How certain are we of Gilles de Rais’ guilt?


I'm not sure how I got to reading about the history of Gilles de Rais, 15th century French noble of considerable power and acquaintance of Joan of Arc, who was convicted of the brutal murder of hundreds of children. He is also considered to have been an inspiration for the story of Bluebeard, which is a gruesome story I vividly remember being told as a kid, although the similarity between the two stories isn't really that significant.

Anyway, if you've never heard of the guy, the wiki entry tells us the following:

"In his confession, Rais said the first assaults on children occurred between spring 1432 and spring 1433. The first murders occurred at Champtocé-sur-Loire but no account of them survived. Shortly after, Rais moved to Machecoul, where, according to his confession, he killed, or ordered to be killed, a large but uncertain number of children after he sodomized them."


"The number of Rais's victims is not known, as most of the bodies were burned or buried. The number of murders is generally placed between 80 and 200; a few have conjectured that there were more than 600. The victims ranged in age from six to 18 and were predominantly boys. On 23 October 1440, the secular court heard the confessions of Poitou and Henriet and condemned them both to death, followed by Rais's death sentence on 25 October. Rais was allowed to make confession, and his request to be buried in the church of the monastery of Notre-Dame des Carmes in Nantes was granted."

I have a few hard-to-answer questions in relation to this history:

  1. What could have been the motivation for such murders in the first place, in your estimation? The man had experienced some warfare, so trauma or psychosis could play a role? I know its a fool's errand to try and establish psychological portraits on the basis of limited evidence but it is a fascinating case.

  2. I suppose it wasn't strange at the time.. but why in the world would someone who was convicted of such horrors be granted a burial in a Church? Is this a typical case of nobles will be nobles even if they are brutal murderers?

  3. Does anyone know where would be a good place to read about the primary documents that remain of this case? (such as Rais' confession etc.) I'm quite interested in how the Law interacted with this case at the time.

  4. How much credibility do you give the various "conspiracy theories" (in the literal sense, not necessarily goofy stuff) about the case? Because Rais was such an influential noble at the time, a pretty strong case can be made for the suggestion that he might have been framed… another reason for this is the extremely over-the-top nature of his crimes… they almost seem unrealistic. The wiki also states: "Doubts about Rais's guilt have long persisted because the Duke of Brittany, who was given the authority to prosecute, received all the titles to Rais's former lands after his conviction."

I usually just try and find some articles in my university database etc. when I'm interested in a historical event but a lot of what was written about his case is in French. My French is good enough for a newspaper reading here and there but not academic reading. And since the sidebar says, and I quote: "Feel free to (…) start a discussion about who everyone's favorite figure of minor French nobility is!" I figured I'd ask about it here. Maybe you can provide me with some interesting sources. I've been reading and googling a bit, but am open to suggestions.

Source: reddit post


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