Spotlight on: Gilles de Rais

Happy Halloween, everyone! In honor of the spooky celebrations, I want to share a spooky (but real!) story about a Frenchman named Gilles de Rais. Are you ready? If you are faint of heart or in the mood for something more innocent, you may exit the haunted ride now.

Gilles de Rais portrait

Gilles de Rais was born in 1404/5 in Anjou, France to wealthy landholders. He married Catherine de Thouars in his teens, effectively becoming one of the richest men in Europe. He worked hard and he played hard: when he wasn’t fighting (for the Duchy of Brittany, in the Hundred Years War, alongside Jean d’Arc…), he reportedly entertained even more lavishly than the French king’s court. But that was not the sum of Gilles’ personality.

Everyone knew that he was notoriously extravagant, having neither sense nor understanding, since in effect his senses were often altered, and often he left very early in the morning and wandered all alone in the streets, and when someone pointed out to him that this was not fitting, he responded more in the manner of a fool and a madman than anything else. (source)

De Rais’ dark side was even blacker than what he showed in battle and more unusual than what people saw in the streets. By the 1430’s, after his family secured a royal order prohibiting further sale of estate property and land, de Rais had turned to the occult and alchemy to fund his expensive lifestyle. He brought demon summoners and others to his court to further his knowledge of Satanism. Then, children began to go missing…

By September 1440, de Rais was brought to trial for his occult practices, and worse. During his practice of the dark arts, he is said to have abducted, tortured, and killed up to 150 boys and girls (the count ranges between 30 and 150). Sources disagree as to the results of the trial: some say he confessed to the civil crimes under torture, or to avoid torture, and others say he refused to comment on the heresy charges until threatened with excommunication. This has led some modern historians to question his guilt altogether. Ultimately, he was hanged for his crimes in late October of 1440.

You probably already knew something of this infamous Frenchman. His life is said to have inspired the famous tale of Bluebeard, recorded by the brothers Grimm and in the French collection of Mother Goose’s Tales. Spooky!

For further reading:

Bluebeard Tales from Around the World (book)

The Trial of Gilles de Rais (book)



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