The 13th Floor

Gilles de Rais: The Serial Killer Compatriot of Joan of Arc

“It has been said, ‘time heals all wounds.’ I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”

-Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

History is an ever closing wound that is easily ripped open again. We tend to mythologize our heroes, turning them from humans to gods, so that we can aspire to be better. We teach children that George Washington could never tell a lie (which is a lie itself) and skip over his owning slaves and using their teeth to replace his own. Ronald Reagan presided over one of the largest increases in government spending ever, but today he is held up as the poster boy of financial conservatism.

This is human. We do it with relatives too. You may straight up hate your Aunt Mimi and her condescending tone, but not long after she dies, you’ll find yourself thinking “Mimi wasn’t all bad”. We do this, as Rose Kennedy so aptly said, to protect our sanity; we need to find the good in all things, otherwise, we may go mad from the horrors of the world.

Sometimes, we can’t really find the good, and our collective consciousness just kind of ignores what stands before us. We all seem to quietly agree to just not bring up the really dark parts of our family and friends. We talk around the messed up things our heroes have done, hoping no one asks why Bill Clinton savagely bombed Iraq the day before the House of Representatives voted to impeach him. We push the failures of our idols onto those around them, the ones who are easy to erase from history. Like Gilles de Rais.

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval was, if we can imagine Bill and Ted writing about him, a rich French dude who was well renowned for his military expertise. During the Hundred Years War, Gilles served as a commander in the French Royal Army where he became friends with and often fought alongside, one of the most famous warriors in history, Joan of Arc. In 1429, Gilles was with Joan when she turned the Siege of Orleans from an assured British win into a shocking French victory, turning the tide in the war and saving France from English rule.

Gilles was loved by his fellow French fighters. He was known to take on impossible odds and somehow win every time. While Joan openly told anyone that would listen that she received instructions directly from God, Gilles was less open about his own work. As poor Joan faced a court and was burned alive for heresy, Gilles retired from military life and went home.

At home, Gilles spent money like the expiration date was fast approaching. When his grandfather died in 1432, a year after Joan, Gilles learned that the old man left his sword and his breastplate to Rene, Gilles’ younger brother, as a showing of his anger at his oldest son. Quite the diss, that was.

Still, Gilles kept spending the family fortune like there was no tomorrow. He built the Chapel of the Holy Innocents where he officiated mass himself, in robes he designed. He put on LE MISTERE DU SIEGE D’ORLEANS, a play about the Siege of Orleans that called for 140 speaking parts and 500 extras. By the time the play was ready to be put on, Gilles was broke. Now, I’m not talking broke like how rich people tend to end up being “broke” these days. Gilles had sold everything he owned, spent that money, took out some loans, spent that money, and now had nothing left. Dude was so broke that the Royal Court of France named Gilles a spendthrift and forbade the people of France to do any business with him. When Gilles left Orleans in 1435, the city he had helped save just six years later, the shops were overfilled with his belongings.

Now, as the story goes, Gilles came up with a plan to get his fortune back, and it was the kind of plan that, back then, would be a real big deal. Gilles went to a priest named Eustache Blanchet and instructed the man of God to go find an alchemist and someone who could summon demons. The priest, who I guess was down for evil, contacted his buddy Prelati who, along with a guy named Breton traveled to Tiffauges where Gilles was chilling.

There, Perlati and Breton set to work calling on a demon named Baron, which is a pretty unscary name for a demon. I’m guessing this demon was towards the back of the line on name day. Anywho, Perlati and Breton tried to call on Baron three times, but Baron wasn’t down to clown with these chaps and he never showed up. Instead of admitting that demons don’t exist, Perlati explained to a pissed off Gilles that Baron wasn’t showing up because they didn’t have all the pieces they needed to get him to Tiffauges.

The missing pieces, wouldn’t you believe it, were dead children, and as it turned out, Gilles was all about killing kids.

When the murders of Gilles de Rais started is questionable. Some who testified at the trial claimed that Gilles was killing children as early as 1426 when he was fighting alongside Joan of Arc, but in his confession, Gilles claimed it started somewhere around the spring of 1432 while he was in Champtocé-sur-Loire. Gilles would send out his servants to find unaccompanied children and bring them back to him. Once he had the child, Gilles would torture and rape them before finally taking their lives.

The first piece of evidence that connected to Gilles’ killings was in Machecoul, where Gilles traveled to after his time in Champtocé-sur-Loire. Machecoul appeared to be where Gilles really found time to play. According to Jean Benedetti in his book GILES DE RAIS, after Gilles’ servants found a child and brought them back to their master, the child “was pampered and dressed in better clothes than he had ever known. The evening began with a large meal and heavy drinking, particularly hippocras, which acted as a stimulant. The boy was then taken to an upper room to which only Gilles and his immediate circle were admitted. There he was confronted with the true nature of his situation. The shock thus produced on the boy was an initial source of pleasure for Gilles.”

While Gilles couldn’t remember exactly how many children he killed, he could recall all the ways he killed them. Some he decapitated. Others he beat to death with a cudgel. On occasion, Gilles would hang a child and watch them slowly suffocate, laughing as his victim gasped for air. Before the murders he would play with his prey, raping them and beating them, all the while promising that when the sun rose, he would let them go. After the child was dead, Gilles would admire the body, kissing the heads or other limbs that he found especially beautiful. Some of his victims were burned in the fireplace, others, like the forty naked children found in a mass grave in Machecoul in 1437, were buried.

As is so common with serial killers, Gilles was caught not because of the murders, but because of another crime; he kidnapped a cleric at a church, which led to the Bishop investigating Gilles. It quickly became clear that the rash of missing children all led to Gilles, and during his trial, Gilles openly admitted to the crimes.

Gilles, along with two of his servants, were sentenced to death by hanging and burning. While Gilles was pulled from the fire before his body had been fully destroyed, his servants were left until there was nothing but ashes. The demon Baron never showed up.

In truth, there’s some question to Gilles’ murders. Like Joan of Arc, Gilles was disliked by the church who led the investigation against him and according to anthropologist Margaret Murray in her book THE WITCH-CULT IN WESTERN EUROPE, Gilles worshiped the pagan goddess, Diana, which is why he built his own church and designed his own robes. Of course, Joan of Arc was executed for heresy and never confessed to any crimes, while Gilles did (and it should be noted, he did it without being tortured). Gilles’ servants also confessed, and with the discovery of the mass grave, it is hard to argue against the man’s guilt.

Had things been different, had Gilles de Rais not brutally murdered between 80 and 200 children, he would certainly be remembered as a great French hero. Instead, the man has become a footnote in history.