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Gilles de Rais - Ogre or Bluebeard ?

Gilles de Rais

Noble man, Messire Gilles de Rais, Baron of the said land in our diocese, is accused by the Bishop of Nantes of having: killed, slaughtered, massacred several innocent children in the most inhumane way, and committed with them, against nature, the abominable and execrable sin of sodomy, in various ways and with unheard-of perversities ...

The seemingly undeniable guilt of a monstrous lord

Less than six weeks after the receipt of this letter, which ordered him to appear before the ecclesiastical tribunal, Gilles de Rais, Marshal of France at age 25, companion of Joan of Arc, is executed for crimes of homicide, black magic and sodomy, October 26, 1440.

The acts of his trial, preserved to this day, have the force of evidence. Everything is there: testimonies of the parents of the victims, the confessions of the consorts. The crimes are dreadful and described in detail: Gilles abused some 150 children, then tortured them before killing them. For about eight years, children disappear, between Nantes and Poitou, where are located the lands and the castles of the Lord of Rais: Champtocé, Machecoul, Tiffauges, Pouzauges ... The kidnapped kids are generally between 7 and 12 years; they are mostly boys.


At Gilles de Rais' trial, their teary parents and neighbors insist on their beauty. They also say that they saw Gilles' servants talking to the children shortly before their disappearance. Do they ask why, for eight years, they have not denounced Gilles de Rais or anything formulated of their suspicions? The answer is obvious: de Rais is a high lord, and they are simple "villains". The social distance is too great for them to hope that justice takes into consideration their suspicions.

Easy prey on the roads of Poitou

The children missing and claimed by their parents during the trial seem to constitute only a small part of the young people who have been serving the evil pleasures of Gilles de Rais. Many more are the anonymous victims of the Lord. In the Middle Ages, indeed, wander on the roads many abandoned children, reduced to finding their own sustenance, according to the charity of the rich. For these unfortunate children, the generosity of a chatelain is a godsend. How many children have knocked on the doors of Tiffauges or Champtocé in the hope of obtaining a little bread or even, with luck, the right to serve the lord permanently, as a servant or as a small page, or singing in the choir - the singing school he created in each of his castles?

A trial too obvious, a conviction too easy

Today's historians tend to think that the Gilles de Rais affair is partly a montage, made plausible by the living conditions of the time. Executed for pedophilia and repeated murders, de Rais was especially wrong to be a rebel.

The context in which the trial is taking place - Gilles, a feudal lord, disturbs the Duke of Brittany, who is trying to organize his duchy into a sovereign state - and the methods used - the tight net of questions based on rumors as well as the use of torture - in fact, encourage modern minds to be very careful about the merits of the accusation. Politically, the suzerain of Gilles de Rais had an interest in getting rid of his feal; religiously, Gilles was suspicious in the eyes of the Church, for the servants of whom he was far from showing all the necessary respect. Now, what better accusation than that of monstrosity to obtain a condemnation approved by all people?

In the thought of the time, rebellion (against his lord or against God) and crimes against nature are also closely linked: fighting against the social and theological order, the rebel can truly be considered only as a monster ...


Where does the word ogre come from?

In his own way, Gilles de Rais is an ogre: if he did not really eat small children, he consumed them - sexually - and killed them.

But what is truly an ogre? Etruscan etymology? The etymology of the word, uncertain, probably derives from the Latin orcus, name of Etruscan origin of a deity of Death and Hell. The forms taken by the word in the other Romance languages ​​plead in favor of this interpretation: in Italian orco, for bogeyman, in Sardinian orcu, for demon. Or Hungarian? Another hypothesis considered, but less likely: the word ogre derives from the word "hungarian", or "gelding" in the Middle Ages.

Yet the rules of phonetics plead in his favor: the word ogre is used in a text for the first time at the end of the twelfth century, in order to designate a fierce pagan - as were the Hungarian invaders from Western Europe of the 9th - 10th century, which were particularly accused of abducting childrens. It was not until 1300 that the meaning "giant eater of little children" appeared. It is therefore possible that the Hungarian invasions have revived an old word that had been forgotten, to give it its current meaning.

Bluebeard and the little thumb

For the opinion of the time, Gilles de Rais is, without a doubt, guilty. His history gradually gives birth to the legend of Bluebeard - whose Breton origin and, especially, Nantes has been demonstrated - and taken over by Charles Perrault in one of his tales. With a transformation: the murderer of children becomes the murderer of his wives. Indeed, the genre of the tale, intended more specifically for children, does not fit well with the description of sexual abuse on minors ...

In another such famous story of Perrault, that of Little Thumb, the ugly ogre slaughters his children, by mistake.