Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

GILLES DE RAIS

Monster or Victim?

Time has a way of reducing history down to its simplest forms. Looking backward, historical characters are cast in the role of hero or villain, sinner or saint. National heroes attain mythic proportions soon after they pass into the ages. Their foibles and warts are overlooked in favor of their heroic deeds. Likewise, ordinary scalawags become the basis for horrific legends and tall tales. There is little middle ground in history. The neutral historical figure is relegated to second-tier status while the evil and the good enjoy center stage. 

But such reductions to either the good or bad side of the balance sheet are inherently unfair and inaccurate. No person, save for perhaps a Stalin or a Mother Theresa, is exclusively a monster or a saint. Everyone has the power to do evil or good, and most practice both to some extent. But ultimately, in the black and white world of history, the notable citizen is assigned immortality in either the pantheon of heroes or the dungeon of the villains.

Gilles de Rais
Gilles de Rais

So it is with one of historys most remarkable convicted murderers, the 15th century French nobleman Gilles de Rais. This soldier fought along side Joan of Arc and served as the equivalent of Frances military chief of staff, and was one of the wealthiest men in France. History tells us that Gilles hid a dark and sinister side for many years, during which he kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of peasant children (mostly young boys) while working with alchemists who used black magic in their attempts to turn base metal into gold.

One of the most powerful men in France, Gilles de Rais was ill-equipped to deal with the awesome right which society had given him. Raised by an equally powerful and even more politically astute grandfather whose main reason for taking on his ward was to increase his own land holdings, Gilles lacked the necessary moral fortitude to rein in his passions and exhibited a political naiveté that would ultimately contribute to his downfall.

Gilles confessed (under threat of torture) to being a pedophile and homosexual in a time when either of these two activities could result in the forfeiture of life and property. He was a spendthrift who managed to bring his family to the brink of financial ruin in pursuit of his hedonism. Gilles de Rais was a kingmaker and fearless, cunning soldier whose exploits saved France from utter defeat in the Hundred Years War. However, that same drive led him to murder young boys in search of sexual thrills and to practice black magic in the quest of more wealth to continue his outrageous lifestyle.

But history has assigned Gilles de Rais to the ranks of the sadistic killers, rather than to the roster of national heroes. Most scholars agree that he was a monstrous sexual predator, although there are those who argue that evidence presented at his trial was trumped up and that Gilles was ill-equipped to defend himself against such outrageous charges. No one, they claim, could have gotten away with the shocking crimes de Rais was accused of for as long as he did. He was merely a pawn in a greater game of politics that his intelligence and personality rendered him unable to play.

Map of de Rais family land holdings  (Mark Gribben)
Map of de Rais family land holdings
(Mark Gribben)

Who then is the real Gilles de Rais? Was he a psychopathic killer who got sexual pleasure out of the torture and murder of dozens of peasant children? Or was he a simple soldier born into a powerful family who happened to get in the way of others who coveted his lands and authority?

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