The late medieval period saw the death of thousands of people through plague, famine, and war; and while this period also saw an expansion in trade and commerce, and philosophy, science and the arts, I would like to focus on a byproduct of these tragedies: Gilles de Rais.
Gilles de Rais was born sometime in the early 1400s in Champtocé-sur-Loire, France. He was born into a life of feudal lordship, a life of education and of wealth. Both of his parents died when he was just a child and at the age of eleven he was taken in by his grandfather Jean de Craon, one of the richest lords in the Anjou valley. Jean de Craon was a greedy and cruel man who taught his grandson to be the same. For example, when Gilles was just sixteen years old, his grandfather took two young women captive. He threatened to sew the older, Beatrice, into a sack and have her thrown into the river to drown. The two girls were put up for ransom and when three soldiers came to claim them, they were also imprisoned by Craon’s soldiers and thrown into a deep pit where one dies. Eventually the elder sister was released once the ransom had been paid, while the younger sister was forced to marry on of Craon’s soldiers. Gilles witnessed and took part in all of this cruelty, along with many more throughout his childhood with his grandfather.
Gilles de Rais’ grandfather also left him with a lot of time to himself at a young age. So not only was he witnessing cruelty and even murder, he was also not being raised in a family setting. Shortly after the kidnapping of the two sisters, Craon successfully arranged that Gilles de Rais marry Catherine de Thouars of Brittany who was a very wealthy heiress. They had a daughter, Marie in 1434.
When Gilles was in his early twenties he was made leader of an Angevin army during the Hundred Years’ War. It was at this time that he met Joan of Arc, who requested he fight in her regiment due to the way he fought with fury and bloodlust. His success in the battle lead him to receive the highest military honor in France; the Marshal of France. Soon after Gilles became Marshal, the power went to his head and he began spending his inheritance recklessly and living in extravagance. His grandfather, Jean de Craon, was so disappointed that when he died he left his sword to not Gilles, but his younger brother, Rene.
This slight seems to have resonated with Gilles. After he retired from the military in 1435, he began to put more significance in religion and in trying to save his dwindling fortune. He funded the construction of a private church, which he named the Chapel of Holy Innocents. This chapel became home to a choir of young boys from the local area, all of whom were hand selected by Gilles himself. It was at this same time that he began to toy with occult; searching for men who could practice alchemy and demon summoning for him. It is thought this was to save his fortune; but a darker truth would come to light later.
While Gilles had attempted to disappear from public life after he retired from the military, rumors were circulating about him throughout France. Young boys had been going missing around Gilles castles and the locals believed he and his servants were involved. The disappearances began in the early 1430s. It wasn’t until 1440, however, that people came forward, claiming to have seen Gilles’ servants disposing of the bodies of young children. Gilles de Rais was arrested in September of 1440 for an unrelated kidnapping of a priest.
Gilles was tried for heresy, sodomy, and murder. Under threat of torture, and possibly due to a guilt, Gilles immediately confessed to all charges. He claimed that the killings began in 1432, the year his grandfather died. He would make his servants kidnap young boys, usually members of the choir, and have them brought back to his castle in Champtocé-sur-Loire. One room was dedicated to torture. It was in this room that Gilles would torture these young boys for hours, with the help of two companions, and then kill them in a variety of ways from blunt force to the head to strangulation to decapitation. After he had killed them, he would drink himself into sleep and his servants would clean the room and dispose of the bodies.
The parents of the children who had disappeared, witnesses to the servant dumping bodies, and even his accomplices testified against him. During his trial, Gilles himself testified that:
“…when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed.”
While Gilles admitted to the murder of over a hundred boys aged between 6 and 18, it is thought that the number may be closer to two hundred.
Gilles de Rais was convicted on all charges and sentenced to death. On October 26th, 1440, Gilles de Rais was executed by hanging and burning with tears running down his face in a show of guilt and Christian piety. Gilles accomplices were also executed in the same manner; but Gilles was executed first as he asked not to see them die.
Some historians have argued that Gilles de Rais may not have been guilty of being a serial killer and was set up by either the Catholic Church or the French monarchy, most likely to get his wealth and lands. However, there is no proof of this and due to his confession most historians believe he was guilty.
Bataille, Georges., Rais, Gilles de. The trial of Gilles de Rais. United Kingdom: Amok, 1991.
Benedetti, Jean. The Real Bluebeard: The Life of Gilles de Rais. United Kingdom: Sutton, 2003.
Parsons, Ben. “Sympathy for the Devil: Gilles De Rais and His Modern Apologists.” In Fifteenth-Century Studies 37, edited by Gusick Barbara I. and Heintzelman Matthew Z., 113-38. Rochester, NY; Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2012.
Penney, James. “Confessions of a Medieval Sodomite.” In Perversion and the Social Relation: Sic IV, edited by Rothenberg Molly Anne, Foster Dennis, and Žižek Slavoj, 126-58. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 2003.