Between St. Bavo Cathedral and the Bisdomkaai is the Geeraard de Duivelsteen, known in English as the house/castle of Gerald the Devil. A plaque near the building says, Threatening, robust. Somewhat sinister even. Yet the devil never lived here. Gheeraert Vilain’s dark skin was the cause of his nickname. The imposing building later served as a prison, monastery, orphanage, mental institution, fire station and (to date) State Archives.
But, the name and the stories surrounding Gerald the Devil are the stuff of legend in Ghent; told on Halloween and on dark nights when kids at sleepovers tell spooky stories by flashlight. I can’t even imagine how scared the poor orphanage kids who lived in the building felt whenever they heard the folklore.
The image of the original owner of the Castle, Gheeraert Vilain, is that of a knight so evil and depraved that he kicked his own wife to death during a drunken rage. He is then said to have fallen in love with the same woman as his son and the two plotted each other’s murder in order to marry an unlucky lady named Jacoba Zottegem. Gheeraert is said to have married five times and each time his wife died mysteriously while he lived an extreme and debaucherous life.
This is where I thank the Acadiens for my secret ability to read old French: all of the old legal and church documentation from Ghent is online in book format. I also learned that the global language of law was originally French because of the precision and lack of ambiguity in the language. So, I decided to snoop around in these old books to see what I’d find and see if there is any truth to the tales about Gheeraert.
The castle dates to 1245 and was built by Gheeraert, son of Beatrix of Heusden and Zeger III of Ghent. Zeger III was the Lord of three Flemish districts: Heusden, Bornhem, Saint-Jean Steen, and also the Châtelain of Ghent. The Châtelain (Castellan) in medieval times meant he was the administrator of the land surrounding the Castle of the Counts.
As such, Gheeraert was born into nobility and to a large family of knights; his brother was Hugh I of Ghent who swore fealty to Ferdinand the Count of Flanders on behalf of himself and his brothers to prevent war with France. Another brother was an archdeacon.
Gheeraert married Elizabeth van Slote, daughter of Léon de Slote who was heavily involved with l’église de St. Jean (likely the early rendition of Sint Bavo). The couple set up the funding for three chapellenies (chaplains) in memory of Elizabeth’s father Léon when he passed away.
1259, août, Le chevalier Gérard de Gand et Elisabeth son épouse, assignment à trois chapellenies, dont deux avaient été fondées par Léon de Slote dans l’église de St. Jean, à Gand, et la troisième par eux-mêmes dans l’église de N.-D à St. Pierre, une rente au revenu de quarante-cinq livres de Flandre, hypothéquée sur les biens de la mouvance de l’abbaye, dans les quatre métiers.
As mentioned above, the couple lived during the period when Sint Bavo was known as the Chapel of St. John the Baptist (St. Jean). And, when a portion of the choir was elevated in 1264, the couple contributed financially to this endeavour. They also donated land to Biloka Abbey (1254) and to churches in Tournai, Gent, and Flines (1261).
There is one reference to Gérart de Gand being a tutor to Jean de Praet, but no other reference to Gheeraert after 1274. However, Gheeraert’s wife Elizabeth is referenced in a legal note from 1283 with her second husband Guillaume de Mortagne, seigneur de Rume.
Un acte de l’an 1283, cité par Du Chesne, nous apprend que Guillaume était, à cette époque uni à Isabeau ou Elisabeth de Slote, ou Sloet, dite bonne-femme, fille de Leonius de Slote, bourgeois de Gand, et veuve de Gérard de Gand, dit le diable.
Apparently, Gheeraert’s wife wasn’t kicked to death in a violent drunken rage, but rather was married twice; once to Gheeraert and next to Guillaume de Mortagne of France. And, it was Guillaume de Mortagne who had five wives.
Finally, in the snippet from 1283 above, after the mention of her second husband, a knight, it calls Elizabeth the veuve de Gérard de Gand… the widow of Gérard de Gand. So, it appears as though the “devil” died first.
The Obituarium Sancti Johannis: nécrologe de l’église St-Jean lists Gheeraert as being buried in the crypt at Sint Bavo.
After reading a few documents, I could find nothing of the evil, wife killing, son murdering, debaucherous person of folklore and instead found a pious and generous man who lived a quiet life. The castle is magnificent. You can only enter when the city offers special tours but a walk around is worth a meander.