Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
Voices and Saints

The Black Baron: The Strange Life of Gilles de Rais

That's the title of a book from 1930 recently synopsized this way:

Gilles de Rais, a marshal of France and a lord of the Breton marches. A noted soldier, he was at Orleans with Joan of Arc. He was a liberal patron of music, literature, and the arts. After his retirement, rumors spread of satanic and vicious doings in his castle. He was tried in an ecclesiastical court, and he confessed to kidnapping more than 100 children, mostly boys, and to murdering them after maltreating them. He was handed over by the Church to the civil authorities and was executed. There is no reason to doubt his confession. He has been supposed, probably wrongly, to be the original of Bluebeard.

And this is one of the more restrained descriptions! But is any of it true?

Most historians over the years have said Yes, as they wallowed in the Sadean excesses. The more sober, like Umberto Eco, attribute his crimes to the trauma of his war experiences. But the story has all the familiar trappings of the witchhunts of the time, or of today for that matter. The extermination of the Cathars was only the preceding century and, like many others including Galileo, he may have confessed rather than endure torture. We also cannot trust the eyewitness testimonies - no one can stop a witchhunt once it's underway.

Below is his castle today, the Château Tiffauges, aka Château de Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard's Castle), in the Vendée.

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Gilles de Rais is often cited as a possible inspiration for Bluebeard, one of the great fairy tales in Charles Perrault's Les Contes de ma Mère l'Oye (Tales of Mother Goose), first published in 1697. It's hard to think of a fairy tale that has been adapted more often by other people...

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