Gilles de Rais (1401?-1440) was a Marshal of France and served under Joan of Arc before her execution. He was a French national hero for helping drive the English out of France. After the crowning of the Dauphin and the death of Joan of Arc, de Rais settled into his estates in Brittany and turned deviant. He practiced alchemy and black magic while he was a great patron of the arts. He enjoyed killing, usually by decapitation, young boys after he he had sodomized them. His fame and influence kept people from noticing that children were disappearing from his lands. Some speculators think the story of Bluebeard arose among the peasantry to warn their children to stay away from the dangerous baron whom they had no other protection against due to his political and financial stature. Finally, the Duke of Brittany investigated the murders and dug up the remains of 50 boys in de Rais' castle. He confessed to 140 killings at his trial, but he might have killed up to 300 people. He was burned alive and hanged simultaneously for his crimes on October 26, 1440 (Mendoza 1998). You can read more about Gilles de Rais at Antonio Mendoza's The Serial Killer Hit List--Part 1 site.
Other critics do not think the story is based upon the story of Gilles de Rais, but is actually based on older stories such as "Conomor and Triphine" and "Cupid and Psyche." These stories are addressed more on the Tales Similar to Bluebeard page. This theory centers on Bluebeard's interpretation as a cautionary tale against curiosity and temptation (Warner 1994).
Yet another theory of Blue Beard's origins is centered upon the fairy tales being seen as women's stories, passed down through generations from mother to daughter. Bluebeard can also be interpreted as a cautionary tale about real life. The story isn't warning against temptation and curiosity in marriage, but the practical consequences of marriage. In the time when childbirth was a main cause of death for women, mothers warned their daughters that marriage could be deadly since you could be killed by your husband with the simple act of becoming pregnant by him. In this way, the tale loses its sadistic killer and becomes a tale of normal life (Warner 1994).
The tale of Bluebeard has been popular and well known more in the centuries prior to the 20th century. Now the tale is considered gruesome and horrific. Until recently, fairy tales have been sent to the nursery where they have been sanitized for young readers and listeners. The tale is not well known outside the circle of fairy tale afficiandos. The average person often mistakes Bluebeard for the infamous Black Beard, a pirate whose story has never been considered part of the fairy tale genre. Still, according to a survey of the Fairy Tale Indexes which are available, Bluebeard appeared in children's books fairly frequently prior to the 1940s and 1950s when it virtually disappears from fairy tale collections for children. Bluebeard is perhaps best known today through the recent translations by Jack Zipes (Zipes 1989) and in treatments such as Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber" (Carter 1979).