Gilles de Rais

The real mystery of the Gilles de Rais case is in the depth of Christian sentiments which change a story of Hell into a manifestation of Grace.  Louis Pauwels writes:

“Nothing seems to me to be more moving than the short dialogue between the Bishop of Nantes and the accused, after the Bishop has veiled the Christ’s face.

“And nothing seems to me to be more beautiful – and farthest away from our mentality of today – than the crowd of parents of the victims praying for this soul’s salvation.  That is spiritual nobility.”

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The original manuscripts of the trial, in Latin, are in the Archives of the Prefecture de Nantes.  The Acts of the ecclesiastical trial and of the civil trial are at the Bibliotheque de Nantes.  Louis Pauwels thinks that the best use of these documents, in modern times, has been by Michel Bataille for his work consecrated to Gilles de Rais.

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The estimation of around one thousand victims is the one usually retained.  But there has been some controversy about it.  According to some historians, including Pierre de Sermoise, Gilles de Rais did indeed commit a few sexual and diabolical crimes, but only a small number of them.  And the trial (at a time when one did not bring a High Lord to Justice for having raped and killed a few peasant children) would have been political, inspired by jealousy and personal interest.  Gilles de Rais, short of money, had sold part of his possessions to Jean, Duke de Bretagne, and to Jean de Malestroit, Bishop of Nantes (who owed him large sums of money).  But he had sold, “a remere”, which means with the possibility of buying back.  If he managed to restore his fortune (through acts of war, the King’s friendship, or alchemy), it would be a bitter disappointment for his buyers.  The two Jeans are said to have built the case, bought witnesses, and obtained confessions, by torture, from the two people closest to Gilles de Rais, his valets Henriet and Pontou, executed with him.  This is, however, a very doubtful thesis.

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One curious thing!  Prelati, the Florentine alchemist who was the probable instigator of the human sacrifices, was not executed.  He was “forgotten” in prison.  And Rene d’Anjou came to get him out and make him his personal alchemist.  Justice was done, however, a little while later, but in another circumstance.  Prelati, a few years later, was arrested and executed for forgery.  He had taken the ducal seal to establish false Acts for his own profit.

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Although Gilles de Rais was a companion of Jeanne d’Arc, he was neither the only, nor the most illustrious Captain at her side.  He is not as present as Dunois, La Hire, or Xaintrailles.  Although he follows Jeanne to Paris, he is hardly to be seen in the army afterwards.  Although he is made Field-Marshal of France, it is mostly because of his family’s prestige.  A family to which La Tremoille belongs.  But his feelings for Jeanne are sincere.  The cult that he devotes to her is real.  As the historian, Jean Pesez, says:

“There remains in him the tenacious memory of the time when he followed Jeanne, of that parenthesis of Light in his life of blood and shadows.”

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All of Gilles de Rais’ possessions are not confiscated after his execution.  His niece, Marie de Croizil, who is later the sole heiress of the Houses of Rais and Laval, marries, in 1516, Sieur Joachim Foucher, bringing him in her dowry the Barony of Rais and the Seigneury of Machecoul.

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For his judges, as well as for the families of the children he has killed, Gilles de Rais suddenly ceases to be a person convicted of dreadful crimes.  Or rather, he ceases to be only that.  He is the image of a man who is the Demon’s prey, is fighting for the salvation of his soul, and needs the whole of Christendom to participate in the communion of the Faith, so that he can present himself before God.  There is no longer an atmosphere of vengeance.  Human justice has been done.  But, over and above the guilty man who is going to pay with his life, there is a soul who is asking for salvation, and it has to be helped to this salvation.  Which is also connected to the salvation of each individual.  An old Christian writer, Bernanos, said that if only one man is cold from despair, the whole world’s teeth chatter.  Gilles must not feel despair as he climbs to the gibbet.  That is why this crowd, who has been so odiously plunged into grief by him, kneels in prayer for him…

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Gilles de Rais has sometimes been identified with Bluebeard.  In fact, this character in Perrault’s tale seems to have existed in oral tradition before the XVth Century, as certain specialists have shown.

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