In the new release from French scholar Valerie Ogden, BLUEBEARD: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath, Ogden delves deep into the life of Giles de Rais, the man behind the myth of Bluebeard. From his troubled childhood, to the abrupt termination of his seemingly promising military career, and his eventual foray into the dark arts, Ogden chronicles the rise and fall of de Rais in graphic detail.
Ogden accidentally found out about Bluebeard when her nephew married his descendant, and the family hushed all her sudden questions. Absorbed by his story, she decided to investigate his life. Her painstaking research included trips to France and translations of five-hundred-year-old texts in trying to determine what drove the infamous Bluebeard to murder, rape and torture. Ogden joins in Reference to Murder today for a little Author R&R (Reference and Research) about BLUEBEARD: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath, her first book.
I first found out about the real Bluebeard at my nephew’s wedding in Brussels at the Eglise Notre-Dame Sablon, a flamboyant Gothic church founded in 1304 by the Guild of Crossbowmen. As the guests waited for the bride to walk down the aisle, her uncle sitting to my right asked how I liked the idea of my nephew, Max, marrying into the family of a murderer. Perhaps my French had gotten rusty, I thought. Surely the distinguished gentleman, dressed in his finely tailored Italian suit, must have said something else. Seeing my astonished look, the uncle continued. “Mais oui. You have probably even heard of the criminal by his nickname, “Bluebeard.” At that moment the bride escorted by her father appeared. There was no time to ask further questions about the killer in the family.
During the lively reception I made a beeline for this uncle. The only Bluebeard I knew was a fictitious nobleman inhabiting Charles Perrault’s fairy tale who killed eight wives behind locked doors in his spooky castle. The uncle explained to me that Perrault based his plot on Gilles de Rais, his fifteenth century ancestor, whose true story was far more gruesome. The uncle then said he knew nothing more about this infamous man, but I should seek out his mother. She could “fill me in”. He abruptly ended our conversation.
“Grandmamen”, as my nephew’s wife calls her, ever lovely and polite, professed total ignorance about Bluebeard except that he had been a renowned French baron. She changed the subject informing me that her family had always lived in France except for the bride’s parents who worked for the European Union. The rest of the relatives at the reception did not want to talk about him either. I wondered why they were so uneasy regarding someone who had been dead for six centuries.
I would soon find out.
Gilles de Rais was indeed a notorious murder. As I dug into material about him, he soon emerged as a crazed psychopath who committed some of the most odious crimes in the history of mankind. For centuries after his death the very mention of his nickname, Bluebeard, made those who lived in France tremble.
And yet de Rais’s life revolved around two sides of a coin that seems difficult to put together. This historical figure was the paragon of the high medieval prince, almost Renaissance in his talent and accomplishments. A Marshal of France, a friend of the King, he fought alongside Joan of Arc at Orleans and was honored by Charles VII for his service to the crown. A mighty baron, a great entertainer as well as a renowned intellectual, he staged grandiose theatrical events, commissioned musical compositions, collected art and assembled an impressive library.
Gilles de Rais only appeared in a few books written in English. For the most part the works were dry and academic. Yet Reginald Hyatte’s Laughter for the Devil proved to be very helpful when I decided I wanted to write an account of de Rais’s engrossing life as Hyatte had translated the transcript of Gilles’s sensational trial into English from the old French and Latin used in the fifteenth century. (De Rais was prosecuted and found guilty of murder because of information given by simple folk, an unheard of event in the 15th century.) The Soul of Marshal Gilles de Raiz by D.B. Wyndham Lewis turned out to be the most entertaining of the histories but very judgmental. De Rais, de Rays, de Retz, are all different spellings of the name.
When I had the opportunity to visit France, I traveled to Nantes, in Brittany, where de Rais’s murders occurred. Combing through resources at the Bibliotheque de Nantes, Gilles de Rais, his crimes and times came to life. The many articles, books and internet material available in French on de Rais were disturbing and eye-opening. I began to understand why his descendants did not want to talk about him. Two works also found in French bookstores stood out: Abbot Eugene Bossard’s Gilles de Rais, Marechal de France dit Barbe Blue (1885) which remains the most detailed, impassioned exploration of his life and Gilles de Rays, l’homme de la demesure (nd) by Joseph Rouille which offers a spine-tingling expose of the horrors he committed.
But the highlight of the trip to the Bibliotheque was the 14th and 15th century documents the helpful, cheery staff retrieved for me from the musty archives. Many of these were in old French, my understanding of their unfamiliar forms and spelling limited. As I began to get the knack of reading this dead language, extraordinary pictures of a country riven by conflicts and wars emerged. The real genius of the chroniclers lay in how they captured the essence of the ever present blood, sweat and death. Jean Froissart’s prolific narrative and unsentimental record of 14th century events surrounding the Hundred Years’ War, begun in 1337 and lasting until 1453, were filled with gruesome details of slaughter but also loyalty and courage. (There are some excellent English translations of Froissart’s work which I discovered later.)
The pages of Jean Juvenal de Ursins, a notable source on the Battle of Agincourt and the conflicts within the Valois dynasty, graphically described the social upheaval destroying the country. And much of the medieval France he depicted and adored is still recognizable. One observer named Bourdigne commented in a warm personal style on the House of Anjou tied to the Valois rulers. He suggested the Duchess, Yolande of Aragon, was said to be “the wisest and most beautiful princess in Christendom”. She must have been a knockout as Juvenal also pictured her as “the prettiest woman in the kingdom.”
I am not sure which was more seminal to my research, poring over documents about de Rais or visiting his castles. Gilles, perhaps the richest baron in 15th century France, owned over 75 properties, large castles with beautiful land in many areas covered with vineyards, rolling hills, villages, tracts of forest and salt marshes. These fortresses are now ruins with one, Tiffauges, run as a cheesy tourist attraction by the state. When I visited Bluebeard’s crumbling castles, I felt enormous pity for this man whose dilapidated holdings mirrored his lost splendor. I kept on wondering how this revered hero of the Hundred Years’ War, this rich and respected baron, had somehow turned into a serial killer who sodomized children and, along with his homosexual bed-partners, butchered hundreds of innocents in frightful rituals.
Because I just could not understand why de Rais had lost his grip on reality, I asked psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, some experts on PTSD, many questions. After listening to their diverse ideas and reading a multitude of news reports about disturbed veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with physical and mental scars, my account of de Rais’s life began to unfold as a narrative of a venerated soldier felled by the brutality of his time, by the depravity which takes place during war. Did these events cause him to suffer from depression, a bipolar illness, PTSD or a combination of all three which triggered a latent psychopathy? There are no definitive answers as Bluebeard has been dead for so long.
Research is subjective as the writer has feelings and opinions. And while some readers might find the conclusions of my research too sympathetic to a notorious murderer, I hope my study invites others to explore the enigma that was the life of Gilles de Rais.
You can learn more about BLUEBEARD: Brave Warrior, Brutal Psychopath and Valerie Ogden via the publisher's (History Press) website.