Since Halloween is fast approaching, and since many fairy tales are inherently fairly grim, I thought it might be a good time for a bit of a horrific fairy tale blog post.
In the tale, Bluebeard himself is quite ghastly, having murdered his previous wives, and intending the same fate for his newest wife. In the tale, his present wife discovers a grisly room in which the bodies of his previous wives are gruesomely hung along the walls. But was Bluebeard a real person?
It is commonly believed that the character of Bluebeard was based on either one of two historical people. The first was Gilles de Rais, a 15th century nobleman from the area of Brittany in France. The second was Conomor the Accursed, an early Breton king. . . . So, who were these guys? And how are they similar to Bluebeard?
First, as already stated, Gilles de Rais was a French nobleman. He was born into wealth, and after his parents both died, he was placed in the care of his grandfather. His grandfather, Jean de Craon, attempted to have Gilles (12 years old at the time) wed to Jeanne Payelle (4 at the time) a very rich Normandy heiress. When that failed, he attempted to have Gilles wed to another wealthy heiress, Beatrice de Rohan. He finally succeeded in arranging a marriage to the heiress Catherine de Thouars, making him one of the richest men in Europe while still in his teens. So already I can see a similarity to the Bluebeard fairy tale; in the fairy tale, Bluebeard attempts to wed several young ladies, but they all fear him and refuse even though Bluebeard has great wealth.
In real life, Gilles de Rais became interested in alchemy and the occult and began kidnapping, torturing, raping, and murdering a great number of children—maybe. He was tried and confessed to these crimes in 1440, but some think he may have been set up. Regardless of whether or not he was guilty, this is an absolutely shocking and gruesome crime. And the fact that there were a number of victims that remained undiscovered for some time certainly has similarities to the tale of Bluebeard. Although the victims here are children, rather than wives.
The second person Bluebeard may have been based on was Conomor the Accursed, Prince of Pohor. Conomor shares closer similarities to Bluebeard, but the details of his life have more in common with legends than reality. Conomor lived during the 4th century, so solid facts are harder to establish. The legend states that Conomor conquered many neighboring lands, desiring to unite the whole of Britany. In order to take the kingdom of Domnonee, Conomor killed the king and married his widow. Later, Conomor wants to kill her and her son, but she manages to escape to a monastery. King Conomor then sets his sights on St. Trephine, but her father does not like the idea of this union. St. Gildas convinces Trephine’s father to let the marriage take place.
Pause here for a second to note the similarities between Conomor and Bluebeard at this point. Just as no one really wants to marry Bluebeard despite his power and wealth, we find that the same is true with Conomor. Plus, I think it’s worth noting that in both cases, it is implied there is good reason for the fear.
When Trephine becomes pregnant, she fears for her life, as King Conomor has been told he will be killed by his own son. Trying to find a secret way to escape the castle, Trephine goes down to the royal crypt where she finds 6 coffins—5 full with previously murdered wives, and 1 empty. Trephine runs, but King Conomor catches her and cuts off her head. At this point in the legend, Gildas brings Trephine back to life.
Pause for another second. The similarities between Conomor and Bluebeard now are pretty profound. Other than the bodies of former wives being contained in coffins in Conomor’s legend versus hanging on the wall, as in Bluebeard, there is even an analogous room where the bodies of previous wives are kept. And then, what does Conomor do to Trephine once he catches her? Why, he cuts off her head—the very thing Bluebeard was preparing to do to his wife in the fairy tale.
To me, Conomor seems much more like the character of Bluebeard then does Gilles de Rais, but both tales would have been known to the French and both could have been pulled from to form the basis for the Bluebeard fairy tale by Charles Perrault.
With Halloween approaching, maybe it’s the time of year to curl up on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and a blanket for a Bluebeard-based horror movie. I recently found a very interesting comparison of fairy tales to horror movies by Mikel Koven. Perhaps you would like to check it out, choose a chiller flick, and prepare to be scared!