-speaking" men they found there hanged. It may be a sign of "strong national feeling" against fighters regarded as "disowned French" or "false French" (in other words, French in favor of the dual monarchy of England and France).

In another assault, the lords of Rais, Loré and Beaumanoir retake the castle of Malicorne from the English. As with the capture of Ramefort, the captains had the French-speaking besieged executed. At the battle for the Château du Lude, Rais killed or took prisoner the English captain Blackburn, according to conflicting sources. The confused chronology of medieval chronicles makes it impossible to date these feats of arms precisely . At the time, fortresses can be successively stormed, lost and recaptured, due to the weakness of their garrisons or "the endless reversals of local lords, who often belonged to competing networks", notes medievalist Boris Bove.

In the spring of 1428, Rais contributed a thousand gold écus to the payment of the enormous ransom for his cousin André de Lohéac, captured by the English on 16 March 1428, during the siege of Laval. The House of Laval (namely Guy XIV, Anne and Jeanne de Laval-Tinténiac, the young captive's brother, mother and grandmother respectively) undertook to reimburse the "very dear and beloved cousins and great friends" who had helped free André de Lohéac.

In June 1428, new English troops landed in the French realm, then laid siege to Orléans from October onwards.

Companion in arms with Joan of Arc

Rais' safe-conduct seal.

On February 1429, Joan of Arc arrived in Chinon from Vaucouleurs to speak with the King. Gilles de Rais was then present at the Château de Chinon, as were the other captains in Charles VII's entourage during the war. A month later, in a letter dated 8 April 1429, signed by himself and sealed with his seal, Rais formed an alliance with his cousin, Grand Chamberlain Georges de La Trémoille. The latter thus pursued his strategy of bilateral alliances with members of the French nobility in order to consolidate his position with the King and to protect himself against the plots fomented by Constable Arthur de Richemont and his allies.

Rais sat on the Royal Council from 1429 to 1434, but only occasionally, held back by his military obligations or for other reasons. His title of King's Counselor may be purely honorary. He's also referred to as Charles VII's chamberlain.

As part of a Franco-Breton diplomatic rapprochement, probably supported by La Trémoille, Rais wrote to John V, Duke of Brittany in April 1429, urging him to reinforce the army being assembled in Blois to help the city of Orléans besieged by the English. At the same time, after being interrogated by French doctors of theology in Chinon and Poitiers, Joan of Arc received authorization to accompany the relief army to Orléans. On 25 April 1429, the Maid arrived in Blois to find a convoy of food, arms and ammunition ready, as well as an escort of several dozen men-at-arms and archers, commanded by Rais and Jean de Brosse, marshal of Boussac. The escort included a company of Angevins and Manceaux soldiers paid by Rais, who "appears to be at the heart of this otherwise (...) modest operation", affirms medievalist Philippe Contamine.

Rais contributed to the lifting of the siege of Orléans, notably by taking part in the storming of the Saint-Loup bastille on May 6. He then took part with Joan of Arc in the Loire Campaign (1429), aimed at recapturing the towns occupied by English garrisons in the region. Rais participated in the Battle of Jargeau on 12 June 1429, and the Battle of Patay on 18 June 1429. On the way to Reims, Rais and Jean de Brosse, marshal of Boussac, both commanded the vanguard of the French army.

Rais' coat of arms from September 1429 onwards.

On 17 July 1429, during the coronation of the French monarch, Rais and three other lords were charged with carrying the Holy Ampulla from the Basilica of Saint-Remi in Reims to the Metropolitan Church. On the same day, Rais was elevated to the rank of Marshal of France, in recognition of his war record or thanks to the political support of Grand Chamberlain La Trémoille.

On Monday 15 August 1429, Charles VII entrusted the wings of his army to his two marshals, Jean de Boussac and Gilles de Rais, when royal and Anglo-Burgundian troops faced each other at Montépilloy. On 8 September 1429, during the siege of Paris, Joan of Arc wanted Rais and Raoul de Gaucourt by her side during the assault on the Porte Saint-Honoré. Rais stood by Joan's side all day, among numerous men-at-arms, trying in vain to reach and cross the Parisian wall from a rear ditch. At nightfall, Joan was wounded in the leg by a crossbow bolt. The siege of Paris was quickly lifted, and the "coronation army" withdrew to the Loire before being dismissed at Gien on 21 September 1429. That same month, Charles VII again honored Rais for his "commendable services" by confirming his title of Marshal and granting him the privilege of adding to his coat of arms a border bearing the fleur-de-lis, a royal favor shared only with the Maid.

On an unspecified date, a French military expedition led by Xaintrailles and La Hire left Beauvais and settled in Louviers, a town seven leagues (around 28 kilometers) from Rouen, where Joan of Arc was being held prisoner since 23 December 1430, after her capture at the siege of Compiegne. Medievalist Olivier Bouzy states that "important figures took part in the Louviers expedition or made an appearance in the town", like the "Bastard of Orléans" and Gilles de Rais, whose presence is attested on 26 December 1430. These troop movements were interpreted by some historians as an attempt to free Joan of Arc but this hypothesis is not proven. Besides, no such delivery attempt appears to have actually taken place.

Civil wars between La Trémoille and Richemont's allies

Men-at-arms in front of the fictitious town of Crathor. Illuminated manuscript of Jean de Bueil's Le Jouvencel, BnF, 4th quarter of the 15th century.

In parallel with his fight against the Anglo-Burgundians, Grand Chamberlain Georges de La Trémoille continued his "private war" against Constable Arthur de Richemont, himself supported by the House of Valois-Anjou. In this conflict, Gilles de Rais supported La Trémoille, his cousin and ally.

Gradually, despite the similar policies pursued towards the Duchy of Brittany and the Burgundian State by the House of Valois-Anjou on the one hand and La Trémoille on the other, the latter ended up serving as a "repellent" by "federating against him the various components" of Charles VII's court, "paradoxically facilitating (...) the strengthening of the Angevins at the French court", says medievalist Laurent Vissière. The young Charles of Anjou, future strongman of the Royal Council, had been a member of this governing body since 30 March 1430, thanks to his mother Yolande of Aragon. On 26 October 1430, as the king's lieutenant general in Anjou and Maine, Charles of Anjou appointed Jean de Bueil captain of the men-at-arms and archers garrisoning the castle and town of Sablé, a place previously commanded by captain Gilles de Rais and royal governor Jacques de Dinan, lord of Beaumanoir.

Civil war broke out again in September 1431 when La Trémoille launched Captain Rodrigo de Villandrando into Anjou. In 1432, Jean de Bueil succeeded in defeating the Spanish mercenary; in return, the latter ravaged Bueil's Touraine lands. Eager to seize Château-l'Hermitage, Rais imprisons Bueil in Sablé, according to Le Jouvencel's romanticized account (which mentions Sablé under the fictitious name of "Crathor"). Still in accordance with this semi-autobiographical story, Bueil succeeded in freeing himself and taking Sablé, but Rais recaptured the town in a night attack. In addition, on an unknown date, the garrison of Champtocé castle attacked Yolande of Aragon on her way to Brittany. Gilles de Rais and Jean de Craon's men-at-arms stripped her convoy of numerous horses and baggage.

Lifting of the siege of Lagny

Lifting of the siege of Lagny. Miniature from Les Vigiles de la mort de Charles VII, BnF, late 15th century.

The war against English forces continued around Paris. In August 1432, Gilles de Rais helped lift the siege of Lagny, undoubtedly one of his most famous feats of arms along with the lifting of the siege of Orléans. Assisted by the mercenary captain Rodrigo de Villandrando, Rais crossed the Marne "upstream, before La Ferté-sous-Jouarre", while other French troops led by Raoul de Gaucourt and the "Bastard of Orléans" managed to enter Lagny through a poorly-guarded point. Medievalist Françoise Michaud-Fréjaville notes that, thanks to this "double movement of troops", the town "was delivered practically without a battle. (...) Faced with the threat, the English abandoned the bastilles and bridge they held downstream from Lagny, leaving much of their equipment behind." On this military episode, Michaud-Fréjaville refers to the "not always very reliable account" of the chronicler Jean Chartier.

In addition, Jean Chartier's chronicle mentions the presence of Gilles de Sillé, cousin of Rais, among the French troops engaged in skirmishes the day after the siege of Lagny was lifted. According to Chartier, Gilles de Sillé was taken prisoner on this occasion, unless the chronicler is confusing him with Michel de Sillé, another member of this old house related to Rais. Eight years later, during the latter's trial, the testimony of the families of the missing children, as well as the confessions of the accused, cast a shadow over Gilles de Sillé, who was on the run at the time. What's more, according to certain witnesses at the trial, a rumor was spread by Michel de Sillé's servants in an attempt to explain the children's disappearances: the English had supposedly demanded twenty-four young hostages as part of the ransom "of the said sire Michel", a pretext deemed "absurd" and "implausible" by medievalists Noël Valois and Olivier Bouzy, in accordance with the customs governing prisoners of war at the time.

Reduction of military commitments

Tomb effigies of Jean de Craon (right) and his wife Béatrice de Rochefort.

Jean de Craon, Rais' grandfather, died in November 1432.

At the end of June 1433, in Chinon, an umpteenth plot was hatched against Georges de la Trémoille, who was eventually removed from power. At the Estates General held in Tours in September 1433, Charles VII ratified the fall of his former Grand Chamberlain. The House of Valois-Anjou regained all its influence at court, the young Charles of Anjou became the key man in the Royal Council, and the accomplices in La Trémoille's kidnapping (including Jean de Bueil, Rais' enemy) acquired "great government and authority" with the sovereign. Gilbert Motier de La Fayette regained his title of Marshal after losing it to Rais in 1429, a dismissal probably intended by La Trémoille at the time.

In February 1434, the English threatened the Maine town of Sillé, which was the fiefdom of Anne de Sillé, widow of Jean de Craon. In response, the heads of the House of Laval (brothers Guy XIV de Laval and André de Lohéac) along with their cousin Rais took part in a military expedition commanded by Constable Arthur de Richemont. The vanguard of the army was under the command of Marshals de Rieux and de Rais. The latter, despite his lavish troop contingent, appeared isolated among the lords present (the Constable first and foremost, along with Prigent VII de Coëtivy, Jean de Bueil, Charles of Anjou and John II, Duke of Alençon), most of whom belonged to the coalition of La Trémoille's enemies. The company arrived in front of Sillé, faced the English, but the two armies separated without fighting.

By mid-1434, despite his forced absence from the court, La Trémoille was still urging Rais to continue the war against Burgundians. But, probably already ruined by his expenses, Rais made little attempt to prevent Philip the Good's troops from seizing Grancey. After the fall of this city in August 1434, King Charles VII summoned Rais and threatened to strip him of his office of marshal. Rais "was probably replaced by André de Laval-Lohéac", assumes Philippe Contamine.

On 2 July 1435, Charles VII proclaimed Rais to be under interdict, following complaints from his family, namely his brother René de La Suze and the House of Laval.

Squandering of heritage

Most of the information relating to the squandering of Gilles de Rais' assets comes from a 70-folio brief, written around 1461-1462 by his heirs. This document is an expanded version of an earlier brief that led to Rais being placed under interdict in 1435. Not all medievalists agree on the reliability of this source. Jacques Heers downplays its significance, deeming the document too incriminating, since its purpose is to annul past sales of Rais' landed property on the grounds of the latter's insane prodigality. Both "tendentious and instructive" according to Philippe Contamine, the brief has nonetheless been critically exploited by historians. In addition to the trial proceedings, Matei Cazacu considers this text to be "the most important document known to date on Gilles de Rais (...), a formidable effort to reconstitute the discrepancies of a life and a personality".

Besides, the accounting documents relating to Rais' expenses and estate management are very incomplete. These gaps in the documentation complicate any comparative study that would enable us to accurately verify the accusations of prodigality made by the heirs. For instance, a precise analysis of Rais' expenditures during his stay in Orléans from September 1434 to August 1435 should be based on the 1430s-minute register of notary Jean de Recouin, an Orléanais cleric, but the state of preservation of the first and last pages makes it impossible to read the corresponding deeds. What's more, some pages (almost all relating to Rais) have been cut out or are missing; these losses date back to the 19th century.

In their brief, the heirs incriminated Rais for the "insane expenses" he incurred as soon as he reached the age of 20, even before the death of his grandfather Jean de Craon. The brief also mentioned the upkeep of a troop of two hundred mounted men as one of the as one of the late marshal's profligacies, but did not insist on this point. This terseness could be explained by the prudence of the heirs, anxious not to offend Charles VII by voicing too much criticism of Rais' military spending, a token of his participation in the war waged against the Anglo-Burgundians. Given that the royal treasury was low on funds at the time, the King of France was all the more inclined then to accept the commitment of Rais, a lord capable of bearing the costs of maintaining his own troops, notably in April 1429 when he formed the escort for the convoy of arms and supplies destined for besieged Orléans.

The first sales of Rais' estates coincided with his first military campaigns. After a few negligible sales, the baron sold Blaison for 5,000 écus to his martial advisor Guillaume de la Jumellière, lord of Martigné-Briant. The transaction was concluded in 1429, a year of heavy expenditure caused by war expeditions following the lifting of the siege of Orléans. The loss of Blaison, Gilles' father's patrimonial land, aroused the anger of Jean de Craon.

Criminal life

During the years 1434–1435, disgraced by the king Charles VII, Rais gradually withdrew from military and public life to pursue his own interests.

Occult involvement

In 1438, according to testimony at his trial by the priest Eustache Blanchet and the cleric François Prelati, Rais sent out Blanchet to seek individuals who knew alchemy and demon summoning. Blanchet contacted Prelati in Florence and persuaded him to take service with his master. Having reviewed the magical books of Prelati and a traveling Breton, Rais chose to initiate experiments, the first in the lower hall of his castle at Tiffauges, attempting to summon a demon named Barron. Rais provided a contract with the demon for riches that Prelati was to give to the demon later.[citation needed]

As no demon manifested after three tries, the Marshal grew frustrated with the lack of results. Prelati said Barron was angry and required the offering of parts of a child. Rais provided these remnants in a glass vessel at a later evocation, but to no avail, and the occult experiments left him bitter and his wealth severely depleted.

Child murders

In his confession, Rais said he committed his first assaults on children between spring 1432 and spring 1433.

Act of force in Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte

The isolated bell tower, last vestige of the Romanesque church of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte.

After entrusting the castellany of Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte to René de La Suze in 1434, Gilles de Rais changed his mind and reclaimed it in an act of force, managing to keep his property by reaching a subsequent agreement with his younger brother in Nantes on 15 January 1439. But Rais again alienated Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte following a transaction with Geoffroy Le Ferron, treasurer and right-hand man of John V, Duke of Brittany. This ducal officer then entrusted the administration of the castellany to his brother Jean Le Ferron, a high-ranking tonsured cleric. Rais tried once more to reclaim the castle, this time to sell it to his cousin, the Sire de Vieillevigne, but Jean Le Ferron resisted.

In retaliation, on Pentecost or the day after, 15 or 16 May 1440, Rais ambushed a troop of fifty to sixty men in a wood near Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte. He entered the parish church armed and interrupted the mass of the religious officiant Jean Le Ferron, insulting the latter and threatening to kill him with a guisarme if he did not leave the sanctuary. Frightened, the cleric followed in the footsteps of Marquis Lenano de Ceva, a Piemontese captain in Rais' service. After opening the gates of the Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte castle to his assailants, Jean Le Ferron was imprisoned there. Rais also had other ducal agents, such as Jean Rousseau, sergeant-general of the duchy of Brittany, roughed up or arrested.

In this way, Rais simultaneously undermined divine and ducal majesties. On the one hand, he committed sacrilege by violating ecclesiastical immunities; on the other, he laid hands on ducal servants, all this in the very diocese of the Bishop of Nantes, Jean de Malestroit, the influential chancellor of Brittany ("the man actually responsible for the duchy's political direction", states historian Joël Cornette).

John V condemned his vassal to return the stronghold to Jean Le Ferron, under penalty of a fine of 50,000 gold écus. Rais then had his prisoners taken to Tiffauges, a fortress outside Brittany's jurisdiction as it fell within Poitou. In July 1440, he went to Josselin to meet his suzerain John V, but the content of their discussions remains unknown. According to François Prelati's later confession, Rais wished then to guarantee his own freedom before risking an interview with the Duke of Brittany. Thus, Rais would have asked his Italian invoker to repeatedly summon the "devil named Barron" in a meadow near Josselin, in order to question the evil spirit about John V's intentions.

Ecclesiastical and secular investigations

Drawing of Jean de Malestroit's tomb effigy, 1695, BnF.

Probably shortly after the act of force in Saint-Étienne-de-Mer-Morte, a secret investigation (inquisitio infamiae) was opened by the ecclesiastical justice system. The inquisitorial system proceedings usually began with an information phase aimed at gathering testimony on a person's fama, in other words, on his reputation established by rumor within a legal framework. As a result, the Bishop Jean de Malestroit made a pastoral visit to his diocese of Nantes, starting with the parish of Notre-Dame, home to the Hôtel de la Suze, Rais' residence. The Bishop wanted to find out more about the infamous rumors of missing children in the vicinity of the baron's residences. The results of the ecclesiastical investigation were published on 29 July 1440 in the form of letters patent by Malestroit: Rais was accused by public rumor of raping and murdering numerous children, as well as of demonic invocations and pacts. At the same time, the secular justice system proceeded to hear the same witnesses as part of the investigation conducted by the cleric Jean de Touscheronde on behalf of Pierre de L'Hôpital, universal Judge of Brittany.

On 24 August 1440, Duke John V held talks in Vannes with his brother Arthur de Richemont, Constable of France. Compromised in the Praguerie against King Charles VII in the spring of 1440, the Duke of Brittany wanted to obtain a promise of mutual assistance from Richemont, great royal officer. To this end, John V granted his brother the land of Bourgneuf-en-Retz, owned by Rais. Richemont then returned to the crown lands of France and seized Tiffauges, freeing the hostage Jean Le Ferron.

Rais was summoned to appear before the ecclesiastical court of Nantes, on charges of "murdering children, sodomy, invoking demons, offending the Divine Majesty and heresy". Two days later, on 15 September 1440, he was arrested at his Machecoul castle by Jean Labbé, captain in arms in the service of the Duke of Brittany. Among the accused were cleric François Prelati, priest Eustache Blanchet, servants Henriet Griart and Étienne Corillaut, known as "Poitou", as well as Tiphaine Branchu and Perrine Martin, known as "la Meffraye", two women accused of being child providers. Probably already on the run, Gilles de Sillé and Roger de Briqueville were not apprehended. Rais was imprisoned in the Château des ducs de Bretagne in the city of Nantes.

Trial and execution

The trial of Gilles de Rais (17th-century miniature).

Rais' prosecution was likewise conducted by both secular and ecclesiastical courts, on charges that included murder, sodomy and heresy.

The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds to establish the guilt of the accused. After Rais admitted to the charges on 21 October, the court cancelled a plan to torture him into confessing. Peasants of neighbouring villages had earlier begun to make accusations that their children had entered Rais' castle begging for food and were never seen again.

The execution of Gilles de Rais (17th-century miniature).

On 23 October 1440, the secular court heard the confessions of Poitou and Henriet and condemned them both to death, followed by Rais' death sentence on 25 October. The sentence of the ecclesiastical court imputes to him the murders of "one hundred and forty children, or more" while the sentence of the secular court did not give an exact number of victims, mentioning the murders of "several small children". Rais was allowed to make confession, and his request to be buried in the church of the monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes in Nantes was granted.

Execution by hanging and burning was set for Wednesday 26 October. At nine o‘clock, Rais and his two accomplices proceeded to the place of execution on the Ile de Biesse. Rais is said to have addressed the crowd with contrite piety and exhorted Henriet and Poitou to die bravely and think only of salvation. His request to be the first to die had been granted the day before. At eleven o'clock, the brush at the platform was set afire and Rais was hanged. His body was cut down before being consumed by the flames and claimed by "four ladies of high rank" for burial. Henriet and Poitou were executed in similar fashion but their bodies were reduced to ashes in the flames and then scattered.

Question of guilt

Doubts about the verdict in the Age of Enlightenment tradition

Between 1902 and 1912, Salomon Reinach argued that Rais was innocent.

In his Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations (1756), Voltaire referred laconically to Gilles de Rais as a supplicant who had been "accused of magic, and of having slit the throats of children to use their blood for alleged enchantments." Although he expressed reservations about Rais's guilt, Voltaire avoided taking a definitive position on the matter. His brief mention of the trial of October 1440, among other medieval trials for heresy and witchcraft, essentially allowed the French philosophe to vilify "fanaticism composed of superstition and ignorance", a flaw he considered to be of all times, but which particularly characterized his conception of obscurantist Middle Ages as opposed to the Age of Enlightenment.

In a short passage from their work L'art de vérifier les dates des faits historiques, des chartes, des chroniques et autres anciens monuments, depuis la naissance de Notre-Seigneur... (1784), Benedictines from the Congregation of Saint Maur seemed to concur with Voltaire's opinion, also proposing superstition as a plausible cause of Rais' execution. These monks initially asserted that Rais "disgraced himself in Brittany by infamous deeds that aroused the public's cries against him". But then, abandoning the affirmative tone, they used terms similar to Voltairean prose when they evoked the procession of "alleged soothsayers and magicians" possibly responsible for the "horrors" imputed to Rais, "horrors of which he was perhaps not guilty."

Between 1902 and 1912, Rais' innocence was proclaimed by Salomon Reinach, a French archaeologist and historian of religion. His thesis was developed "in a particular context, where debates on the religious question, the memory of the Dreyfus Affair, and the reassurance of the scientific spirit are pushing for a "rehabilitation" In line with the zeitgeist", explains historian Pierre Savy. Back then, Reinach's assertions were "sternly criticized" by historian Noël Valois in 1912.

In the Voltairean tradition, French poet and writer Fernand Fleuret followed in Reinach's footsteps with the same anti-clerical interpretation in order to defend Rais' innocence in 1921. For the occasion, Fleuret adopted the pseudonym "Dr. Ludovico Hernandez" to give his essay scientific credence.

Occultist interpretations

Print depicting the amalgam between alchemy and black magic: Gilles de Rais collects the blood of his victims in a laboratory filled with an athanor, retorts, alembics and grimoires (engraving by Valentin Foulquier, 1862).

In the early 20th century, anthropologist Margaret Murray and occultist Aleister Crowley questioned the involvement of the ecclesiastic and secular authorities in the case. Crowley described Rais as "in almost every respect...the male equivalent of Joan of Arc", whose main crime was "the pursuit of knowledge". Murray, who propagated the witch-cult hypothesis, speculated in her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe that Rais was really a witch and an adherent of a fertility cult centred on the pagan goddess Diana.

Most historians reject Murray's theory. Norman Cohn argues that it is inconsistent with what is known of Rais' crimes and trial Historians do not regard Rais as a martyr to a pre-Christian religion; other scholars tend to view him as a lapsed Catholic who descended into crime and depravity, and whose real crimes were coincidental to the land forfeitures.

Georges Bataille's interpretations

Georges Bataille.

In 1959, French philosopher and intellectual Georges Bataille co-edited with Pierre Klossowski a modern French translation of the 1440 trial proceedings. The book also included an introduction and a lengthy appendix in which Bataille retraced Rais' life.

Bataille argued that Rais' sexual crimes are "indubitable" because "15th-century judges could not have devised a plot so complex and exact in its perversity", sums up French historian Yves-Marie Bercé.

For Bataille, understanding such criminal behavior, and thus being able to affabulate it, remained impossible in medieval times without the later assistance of Marquis de Sade and Sigmund Freud, whose works "explore these abysses" and "force humanity to recognize their existence, to designate, to name these virtualities", adds Bercé. The latter concludes that Bataille's historical approach was probably coupled with a "personal exorcism" linked to his own obsession with transgression and horror. This would explain Bataille's need to believe in Rais' guilt, in order "to cope with the 20th-century vertigo."

1992 mock re-trial

In 1992, a mock re-trial of Rais was held as a media event in France, without official involvement of public authorities and the judiciary. The lawyer Jean-Yves Goëau-Brissonnière made a long plea at the UNESCO amphitheatre in May 1992. Then in November 1992, he again organized such an ad hoc "court", at the Luxembourg Palace, to re-examine the source material and evidence available at the medieval trial. A team consisting of lawyers, writers, former French ministers, parliament members, a biologist and a medical doctor led by the writer Gilbert Prouteau and presided over by Judge Henri Juramy found Gilles de Rais not guilty. But, as contemporary French news and academic commentators reported, none of the participants sought professional advice from qualified medievalists.

The proceedings were, in part, turned into a fictionalized biography called Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule du loup [Gilles de Rais; or, the Mouth of the Wolf], narrated by Gilbert Prouteau. The latter appears to have neither studied the original primary sources (written in Middle French and essentially in Latin) nor mastered the palaeographic skills required to decipher 15th-century Gothic cursive. In addition, his knowledge of the history of religion, law and medieval institutions, particularly in relation to the Duchy of Brittany, is regularly challenged, according to medievalist Jean Kerhervé. Medievalist Olivier Bouzy also points out several other errors and rough approximations, even biased inventions deliberately forged for the purposes of rehabilitation. For the archivist-paleographer Matei Cazacu, the syllogism brandished to exonerate Rais ("The Inquisition persecuted the innocent. One of Gilles de Rais' judges was an inquisitor. So Gilles de Rais was the innocent victim of the Inquisition") is reminiscent of the logician character in Eugène Ionesco's play Rhinoceros. The journalist Gilbert Philippe of Ouest-France subsequently declared Prouteau "facetious and provocative", claiming further that Prouteau himself thought the retrial was "an absolute joke".

Contemporary academic views

Medievalist Claude Gauvard is careful not to read the trial proceedings literally. She nevertheless dismisses the conspiracy theory about a frameup trial.

Like Matei Cazacu, medievalists Olivier Bouzy and Jacques Heers are convinced of Gilles de Rais' guilt. Likewise, for medievalist Valérie Toureille, the numerous testimonies of the parents make it impossible to "bank on the innocence of Gilles de Rais" despite the material interests of John V, Duke of Brittany, and his chancellor Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes. Medievalist Claude Gauvard also emphasizes that "the historian (...) is not a judge. He can only point out certain contradictions in the trial, transformations between the initial depositions of the witnesses and the charges developed by the judges, but he must also affirm that the facts are stubborn. Given the initial witness accounts on which the investigation was based, the abduction of male children is no mere rumour" in spite of the exaggerated number of victims. She adds that historians don't "subscribe to the conspiracy theory that these two trials were a plot" orchestrated by Malestroit and the Duke of Brittany.

Notwithstanding the realistic and detailed nature of the confessions of Rais and his servants, these texts are not accurate shorthand accounts, says medievalist Jacques Chiffoleau, but after-the-fact reconstructions written according to the medieval inquisitorial system of "highly regulated interrogations, composed of questions worked out in advance, [transcribing oral depositions in accordance] with the classificatory and scholastic writing of notaries and judges, the eventual use of torture to get to a confession that is most often no more than a homologation of what the prosecution proposes."

Jacques Chiffoleau insists that he is not trying to prove Rais' innocence or guilt, but rather to explain "the weight of the proceedings" and the judges' "strong views" on lese-majesty offence. Thus, in the Breton magistrates' eyes, the criminal charges against John V's treacherous vassal constituted "a very old triptych that closely entwined" rebellion against the established order (which stemed from the divine order), deal with the Devil and "unnatural relations" such as sodomy.

Similarly, Claude Gauvard stresses that confessions were shaped by the expectations of judges, whose imagination was imbued with the "fear of a demonological epidemic" contemporary with the beginnings of the witch-hunts in the Late Middle Ages. Gauvard therefore considers it "difficult, if not impossible" to "distinguish between what is fantasy" in these confessions, since "the description of the facts is insidiously rooted in reality."

However, Jacques Chiffoleau admits to being puzzled by certain vivid passages from Étienne Corrillaut's confession of 17 October 1440, in which this Rais' servant detailed some assassination methods. These descriptions of bloody and orgasmic rituals have no equivalent in every inquisitorial interrogation studied by Chiffoleau, because in this case the trial documents record murders and sadistic pleasures that had never been put down on paper before Marquis de Sade's literary work in the 18th century.

Psychopathological interpretations

Fin de siècle portrayals

Edition of a psychiatric medical thesis on Rais (1910).

Between 1870 and around 1900, sexual psychopathology underwent considerable development in Europe, with a proliferation of studies endeavoring to classify clinically all forms (benign or criminal) of "sexual perversions". Medievalist Zrinka Stahuljak observes that "preoccupations with criminality, criminal responsibility and penal law brought to the surface the links between madness and crime"." The most famous study of the period remains the work of German-Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, Psychopathia Sexualis (1886), whose chapter on sexual sadism disorder evokes Gilles de Rais. This text exerted a great influence on the publications dedicated to the latter.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the above-mentioned inventories of cruelties, manic obsessions and perversions contributed to a renewed perception of recidivism and, beyond that, to the creation of a new criminal category that heralded the expression "serial killer", which gradually took hold in the United States from the 1970s–1980s as a technical police term. Thus, in 1899, French criminologist Alexandre Lacassagne already distinguished various categories of sadists in his book Vacher l'éventreur et les crimes sadiques, in particular the "great sadists" who commit "repeated crimes", naming Rais, Jack the Ripper and Joseph Vacher.

Gilles de Rais, La Meffraye and the murderous servant, as seen by the French artist Louis Bombled (c. 1900).

According to late 19th-century French school of criminology, Rais became a "criminal degenerate" as a symptom of medieval French nobility's presumed decadence. He and Joan of Arc were retrospectively diagnosed as hallucinated figures of "depraved noble crime" and "revitalizing popular genius" respectively. Hence, these two famous examples were meant to illustrate "social degeneration", a concept which claimed to enclose the French people within a temporal cycle of national degeneration and regeneration, reflecting fin de siècle declinist fears about the fall of civilizations. In this way, by pleading for the possibility of the human species' "physical and moral regeneration" through public health and eugenics, Alexandre Lacassagne and his peers opposed the atavistic and deterministic theory of the "born criminal" formulated by Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso.

Historian Angus McLaren notes that the aforementioned medical literature was often scientifically unworthy. For example, Rais and the cannibal Antoine Léger were often found side by side with other sadists and sexual murderers in fetishistic compilations of clinical cases summarized in short, moralistic biographies. In addition, to establish the retrospective diagnosis of Rais as a typical example of a "moral madman" suffering from "impaired moral sense", late 19th-century medical profession drew without hindsight on Paul Lacroix's Curiosités de l'histoire de France (1858), a volume peppered with fanciful inventions but perceived at the time as a reliable historical source by Krafft-Ebing, Albert Moll and French forensic doctor Léon-Henri Thoinot, among other physicians. In particular, they believed they had found "the determining cause that triggered Gilles' sadism" in an alleged Suetonius' literary work depicting the orgiastic follies of decadent Roman emperors. However, this manuscript, embellished with licentious miniatures, came straight out of Paul Lacroix's imagination. "Fiction therefore facilitated Gilles' passage from historical to medical discourse", points out Zrinka Stahuljak, adding that Lacroix's literary forgery conveniently provided these physicians with a "scientific explanation of [Rais'] conduct".

Classification as a serial killer

Murderer of several young men during the Weimar Republic, serial killer Fritz Haarmann was compared to Gilles de Rais by historian Émile Gabory, and later by Georges Bataille.

Subsequently, the connection between the criminal category of serial killers and the case of Gilles de Rais was occasionally used to refute the thesis of the latter's innocence, thanks to the mention of supposedly comparable murderers like Fritz Haarmann. Besides, Matei Cazacu recognizes some of their characteristics in Rais:

  • average age of the criminal at the start of the murders (around 27–31 years);
  • predilection for the same type of victims (in this case, mainly young boys);
  • "illicit acts" perpetrated during his childhood and adolescence;
  • aggressiveness and propensity for violence against adults;
  • ritualization of the crime through staged scenes and recurrent tortures (committed personally by Rais or his servants) on people reduced to the status of objects : brief hanging of his victim before unhooking him by adopting a falsely reassuring attitude; breaking necks with a stick; cutting throats or other parts of the body; dismemberment or decapitation with a sword "commonly known as a 'braquemart'"; post-mortem abuse or ante-mortem rape of dying children; enjoyment of the sight of internal organs after disembowelling; contemplation of severed heads.

In attempting to draw up a detailed profile of Rais as a psychopathic killer, Matei Cazacu also applies the "reading grid used by FBI profilers" in a 1990 report, as well as the classification proposed by Dr. Michel Bénézech, psychiatrist and professor of forensic medicine at the University of Bordeaux. Cazacu assumes the anachronism in the following way: "Modern techniques, when they exist and make it possible to contribute something, must not be neglected." He acknowledges that his approach has been contested, but he claims not to confuse medieval and contemporary mentalities, admitting, moreover, that "the abysses of the human psyche remain unfathomable and (...) Gilles de Rais has definitely taken his secret to the grave". Furthermore, Claude Gauvard states that "the historian is not (...) a psychoanalyst, even if the teachings of psychoanalysis can help him to understand the content of confessions and their share of psychotic delirium."

On the other hand, medievalist Jacques Chiffoleau believes that "the psychology of Gilles de Rais is forever (...) closed to us. From the meagre traces we have, we will never know whether he was in a position to be or not to be a serial killer". Jacques Chiffoleau also points out that "the description of an almost timeless perverse structure'" is only "distantly related to the medieval triple accusation of rebellion, pact with the Devil and unnatural relations."

Nevertheless, Rais sometimes comes to be seen as the archetype of a contemporary media figure of dangerousness, characterized by historian Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu as that of "the pedophile confused with the rapist-murderer, a Gilles de Rais updated in the dual form of a predator and a lunatic." Such interpretation neglects the historical data needed to decipher the proceedings of the two trials held in 1440, asserts Jacques Chiffoleau: although Rais' confessions seem to "bear witness to the mixture of psychosis and narcissistic perversion that is characteristic of our contemporary serial killers", his story, rich in insights into "15th-century political justice and institutional constructs", would tell us little about pedophilia and serial murder during the Late Middle Ages.

Gilles de Rais and the Bluebeard myth

Bluebeard is about to slit the throat of his wife.
Gouache adorning a manuscript of Charles Perrault's Mother Goose Tales, 1695.

Rais' story may have been one of the influences on Charles Perrault's "Bluebeard" tale, included in his book Stories or Tales from Past Times, with Morals (1697), but this hypothesis is disputed.

In any case, Bluebeard's mythical figure seems to have been amalgamated with Rais' historical legend long after Perrault's literary text was published. From the early 19th century onwards, travel reports, local folk tales and tourist information all point to a popular confusion between Rais and the fictitious wife-slasher. The latter is sometimes associated with the memory of some ruined castles in Western France, generally former Rais' properties.

Relationship with Joan of Arc

Historiated initial depicting Joan of Arc whith her banner (art forgery painted at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Archives Nationales).

Many authors have been fascinated by the theme of a terrible criminal standing side by side with Joan of Arc on the battlefields of the Hundred Years' War, so much so that this thematic duality has become a topos peculiar to Gilles de Rais. Writer Alain Jost notes its "dramatic effect is assured and the Manichean symbolism is obvious"; Gilles and Joan shared youth and military fame, their first names sound good together, "their destinies will be both parallel and radically opposed: both tried and executed", one embodying demonic vice and the other holy virtue.

Therefore, literature took up the topic of Rais' feelings towards Joan of Arc, covering a palette ranging from friendship to religious devotion to a more troubled fascination. In Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel Là-bas, the character Durtal assumes that "Gilles de Rais' mysticism was exalted" by the side of the Maid of Orléans. In addition, Michel Tournier's novel Gilles and Jeanne is the source of "much of the pseudo-historical literature spreading the idea of Joan of Arc's love affair with Gilles de Rais", observes medievalist Olivier Bouzy. Michel Tournier borrowed from essayist Roland Villeneuve the hypothetical notion of Rais' fall from grace triggered by the Maid's death by burning.

From an historical point of view, it is sometimes theorized that Joan of Arc and Rais cooperated closely together. For instance, Abbot Eugène Bossard attempted to magnify the latter as the Maid's devoted comrade-in-arms, in a binary scheme of a glorious slice of life contrasting with a much darker second biographical section. More recently, Matei Cazacu conjectured that Rais was "probably shaken" by the charges of heresy brought by the church court against Joan of Arc at Rouen.

19th-century artist's impression of Jeanne des Armoises.

Nonetheless, 15th-century archives do not seem to fully establish a special relationship between the two comrades-in-arms. Thus, the correlation between the Louviers expedition and a potential liberation attempt of the Maid is plausible but not established with certainty. Furthermore, in 1439, the city of Orléans acquired a banner that belonged to Rais in order to stage a theatrical celebration of the English siege's lifting. However, it's not established that he specifically supported the Mystery of the Siege of Orléans, a probably unperformed mystery play singing Joan of Arc's praises. Lastly, in the same year, Rais employed Jean de Siquenville, a squire from Gascony, as a commander of men-at-arms in order to take the English-held town of Le Mans. This troop had been previously commanded by Jeanne des Armoises, a Joan of Arc impersonator, but her relationship with Rais remains "poorly documented and difficult to interpret", according to medievalist Jacques Chiffoleau.

Joan of Arc's feelings towards Rais escape us completely. What's more, assuming that her death represented a major break-down in Rais' life, the shock could be more "narcissistic" than "sentimental", as her disappearance would signal the end of an epic saga that could fulfill his aspirations for glory. In any case, there is no evidence that Rais was so despairing after her burning at the stake in Rouen that he withdrew to his lands in order to honour her memory, while at the same time sinking into depression and murderous madness.

See also


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