Tuesday, March 30, 2010

French Folklore: Bluebeard

Ostensibly, one of my projects out here has been to research French folklore for the thesis I am writing.  I like looking at the legend and then finding out what parts of it come from history and which parts are myth.  Unfortunately, in the case of the story of Bluebeard, the truth is far more disturbing than the fiction...

Warning: The true story is deeply disturbing.  If you have a weak stomach, stop reading when the fairy tale ends.

The Legend (as summarized by wikipedia):

Bluebeard is a very wealthy aristocrat, feared because of his "frightfully ugly" blue beard. He had been married several times, but no one knew what had become of his wives. He was therefore avoided by the local girls. When Bluebeard visited one of his neighbours and asked to marry one of her two daughters, the girls were terrified, and each tried to pass him on to the other. Eventually he persuaded the younger daughter (Perrault does not name the woman, but many versions state her name to be Fatima) to marry him, and after the ceremony she went to live with him in his château.

Very shortly after, however, Bluebeard announced that he had to leave the country for a while; he gave over all the keys of the chateau to his new wife, including the key to one small room that she was forbidden to enter. He then went away and left the house in her hands. Almost immediately she was overcome with the desire to see what the forbidden room held, and finally her visiting sister, Anne, convinced her to satisfy her curiosity and open the room.
The wife immediately discovered the room's horrible secret: Its floor was awash with blood, and the dead bodies of her husband's former wives hung from hooks on the walls. Horrified, she locked the door, but blood had come onto the key which would not wash off. Bluebeard returned unexpectedly and immediately knew what his wife had done. In a blind rage he threatened to behead her on the spot, but she implored that he give her quarter of an hour to say her prayers. He consented so she locked herself in the highest tower with her sister, Anne. While Bluebeard, sword in hand, tried to break down the door, the sisters waited for their two brothers to arrive. At the last moment, as Bluebeard was about to deliver the fatal blow, the brothers broke into the castle, and as he attempted to flee, they killed him. He left no heirs but his wife, who inherited all his great fortune. She used part of it for a dowry to marry her sister to the one that loved her, another part for her brothers' captains commissions, and the rest to marry a worthy gentleman who made her forget her ill treatment by Bluebeard.

This story comes to us from Charles Perrault.  It is one of the folk tales he chronicled in his Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé. It is believed to have come from the Brittany region of France.  On the surface it seems to be just another tale of feminine curiosity and how dangerous it can be.  (Eve, Pandora, Lot's Wife, Psyche....even Belle from Beauty and the Beast couldn't keep her nose out of that West Wing).  

However, the historical inspiration for this tale is even more ghastly.

The History: 
Gilles de Rais was a man of contradictions.  A wealthy lord, baron, and Breton knight, he fought alongside Jeanne d'Arc and was a deeply pious man.  He was also one of the most prolific serial killers of children known to history.

He became a war hero, most notably during the Seige of Paris, where he was granted the right to add the royal coat of arms to his own, and specifically commended by the king for his "high and commendable services", the "great perils and dangers" he had confronted, and "many other brave feats". 

Once the war hero retired from military life, he began to spend his money lavishly.  Much of it was drunk away during wild parties, but he also spent a small fortune constructing the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, dedicated to the young boys killed  by Herod.  This choice would prove tragically ironic, as de Rais had innocents of his own to slaughter.

According to his testimony and that of his associates, it was during this time that de Rais began dabbling in the occult.  He testified that he began sacrificing children to the demon "Barron" in order to regain his squandered fortune.  It is likely that this explanation was fed to him by the court in an effort to understand how a former hero could sink to such depravities. 

He killed hundreds of children, mostly young boys.  He tortured and raped them as he killed them, laughing as they died.  

In his 1971 biography of Gilles de Rais, Jean Beneditti tells how the children were put to death: 
"[The boy] 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."
Gilles' bodyservant Etienne Corrillaut, known as Poitou, was an accomplice in many of the crimes and testified that his master hung his victims with ropes from a hook to prevent the child from crying out, then masturbated upon the child's belly or thighs. Taking the victim down, Rais comforted the child and assured him he only wanted to play with him. Gilles then either killed the child himself or had the child slain by his cousin Gilles de Sillé, Poitou or another bodyservant called Henriet. The victims were killed by decapitation, cutting of their throats, dismemberment, or breaking of their necks with a stick. A short, thick, double-edged sword called a braquemard was kept at hand for the murders. Poitou further testified that Rais sometimes committed his vices on the victims (whether boys or girls) before wounding them and at other times after the victim had been slashed in the throat or decapitated. According to Poitou, Rais disdained the victim's sexual organs, and took "infinitely more pleasure in debauching himself in this manner...than in using their natural orifice, in the normal manner."
In his own confession, Gilles testified that “when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed...”
Poitou testified that he and Henriet burned the bodies in the fireplace in Gilles' room. The clothes of the victim were placed into the fire piece by piece so they burned slowly and the smell was minimized. The ashes were then thrown into the cesspit, the moat, or other hiding places.The last recorded murder was of the son of Eonnet de Villeblanche and his wife Macée. Poitou paid twenty sous to have a page's doublet made for the victim, who was then assaulted, murdered, and incinerated in August 1440.

Though the outlying village was aware that something evil was taking place in the castle, none dared try to stop him, even as their children began to vanish.  Peasants had been complaining for months that their children who went to the castle to beg never returned.  However, it wasn't until de Rais kidnapped a cleric that an ecclesiastical investigation was sent and his crimes were unconvered.  

He was charged by both ecclesiastical and secular courts of heresy, sodomy, and murder.  It is difficult to know the exact number of his victims, because their remains were burned after the deed, but it is estimated to be anywhere between 80 and 600 victims between the ages of six to eighteen.  He was sentenced to death by hanging followed by burning, and throughout the trial and to his death he seemed concerned about the welfare of his soul, terrified of going to hell.  He was allowed to have a last confession, and just before his death, exhorted the throngs with 'contrite piety' before telling his accomplices to 'die bravely and think only of salvation'.  On the 26th of October, he was hung and set aflame, though his body was cut down and buried before it was completely reduced to ashes.

This is one of those instances where the legend is far less horrific than the truth.  

Benedetti, Jean (1971), Gilles de Rais, New York: Stein and Day,
Wolf, Leonard (1980), Bluebeard: The Life and Times of Gilles De Rais, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc.,


  1. Creepy. At least in the "fairytale" the girls actually "win" for once...

  2. Yeah...its actually a pretty happy ending for a fairy tale. Usually Disney has to completely rewrite them to make them okay for kids.

  3. One day an old French lady gave me some free flan... and the rest is history. I now have a quite the fondness for flan... i feel bad for it, really. We relate ;)