The Affair Of The Poisons

The Affair Of The Poisons concerns itself with relating the details of a particularly interesting affair in France during the reign of Louis XIV. The details themselves are that initially, it was discovered that one noblewoman and her accomplice had poisoned and killed several individuals. This soon escalated when it emerged that several other members of the nobility had been in contact with the source of the poisons, and the King commissioned a special body to investigate the depth of the claims. Amid the accusations and discoveries made by the people initially accused and tortured, more and more members of the aristocracy and the King's court were implicated, some of whom did have murderous intent against spouses or rivals, but many more who were innocent such as the Marechal de Luxembourg and the King's mistress, M. de Montespan. Amidst the accusations of poisoning, a couple of conspiracies against the King were denounced, along with details of child sacrifice and Satanism. The extent of truth in these allegations is hard to tell, as there were several individuals such as the magician Lesage who gladly invented increasingly more lurid claims in order to avoid execution themselves.

I found this book very interesting. Anne Somerset paints a clear and interesting picture of many events pieced together from records and court accounts from the period. I had a further interest owing to the setting of the book, which involves many of the characters from the collection of books that Dumas wrote about the Three Musketeers and d'Artagnon entitled 10 Years After. Given the time period (1675-circa 1682) and the hysteria that the affair of the poisons created, it is easy to compare with another famous witch hunt of this era, the Salem witch hunts, as many claims were flimsy at best but all were investigated, with many innocent people either being sentenced or suffering slurs and stains upon their characters. The story itself reads like a Dumas novel in parts, especially concerning M. de Montespan and how close she came to being ruined, only for a hero to step in and save her (all whilst being completely unaware of the claims made against her). Perhaps people back then were more susceptible to hysteria (it has been documented, for instance, that between 1520 and 1630 in France there were 30,000 individuals labelled as werewolves); in any case, it is a fascinating story.

The author has made sure to include as many accounts from people existing at the time as possible. This has the benefit of including several interesting titbits and stories of the time, as well as attempting to show the story from all sides in order to find a balanced conclusion. Of the various morsels mentioned, the below were my favourites. They added a little wit and humour to the story, and as such I was happy to read them! Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who thinks that it may interest them, it is well written and entertaining, and an interesting account of a French scandal.

Within France there was a widely held preconception that the Italians were a devious and untrustworthy race who habitually despatched their enemies by covert means.

The King's sister-in-law, Elisabeth Charlotte, Duchesse d'Orleans complained in 1702 that 'the people stationed in the galleries in front of our room piss in all the corners. It is impossible to leave one's apartment without seeing someone pissing.'

The Duc de Saint-Simon described an occasion when the eccentric Bishop of Noyon was overcome by such 'a great desire to piss' as he passed the chapel at Versailles that he entered the King's tribune and urinated over the balustrade, splattering the floor below.

A correspondent of the Comte de Bussy reported that Mmes de Saulx and de Tremouille had caused outrage when the defecated in their box at the theatre 'and then, to remove the evil smell, threw everything into the pit'.

A novel entitled La France Devennue Italienne (sodomy was known as 'the Italian vice') satirised the court for being infested with homosexuality.

The Comte de Bussy commented that... he would remember the maxim that honourable people often had to go without shoes.

The Comte de Bussy observed, 'Wit is necessary to make love last.'

One of Louvois's agents surreptitiously released a horde of black cats into a church where Mme de Soissons was attending a service, provoking panic among the congregation that a witch was in their midst.

The Comte de Bussy was sure however that 'she has never poisoned anyone, unless it's with her breath'.

La Cheron had saved the day: she urinated in her shoe and persuaded la Montigny to drink the contents, causing her to vomit.

Two pet bears belonging to Mme de Montespan found the door open and 'avenged their mistress' by devastating the apartment.

Only the Marquis de La Riviere defended the Princesse on the grounds that she was so plain that she could not possibly have had a lover. 'I would never have suspected the Princesse de Tingry of gallantry.' he tittered. 'For me her face had guaranteed her reputation'. He added, 'If I had a mistress like her I would never have feared anyone other than blind men for my rivals.'

A priest named Pere Robert was said... to have supplied clients with pieces of rope retrieved from the neck of a hanged man, which he had blessed with a consecrated wafer. He claimed that whoever possessed a section of this rope 'would make himself loved by all women, would win at gambling... and would succeed in all affairs'.


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