The Trial of Gilles de Rais
George Bataille (Richard Robinson, translator)
Amok books, 1991
Gilles de Rais was the Marshal of France and Lieutenant of Joan of Arc in the early and mid 1400s. He was also one of the world’s most powerful predatory sadistic pedophiles, who literally harvested young children from his domain for the purpose of deriving sexual pleasure from their torture and death. He is, some claim, the basis of the story of Bluebeard. In The Trial of Gilles de Rais, George Bataille has collected the transcripts of the ecclesiastical and secular trials of the man, details his crimes, and describes his execution.
The book is fascinating from the perspective of a forensic pathologist. First are the descriptions of the acts of sexual sadism and torture themselves. They do not need to be detailed here, but are important in that they are classic. Change the name to Dahmer or Casey and you would have the very same story with minimally different technology. The evolution of the severity of the acts over time, the appeal to magic, the imagery, and the descriptions are all the same. The sadistic sexual predator has not changed in 600 years.
What is different is how this played out in 15th century French society. De Rais biggest problems came not from his sexual predatory habits, but from his economic ones. He was, as Bataille notes, essentailly a 12th century nobleman caught in the 15th century. Bataille’s discussion of the mindset of the “real” nobleman — above the law and living by conquest — puts de Rais actions into perspective. One of the most interesting things about this book is the description of the psychology of sovereignty, and the position of noblemen above the law:
… Joined to the god of sovereignty by initiatory rights, the young warriors willingly distinguished themselves in particular by a bestial ferocity; they knew neither rules nor limits. In their ecstatic rage, they were taken for wild animals, for furious bears, for wolves. The Harii of Tacitus augmented the fright provoked by their delirium by employing black shields and, wanting to surprise their enemies, to terrify them, rubbed their bodies with soot. This “funereal army,” in order to aubment the terror, chose “pitch black nights.” Often the name of Berserkir (“warriors in bear skins”) was given to them. Like the Centaurs of Greece, the Gandharva of India or the Luperci of Rome, they became animals in their delerium…
There was nothing in the Germans’ religion that would offset this cruelty and these juvenile debaucheries. There was not, as with the Gauls or the Romans, a priesthood to oppose learning and moderation to drunkenness, ferocity, and violence.
During the first centuries of the Middle Ages, we shold at least consider that something remained of these barbarous customs in the education of knights. In the first place, knighthood was apparently nothing but a contuation of the society of young German initiates. The Christian influance on the education of knghts came later. It barely show before the thirteenth century, the twelfth at a pinch, two or three centuries before Gilles de Rais…
… The principles of courtly love only slowly erected a barrier against the coarseness of a world of arms. As with Christianity, courtly love was relatively opposed to violence. The paradox of the Middle Ages was that it did not want men of war to speak the language of force and combat. Their parlance often became saccharine. But we ought not to deceive ourselves: the camaradarie of the old French was a cynical lie. Even the poetry for which nobles of the 14th and 15th centuries affected fondness was in all senses a deceit: the great lords chiefly loved war; their attitude differed little from that of the German Berserkir , who dreamed of terror and butchery. The famous poem by Bertrand de Born is, in other respects, a confession of their violent feelings…. Gilles de Rais, more than anyone, must have had the sensibility of violence harkening back to the fury of the Berserkir … For Gilles, as for the barbarians of the past, the goal was in breaking bounds; it was a question of living sovereignly.
Similarly, de Rais was primarily ruined by the fact he spent his entire family fortune on sumptous living, eventually having to sell off his castles and then attempting to reclaim them by force. The fall of one of his castles resulted in the finding of the bones of some of his victims, and the alienation of the fellow noblemen he had made war against sealed his fate. But his living was dictated by his position as a Berserkir:
In societies different from our own — we ourselves accumulate wealth with a view to continual growth — the principle has prevailed instead to squander or lose wealth, to give it away or destroy it. Accumulated wealth has the same meaning as work; on the other hand, wealth wasted or destroyed in tribal potlaches has the meaning of a game. Accumulated wealth has only a subordinate value; in the eyes of whoever squanders or destroys it, wealth squandered or destroyed has a sovereign value, for it serves nothing else if not this squandering itself, or this fascinating destruction. Its present meaning is in its squandering, or the gift that one makes of it. Its utmost reason for being is on account of that which can suddenly no longer be put of until later, being of that instant . But it is consumed in that instant . It can be with magnificence; those who know how to appreciate consumption are dazzled, but nothing remains.
Also of interest was the faith of Gilles de Rais. Like most sexual sadists, he had an attachment to magic. As a great lord, he had great resources and employed magicians and alchemists in serious attempts to summon the Devil with rites including human sacrifice. Yet, at the same time, he was a rather concrete person of Christian faith. In fact, he initially refused to place himself under the authority of the ecclesiastical court when his world finally fell down around him. The court immediately excommunicated him, and the next day he confessed his crime only on the conditions that he be given confession and allowed last rights before his death:
In this day, excommunication had an overwhelming impact. Gilles de Rais managed, on the surface, to place himself above his judges. But the superstitious devotee — that he had not ceased being in spite of his crimes and satanic pursuits — broke down. Returned to the solitude of his room, he discovered again, more terrible than ever, the nightmare in which he raved…
It is an amazing book, not merely so because of the author, himself known as an unusual combination of atheist and mystic provides a unique approach.
It is not particularly easy reading. Bataille’s style is a bit heavy, and, while forensically fascinating, transcripts and depositions of the 15th century read much like transcripts and depositions today. But it provides a unique view into the mind of a medieval noble, a sexual predator, and of medicolegal investigation in the Middle Ages.