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Gilles de Rais

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Gilles de Rais


Gilles de RaisGilles de Rais (also spelled Retz) (autumn of 1404 – October 26, 1440) was a French noble, soldier, and one time brother-in-arms of Joan of Arc. He was later accused and ultimately convicted of infanticide - torturing, raping and murdering dozens, if not hundreds, of children. Along with Erzsébet Báthory, another sadistic aristocrat acting more than a century later, he is considered by some historians to be a precursor of the modern serial killer.

Contents [hide] 1 Early years 2 Military career 3 Investigation and execution 4 Controversy 5 Fictional appearances 6 Trivia 7 References 8 Notes 9 External links


Early years Rais was born in 1404 at Machecoul, near the border of Brittany. His father was Guy de Montmorency-Laval, who had inherited, via adoption, the fortunes of Jeanne de Rais and Marie de Craon. Gilles de Rais inherited the barony of Rais in the peerage-duchy of Rais (now spelled Retz). He was an intelligent child, learning fluent Latin. After the death of his parents c.1415, Gilles was put under the tutelage of his godfather, Jean de Craon.

In 1420 he found himself at the court of the Dauphin, pretender to crown of France. Jean de Craon sought to marry Rais off to the heiress Jeanne de Paynol; this was unsuccessful. Jean de Craon then attempted to join de Rais with Beatrice de Rohan, niece of the Duke of Brittany, again with no success. Eventually he was able to substantially increase Rais's fortune by marrying him off to Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, heiress of La Vendee and Poitou, but only after first kidnapping her. Later stories connecting Rais with the legendary wife-murderer Bluebeard may have stemmed from the fact that two of several previous marriage schemes were thwarted by the death of the intended bride.

Rais took the side of the Montfort Dukes of Brittany against a rival house led by Olivier de Blois, Count of Penthievre, who took John VI, Duke of Brittany prisoner. He was able to secure the Duke's release, and was rewarded for this deed by generous land grants which the Breton parliament converted to monetary gifts.

Military career

The coat of arms of Gilles de Rais.From 1427 to 1435, Rais served as a commander in the Royal Army, and in 1429 fought along with Joan of Arc in some of the campaigns waged against the English and their Burgundian allies. Although a few authors have tended to exaggerate the position he held during the latter campaigns, surviving bursary records show that he only commanded a personal contingent of some twenty-five men-at-arms and eleven archers, and was one of many dozens of such commanders.[1] Nor did he serve as Joan of Arc's bodyguard, a position actually held by Jean d'Aulon. Rais's greatest honor during these campaigns came when he joined three other commanders in holding the quasi-ceremonial title of Maréchal, a subordinate position under the Royal Connétable. This honor was granted him at the coronation of Charles VII on 17 July 1429.

In 1435 Rais retired from military service to his estates, promoting theatrical performances and exhausting the large fortune he had inherited. It was during this period that, according to trial testimony given by Rais and his accomplices, he began to experiment with the occult under the direction of a man named Francesco Prelati, who promised Rais that he could help him regain the fortune Rais had squandered by sacrificing children to a demon called "Barron."


Investigation and execution On May 15, 1440, Rais kidnapped a clergyman named Jean le Ferron during a dispute at the Church of Saint Étienne de Mer Morte. This prompted an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, during which the investigators uncovered evidence of Rais's infanticidal crimes. On 29 July, the Bishop released his findings, and subsequently obtained the prosecutorial cooperation of Rais's former protector, the Duke of Brittany. Action was now finally taken: on 24 August, Jean le Ferron was freed by Royal troops led by Arthur de Richemont. Rais himself and his accomplices were arrested on 15 September, following a secular investigation which paralleled the findings of the Bishop of Nantes's earlier investigation. Rais's prosecution would likewise be conducted by both secular and ecclesiastical courts, on charges which included murder, sodomy, and heresy.

The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there were adequate grounds for establishing the guilt of the accused. After Rais admitted to the charges on 21 October, the court canceled a plan to torture him into confessing. The transcript, which included testimony from the parents of many of the missing children as well as graphic descriptions of the murders provided by Rais's accomplices, was said to be so lurid that the judges ordered the worst portions to be stricken from the record.

According to surviving accounts, Rais lured children, but mainly young boys who were blonde haired and blue eyed, as he had been as a child, to his residences, and raped, tortured and mutilated them, often masturbating over the dying victim. He and his accomplices would then set up the severed heads of the children in order to judge which was the most fair. The precise number of Rais's infanticides is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured numbers upwards of 600. The victims ranged in age from six to eighteen and included both sexes; although Rais preferred boys, he would make do with young girls if circumstances required.

On 23 October, the secular court condemned Rais's accomplices, Henriet and Poitou. On the 25th, the ecclesiastical court handed down a sentence of excommunication against Rais, followed on the same day by the secular court's own condemnation of the accused. After tearfully expressing remorse for his crimes, Rais obtained rescindment of the Church's punishment and was allowed confession, but the secular penalty remained in place. Rais, Henriet, and Poitou were hanged at Nantes on 26 October 1440.

The Murders

The first child-snatching attributed to Gilles de Rais occured, historians believe, sometime in 1432, when Gilles de Sille, a cousin of de Rais, reportedly abducted a young apprentice whom de Sille wanted to carry a message to the castle at Machecoul. The anonymous 12-year-old boy, apprenticed to Guillaume Hilairet, a furrier, was the son of Jean Jeudon. When the boy disappeared and Hilairet sought out the nobleman de Sille, he was told the boy had been kidnapped by thieves in the village of Tiffauges. In Gilles’ trial, the events were testified to by Hillairet and his wife, Jean Jeudon and his wife, and five others from Machecoul. There is no evidence linking Gilles de Rais to this kidnapping, but he was charged with the boy’s death.

In Jean Benedetti’s biography of Gilles de Rais, he explains what happened to the children - both boys and girls:

The child was pampered and dressed in better clothes than it had ever known. The evening began with a large meal and heavy drinking, particularly hippocras, which acted as a stimulant. The child was taken to an upper room to which only Gilles (de Rais) and his immediate circle was admitted. The child would then be confronted with the true nature of its situation. The shock thus produced on the child was an initial source of pleasure for Gilles.

An accomplice in many of the crimes, Etienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, testified that de Rais then raped the child as it was hanged from a hook by the neck. Before the victim died, Gilles took the child down, comforted it, repeated the act and either killed the child himself or had it slain.

Poitou testified that the child victims were murdered “sometimes by decapitating them, sometimes by cutting their throats, sometimes by dismembering them, sometimes by breaking their necks with a stick, and that there was a weapon specifically for their execution, known as a braquemard.” A braquemard is a short, thick double-edged sword.

Gilles de Rais rarely left a child alive for more than one evening’s pleasure, Poitou claimed. Many times they were dealt mortal wounds before de Rais sodomized them. He would then take his pleasure as the child died. Occasionally, he would perform a sex act with a dead child.

In his own confession, Gilles testified that “when the children were dead he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the said children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed…”

Many of the bodies were disposed of through cremation in the chamber of horrors. The fires burned slowly over time so as to minimize the smell, testified Henriet Griart, another co-conspirator. Poitou also claimed the ashes were then dumped in the cesspool or moat.



Controversy Some authors have alleged that Rais was framed for murder and heresy by elements within the Church as part of a diocesan plot to expropriate his lands, however this theory is considered highly suspect by most historians since the Church stood little chance of acquiring said properties, and by the fact that title ultimately devolved to the Duke of Brittany, who in turn doled them out to such nobles as Arthur de Richemont. Moreover, his conviction was based on the detailed eyewitness accounts of his collaborators and the testimony of the parents of his numerous victims, thereby providing corroborated evidence to justify the verdict. [2] Any plot to dispossess him would have had to involve an improbable number of individuals and the complicity of both secular and Church officials. Most historians similarly consider the Duke of Brittany (the chief beneficiary) an unlikely mastermind of such a plot, as he had long counseled and protected Rais, and only consented to his prosecution after two investigations had uncovered damning and irremisible evidence.

Anthropologist Margaret Murray and occultist Aleister Crowley are among those who have questioned the traditional account relayed to us by the ecclesiastic and secular authorities involved in the case. Murray, in her book The Witch-Cult of Western Europe (pp. 173-74), surmised that Rais was a witch and follower of a fertility cult centered around the pagan goddess Diana. According to Murray, "Gilles de Rais was tried and executed as a witch and, in the same way, much that is mysterious in this trial can also be explained by the Dianic Cult." [3]

Mainstream historians reject Murray's theory; as Hugh Trevor-Roper put it [1] "The fancies of the late Margaret Murray need not detain us. They were justly, if irritably, dismissed by a real scholar as ‘vapid balderdash’ (C.L. Ewen, Some Witchcraft Criticisms, (1938)." Other historians who have taken issue with Murray's claims include Jeffrey Russell (who said Murray's theories were "riddled with fallacies" [2]), Jacqueline Simpson [3], Ronald Hutton, [4], G. L. Kitteredge, [5] Norman Cohn, [6] Keith Thomas [7] and Georges Bataille (e.g., The Trial of Gilles de Rais). They point out that his Dianic Cult theory does not fit with what is known of de Rais's crimes and trial. Murray's theory having been rejected by professional historians, its application to de Rais is not commonly accepted; where Murray saw Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais as martyrs to an old religion, historians and recent scholars have tended to view the former as a devout Catholic convicted for political reasons by a pro-English court, and the latter as a Catholic who fell into crime.[8]

Undoubtedly, though, the most controversial source of information on Gilles de Rais remains a yet-to-be thoroughly authenticated cache of fragmentary documents believed to date from 1440 and finally published along with the trial proceedings in 1965 under the title Le procès de Gilles de Rais (translation by Klossowski, edition by Bataille). The salvaged documents purport to bear witness to Rais's own mind as the moment of his execution neared. Evidence from other sources suggests that he was able to write sufficiently well in Latin to have composed the document himself. It is also possible, though less likely, (considering the intimately confessional nature of the largest of the fragments) for them to have been redacted by a scribe at the request of the defendant.

Fictional appearances Rais's profile and notoriety has intrigued and inspired many modern French thinkers and authors, such as Michel Tournier, Pierre Klossowski and one-time Surrealist Georges Bataille.

Rais is secondary character in the play Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw. A biography of Gilles de Rais is utilized as a major plot device in the French decadent novel Là-bas ("Down There") by J.K. Huysmans.

Nathanael West makes reference to the morbid sexual practices of Rais and the Marquis de Sade in his novella The Dream Life of Balso Snell.

Gilles de Rais appears as a vampire and one of the co-conspirators involved in Dracula's resurrection in Castlevania and its special edition, Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness.

Gilles de Rais is a minor villain in the manga series S & M no Sekai by Chiho Saito.

The novel Thief of Souls by Ann Benson, juxataposes the story of Gilles de Rais with that of a fictional modern-day serial killer.

Gilles de Rais makes a brief appearance in the opening section of Anne Golon's Angélique series, as the subject of horror stories told to children. Also he may be partly the basis for the book's romantic lead, Joffrey Peyrac.

Gilles de Rais is the villain in The Dead Boy Detectives (by Ed Brubaker), a spin-off of the graphic novel The Sandman (by Neil Gaiman). The Dead Boy Detectives are published by DC Comic's Vertigo imprint.

Gilles de Rais’s name also appeared in the Japanese novel The Scandal, by Shusaku Endo. In the novel, an old Japanese author trying to fathom the darker side of human nature while he is besieged by scandal, is told about Gilles de Rais.

Gilles de Rais is a villain in the 2000 Summer and 2001 Winter Sailor Moon Musicals, which are commonly called The Forest of Transylvania.

The vampire in Dracula 2: Ascension, who is Judas Iscariot, explains that he has had many identities throughout history, one of which was Gilles de Rais.

Gilles de Rais is the subject of the song 'Into the Crypts of Rays' by Celtic Frost.

In Blade: the Series Episode "Hunters", The White Prince, a sadisitic Vampire who tortures and multilates Young Women before Feeding on them; was once known as Gilles de Rais.

Gilles de Rais, along with the Marquis De Sade, is mentioned in passing in the story, "The Rats in the Walls," by H.P. Lovecraft

In the Luc Besson film The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais is shown as one of Joan of Arc's captains.

In the science fiction short story "Rumfuddle" by Jack Vance, a baby who would have grown up to be Gilles de Rais is taken to a different time and place in history.


TriviaSome 49 human skulls were discovered in La Suze sur Sarthe Castle which belonged to Jean de Craon, Lord of Suze and Gilles de Rais's godfather.[citation needed]

ReferencesBataille, Georges. The Trial of Gilles de Rais Amok Books. ISBN 1-878923-02-1 Benedetti, Jean. Gilles de Rais. Stein and Day. ISBN 0-8128-1450-9 Bordonove, Georges. Gilles de Rais. Pygmalion. ISBN 2-85704-694-4 Hyatte, Reginald. Laughter for the Devil: The Trials of Gilles De Rais, Companion-In-Arms of Joan of Arc (1440). Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. ISBN 0-8386-3190-8 Morgan, Val. The Legend of Gilles De Rais (1404-1440) in the Writings of Huysmans, Bataille, Plancon and Tournier (Studies in French Civilization, 29) Edwin Mellen Press. ISBN 0-7734-6619-3 Nye, Robert. The Life and Death of My Lord, Gilles de Rais. Time Warner Books. ISBN 0-349-10250-3 Wolf, Leonard. Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles De Rais. Potter. ISBN 0-517-54061-4 [edit] Notes ^ Hugh Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, 1969 ^ Jeffrey Russell, A History of Witchcraft: Sorcerers, Heretics, and Pagans, 1970. ^ Jacqueline Simpson, Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why?, Folklore 105, 1994, pp. 89–96 ^ Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 1991, and The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 ^ G. L. Kitteredge, Witchcraft in Old and New England, 1951. pp. 275, 421, 565 ^ Norman Cohn, Europe's Inner Demons, London: Pimlico, 1973 ^ Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1971 and 1997, pp. 514–517 ^ W.P. Barrett, The Trial of Joan of Arc, 1932; Regine Pernoud & Marie Veronique Clin, Joan of Arc, Her Story, 1966; Françoise Meltzer, For Fear of the Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of Subjectivity, 2001.