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The Sparrows

Henceforth we have to deal with a man who is half-freebooter, half-monk. You know that the defenders of Charles were for the most part Mediterranean cut-throats, ferocious pillagers, execrated by the very people they came to protect.

England at that epoch had not got over the Conquest and was Norman in blood, language, and tradition. Suppose Jeanne d'Arc had stayed with her mother and stuck to her knitting. Charles VII would have been dispossessed and the war would have come to an end. The Plantagenets would have reigned over England and France, which, in primeval times before the Channel existed, formed one territory occupied by one race, as you know. Thus there would have been a single united and powerful kingdom of the North, reaching as far as the province of Languedoc and embracing peoples whose tastes, instincts, and customs were alike.

On the other hand, the coronation of a Valois at Rheims created a heterogeneous and preposterous France, separating homogeneous elements, uniting the most incompatible nationalities, races the most hostile to each other, and identifying us—inseparably, alas! In a word, if it hadn't been for Jeanne d'Arc, France would not now belong to that line of histrionic, forensic, perfidious chatterboxes, the precious Latin race—Devil take it!

But I interrupted you. Let's get back to the subject. What were you saying? Oh, yes. I was saying that the Maid had completed her task. Now we are confronted by a question to which there is seemingly no answer. What did Gilles do when she was captured, how did he feel about her death? We cannot tell.

We know that he was lurking in the vicinity of Rouen at the time of the trial, but it is too much to conclude from that, like certain of his biographies, that he was plotting her rescue. At the time when the misdeeds are about to begin, the artist and man of letters develop in Gilles and, taking complete possession of him, incite him, under the impulsion of a perverted mysticism, to the most sophisticated of cruelties, the most delicate of crimes.

In an age when his peers were simple brutes, he sought the delicate delirium of art, dreamed of a literature soul-searching and profound; he even composed a treatise on the art of evoking demons; he gloried in the music of the Church, and would have nothing about his that was not rare and difficult to obtain. He possessed a library extraordinary for an epoch when nothing was read but theology and lives of saints. We have the description of several of his manuscripts; Suetonius, Valerius Maximus, and an Ovid on parchment bound in red leather, with vermeil clasp and key.

He carried them with him when he travelled. He had attached to his household a painter named Thomas who illuminated them with ornate letters and miniatures, and Gilles himself painted the enamels which a specialist—discovered after an assiduous search—set in the gold-inwrought bindings. Gilles's taste in furnishings was elevated and bizarre. He revelled in abbatial stuffs, voluptuous silks, in the sombre gilding of old brocade. He liked knowingly spiced foods, ardent wines heavy with aromatics; he dreamed of unknown gems, weird stones, uncanny metals.

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He was the Des Esseintes of the fifteenth century! The luxury of his chapel and collegium was madly extravagant. There was in residence at Tiffauges a complete metropolitan clergy, deans, vicars, treasurers, canons, clerks, deacons, scholasters, and choir boys. There is an inventory extant of the surplices, stoles, and amices, and the fur choir hats with crowns of squirrel and linings of vair. There are countless sacerdotal ornaments.

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We find vermilion altar cloths, curtains of emerald silk, a cope of velvet, crimson and violet with orpheys of cloth of gold, another of rose damask, satin dalmatics for the deacons, baldachins figured with hawks and falcons of Cyprus gold. We find plate, hammered chalices and ciboria crusted with uncut jewels. Now he began to walk the terrible ways of usury. At times he was reduced to asking advances on his religious ornaments, on his jewels, on his books. A memorial addressed to the king by the heirs of Gilles de Rais informs us that this immense fortune was squandered in less than eight years.

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But look, there's a long list of castellanies and forests, salt mines and farm lands," said Durtal, spreading out a great sheet of paper on which he had copied the account of the purchases and sales. The grand skinflint, the master usurer of the time, Jean V, duke of Brittany, refused to publish the edict in his states, but, underhandedly, notified all those of his subjects who dealt with Gilles. No one now dared to buy the Marshal's domains for fear of incurring the wrath of the king, so Jean V remained the sole purchaser and fixed the prices.


You may judge how liberal his prices were. I think the facts which I have outlined will partially explain. Moreover, the courtiers must have execrated the young man on account of his riches and luxuries; and the king, the same king who abandoned Jeanne d'Arc when he considered that she could no longer be useful to him, found an occasion to avenge himself on Gilles for the favours Gilles had done him.

When the king needed money to finance his debaucheries or to raise troops he had not considered the Marshal lavish. Now that the Marshal was ruined the king censured him for his prodigality, held him at arm's length, and spared him no reproach and no menace. He was doubtless sick and tired of the nomadic existence of a soldier. He was doubtless impatient to get back to a pacific atmosphere among books. Moreover, he seems to have been completely dominated by the passion for alchemy, for which he was ready to abandon all else.

For it is worth noting that this science, which threw him into demonomania when he hoped to stave off inevitable ruin with it, he had loved for its own sake when he was rich. It was in fact toward the year , when his coffers bulged with gold, that he attempted the 'great work' for the first time. That is the point to which I have brought my history, and now I am about to begin on the series of crimes of magic and sadism. To be precise, this man, as I have just had you observe, was a true mystic. He witnessed the most extraordinary events which history has ever shown.

Association with Jeanne d'Arc certainly stimulated his desires for the divine. Now from lofty Mysticism to base Satanism there is but one step. In the Beyond all things touch. He carried his zeal for prayer into the territory of blasphemy. He was guided and controlled by that troop of sacrilegious priests, transmuters of metals, and evokers of demons, by whom he was surrounded at Tiffauges. She roused an impetuous soul, ready for anything, as well for orgies of saintliness as for ecstasies of crime.

The moment Jeanne was dead he fell into the hands of sorcerers who were the most learned of scoundrels and the most unscrupulous of scholars. Gilles was evidently more fitted to live with them than with men like Dunois and La Hire. These magicians, whom all the biographers agree to represent—wrongly, I think—as vulgar parasites and base knaves, were, as I view them, the patricians of intellect of the fifteenth century.

Not having found places in the Church, where they would certainly have accepted no position beneath that of cardinal or pope, they could, in those troubled times of ignorance, but take refuge in the patronage of a great lord like Gilles. And Gilles was, indeed, the only one at that epoch who was intelligent enough and educated enough to understand them. The sword of Damocles hanging over his head, to be conjured away by the will of the Devil, perhaps.

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An ardent, a mad curiosity concerning the forbidden sciences. All this explains why, little by little, as the bonds uniting him to the world of alchemists and sorcerers grow stronger, he throws himself into the occult and is swept on by it into the most unthinkable crimes. It's a fact. Read Michelet. You will see that the princes of this epoch were redoubtable butchers. There was a sire de Giac who poisoned his wife, put her astride of his horse and rode at breakneck speed for five leagues, until she died.

There was another, whose name I have forgotten, who collared his father, dragged him barefoot through the snow, and calmly thrust him into a subterranean prison and left him there until he died. And how many others!