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Gilles de Rais: The Real Bluebeard?

(Painting by Éloi Firmin Féron – 1835)

Gilles de Rais: The Real Bluebeard?

Charles Perrault, known as “The Father of Fairy Tales,” wrote many well-known stories in the 17th century that are still popular today. Cinderella still endures as a romantic tribute to young girls everywhere who dream of finding their own true love. Perrault did not invent the story, however, because he based all of his stories on known folktales and legends. The story is based on Strabo’s account of the Greek slave girl, Rhodopis, whose sandal was stolen by an eagle and dropped in the presence of the Egyptian pharaoh. The pharaoh was so enthralled by this experience, he ordered his servants to hunt down its owner. Rhodopis, located in the city of Naucratis, ultimately married the pharaoh. The reader is left believing that it was a happy marriage based on circumstances that “magically” brought the couple together. Today, we would call this a story about two soul mates who happily found each other.

Perrault’s darkest story was La Barbe Bleue (Bluebeard) which still horrifies young readers today. And, of course, readers want to know who the real-life Bluebeard could have been. Most scholars believe that the real model for Bluebeard was the legendary French nobleman, Gilles de Rais, who lived in the 15th century.

Born into the House of Montmorency-Laval around 1405 at Champtocé-sur-Loire in Anjou, France, Gilles de Rais became orphaned when both of his parents died in 1415. He and his brother then came under the control of their maternal grandfather, Jean de Craon, who was a great schemer and sought to marry Gilles off to a wealthy heiress while still a child. His schemes did not work out until Gilles kidnapped and married his heiress cousin, Catherine de Thouars of Brittany, on November 30, 1420. The couple welcomed a daughter, Marie, around 1433.

Gilles enjoyed an illustrious career in the military and served his country well during the Hundred Years’ War. He fought alongside the Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc, serving as her personal protector during battle. As a reward, he was appointed Marshal of France in 1429. Gilles was reportedly fascinated by this fierce young girl who could hear the voice of God. After she was condemned and burned at the stake in 1431, his military career began to wind down, and he officially retired around 1435.

Retirement brought out the dark and reckless side of Gilles’ nature. He squandered his money on building the Chapel of the Holy Innocents and producing a lavish theatrical production called Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans. Nearly bankrupt, he began selling off his own properties in Poitou and Maine. His family appealed to Pope Eugene IV and King Charles VII to intervene. The king issued a royal edict forbidding him from selling anymore property and purchasers from buying it. Desperate for money, Gilles began to borrow large sums and to dabble in the occult.

At his chateau in Tiffauges, he practiced alchemy under the tutelage of Francesco Prelati. Prelati encouraged him to make a pact with the Devil by summoning a demon called Barron. When the demon did not appear, Prelati convinced Gilles that he must sacrifice children in order to gain the Devil’s favor.

It has been speculated that Gilles de Rais may have murdered 100 to 200 children. He later confessed that his first crimes against children began during the spring of 1432 and the spring of 1433. First, he would dress them up in fancy clothes, then rape, torture, and murder them. His two bodyguards, Étienne Corrillant and Henriet, confirmed the allegations against Gilles and described how the bodies were then burned or buried. Villagers testified that their sons and daughters had disappeared after visiting Gilles’ castle, and some had seen the men disposing of bodies.

Gilles’ last child murder occurred in August 1440. He was arrested in September after kidnapping a priest, which sparked both ecclesiastical and secular investigations. Under threat of torture, he made a full confession and was executed by hanging and burning on October 26, 1440 at Nantes, Brittany. His two bodyguards were executed with him.

People marveled at Gilles’ calmness and sincerity while delivering his last words at his execution, and he soon became a model of Christian penitence, despite his horrific crimes. Today, some people have tried to prove that Gilles de Rais was not guilty of the murders, but most historians affirm his guilt, based on French court records.

The ruins of Tiffauges Chateau are reputed to be haunted by the specter of Gilles de Rais. Some visitors claim to have heard the screams of tortured children at night. French writer, Gustave Flaubert, described the chateau as a dismal place “where no birds sing.”

And, Bluebeard? Gilles de Rais’ crimes were so shocking to French society that it is almost certain that Charles Perrault was familiar with the story.

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(Please note that I will not be posting anything on Monday as my husband and I have plans for Halloween.)

Happy Halloween!

Dawn Pisturino

October 28, 2022

Copyright 2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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Angel Art – The Archangel Gabriel

Artwork by Gaudenzio Ferrari

Gabriel means “God is my strength.” In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, he is regarded as the angel of “annunciation, resurrection, mercy, vengeance, death, and revelation.” His primary role is that of God’s messenger. His most important task in the New Testament was announcing to a young Jewish virgin that she would soon become the Mother of God’s Son, Jesus Christ (known as the Annunciation).

Islamic tradition names Gabriel (Jibril) as the angel with “140 pairs of wings” who revealed the Qu’ran to the Prophet Muhammad.

Gabriel has sometimes been identified as the angel who destroyed Sodom and Gommorah. In Jewish tradition, he is featured in the Book of Daniel as the angel who rescued Hannaniah (Shadrach), Mishael (Meshach), and Azariah (Abed-Nego) from the fiery furnace. (After the exile to Babylon, Daniel and his fellow chamberlains were given Babylonian names.)

Joan of Arc testified that it was the archangel Gabriel who inspired her to embark on her great mission to save France from British domination.

Literary figures such as John Milton portrayed Gabriel as commander of God’s angelic forces in Heaven. Longfellow wrote about him as “the angel of the moon who brings man[kind] the gift of hope.”

In the Catholic Church, Gabriel’s feast day is September 29th (the Feast of the Archangels):

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, November 8th is Gabriel’s feast day:

(Eastern Orthodox Church icon)

In occult circles, wearing an angel Gabriel talisman modeled after the Grimoire of Armadel, brings the wearer success in business and love, the blessing of many children, and magical powers.

Dawn Pisturino

September 1, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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