Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Black Magic

Mysticism, spirituality and religion played important roles in the life of Gilles de Rais. The evidence of his apparent piety is in direct conflict with the homicidal secret life to which he confessed, leading some scholars to doubt the veracity of the reputation history has given him. He was a generous supporter of the Church, building several chapels and one cathedral, as well as endowing them so there would always be clergy to serve his people. As his fortunes turned and Gilles needed money, he was not averse to pawning the gold from his various churches, but that does not imply a lack of faith, merely a lack of funds.

As a companion to Joan of Arc, he was a witness to her miracles. Gilles observed a shift in the wind direction that favored the French during the siege of Orleans that is attributed to Joans prayer for just such an event. He saw the Maid pull a quarrel, or dart, from her shoulder and recover from a wound that would have put the average knight in bed for a month. Gilles witnessed Joan call upon Gods help to lift the siege at Orleans and accomplish in four days what the finest soldiers in France had been unable to do for more than a year. Gilles was present when Joan made fabulous prophecies that came true. Belief in the supernatural was not difficult for Gilles de Rais. This faith spread from the acceptable teachings of the Church to work in alchemy and, according to trial transcripts, necromancy and devil worship.

Alchemy had been outlawed by the Church and the king in the 15th century, but that did not stop believers from searching for the fabled Sorcerers Stone which would enable them to turn lead or iron into gold. Modern chemistry can trace its roots to these early experimenters, who, regardless of their motives, did make some discoveries that benefited humanity. Most of the alchemists, however, were charlatans and con men who used simple sleight-of-hand or more elaborate tricks to fool their unsuspecting marks.

A woodcut of an alchemist and his apprentice mixing a brew (CORBIS)
A woodcut of an alchemist and his
apprentice mixing a brew (CORBIS)

The greed of Gilles de Rais made him easy prey for bogus alchemists, and he never seemed to learn that he was being conned. His biographers report two instances where he was taken in by tricksters, each rather humorous. In the first, de Rais favorite priest, Blanchet, introduced him to a goldsmith who had discovered the means to convert silver into gold. Gilles and the alchemist met at a local tavern where de Rais gave the man a silver coin. Gilles left the alchemist alone to practice his craft and upon his return found the chemist intoxicated and unconscious. Apparently all the man could do was turn a florin into a flagon of wine.

The second con cost Gilles a little more money.

Again Blanchet produced the magician who claimed to able to summon the Devil. One evening, with a sword and dressed in white armor, the magician, Jean de la Riviere, took Gilles and his party into the woods and had them wait in a clearing while he went off to summon Satan. Blanchet later testified that he heard a great clanging, which he believed to be Riviere banging on his armor, and then an ashen-faced and frightened Riviere appeared saying he had seen the devil in the form of a leopard which crept past him into the woods. After this, Blanchet testified, (de Rais, Riviere, and others) went to Pouzauges and indulged in many pleasures and then slept.

Gilles had been convinced of Rivieres sincerity and skill. He was on the hook, and Riviere knew it. The magician told Gilles that he needed some supplies to continue his evocations and Gilles gave him 20 ecus, telling him to return as soon as he could. Of course, Riviere disappeared with his loot and was never seen in those parts again.

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