Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist


I'm reading about the uprising in the Vendee in 1793- and realising- with a slight shock-  that I've actually visited the area- but without knowing its history- or more precisely without knowing that part of its history.  It was 1971. And I was there because I was interested in Gilles de Rais- the 15th century paedophile mass murderer and black magician- who is probably- possibly- at the root of the Bluebeard legend. De Rais was born at the chateau de Machecoul- which- when I went there- was an unkempt ruin at the far end of a farmyard. Madame at the farmhouse gave me permission to wander about. She smiled when I mentioned de Rais and said, "Sans dout il a fait des choses atroces la dedans."

There was a cow sheltering among the tumbledown walls and towers. She didn't like being disturbed. I climbed the rubble into a first floor room. It had sand on the floor and a renaissance fireplace on the wall.  It was very still,  more than a little eerie, but I wasn't feeling Gilles de Rais or the 15th century.  Later I wrote a poem (which left the eerieness out of account) about how nature and time obliterate bad memories. I feel a little ashamed of it now.

Because Machecoul was also a centre of the Vendee uprising- and the site of the worst massacre perpetrated by the rebels. More than five hundred people connected with the Republican government were butchered- quite a few of them in and around the chateau.

Here's part of Schama's account:

Chains of prisoners were formed by passing ropes under their arms in the infamous "rosaries" by which they were dragged to fields outside the town, made to dig ditches and then shot so that they fell neatly into their graves. The physician Musset was placed on the line twice and both times reprieved, before being executed on a final telling of the rosary.

I wish I'd known that.  It would have altered my attitude to the place- or at least I hope it would- and perhaps the resulting poem wouldn't have been quite so glib.  I was looking for one ghost- couldn't find him- and blithely assumed there weren't any others.  I feel I was guilty of really bad manners.

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