Oh those 80s... the 1680s

Have you ever found yourself asking this question: "Did Mme de Montespan, long-time mistress of Louis XIV of France and mother of 7 of his children, participate in grisly satanic rituals that may have involved human sacrifice?" If you were wondering this or have suddenly started to wonder, may I recommend Anne Somerset's The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide & Satanism in the Court of Louis XIV. (St. Martin's, 2004)

Here's why I liked this book. First, it fell into 3 memorable parts. First is the lurid tale of the trial & torture of Mme de Brinvilliers and her associates. (Apparently the official trend in late 17th century Paris was to torture everybody before executing them in various horrible ways. The idea was to see if they said anything extra interesting under torture. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, the accused often revoked whatever they'd said once the torture was over, but that didn't keep them from trying.) Brinvilliers was accused of poisoning various people including her father and siblings. People were horrified that a) a Marquise like her could do something so vile and b) poison was such a sneaky way to kill someone... who ELSE was using it? This first part served to introduce the official methods used against poisoners, and also the paranoia about the possible pervasiveness of poison.

I was very grateful for the next part of the book, which was basically about Louis XIV's sex life. This may seem odd based on the title, but it turns out that his various mistresses and loves are very important because they make things interesting and helped me remember parts of Louis' timeline much better (1660s? Together with Louise de la Vallière. 1670s? Mme de Montespan was in full swing. 1680-ish? He was into the teenage Mlle de Fontanges. After that? Mme de Maintenon, his 2nd secret wife, took him over.) I find if there's a bit of real story involved, historical events become much more juicy and interesting and real. Also, they are important here because much of the Affair of the Poisons either involves allegations of mistresses wanting to poison each other or the King, or other people wanting to poison any of the above.

The rest of the book is a systematic description of the actual "Affair of the Poisons." This was made up of the various interrogations and trials and tortures overseen by the Chambres Ardentes, a secret tribunal that met, in this case, from 1679-1681. They examined and punished a slew of black priests, divineresses, alleged poisoners and their unfortunate (and perhaps often innocent) associates. For what is basically a 300-year old court transcript, this was a good read. There seemed to be a pattern: the officials would get a name of some miscreant associated with poisoning. They would arrest that person and throw him or her into prison. Then there would be a series of interrogations during which the person would remember more and more details about all kinds of people and activities. The more often a person was questioned, the more crazy and gruesome stuff they came up with. Dead babies, bird entrails, conspiracies, abortions, black masses, strange powders, and all sorts of interconnections between the Parisian underworld and the aristocracy. The person would name a bunch of other people he or she had worked with, and then the officials would go out and arrest those people and start the process over again.

Once someone didn't have anything new and interesting to confess, they would be tried and often executed. That is, unless the person was of noble blood. Only a few of these were actually arrested and none were tortured or killed. Others were warned in time to flee the country, and others were just excused by Louis XIV who decided that they must be innocent so not to bother with them. Among these... Mme de Montespan. It seems that Anne Somerset does not think Montespan actually participated in demonic rituals, nor did she really want to kill the King who, after all, was the father of most of her children and her meal ticket to Versailles.

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