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Gilles de Rais
Gilles was born in 1404 at Machécoul, in the area on the border of Brittany and Poitou. His father was Guy de Montmorency-Laval who himself had inherited by adoption the fortunes of Jeanne de Rais and Marie de Craon. Gilles inherited the barony of Rais in the peerage-duchy of Retz. He was an intelligent child, learning fluent Latin.
He took the side of the Montforts, and specifically Jean V. of Brittany against a rival house. The opposing side (Olivier de Blois, count of Penthievre) having taken Duke John prisoner through craft, Gilles was able to secure his release, and was rewarded for this act by generous land grants which the Breton parliament commuted to monetary ones.
After the death of his parents c. 1415, he was placed in the "care" of his godfather, Jean de Craon , who was something of a hybrid between a politician and a bandit.
In 1420 he found himself at the court of the Dauphin, the then uncrowned king of France. Jean de Craon attempted to find Gilles a wife. He tried to marry Gilles off to the heiress Jeanne de Paynol; this was unsuccessful. Jean de Craon then pitched Gilles at Beatrice de Rohan, niece of the Duke of Brittany, again with no success. Eventually he substantially increased Gilles' fortune by marrying him off to Catherine de Thouars from Brittany, La Vendee and Poitou after kidnapping her. The very thin connection that Gilles may have with the legend of Bluebeard may follow from the fact that out of several previous marriage plans two were thwarted by death of the putative bride.
From 1427 to 1435, Gilles served as a commander in the Royal army, including service during Joan of Arc's campaigns in 1429. Although a few popular authors have chosen to inflate the position he held during the latter campaigns, it is known from the surviving financial records that he commanded a rather modest personal contingent of some twenty-five men-at-arms and eleven archers, and was one of many dozens of such commanders rather than the chief. Nor did he serve as Joan of Arc's bodyguard, a position actually held by a man named Jean d'Aulon. Rais' greatest honor during these campaigns came when he joined the other three commanders holding the quasi-ceremonial title of "Maréchal", a subordinate position under the Royal "Connétable". This honor was granted to him at the coronation of Charles VII on July 17, 1429.
In 1435 he retired from military service to indulge himself on his estates, promoting theatrical performances and spending the large fortune he had inherited. It was also during this period that, according to the later testimony of himself and his accomplices, he began to experiment with the occult under the direction of a man named Francois Prelati, who told Rais that he could regain the wealth he had squandered by sacrificing children to a demon named "Barron".
On May 15, 1440, Rais kidnapped a clergyman named Jean le Ferron during a dispute at the Church of St-Etienne-de-Mermorte. This prompted an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes, during which the Bishop uncovered evidence of Rais' worse crimes over the years. On July 29, the Bishop released his findings, and subsequently obtained the cooperation of Rais' former supporter, Duke Jean V of Brittany. Action was now finally taken against Rais: on August 24, Jean le Ferron was freed by Royal troops led by Arthur de Richemont. Rais himself and his accomplices were arrested on September 15, after a secular investigation reached the same conclusions as the earlier investigation by the Bishop of Nantes. Rais' trials would likewise be conducted by both secular and ecclesiastic courts, on charges of murder, sodomy, and heresy.
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' accomplices, was so lurid that the judges ordered the worst portions to be stricken from the record. Rais was accused of luring young boys to his residences, where he would rape, torture and mutilate them, often masturbating while sitting upon the dying body. He and his accomplices would set up the severed heads of the children afterwards, in order to judge which was the most beautiful. How many victims De Rais killed is not known exactly, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. It is thought to be between eighty and two-hundred; estimates of up to six-hundred are almost certainly exaggerated. The victims were aged between six and eighteen, and though De Rais preferred boys he would settle for young girls if that was all that his servants could lay their hands on.
The extensive witness testimony convinced the judges that there was adequate grounds for establishing the guilt of the accused. Rais confessed voluntarily to the crimes on October 21, and the court therefore canceled a plan to have him tortured. On October 23, the secular court condemned Rais' accomplices, Henriet and Poitou; on the 25th the ecclesiastic court handed down a sentence of excommunication against Rais, followed by condemnation by the secular court on the same day. After tearfully expressing remorse for his crimes, Rais was freed of the sentence of excommunication and granted a request to confess to a priest, although the secular penalty still remained in effect. Rais, Henriet, and Poitou were executed at Nantes on October 26, 1440.
There have been rumors that De Rais was framed for murder and heresy by the Church, who wanted to acquire his land which would fall into their hands because De Rais had no heir. In fact, in 1992, a French court held a tribunal to study the six-century old case and eventually exonerated De Rais of murder, based on the fact that his confession was extracted through threats of torture. However, few historians are totally convinced De Rais was the victim of a conspirital plot when taking into account other evidence presented at the trial, such as documents showing a large number of children being reported missing by anxious parents from villages near De Rais' estate.
Gilles de Rais is believed to have somehow given rise to the legend of Bluebeard, although the legend bears little resemblance to the reality. Gilles de Rais appears by name as a character in the play Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, as a young man of 25 who is set up to impersonate the Dauphin, which attempt is unsuccessful. The profile and notoriety of Gilles inspired many modern French thinkers and authors, such as Michel Tournier and Pierre Klossowski .
- Bataille, Georges (contributor). Dark Star : The Satanic Rites of Gilles de Rais. Creation Books ISBN 1840681152
- Bataille, Georges. The Trial of Gilles de Rais Amok Books. ISBN 1878923021
- Benedetti, Jean. Gilles de Rais. Stein and Day. ISBN 0812814509
- Bordonove, Georges. Gilles de Rais. Pygmalion. ISBN 2857046944
- Crowley, Aleister. The Forbidden Lecture: Gilles De Rais Mandrake Press. ISBN 1872736009
- 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 0838631908
- 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 0773466193
- Nye, Robert. The Life and Death of My Lord, Gilles de Rais. Time Warner Books. ISBN 0349102503
- Rudorff, Raymond. Studies in Ferocity, a Book of Human Monsters. (section on Gilles de Rais). Citadel.
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