Historians Seek To Rehabilitate Medieval Mass Murderer
Nov. 10, 1992
PARIS (AP) _ One of the most infamous criminals in French history may have been framed for political and sexual reasons, say scholars seeking to clear his name.
A group of amateur French historians Monday conducted an unofficial new trial of Gilles de Rais, a loyal companion of Joan of Arc who was sent to the gallows and burned at the stake in 1440 for the rape and murder of at least 140 children.
The life story of de Rais, who inspired the fictional Blue Beard, still sends shivers down the collective French spine.
He was born to wealth and privilege in 1404, orphaned at 11 and raised by his grandfather. History books say he showed signs of depravity and violence at an early age, and later badly treated his wife and family.
In 1427 de Rais took up arms with King Charles VII against the English. He played a key role in helping Joan of Arc liberate Orleans. Though his brutality toward the enemy was widely noted, he was rewarded with the title, ''marshall of France.''
After his grandfather's death, de Rais retired to his sumptuous castles - he owned many - and began a life of free spending, heavy drinking, orgies and witchcraft.
According to the history books, he was involved in the ritual massacre of hundreds of children. The victims were poor peasant children, mostly boys, whom his servants procured from their unwitting families in exchange for money.
De Rais' defenders, arguing their case in a gilded courtroom at the Senate, claimed he was the victim of rumors and blackmail and contended he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Michel Crepeau, deputy mayor of La Rochelle and a former justice minister, told the court Gilles and Joan were both tried for witchcraft by an inquisitionary tribunal which sought to eliminate them.
''They were tried for political reasons, and therefore there was judicial error,'' he said.
For amateur historian Michel Fleury, de Rais has been written about so extensively, the truth has become a virtual impossibility.
''Let's try to come up with something approaching the truth, and not pretensions of truth,'' he said.
Leading sex therapist Pierre Simon, called in to comment on de Rais sexual perversions, described de Rais as a man who ''died at the stake for prematurely announcing the Renaissance.''
''His homosexuality, which we now know to be the result of a genetic malformation, would rehabilitate him ipso facto were he to be judged next month,'' Simon told the mock court.
The newspaper Liberation suggested the trial was in part a publicity stunt to promote a new book about Gilles de Rais.
De Rais' defenders are taking their case to the highest level of government, asking President Francois Mitterrand to help establish the truth.