Cover image for Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV's France By Lynn Wood Mollenauer

Strange Revelations

Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV's France

Lynn Wood Mollenauer

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$87.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02915-3

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02916-0

224 pages
6" × 9"
6 b&w illustrations
2006

Magic in History

Strange Revelations

Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV's France

Lynn Wood Mollenauer

Strange Revelations effectively explores the multiple ways in which power was exercised at the court of Louis XIV, focusing on the ‘hidden forms’ effected through poison and magic. Mollenauer does an excellent job of probing these issues through close analysis of the records left to us concerning the ‘Affair of the Poisons.'”

 

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The Affair of the Poisons was the greatest court scandal of the seventeenth century. From 1679 to 1682 the French crown investigated more than 400 people—including Louis XIV’s official mistress and members of the highest-ranking circles at court—for sensational crimes. In Strange Revelations, Lynn Mollenauer brings this bizarre story to life, exposing a criminal magical underworld thriving in the heart of the Sun King’s capital.

The macabre details of the Affair of the Poisons read like a gothic novel. In the fall of 1678, Nicolas de la Reynie, head of the Paris police, uncovered a plot to poison Louis XIV. La Reynie’s subsequent investigation unveiled a loosely knit community of sorceresses, magicians, and renegade priests who offered for sale an array of services and products ranging from abortions to love magic to poisons known as “inheritance powders.” It was the inheritance powders (usually made from powdered toads steeped in arsenic) that lent the Affair of the Poisons its name. The purchasers of the powders gave the affair its notoriety, for the scandal extended into the most exalted ranks of the French court.

Mollenauer adroitly uses the Affair of the Poisons to uncover the hidden forms of power that men and women of all social classes invoked to achieve their goals. While the exercise of state power during the ancien régime was quintessentially visible—ritually displayed through public ceremonies—the affair exposes the simultaneous presence of other imagined and real sources of power available to the Sun King’s subjects: magic, poison, and the manipulation of sexual passions.

Highly entertaining yet deeply researched, Strange Revelations will appeal to anyone interested in the history of court society, gender, magic, or crime in early modern Europe.

Strange Revelations effectively explores the multiple ways in which power was exercised at the court of Louis XIV, focusing on the ‘hidden forms’ effected through poison and magic. Mollenauer does an excellent job of probing these issues through close analysis of the records left to us concerning the ‘Affair of the Poisons.'”
“The latest in the distinguished Magic in History series of the Pennsylvania State University Press, Lynn Wood Mollenauer’s Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France (2007) is a well-researched and convincing introduction to and nearly definitive book on the subject. This paradoxical fact results from the lack of further sources for research: thus Mollenauer has done just about all that can be done on poisoning and black magic in late seventeenth-century Paris.”
“This book is a worthy contribution to the Magic in History Series: in fact, it is spellbinding.”
“It is well researched and an enjoyable read. Undergraduate students should digest it without resistance, and teachers can find much in it to provoke discussion, including but not limited to the obvious evidentiary problem. It should be on everyone’s reading list.”
“For anyone with an interest in the history of magic, Strange Revelations contains fascinating revelations indeed.”
“This intelligent and well-written study deserves a wide readership among historians in general and is accessible enough for undergraduate students as well the literate public.”

Lynn Wood Mollenauer is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Contents

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgments

Introduction

1. Investigating the Affair of the Poisons, 1676–1682

2. Medea and the Marquise: Understanding the Crime of Poison in Seventeenth-Century France

3. The Criminal Magical Underworld of Paris

4. The Renegade Priests of Paris and the Amatory Mass

5. The Magic of Mistresses at the Court of Louis XIV

Conclusion: The End of Magic?

Notes

Bibliography

Index

Introduction

The reign of Louis XIV reached its zenith in 1679. The Sun King was the richest ruler in Europe, his glittering court the envy of his fellow monarchs, and his magnificent palace at Versailles was approaching completion. Almost every endeavor Louis had embarked upon during his thirty-six years on the throne of France had proved a triumph. By virtue of his patronage, France had become the center of high culture in Europe. He had established order within his realm, subduing major rebellions in Bordeaux and Burgundy, bending the regional parlements to his will, and promulgating sweeping legal and administrative ordinances. Louis had been victorious abroad as well, gaining substantial territories and diplomatic concessions in the War of Devolution and the Dutch War. Primi Visconti was not exaggerating unduly when he wrote, “The king was at the height of his power: everything within and without his realm submitted to his will. He had only to desire something to have it; all, until this time, favored him; if it was raining when he wanted to hunt or to go for a walk, it stopped. . . . Moreover, he had money, glory, and above all great health; in sum, he lacked nothing but immortality.”

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At the apex of his success, however, Louis XIV found the glory of his accomplishments undermined by a scandal of unprecedented proportions. The first macabre details of the Affair of the Poisons came to light in the fall of 1678, when Nicolas de la Reynie, the first lieutenant general of the Paris police, uncovered evidence that suggested the existence of a plot to poison the king. During his three-year investigation, La Reynie encountered a loosely knit community of magicians, sorceresses, and renegade priests who formed the nucleus of the criminal magical underworld of Paris. Their wares included magical remedies, love charms, and poisons known as “inheritance powders.” The inheritance powders, usually made from powdered toads steeped in arsenic, lent the Affair of the Poisons its name, and the purchasers of the powders gave the affair its notoriety, for the suspects arrested accused the king’s official mistress of having tried to poison her royal lover.

While La Reynie’s investigation concluded that Mme de Montespan had not attempted to poison the king, it did determine that she had done her utmost to increase her influence over him through magical means. She sprinkled a variety of love potions into his food and bolstered their efficacy with an assortment of aphrodisiacs. Furthermore, she commissioned a variety of magical rituals intended to vanquish her rivals for the king’s affections and to solidify her hold over him. The suspects in the affair even maintained that she had participated in a series of demonic conjurations known as amatory masses. Madame de Montespan’s sacrilegious activities were not unique; the scandal further revealed that a score of Louis’s courtiers had sought to further their political and amatory aspirations by purchasing magical ceremonies and love potions from denizens of the criminal underworld to gain advantage over their rivals.

Determined to eradicate what he termed “this miserable commerce in poisons,” Louis XIV appointed a special commission to try all suspects implicated in the affair and compelled duchesses and day laborers alike to present themselves before it. By the time the king dissolved the Chambre de l’Arsenal in 1682, its judges had investigated more than four hundred of his subjects. Louis XIV marked the close of the commission with a royal edict that restricted the sale of poisons and decriminalized witchcraft in France. All those alleging to perform “so-called acts of magic,” it declared, were simply frauds “who profane all that religion holds sacred.” The Sun King, in effect, forbade his subjects to believe in magic.

Drawing largely upon police and court records, memoirs, and private correspondence, this study explores the underside of Louis’s splendid century exposed by the Affair of the Poisons. Many scholars, leery perhaps of the sensationalist accounts that dominate the literature on the affair, have avoided the subject entirely. Most of those who have broached the topic, such as Georges Mongrédien and Jean-Christian Petitfils, have concentrated upon historical detective work, attempting to determine whether a plot to poison Louis XIV actually existed and the extent of Mme de Montespan’s participation in it—although as the king himself burned the documents that held the answers to this puzzle, the mystery is ultimately unsolvable. Historians of witchcraft have tended to regard the affair as significant primarily because it prompted the French crown to simultaneously decriminalize and deny the reality of witchcraft in the edict of 1682. This study argues, however, that the Affair of the Poisons opens a unique window into the social, cultural, and religious values of Louis XIV’s subjects. Moreover, the affair offers a singular opportunity to analyze the hidden forms of power which men and women of all social classes attempted to access in order to achieve their goals. While the exercise of state power during the ancien régime was quintessentially visible—ritually displayed through public ceremonies such as royal coronations, entrées, and funerals—the Affair of the Poisons exposes the simultaneous presence of otherwise invisible sources of power available to Louis XIV’s subjects: poison, magic, and the manipulation of sexual passions.

The public that so avidly followed the latest details of the Affair of the Poisons was an extensive one. While Louis and his ministers would have undoubtedly preferred that the entire affair remain secret, the sheer number of people arrested and the status of the most prominent suspects ensured that a wide audience took an ardent interest in the unfolding scandal. No official channels imparted news; the Mercure galant, a court circular, remained scrupulously silent on the subject and no factums, or trial briefs, of the secret trials were published. The majority of Parisians therefore relied upon hearsay and innuendo for the latest information. Those with court connections clearly stayed abreast of the latest gossip, as the letters of Mme de Sévigné and her cousin the comte de Bussy-Rabutin attest. Similarly, the correspondence of several ambassadors at Louis’s court indicates that they were able to report to their governments a considerable amount of well-informed gossip. Those without links to the court, however, were forced to rely upon the rumors circulating in the city, a form of communication more difficult to substantiate.

Word of mouth was not the only means by which Parisians learned about the magical activities of the “so-called sorceresses.” Six months after the first hint of the Affair of the Poisons electrified the city, the playwrights Jean Donneau de Visé and Thomas Corneille premiered La devineresse, ou les faux enchantements. Hundreds flocked to the theater to enjoy the spectacle of the quasi-fictional sorceress La Jobin and her partner peddling bogus charms for eternal youth, love magic, and séances with the devil to a collection of naive clients. The satire’s allusions to the events of the day were clear, and its “torn-from-the-headlines” approach proved wildly successful; La devineresse became the longest-running play in the history of Parisian theater. Those who did not attend the play could follow its plot by leafing through the engravings in the Almanach de la devineresse, circulated by the playwrights to advertise their new work.

The theater of ancien régime justice presented the crimes committed by the suspects of the Affair of the Poisons to a broader public still. People of all classes lined the thoroughfares of the city to watch those sentenced to death proceed from prison to the place de Grève. Nobles gathered at friends’ hôtels that lined the route; the less privileged crowded into the streets. Parisians heard the prisoners admit their guilt in amendes honorables, or public apologies made before the main portal of Notre-Dame, and in final confessions offered at the foot of the scaffold. Onlookers were further edified by a recital of the convicts’ crimes delivered immediately before they were put to death. At the execution of the notorious La Voisin, nearly the entire population of Paris formed the audience before which the French state performed its ritual of justice.

The judicial records of the Affair of the Poisons unveil the shared culture of magic and poison that permeated all levels of French society, connecting the lower classes to the very center of power, the court. However, the reliability of the testimony of the suspects, who confessed to a litany of crimes both magical and material in their efforts to please their interrogators, remains highly uncertain. Like the murderers’ pardon tales analyzed by Natalie Zemon Davis in Fiction in the Archives, the statements of the sorceresses, magicians, and renegade clerics of the Affair of the Poisons were carefully constructed to ring true. Rather than attempt to determine the validity of the suspects’ claims, this study seeks to establish the reasons their testimony seemed believable to the French public, La Reynie, Louis XIV’s judges, and the king himself.

The narrative fictions presented by the suspects indeed corresponded to the expectations of La Reynie and the judges of the Chambre de l’Arsenal, for the magistrates had ample reason to presume that a considerable percentage of the Parisian population, from the top to the bottom of the social scale, believed in the efficacy of magic. Louis’s court itself had its own resident fortune-teller, Primi Visconti, who offered predictions based upon his noble clients’ handwriting samples. Statements from letters written by court observers such as Mme de Sévigné indicate that the practice of visiting magicians and palm readers in the capital was commonplace. When questioned, artisans and aristocrats alike admitted that they had visited sorceresses to purchase innocuous items such as spells of love magic or charms to bring luck at cards or dice.

Physical evidence corroborates the clients’ testimony. The police inventories of the sorceresses’ merchandise list ingredients for magic charms and assorted poisons, as well as signed receipts from clients. The police also seized grimoires and other magic manuals owned by the sorceresses and renegade priests that contained recipes for various potions and instructions for conducting ceremonies of ritual magic. Although the confessions of the suspects were given under various forms of duress, such indubitable physical evidence convinced the judges that at least some of the suspects in the Affair of the Poisons were indeed practicing sorcery and peddling poisons, and at least some of the accused had been their clients.

But what of the testimony regarding the practice of demonic magic? The suspects clearly recognized that, like Scheherazade, their lives depended upon spinning out their tales, and their statements certainly became increasingly fantastic over the course of their imprisonment. But unlike the statements elicited under torture during the great witch hunts of the early modern period, Louis XIV’s sorceresses and magicians did not confess to—and tellingly, neither did their interrogators inquire about—the performance of any manifestly impossible activity. They did not purport to fly through the air on broomsticks, attend sabbats, copulate with devils, or worship Satan. Rather, they claimed to have practiced a traditional form of Christian magic that exploited the rituals and imagery of the Catholic Church. Their alleged magical activities had all the appearance of verisimilitude to the judges of the Chambre de l’Arsenal because the judges, as members of the Parlement of Paris, had long been accustomed to hearing similar confessions.

Moreover, the suspects’ belief in the existence of demons was licit, if their attempts to call up Satan’s minions were not—and at no time did they contend that any demons had actually manifested themselves as a result. The claims of the suspects that must have most strained the credulity of the judges, in fact, were not about the magical practices in which they professed to engage but about the clients for whom they professed to be working: Louis XIV’s courtiers.

The judges investigating the Affair of the Poisons did not inquire about manifestly impossible actions because they had long held that the performance of such magic could not be proved in a court of law. As the court of appeal for more than half the country, the Parisian Parlement (from whose ranks the judges of the Chambre de l’Arsenal were drawn) had not upheld a death sentence for witchcraft in more than fifty years. Scholars such as William Monter and Alfred Soman have demonstrated that the parlementaires of Paris became increasingly chary of upholding lower court convictions for witchcraft over the course of the seventeenth century. Magistrates at the appeals courts were reluctant to countenance procedural irregularities or the relaxation of legal standards of proof—the only methods by which someone accused of a manifestly impossible crime could be convicted—and many were progressively more doubtful about the reality of witchcraft as well.

If magistrates were less inclined to believe in magic over the course of the seventeenth century, the majority of ordinary Europeans were not. The Affair of the Poisons provides ample proof that the decriminalization of witchcraft in France in no way marked the end of belief in magic. Nor was belief in magic limited to the uneducated or underprivileged. That members of the popular classes, rural and urban alike, shared a general credulity regarding magic during the ancien régime is well documented; historians have found evidence that sorceresses and magicians continued to market their wares and services to an appreciative audience well into the twentieth century. That much of the criminal magical underworld enjoyed the patronage of a noble clientele may be a more surprising finding among those who would anticipate that the twin forces of Cartesian skepticism and mechanical philosophy would have eviscerated elite belief in magic by the time of the Affair of the Poisons. Certainly scholars have long argued that the early end of the witch trials in France (the last execution for witchcraft within the jurisdiction of the Parlement of Paris took place in 1625) was a result of skepticism on the part of magistrates at the French parlements. But the reluctance of parlementaires to try individuals for crimes of magic stemmed more from their growing conviction that such crimes were impossible to prove at law than from a belief that they were simply impossible. Refusal to try witches was in essence a premodern form of judicial activism; the parlementaires legislated de facto skepticism from the bench. As Alfred Soman has argued, “Witchcraft trials came to an early end in France not because people stopped believing in witches, but because the central authorities considered the trials scandalous and unbefitting the dignity of the king’s justice.” While some judges came to the conclusion that witchcraft was “not only unprovable but impossible” by the late seventeenth century, most of Louis XIV’s subjects continued to participate in a shared culture of magic.

Despite their professional skepticism, the magistrates of the Chambre de l’Arsenal continued to regard magical activities such as those perpetuated during the Affair of the Poisons as serious breaches of public order. Louis XIV and his judges deemed the members of the criminal magical underworld to be a threat to French society because they cheated the credulous, corrupted the faithful, and profaned religion. The city’s sorceresses and magicians were accounted guilty of sacrilege, impiety, and the misuse of holy things—all proscribed by the criminal code—for their spells and charms exploited a Christian magical tradition with deep roots in the Middle Ages. Because their transgressions placed the community at risk of divine retribution, they were condemned to suffer the most extreme forms of punishment inflicted during the old regime. The criminal prosecution of the members of the magical underworld of Paris is therefore best understood within the framework of a larger Catholic Reformation drive to ensure social order and enforce religious orthodoxy.

In addition to illuminating the magical practices and beliefs shared by Louis XIV’s subjects, the Affair of the Poisons serves to shed new light on the multiple ways in which power was exercised at Louis’s court. The court was the heart of the political system in seventeenth-century France, where Louis had succeeded in gathering the most powerful nobles in the country around his throne. Louis XIV’s court society has long been a subject of interest to scholars since the work of Norbert Elias, whose analysis of the sociopolitical significance of the ritual, etiquette, and structure of the court has shaped almost all subsequent studies of the institution. Elias argues that the king carefully distributed privileges and honors in order to keep the various factions in balance with one another. The court thus became, in the words of Roger Mettam, a “ritualized battlefield” where an intense struggle for power and prestige was enacted through etiquette and ceremony, intrigue and innuendo, as courtiers fought fiercely to increase their access to the king.

Most historians, however, have neglected to distinguish between the experiences of male and female aristocrats within the world of the court. Elias fails to consider the considerable role played by noblewomen except to note that “women, considered as social groups, have far greater power at court than any other formation in this society.” Jeroen Duindam similarly gives court women short shrift in his analyses of the French court, as does Jean-François Solnon in his latest work on the subject. This gap in the historiography represents a crucial oversight, for while Louis XIV’s attempt at domestication instituted a court society that restricted traditionally male forms of power, it proved to be highly responsive to the exercise of female influence. To ignore the central place of women at Louis XIV’s court is to fundamentally misapprehend its structure.

The literature on the political significance of the king’s body is of great use in conceptualizing the avenues open to women to exercise power at Louis XIV’s court. In seventeenth-century France, the concept of kingship was not just represented but was understood through the king’s body; the monarch therefore served as the literal embodiment of royal authority. While several historians (Ernst Kantorowicz, Ralph Giesey, Sarah Hanley, and Richard Jackson) have studied the ritual manifestations of this emphasis on the king’s sacralized body, few scholars have considered the king’s physical body as the locus of power and status at court. The advantage of an emphasis on the king’s body “in the flesh” is that it restores Louis’s maîtresses en titre to the central place they occupied in the world of the court. As a sexual relationship ensured the closest possible physical proximity to the king, a mistress’s intimate access to the monarch granted her a position atop the highest reaches of the court’s unofficial, or shadow, hierarchy. From her elevated position, she was able to exercise a prodigious amount of influence through the networks of patronage and brokerage at the court. The considerable rewards available to the woman who became Louis’s maîtresse en titre help to explain why a dozen of his female courtiers—including his most prominent and successful mistress—might turn to amatory magic in their quest to gain or retain power over the passions of the king.

Each chapter of this study explores an aspect of the exercise of power in seventeenth-century France. Through an analysis of the legal investigation into the Affair of the Poisons, the first chapter examines the dimensions and exercise of royal power within the judicial system of the ancien régime. It also explores the conflict between Louis XIV’s need for secrecy and his resolve to impart justice; while France’s most absolute monarch proved powerful enough to conceal the illicit activities of his mistress and courtiers, he could do so only at the expense of the courts. This chapter argues that the king’s decision to circumvent his own judicial system highlights some of the limits on royal absolutism that existed even at the very peak of his powers.

The following three chapters turn to the shared culture of poison and magic that connected the lower depths of society to the very center of state power, the court, and examine the ways in which Louis XIV’s subjects attempted to manipulate occult sources of power in order to achieve their goals. Chapter 2, “Medea and the Marquise: Understanding the Crime of Poison in Seventeenth-Century France,” argues that two main cultural scripts informed the way in which a learned seventeenth-century audience read the crime of poison: the myth of Medea and the legend of the marquise de Brinvilliers. While Medea had long served as the archetypal poisoner—a woman who acted out of vengeance toward a romantic rival—the 1676 case of the marquise de Brinvilliers demonstrated to French society that the female affinity for poison was not merely myth. Executed only three years before the Affair of the Poisons erupted, her crimes helped to cement in the minds of the French public the links between poison, adultery, and greed. The dangerous characteristics of both Medea and the marquise were therefore readily at hand to be mapped onto the women implicated in the Affair of the Poisons.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine the clients and magical practitioners of seventeenth-century Europe’s most sophisticated underworld. I argue here that the criminal magical underworld functioned as an illegitimate but influential source of power in seventeenth-century French society. The danger its members represented was compounded by their sinister alliances with Mme de Montespan and other aristocrats who had allegedly sought supernatural assistance to further their financial, political, or amatory aspirations. Chapter 3, “The Criminal Magical Underworld of Paris,” demonstrates that the practices of Paris’s sorceresses and magicians reflected the persistence of a Christian magical tradition dating to the early Middle Ages, and looks at the differences between men’s and women’s use of magic and poison. Chapter 4, “The Renegade Priests of Paris and the Amatory Mass,” turns to the rogue clerics whose illicit activities lay at the heart of the Affair of the Poisons. Situating the transgressions of the city’s magical practitioners and their priestly assistants in the highly religious atmosphere of Catholic Reformation France, this chapter explores their introduction of a deeply sacrilegious ritual and the challenges their activities posed to Catholic orthodoxy.

Finally, this study analyzes the ways in which male and female nobles were able to exercise power and influence at Louis’s court through their access to the physical body of the king. Chapter 5, “The Magic of Mistresses at the Court of Louis XIV,” contains an analysis of the two hierarchies that together determined the relative power and place accorded to Louis XIV’s courtiers. Furthermore, it seeks to explain why a score of noblewomen at court might commission rituals of love magic directed at the king: for Mme de Montespan, at least, the magic seemed to work.