Gilles de Rais is strong and dexterous with weapons, redoubtable in tournaments. At seventeen, he laughs as he transpierces his first man, an English Captain who is looking for a fight. He is beautiful, intelligent, gay, cultured, valiant, artistic. His grandfather, proud Jean de Craon, has taught him the loftiness and the liberty of great men. His inheritance is considerable. Castles, immense lands, millions in revenues. Whole provinces are to come to him: Anjou, Maine, Poitou. His library is famous, known even to the Great Khan of Moscow. His collegiate church, which is greatly admired by the Roman Cardinal Gaffarillo, shelters eighty magnificently adorned incumbents, the same number as for a cathedral. His stables serve as a model for King Henry [VI] of England. He maintains an army to watch over his possessions. His taste for music is equal to his taste for weapons. He recrutes the best balladeers, jugglers, troubadours, musicians, singers. He possesses several organs, one of which is mounted on a cart which accompanies him in his travels. He can afford anything, and denies himself nothing. But his dreams are greater than his fortune. At twenty, he is already borrowing against his lands and raises crushing taxes on his peasants.
Is he rushing to disaster? No. War saves him. War against the English. This prodigious and refined young man, who has his honey sent from Greece and his perfumes from Arabia, is also an heroic knight. When Jeanne d’Arc appears, he lends her his sword. They ride spur to spur. He loves Jeanne with pure love: she is sent by God, a Virgin figure. In Reims, he has the honour of carrying the holy phial kept in the Saint-Denis Abbey, the holy oil with which the Kings of France, starting with Clovis, are annointed. On the day of the Coronation [17 July 1429], the King [Charles VII] names him Field-Marshal of France. He is twenty-four. What would his destiny have been without the fall of Jeanne, her martyrdom, her execution? Perhaps he would have entered a convent. Perhaps he would have figured in the calendar of the saints. Instead of which, he throws himself into Hell and leaves us the memory of the greatest criminal of all time, and the legend of Bluebeard. The flames which consumed a saint, will consume a demon. Jeanne’s companion, he is also her reflection in the Devil’s dark mirror.
He returns to his lands, after a few expeditions and pillages, and retires to his Tiffauges Castle. At thirteen, his grandfather had married him to a rich heiress, Catherine de Thouars. Having given her a daughter, Marie, his wife no longer interests him. Neither do other women. Disdained, Catherine goes with her child to Pouzauges. As for him, putting into aesthetism the passion that he applied to war, he lives surrounded by cupbearers who serve him half-naked, and by the “beautiful children” with the angel voices of his chapel. He possesses the most admirable choir of his time, and when his favourite Alma Redemptus Mater is heard in seraphic chants, he falls into ecstasy. In memory of Jeanne d’Arc, he has written, and performed at great expense in Orleans, a Mystere, whose six hundred participants change costumes at each performance.
Luxury, the Arts, voluptuousness precipitate his ruin. He has to sell part of his lands to Jean, Duke de Bretagne [Brittany], and Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes.
Then, without renouncing the Arts, he delves into the greatest ambition of all the cultured minds of his time: the capture of the ultimate secret of Nature, forcing matter to metamorphosis, obtaining the powder of projection which changes vile metals into alchemical gold. Does he have to conclude Devil’s pacts in exchange for the philosophical stone, like Georg Sabel who, half a century later, in Germany, will take the name of Faustus, and give birth to the myth of Faust? In his homes of Tiffauges and Champtoce, magicians, necromancians, sorcerers take the place of engravers, goldsmiths, scholars, singers, musicians, dancers, poets. To force the alchemical secrets, they resort to malefic invocations. They sacrifice white cocks, doves, lambs. But that isn’t enough. At great expense, Gilles de Rais has brought from Florence a young, dodgy alchemist: Prelati. He is now surrounded by sombre people: a Poitevin, named Lariviere; a Breton witch, Perrine Martin, known as La Meffraye. When Prelati claims human victims for his magical operations, Gilles is fascinated by the black gulf. Nothing troubles him more than innocent flesh. Nothing will exalt him more than the victims’ blood. He is homosexual. Alchemical folly, satanic folly and sexual folly combine into sadistic folly. La Meffraye, dressed in black, a veil over her face, combs the countryside, talking to little boys. Paid “receivers” seize them. In the sombre Tiffauges fortress, children suspended on iron hooks scream in anguish. Gilles pretends to free them, coaxes them, then bleeds them as he pollutes them. Their entrails are offered to the Devil, attempts are made to make their decapitated heads speak. How many victims? Roughly a thousand perhaps.
“Lost at Saint-Etienne-de-Montluc, the son of Guillaume Brice, who was a poor man and went begging.”
“Disappeared at Machecoul, the son of Georget le Barbier, who was seen a certain day picking apples and hasn’t been seen since.”
“Lost at Thonaye, the child of Martin Thouars, the said child aged about twelve.”
“At Chanteloup, Pierre Badieu, haberdasher, says that he saw in the countryside of Rais two children aged nine, who were brothers and children of Robin Pavot, and no-one has seen them nor knows what has become of them since.”
The rumour swells, although the common people do not dare to speak out. However, the Bishop of Nantes, Jean de Malestroit, receives complaints during a pastoral visit. Then, two enquiries are set up. One of them for magic, by the ecclesiastical authority. The other for kidnappings and murders of children, by the civil authority. Discrete enquiries, for it concerns a very high lord.
To be continued.