Gilles de Rais
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Basic Information

Gilles de Rais - also known as Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron of Rais, lived between 1404 and 1440 was a knight and minor French Noble from the County of Britanny. By all accounts he was a skilled fighting man and served for a time along side Joan d'Arc during the Hundred Years' War, being later appointed to the prestigious rank of Marshall of France. All this aside, arguably his greatest claim to fame is as one of the earliest recorded serial killers (specialising in children) and his involvement in black magic.

Even as a young man, Gilles was known to be impulsive and something of a spendthrift - so dissolute, in fact, that his father left his sword and armour to a younger brother by way of reproach. After his retirement from the military, he became significantly more profligate - to the extent that he was placed under legal restrictions to prevent him selling off his estates to pay for his spending. One of the largest items on his budget was an extravagant theatrical production about the Siege of Orleans with a cast of over 600.

According to testimony recorded at his trial, in 1438 de Rais then turned his attention to the occult and commissioned the Romanist Priest Eustache Blanchett to find him people with a working knowledge of magic and alchemy. Amongst others Blanchett tracked down a fellow priest1 by the name of Francois Prelati and, after consulting with them, Gilles decided to try to summon up a demon called Barron. For some reason, his attempts at summoning were unsuccessful and neither promises of money, nor parts taken from a murdered child were successful in tempting the demon to appear.

Not that dead children were much of a barrier to de Rais - according to some accounts he had been raping and murdering children since 1432 and the bodies of over forty dead children were found at one of his former homes in 1437. Possibly the summoning of Barron was an attempt to escape the consequences of his actions, or possibly just the next step in an ongoing spiral of depravity.

Regardless, justice - of a sort - was catching up with him. In 1440 he fell out with a local clergyman and, in the ensuing dispute, assaulted and abducted him, leading to an investigation by the Bishop of Nantes which finally gave the parents of his victims an opportunity to testify against him. In due course de Rais was arrested together with two of his servants and, following a trial in which some of the evidence was considered so vile that it was deleted from the court records, all three men were sentenced to be hanged and their bodies burnt. Amazingly de Rais was granted leave for his remains to be buried in the cathedral afterwards … his accomplices were not so lucky and their own ashes were scattered instead.

Somewhat disturbingly his remains were claimed by "Four ladies of noble birth" who undertook his burial and the site of his execution later became a popular shrine.

Various writers have tried to claim de Rais as an innocent pagan, cruelly framed and executed by an oppressive Roman church for following his ancient religion, but the evidence seems to point to little more than a powerful, depraved serial killer.


2. Occult History Explained video - discusses his descent into demon-summoning and child-murder, and gets pretty graphic in the descriptions of what he did to the victims
3. Bio Graphics video - argues that he was framed, not a killer

Game and Story Use

  • Was that play meant to be something like The King in Yellow or Massa di Requiem Per Shuggay? Historically it was actually performed once in Orleans - did someone sabotage the ritual or did it actually achieve something?
    • The play involves elaborate costumes that were meant to be worn once and then burned, as well as robes which Gilles himself was to wear as a priest. While material sacrifice is generally considered to have the lowest value, quantity may have a quality of its own - or perhaps the actors were meant to be burned.
    • The performance also included unlimited food served to guests - a form of conspicuous consumption through gluttony. While fairly low-grade as sins go, it could be a step in a corrupting ritual.
    • The scale of the play is staggering. 140 speaking parts, 500 extras, 600 costumes that were only used once. If that's not a major magical work, it's at the very least an extravagance that you would expect of a modern failson or a big megacorp, not the hobby of an accomplished field marshal. Just the size of it suggests there must be an ulterior motive. If it's not sinister, then it's one heck of a dedication to your artistic vision. Or, given that the topic of the play was a siege, it may have served a major propaganda goal.
  • Gilles de Rais is an excellent example of how a "classically evil" villain can be made historically feasible.
  • He's also an example of the trouble that could be had in bringing a feudal magnate to justice in the middle ages.
  • Why did his summonings of Barron come to nothing? Perhaps the demon looked at his massive debts and decided he was a bad credit risk - or maybe demons don't take cash. Who knows? The other big possibility is that the demon knew he was hellbound anyway and couldn't be bothered expending any extra effort on a soul already won.
    • Of course, there's no guarantee that Barron didn't appear - that's the fun thing about botched invocations … just because no demon appears in a cloud of sulphorous smoke to drag you off to hell by your testicles, it doesn't mean that nothing happened…
    • More prosaically, Blanchett and Prelati spotted a drunken pervert with an incontinent approach to spending money and decided to scam him.
      • For the double blind plotters out there, your Blanchett and Prelati expys think they're running a scam … until Barron appears. Unless, of course, he doesn't announce his appearance (as above) and they keep going in ignorance. Either way, expect the scam to go horribly wrong.
    • Arguably de Rais could be seen as a male version of Elizabeth Bathory.
  • There may have been a damned good reason to put his ashes in the cathedral
    • Whether it worked or not is another matter. De Rais may have been fairly small fry in terms of his occult significance, but those hoping to use consecrated ground to contain a dead(ish) BBEG need to make sure that their consecration is up to snuff and they're not putting three pints of evil in a quart can.
    • Quite a lot of churches and cathedrals were looted of their relics during the renaissance and early modern period - for example during the English Reformation and, later, during the Revolutionary Terror in France. Wonder, then, if at some of those sites the relics might not have been a genuine barrier against something really quite unpleasant.
      • Alternatively someone may, knowingly or unknowingly, have stolen his ashes.
    • Tying in with the first point, the original manuscript of Mistere du siege d’Orleans is apparently kept in the Vatican collections. There may be more reasons to put it there than just to collect various treasures.
  • And who … or what … were those four mysterious ladies?
  • As mentioned above, the conventional wisdom dictates that Gilles de Rais was a terrible monster who murdered babies. As always in gaming and fiction, it can be interesting to subvert expectations. If you want to cast de Rais as framed or persecuted for the sake of your narrative, it's not terribly hard to justify that position. (Just know that some portion of your audience may have strongly held beliefs about his degree of guilt… but I guess that's true whether you go with or against the traditional narrative.) It's easy to come up with a hypothetical motive for false accusations:
    • As a military commander in a land that had been embroiled in decades of wartime atrocity, de Rais probably had as many powerful enemies as he did powerful friends.
    • The church or crown may have stood to profit from confiscated property.
    • Estranged family members may have wanted to inherit anything that wasn't confiscated.
    • The notion that evidence "was so vile it had to be stricken from the record" doesn't sit well with modern concepts of justice, either. The authorities at the time did famously put Joan of Arc to death for politically-motivated reasons. It's not hard to imagine more of the same.
    • Counter-argument to the last few bullet-points: His 1440 abduction of a priest was the crime that provoked his investigation and arrest in the first place. So at the least you'll need to come up with a compelling explanation behind that kidnapping, should you want to cast de Rais as something other than a villain.
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