Episode 96: Louis XIV’s Absolutism and the “Affair of the Poisons”

Host: Christopher Rose, Department of History
Guest: Julia Gossard, Assistant Professor of History, Utah State University

Satanic masses. Child sacrifice. Renegade priests who deal in love potions and black magics. And a secret tribunal set up to weed out the unholy members of nobility who use them, all desperate to get close to an asbolute monarch who keeps the entire nation under his thumb. It’s not the subject of Dan Brown’s latest book, it’s something that really happened in 17th century France at the court of Louis XIV, “The Sun King.”

Julia Gossard, an alumna of UT’s History Program, now an Assistant Professor of French History at Utah State University, has read through the archives of the secret court and walks us through the connections between Louis XIV’s absolutist rule and a fantastic series of events that’s become known as “The Affair of the Poisons.”

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So, set the stage for us. What is the “Affair of the Poisons”? And how does it fit in with Louis XIV and absolutism?

The Affair of the Poisons is a period right at the end of the 17th century when we have a great deal of fear and concern among both the monarchy and the nobility that people are using black magic, love potions and other sorts of occult magic in order to get ahead over one another. What we see that coinciding with is this idea that people are using that to advance their positions toward Louis XIV, to move up his bureaucracy in that way. Absolutism, poison and magic aren’t things that you normally hear together, but it’s a really important moment in the absolutist historiography that’s happening.

This does, however, seem to fit in with the theme of paranoia in politics, which has been a recurring theme throughout history.

Definitely. There’s a great deal of paranoia surrounding the nobility as well as Louis XIV himself over who is using these, who is making them, and what, exactly, they’re going to do with them. Part of this maneuvering among the nobility is deciding who has more power over someone else, who’s the most popular at court. Louis XIV created this whole system at Versailles where it mattered how close you were to him, so if you have people using love potions and black magic to get close to him, that’s a problem.

When Brian Levack came in, and he’s done a couple of episodes on the witchcraft phenomenon in medieval Europe, one of the things that he really emphasized was evidence vs rumor. So, the first question I have is whether there is any evidence that any of this happened, or was it all rumor?

Well, there was a huge secret trial that occurred, known as the Chambre Ardente, or the Burning Court, that was headed up by the head of Paris’s Secret Police from about 1670-1685. We have more than ten thousand records showing testimony from people who claim that they are the poisoners, the sellers of these potions, and others claiming that they got money from noble people to do this. When you look at the archives, sometimes you see bloodstained pages, sometimes you see notes that are written back and forth, so there was definitely this sale of black magic happening. Now, whether we believe that they were having masses where they conjured the Devil, well … I don’t know about that.

Catherine Monvoisin and the priest Étienne Guibourg are shown performing a black mass for Madame de Montespan (lying on the altar) in an 1895 engraving by Henry de Malvost.

Out of these ten thousand documents that you mentioned, are there any stories that stand out as really important?

Definitely. I can tell you a great one that was recounted by the abbé du Guibourg on October 10, 1680. He’s being question during this testimony for the twenty-seventh time regarding his involvement in black magic, satanic rituals, and poison making by a group of renegade clerics, magicians, and supposed sorcerers. He says that just after sunset in 1676 four cloaked figures stealthily entered the cellar of the Saint-Marcel church in the outskirts of Paris.  This was an interesting group of people: a young page, a young prostitute who had recently given birth to the feeble child she was cradling in her arms, and two elderly priests.

The page handed one of the elderly priests a lock of hair and a sealed note.  Written by the page’s mistress, the note contained a list of demands and promised the two priests each 50 pistoles immediately –this would have been a sizable amount — and 2,000 livres to be paid once there was evidence that this mass had occurred. Having found this payment more than satisfactory, one of the priests asked the page to be seated as the other priest laid the prostitute and her child to the church’s altar.

So, we have this imagery here, right? Of the Catholic alter that’s been draped in velvets, laying this naked prostitute down. And they decided to place a veil over her face and legs so that only her breasts and stomach were visible.  One of the priests then recited a traditional conjuration to the devil that asked for the mistress’s demands:

Oh Astaroth, Asmodée, most faithful princes of darkness, I conjure you here to accept this sacrifice I present to you of this child in return for the things that I ask of you for my client: the loyalty of her lover, and that nothing be denied to [her lover] of which [he] asks from the king…and that [she] may marry her lover upon the death of his wife. [1]

At the same time, the other priest dropped the lock of hair into a large chalice and balanced it on prostitute’s stomach.  He then held the baby above the woman’s stomach and pierced the child’s neck with a small penknife, draining the blood in the chalice.  After the recitation was over and the baby had died, the two priests decided to smear the blood on the note to show that this mass had occurred.

They then removed the baby’s entrails and other parts that would later be used to make love potions in that way.

Well, I can certainly think of nothing more that would put me in an amorous mood … [both laugh] This is a lot of detail. Having been through documents from this time, this is unusually detailed.

It is. And I think what’s really important about that is the fact that what the client is asking for, right? She asked for everything that her lover asked from the king be granted. And this is where absolutism starts to figure in. She’s obviously asking to be married to her lover once his wife dies, but she’s also asking for this rise in social status. So, we see this really coming up against that issue of absolutism and seeing how these people were part of a system that was heavily involved with Louis XIV.

Did we ever figure out who was the mistress involved?

I don’t know that the mistress was named, although he names lots of people in the court. I don’t know if this particular record names it, but he names Madame du Mantenant who was one of Louis XIV’s most prized lovers as being involved with this, so it was really a scandalous affair.

Louis XIV (1638-1715), by Hyacinthe Regaud (1701)

What you’re describing are people who are fairly affluent, powerful people who are going to–assuming that this is describing something that actually happened, which, is probably a big caveat–they’re going to some pretty lengthy extremes to get close to the monarch. Which leads me to wonder, what is this system you’re describing, this system of absolutism, and why were people so desperate to be in the inner circle?

Well, I think that we should back up and think about what absolutism is for a moment. When we think of absolutism, we normally associate this political theory with one kingdom–France–and one ruler–Louis XIV, or the Sun King, as probably a lot of people know him. This system, giving a workable definition, is just one in which the ruler–usually the monarch–gains control and rules individually. He does not rule with the assistance of an advisor or a council or a prime minister, he is the sole authority and head of state. Now, that means, if there’s just one person, he has to create a very lengthy bureaucracy, so Louis XIV’s bureaucracy is probably one of the most detailed, where he feels that he has to be involved at every level of government and have his agents of power at every level. We see him creating this large bureaucracy where nobles felt the need to work through the system in order to get taxes reduced, they had to be part of this bureaucracy, in order to get favorable titles, in order to make favorable marriage arrangements for their children in the future.

So, he really wasn’t kidding when he said “L’etat c’est moi” …

Non! L’etat c’est moi, “I am the state.” He truly believed that, that his power was synonymous with that of the state, and what he said went.

Apparently!

Yes.

It seems really extreme — I know that there’s quote where Louis said that he didn’t even want anyone else in the country to be able to sign a passport, which is such a micromanaging technique. So, was this really possible, that he could have this level of control?

Well, that’s the question up for debate among historians for the past thirty years. There is a thought among historians that’s been created by the very well respected professor William Beik called “provincial revisionism.” This argues that Louis XIV’s power wasn’t as absolute as we have made it out to be. In fact, his power didn’t really rest upon the subjugation of the nobility but instead on the cooperation and negotiation of Louis XIV with his nobility, especially in regional parliaments – so, those in Toulouse, or Marseilles, far from the king’s reach. He depended upon that nobility in order to support him, and they built up that bureaucracy. But he wasn’t the only one giving that direct authority, they had to work in cooperation with each other.

Now, this special commission of the Chambre Ardente in the Affair of the Poisons, though, presents a very interesting moment in absolutism where we have to question provincial revisionism itself.

Okay, how so?

Well, this is a very significant institution, when you look at it, that is an absolutist institution. Louis XIV decides to create this court himself, in secrecy, without using the authority of any noble member. And, he could bring in any noble person whom he believed was using the magic, buying the magic, or supporting any person who was making these magic potions against him. The records of the Chambre Ardente really display a vastly different picture of our statebuilding process. Even though all of the crimes held at the Chambre Ardente and heard could have been heard at the Parliament du Paris, which would have been the main court that was staffed with noble members, Louis XIV made a very conscious decision to circumnavigate this judicial process. Instead, he created this secret court. He really stripped the nobility that were brought before it of all of their privileges, all of their titles, and he really did this without any cooperation or asking the nobles to be able to do so.

He’s playing them off of each other.

Yes, exactly! So, it’s a way in which they are trying to defend themselves, create loyalty to the king, and also Louis XIV to say, “While you have this judicial system in the Parliament du Paris, and you have judicial processes, I am above the state in that way. I am above this judicial process, and I can strip you of those at any time necessary.” Given the fact, too, that most of these crimes were being committed in order to get close to him, that says something very important about the power that Louis XIV felt he had.

It strikes me that this would be both a very turbulent system and yet one that is very stable at the same time. Is that accurate?

In terms of the judicial system?

In terms of keeping the monarch at the top-

-yes-

-while everyone else around him is kept off balance.

Yeah, I mean, this is part of why he creates this extra judicial branch, right? He wants to make sure that these patronage systems, that the nobles themselves have created, where they make alliances with other noble families in order to best raise those noble families higher and higher are going to be eradicated. He’s saying that he is in charge of all of the decisions being made there.

Did you go through these records yourself?

I did, and they’re very easily accessible on Gallica, which is the digital collection of the Bibliothèque nationale du France. So, anybody can go through them. I think there are sixteen tomes of testimony records that you can see.

Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin was convicted for conjuring portions and arranging black masses. (Portrait by Antoine Coypel, 1680)

Wow, that’s incredible. What were the punishments for the charges that were actually filed? It sounds like, I have in my head something like the Spanish inquisition or the Salem Witch Trials, but I don’t want to make the assumption that that’s how it was.

It somewhat is, in many ways, that there is this investigator going out and trying to find any form of magic. So, most of the people who are questioned in the Chambre Ardente admitted to buying one or more of the following products:

  • a love potion
  • a poison to kill a rival
  • abortificants, to either use themselves or against someone else – so that says something about the possible use of infanticide as a political strategy
  • enchanted objects to control someone else, so talismans that had been blessed by, apparently, the Devil, or even good luck charms, so lots of rabbits feet, or different sorts of object that would provide luck in that way

People continually revealed in their testimony that their desire was to increase their social status, or to harm the social status of another. So, we see the way that the cult of personality that Louis XIV and this bureaucracy that he’s created mean the utmost importance to these people, that they would be willing to go against Catholic tradition as well as legal codes.

And France is very staunchly Catholic at this point. Louis had expelled the Huguenots; this is not a time to be messing around with black magic.

By no means whatsoever. This is a time when Louis XIV wants everyone to be as Catholic as possible. One of his titles is “the most Catholic monarch of Europe.”

What charges were brought? Were people punished? Were they sent to jail? Were they — burned at the stake?

There was no burning at the stake at this time, for these people, at least. So, that was sort of disappointing, actually, not to find in these records! You’d expect to find that more often, but unfortunately, you don’t. Really, the sentencing there seemed to be more indefinite imprisonment, fines, stripping these of their religious titles or orders, and really the evidence being used against them was so little that it really took torture to be able to get some of these confessions out of them.

Right, which of course, in the modern historical mind, raises the question of credibility.

Exactly.

 

[1] Translated from French.  Ravaisson-Mollien, François, ed.  Les archives de la Bastille: Documents inédits. Vol. 6.  Paris: A. Durand et Pedone-Lauriel, 1866-1904. October 10, 1680

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