Magic and Sacrilege in the Court of Louis XIV

 

Nicolas_Régnier_-_Cardsharps_and_Fortune_Teller_-_WGA19040

Nicolas Regnier, Card Sharps and Fortune Teller (1620)

The belief in magic plays a large part in The Long Way Home. Many of the strangest things that happen to the characters are based on fact. Although the book takes place at the dawn of the Enlightenment, superstition and belief in magic was still common and in some cases, all-consuming. Let’s take a closer look.

In spite of the devout Catholicism of Louis XIV’s court, many courtiers not only believed in but attempted to practice magic, often with the intent of harming others, and usually with the assistance of a sorceress or renegade priest. While the courtiers attending the king were expected to attend mass every day without fail, business in spells, poisons, and magic charms was booming.

The Affair of the Poisons uncovered a thriving underworld of sorceresses and magicians trading in everything from cosmetics, love charms, and divination to demon conjuration, poisons, and even human sacrifice. The more potent the charm, the higher the price, and there were a number of ordained priests who were willing to assist with the most dangerous and powerful tasks: the conjuring of demons.

Schongauer_Anthony

Conjuring Demons: Sure, you *might* bend them to your will…or this could happen. Martin Schongauer, The Temptation of St. Anthony (c. 1470)

At best, magic could be dismissed as superstition, or worse, the serious crime of sacrilege. Admittedly, demon conjuration, murder, and human sacrifice don’t sound particularly Christian to the modern reader. So why involve priests?

As Mollenauer explains in Strange Revelations:

“Paris’ magical underworld exploited the practices, imagery, and sacramental of the Catholic Church to increase the efficacy of their magic. The composition of their spells and charms illustrates that the distinction between superstition and orthodox Christian belief was still very blurred in seventeenth-century France. The simple spells known as oraisons found in La Voison’s grimoires, for example, were made up of a linguistic hodge-podge of Christian imagery, ‘debased’ holy languages (Latin, Greek, or Hebrew), and simply alliterative nonsense.”

By involving priests and Christian rituals and imagery, they attempted to harness the power of the Catholic mass to serve their own ends. It was the idea of the priest as an intercessory between God and laymen which gave Catholic priests their power and their elevated status. The superstition could not be denied without also denying the priest’s divine power, or that of the devil on the other hand.

One way to guarantee the efficacy of a potion or charm would be to have a priest say a mass over it. Although the Council of Trent had advised against superstition and divination in 1566, there were some priests who were willing to accept to the freelance work as compensation for a life of poverty. It was believed to be a sin not only to have one’s fortune told, but to even believe that such a thing was possible.

Still, magic flourished. Along with cosmetics, fortune tellers and some midwives sold cures for ailments from headaches to leprosy, charms for love, luck, or impossibly long lives.

Gambling was very popular, and charms to bring luck at the gaming tables were prohibitively expensive and difficult to come by. With the huge sums of money won and lost often over single hands, many thought the spiritual and legal risks were worth it.

The list of charms is not for the squeamish, however. The preserved cauls of infants were popular charms, as were tiny miscarried or stillborn fetuses. Many sorceresses worked as or with midwives, so these could always be obtained for a price. The most expensive of the money charms was the main de gloire, which involved sacrificing a particular kind of mare, skinning it, and preparing its hide in an elaborate fashion for several days, after which point it was said to transform into a live snake that could double almost any amount of money put into its box…as long as you slept with the box.

Love magic was more popular than money magic, and many spells and charms were sold to inspire love in others, or to help one to gain the approval of troublesome relatives. If these didn’t work to remove impediments to love, there was always poison.

Poison was sold by sorceresses, magicians, fortune tellers, and sometimes even midwives. It was alarmingly easy to obtain and more common than one would think. The sale of arsenic had not yet been limited to those professions requiring it, so anyone without fear or moral compass could mix “inheritance powder”. Although arsenic is strong enough to cause death or serious damage on its own, it was believed that magic gave it its lethal power, and so renegade priests were often involved directly or indirectly in its sale.

The Affair of the Poisons exposed the activities of Paris’ criminal underworld and resulted in the arrest, imprisonment, exile, or execution of hundreds of people from all levels of society, including some within the king’s inner circle. As a result, the sale of arsenic was restricted and superstition was forbidden by law, but fear of death by poison remained a serious concern throughout the Age of Enlightenment.

Jessica Cale

Sources

Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France.

Anne Somerset. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.

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The Affair of the Poisons

The Long Way Home is set in the court of Louis XIV at the beginning of the murder scandal that would become known as the Affair of the Poisons. Although this has become an overlooked corner of history, the revelations that arose from this scandal once caused terror throughout France and had serious consequences for hundreds of citizens from all walks of life. So what was it?

The Affair of the Poisons

The Affair of the Poisons was a major scandal that took place during the reign of Louis XIV in France between 1675 and 1682. Hundreds of people were accused of murder, conspiracy, and witchcraft, resulting in the imprisonment, torture, exile, or execution of more nearly three hundred people, many of them prominent members of society.

Brinvilliers

Madame de Brinvilliers

Madame de Brinvilliers

The Affair of the Poisons is generally considered to begin with the trial and subsequent execution of Madame de Brinvilliers in 1675-6. A wealthy and respectable woman, Brinvilliers was convicted of conspiring to poison her father and two brothers with hopes of inheriting their estates. This was no crime of passion, but a coldly calculated maneuver executed very slowly over the course of years. She went to trouble of installing her own servants in the homes of her father and brothers, and successfully poisoned all three relatives. She had also poisoned her husband and daughter, but gave them both antidotes in a fit of conscience.

This trial called attention to other mysterious deaths and raised fears across the kingdom. When an anonymous note detailing a plot to murder the king was found in a confession box in 1677, paranoia hit fever pitch.

The fears were well-founded. When Madame de La Grange was arrested in 1677 on murder charges, she appealed with information of other serious crimes, leading to the discovery of a vast network of people involved in poison, murder, witchcraft, infanticide, and even Satanism right under the King’s nose.

Investigation

Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, the chief of Paris police, followed the accusations to a number of fortune tellers, alchemists, and even renegade priests. If you’re thinking all this was over a little palm reading, think again. Fortune tellers and others were found to be selling poisons and other “remedies” door-to-door or even in shops along with cosmetics and household tonics (think evil Avon lady).

Catherine_Deshayes_(Monvoisin,_dite_«La_Voisin»)_1680

La Voisin

The most infamous of these was midwife Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, also known as La Voisin, who was arrested in 1679. Following her arrest, La Voisin implicated many of her clients who were prominent members of the aristocracy, including one of the king’s mistresses, Madame de Montespan, the Comtesse de Soissons, the Duchesse de Bouillon, and the Duke of Luxembourg.

Poison and Witchcraft

Although the poisons they were using were potent enough to do away with rivals without any help, it was believed that magic gave the poison its power. We’re not talking about a few little spells, here, either. The magic was believed to come from priests, and a number of unscrupulous priests accepted this kind of work on the side to supplement their clerical livings. For a fee, they would say mass over magic charms and even poison to infuse them with power, regardless of their intended use. If poison of charms made from holy oil or menstrual blood did not prove to be potent enough to achieve the person’s aims, there was also something called an Amatory Mass. What was that, exactly? You probably don’t want to know. If you’re at all squeamish, maybe skip the next paragraph.

black mass 1895

A depiction of La Voisin and the Etienne Guibourg performing a black mass for Madame de Montespan, 1895

At the height of the Affair of the Poisons, there were accusations that certain prominent members of the court, most notably the King’s longest-serving mistress and mother to seven of his children, Madame de Montespan, had employed corrupt priests to perform a ritual called an Amatory mass. While it was superficially similar to common Christian mass, it differed with a few key details. Said over the body of a naked woman (usually the person requesting the magic), it culminated in the sacrifice of a human infant. While the existence of these has not been conclusively proven, testimony of priests thought to be involved is eerily similar.

Aftermath

Marquise_de_Brinvilliers

The interrogation of Madame de Brinvilliers

The investigations into the Affair of the Poisons resulted in the imprisonment, torture, and interrogation of many people, as well as the execution of a further thirty-six. Following the execution of La Voisin in 1680, the king’s minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert helped to sweep things under the rug on the king’s instruction. His Chambre Ardente, a court established to judge cases of poisonings and witchcraft, was closed in 1682 on the king’s instruction because so many courtiers and those connected to them had been questioned and found guilty that he could not abide the scandal.

Some measures were taken to limit the availability of poisons after the scandal. In 1682, an edict proclaimed that anyone convicted of supplying poison, whether or not that supply resulted in death, would be sentenced to death. Alchemists found themselves under greater scrutiny because of the involvement of a small number of them in the formulation of the poisons, most notably Brinvilliers’ alchemist lover. The same edict restricted alchemy to that conducted with the protection of a permit. Further limits were placed on the sale of arsenic and mercury sublimate, so that they were no longer available to the general public, but only to professions that were deemed to require them.

The Long Way Home takes place in Versailles in 1677, just as the Affair of the Poisons is beginning in earnest. The court is plagued with mysterious deaths, the king fears for his life, and Alice quickly discovers that court is not as virtuous as it appears.

Sources
Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s France.
Anne Somerset. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.

Dining in the Court of Louis XIV

 

The court of Louis XIV was a vibrant and opulent place. The menus and dining habits of the King and court offer insight into the excesses that saw six of every ten francs collected in taxes spent at the enormous chateau of Versailles and its ten thousand inhabitants. The population of France at this time was approximately twenty million.

Versailles was more than a seat of government. As W.H. Lewis explains, “To the man or woman of ambition it was a lottery in which the prizes were dazzling, and in which few could resist the temptation to take a ticket.” Conducting oneself well and securing the King’s favor could result offices, property, influence, and connections. Though it could be prohibitively expensive to put on appearances as a courtier, many people thought it was worth the risk, and in any case, life at court was unlike anything else in the world.

Let’s take a look at the food:

Dinner

For most courtiers, dinner was eaten at eleven or twelve before attending the King’s dinner at one. In spite of appearances, many courtiers hoping to obtain the King’s favor were relatively poor, and were referred to in the slang of the time as cherchemidis, or seekers of free dinners. If they were not able to eat in town or at their patron’s table, they could dine with the five-hundred others reliant on the King’s generosity at the cuisine de commun, a special kitchen kept to feed them in Versailles.

At one, the King would eat au petit couvert, au grand couvert, or au public. Watching Louis dine au public was a popular pastime, and any well-dressed person could be admitted. They were not allowed to stare at the King, however, and were led through one door and out another, moving past the King’s table in an orderly queue. Louis rarely dined in public, and prefered to eat au petit couvert in the privacy of his rooms. Even in private, the ceremony was considerable. After they were tasted by the maitre d’hotel and the Equerry of the Kitchen, thirty or forty dishes were carried from the kitchen in the rue de la Surintendance across the street and through the palace to the King’s rooms with a formal entourage of more than a dozen people known as the cortege de la viande de Sa Majeste.

The King ate at a square table in his bedroom facing the window, and the food was kept warm over dishes filled with red embers. Never left alone, he might be joined by his brother, the Dauphin, bishops, or Princes of the Blood, but he was the only person allowed to sit.

Supper

The supper hour was ten o’clock, but the King usually ate much later. Supper was his favorite part of the day, and the court was awed by the amount of food he could eat. An average supper for the King might include four plates of soup, a pheasant, a partridge, ham, mutton, salad, pastry, fruit, and hard-boiled eggs. Although he retired to bed soon after supper, he would be met there with en cas de nuit, a snack meant to sustain him until morning. This would include two bottles of wine, water, three loaves of bread, and perhaps three cold dishes.

If you’re wondering how he managed it, it is worth noting that Louis never ate between meals. Unsurprisingly, his post mortem revealed his stomach was twice the size of an average man’s.

Supper for the privileged was no less grand. Whether dining at Versailles or in Paris, suppers consisted of three or four courses eaten with trenchers. Forks existed, but had not caught on yet, and their use depended upon breeding and company. They were commonly used in Paris, but shunned by the King, who preferred to eat with his fingers.

A sample supper menu from 1662:

1st Service
Centre Plate: Oille [a stew of spiced duck, partridges, pigeons, etc.]
Entrees: Partridge in cabbage: fillet of duck: galantine of chicken: fillet of beef with cucumber.
Hors d’oeuvre: Chickens cooked on hot embers.

2nd Service
Centre Plate: Quarter of veal.
Roasts: Two hens and four rabbits.
Hors d’oeurve: Two salads.

3rd Service
Centre Plate: Partridge pie.
Plats Moyens: Vegetables and fruits.
Hors d’oeuvre: Fried sheep’s testicles: slices of roast beef spread with kidneys, onions, and cheese.

Dessert
Pastry: strawberries and cream: hard-boiled eggs

Drinks might include red wine or liqueurs served after dessert. Rossolis was a liqueur made from brandy and spices, and Hippocras was a distillation of white wine, sugar, and spices scented with musk. Champagne was in development, but did not exist in its current form until the 1690s. Cider was common, but it was “thought by right-minded men to be God’s judgment on the Normans for their rascality.”

Oysters, salmon, and sardines were popular. One of the most popular dishes was potage. Typically a large dish of meat boiled with vegetables, potage was so loved that there were more than one hundred and fifty recipes for it at the time. In The Long Way Home, Alice and Jack are treated to a supper of Potage a la Jacobine, a thick stew of partridges and chickens served in almond sauce over a layer of cheese.

One of the most coveted foods at court was one we would least expect. When Alice arrives at Versailles, she is perplexed to find that everyone is obsessed with peas.

Tokarski_Still_life_with_peaAs Madame Maintenon writes from Marly in 1696:

“We are still on the chapter of peas. Impatience to eat them, the pleasure of having eaten them, and the anticipation of eating them again… Some women having supped, and supped well, at the King’s table, have peas waiting for them in their rooms to eat before going to bed.”

Green peas were an expensive luxury beloved by the court. In 1660, Louis XIV had a huge quantity brought to him from Italy, packed in roses to keep them fresh.

From coffee and pastry to peas and potage, you can read more about the food, dining habits, and etiquette of Louis’ court in The Long Way Home.

John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X

“I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty.” -John Singer Sargent


Portrait of Madame X is an oil portrait painted by John Singer Sargent for the Paris Salon of 1884. The model was Virginie Amelie Avegno Gautreau, an American socialite and “professional beauty” who epitomized the ideal of sophisticated feminine beauty prevalent at the time.
“…the unpaintable beauty and hopeless laziness of Madame Gautreau.”


Gautreau was a difficult model, and it took Sargent the better part of a year to complete the portrait. Nevertheless, it was received badly. In the original painting, Gautreau’s right strap hung off of her shoulder, and this was taken to indicate that the rumors of her infidelities were true. Furthermore, her pose was considered too suggestive for polite society. People were scandalized. Gautreau was humiliated, and her mother demanded it be withdrawn from the exhibition.

Disheartened by the poor reception of his work, Sargent moved to London permanently. He later repainted the offending shoulder strap to sit on her shoulder, and displayed it in other exhibitions. When he sold it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, he said it had been his best work. 

Gautreau recovered from her embarrassment and was later painted by Gustave Courtois and Antonio de La Gandara, and these portraits were received well. She preferred both.

If you’d like to read more on the subject, Gioia Diliberto’s I Am Madame X is a masterful novel drawing on what is known about Virginie Gautreau to create a fictionalized account of her life and the creation and fallout of this famous portrait. I’ve read it, and it was totally engrossing. Certain details have stuck with me now for years, particularly how Gautreau maintained her unusual lilac-tinged complexion. You’ll have trouble finding a better way to visit Belle Epoque Paris for the day. You can check it out here