Composer, Abolitionist, Hero: The Extraordinary Life of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Chevalier_de_Saint-Georges

The Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Mather Brown, 1787.

While you’re celebrating the holiday next week, have a drink for the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born Christmas Day, 1745.

Not only was he gorgeous enough to pull off that wig, he was also a champion fencer by the time he was twenty, a classical composer who inspired Mozart, Marie Antoinette’s personal music teacher, an active abolitionist, and (there’s an and!) he was the colonel of the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe.

So how did he achieve all of this? Well, it wasn’t easy. As a black man in eighteenth-century France, the odds were stacked against him. He was born Joseph Bologne in Guadaloupe to George Bologne de Saint-Georges and Anne Nanon, his sixteen-year-old Senegalese slave. George was married, but he loved Joseph and his mother, and he broke convention not only by acknowledging them, but providing for them. When Joseph was seven, George took him to France to be educated, and he brought Anne to France two years later. In France, Anne was free, and George set them up in an apartment in Saint-Germain.

As a teenager, Joseph drew attention for his extraordinary skill at fencing. While he was a popular student, not everyone was happy to see him succeed. He was mocked by Alexandre Picard, a fencing master from Rouen, which led to a public match between the two while Joseph was still a student. It drew a huge crowd as it was viewed as being about more than just the sport. The public was divided between people who were in favor of slavery and those vehemently against it. Never mind that it was a match between an adult professional and a child, it was held up as almost a demonstration about the validity of slavery.

Though he had significantly less experience, Joseph handily defeated Picard. It was quite an achievement, and it helped to push public opinion a little further in the right direction. Joseph’s father was so proud of his victory, he gave him a horse and buggy. Not long after, Joseph graduated from the fencing academy, becoming a chevalier. He took his father’s title and became the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

In addition to his considerable skill with a sword, Saint-Georges was an exceptionally talented musician. In 1769, he played violin in Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. He became a concert master within two years, and played his first solos by 1772. His performance was much remarked upon, especially among the ladies of Paris, who were particularly fond of the handsome chevalier. He was fond of them too; he had at least one serious romantic relationship, but French law prohibited interracial marriage, so Saint-Georges remained unmarried until his death.

When Gossec took a position at another orchestra in 1773, Saint-Georges took over as director, and under his leadership, Le Concert des Amateurs became one of the best in Europe. He was such a success that when his father died in 1774, Saint-Georges was able to support himself and his mother from his earnings, eventually tutoring and performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

By the mid-1780s, Philippe, duc d’Orléans became Saint-Georges’s patron, giving him an apartment in the Palais-Royal. It was with Philippe that Saint-Georges became involved with the abolitionist movement in France and England. When Philippe sent Saint-Georges—by then a celebrity—to England to secure the Prince of Wales’s support, his chief of staff, Brissot, privately asked Saint-Georges to meet with eminent abolitionists in England to ask for their advice on how to advance the movement in France.

Saint-Georges quickly became a court favorite in England, and the Prince of Wales had his portrait painted by Mather Brown in 1787 (above), which everyone agreed was an excellent likeness. While there, he met with abolitionists William Wilberforce, John Wilkes, and Reverend Thomas Clarkson. He spent the next two years between the two countries, continuing his work with the movement and having British abolitionist literature translated into French for the Société des amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), a group he co-founded with Brissot.

St Georges_from_London_Morning_PostIn 1789, the Morning Post published this cartoon, titled “St. George and the Dragon,” (right) with the dragon symbolizing the slave trade. Note the woman boxing in the background—that’s his friend, the Chevalière d’Eon, a French spy, diplomat, and transgender woman.

We’ll get there.

When the Revolution erupted, Saint-Georges sided with the revolutionaries, eventually becoming colonel of his own regiment, the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. It attracted volunteers from all over the country, including Thomas Alexandre Dumas, the legendary father of author Alexandre Dumas. Dumas took over from Saint-Georges when he was arrested and very nearly executed during the Terror. Saint-Georges was held for months without ever being accused of any crime, and though he was eventually released, he was unable to reclaim his position in the army.

While he was imprisoned, his mother passed away at the age of sixty. During the Terror, she had taken the name Citizen Anne Danneveau in an attempt to help Saint-Georges by concealing her own African origins. She had lived out her life as a free woman in Paris, and left all of her belongings to her son, who had remained close with her until the end.

Though it was nowhere near the end of the struggle for emancipation in France, Saint-Georges was able to see some progress before the end of his life. Slavery was abolished in French colonies by the National Convention on February 4th, 1794.

By the time he passed away of a bladder infection in 1799 at the age of fifty-three, Saint-Georges was a legend. US President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.” He had tutored a queen, founded a regiment, and furthered the abolitionist cause in England and France. In 2001, the Paris City Council named a street in his honor, the Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. He left behind an impressive body of classical composition that can still be heard today. Listen to it this week and remember the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

Banat, Gabriel. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow. (2006)

Bardin, Pierre. Joseph de Saint-George, Le Chevalier Noir. (2006)

Duchen, Jessica. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The Man Who Got Under Mozart’s Skin. The Independent, February 7th, 2016.

Garnier-Panafieu, Michelle. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. AfriClassical.com, January 1st, 2016.

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Making a Medieval Murderer: The Exoneration of Gilles de Rais

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Gilles de Rais. Éloi Firmin Féron, 1835. 

You may have heard the story of Bluebeard—a woman marries a wealthy nobleman with a string of wives who had died under mysterious circumstances only to find said deceased wives congealing in an armoire. It’s a tale as old as time…or something. Variations have been told over the years, and a few real-life murderers have taken inspiration from it. What you might not realize, however, is that the Bluebeard of legend is said to be based on a controversial historical figure—the infamous Gilles de Rais (1404-40).

As the story goes, Gilles de Rais’ crimes were unspeakable. Rather than murdering a series of wives, he was ultimately convicted of sexually assaulting and ritualistically murdering up to 150 boys in his descent into the occult. He was accused of heresy, alchemy, sodomy, sorcery, and murdering countless—and unidentified—women and children. You know, in addition to the 100, 150, or 600 boys, depending on who you ask.

His crimes were so horrific and almost cartoonishly exaggerated, you have to wonder if they were even possible. Where did he find the time, how did he get away with it for so long, and who would ever do such a thing?

What does the history say?

Gilles de Rais fought in the Hundred Years’ War, where he distinguished himself as a courageous fighter. He was given the honor of guarding Joan of Arc by the dauphin in 1429. As her personal bodyguard, he fought alongside her in many of the most significant battles of her life. He helped to life the Siege of Orléans and earned the position of Marshal of France, the country’s highest military distinction.

When Joan of Arc died in 1431, de Rais was devastated. She had been a dear friend to him, and he believed in her wholeheartedly. In his grief, he retired to his estate and threw himself into religion and the preservation of Joan’s memory. Although his estate was one of the richest in France, he burned through his money at an alarming rate, employing armies of servants and soldiers and commissioning works of music and literature in honor of her.

In 1433, he funded the construction of the Chapel of Holy Innocents. The chapel featured a boys’ choir personally chosen by de Rais, a fact that many have pointed to as an early hint of the alleged crimes to come, but this is consistent with the enthusiastic attention to detail he applied to all of his projects.

In 1435, he financed a play he wrote himself about the Siege of Orléans, and it almost bankrupted him. More than six hundred elaborate costumes were made for the 140 actors with speaking parts and 500 extras; each costume was worn only once, discarded, and sewn all over again for each performance. He also provided unlimited food and drink to all of the spectators in attendance.

The play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, marks another turning point in his life. Not only was it regarded as fiscally irresponsible, but it amounted to the unofficial canonization of a woman who had been burned as a heretic.

To hear many tell it, this is when his descent into the occult truly began, but the only evidence we have of anything even remotely related is his interest in alchemy, which he later confessed to publically. Crucially, alchemy itself was not a crime unless it was accomplished with the devil’s aid; de Rais had not attempted to invoke any demons, he’d only read a book. This was not enough to seize his estates, however, and a far more serious crime had to be invented.

He was arrested in 1440 after kidnapping a priest over a minor dispute. Up until 1789, torture was considered a valid way to extract reliable testimony in France, and it was under these circumstances that de Rais confessed. Although the confession read by clerics at his execution named unspeakable crimes in lurid detail, his actual private confession was no more than a short verbal agreement to the charge of dabbling in alchemy. He was simultaneously hanged and burned alive on October 26th, 1440 in Nantes.

By all accounts, de Rais was oddly calm as he faced an execution not unlike that of his beloved Joan of Arc, who he could not save in spite of his best efforts. After his death, he was hailed as model of penitence, and a three-day fast was observed in his honor. Bizarrely, until the mid-sixteenth century, the people of Nantes marked the anniversary of his execution by whipping their children.

Exoneration 

In 1992, biographer Gilbert Proteau argued that de Rais was innocent in Gilles de Rais ou la Gueule de Loup and called for a retrial.

Proteau was not the first to notice the evidence against de Rais didn’t hold up. As early as 1443, there had been attempts to clear his name. While the evidence of his guilt was mainly limited to rumors, questionable witness testimonies, and the confession extracted under torture, there was one very good reason to want de Rais out of the way.

At one point, de Rais was the wealthiest man in Europe. His wealth has been used to explain his alleged corruption, but it is also a pretty convincing motive. His eccentricity and tendency to hemorrhage money after Joan’s death had caused a serious rift between him and the rest of his family. In 1435, his family petitioned the king to prevent de Rais from selling any more property. Charles VII agreed and issued an edict for de Rais to cease selling property and forbidding any of his subjects to enter into any contract with him. As far as they were concerned, de Rais was running the estate into the ground, and they wanted to keep it intact.

De Rais was not accused of murder until after a dispute with the church of Saint-Etienne-de-Mer-Morte in 1440, which resulted in him kidnapping a priest. Only after he had angered the church was there any investigation, and just two months after the kidnapping, the Bishop of Nantes presented witness testimony accusing de Rais of murder, sodomy, and heresy. Servants claiming to be de Rais’s accomplices testified against him, but no bodies, bones, or other physical evidence was ever found. Crucially, he was prosecuted by the Duke of Brittany, who received all of de Rais’ lands and titles after his death.

Centuries after his torture and execution, the Court of Cassation heard the appeal and fully exonerated de Rais in 1992. Although many French historians have long since accepted his innocence, many English-speaking historians persist in arguing for his guilt.

Fortunately, the movement to clear his name has been steadily picking up momentum, and many of the sources are available online. Since 2010, de Rais’ biographer Margot Juby has been making the case for de Rais in English through the website Gilles de Rais Was Innocent, providing almost a decade’s worth of evidence that the allegations against him were fabricated.

We were delighted to sit down with Juby for a closer look at the facts.

A Conversation with Margot Juby

DSH: We have been given two very different impressions of Gilles de Rais–on one hand, he’s this incredible war hero who fought with Joan of Arc, and on the other, he’s seen as this unspeakably horrible murderer–what do you think he was really like after Joan’s death? How did it affect him?

MJ: Most versions of Gilles’ life offer a very muddled account of his military career. They gloss over it and some even dismiss his heroism as an exaggeration. Too much is known about his part in the siege of Orléans and other battles for this to be viable. He was put in charge of protecting Jehanne, apparently at her own request, and came to her rescue at least twice when she was injured. He was also rewarded by the king for his bravery on several occasions, not least when he was made a Marshal of France at the age of 24. At the same time, he was given the highly unusual honour of a border of fleurs de lys (the royal emblem) on his coat of arms. This distinction was more often given to an exceptionally loyal town than an individual, and he shared it only with Jehanne and none of the other captains. Contemporary chroniclers all agree that he was the preeminent captain of Orléans and the Loire campaign; it was only later writers, after his death, who tried to play down his role.

When Jehanne was on trial for her life in Rouen, Gilles was just across the river in Louviers with an army and in the company of another of her captains, La Hire. Biographers try to explain his presence in occupied Normandy, far from his nearest estate, as some whimsical expedition to buy a horse, which is ludicrous. It is obvious that some rescue attempt was planned; the English knew it and threatened to throw their captive into the river if such an attempt was made. As we know, the plan failed and Jehanne was burned.

We can only guess how Gilles felt. The official story is that he had no particular feelings for Jehanne and yet, paradoxically, was so emotionally shattered by her death that he turned to diabolism and murder. Almost all accounts of his life are reduced to such paradoxes, because the two halves of his life simply do not fit.

After her death, his life fragments. There are plenty of events, but they lack coherence. He still maintains some interest in military matters, but he is no longer really a soldier. He dabbles in theatre, in the Church, and even in alchemy, at least according to his one confession that was not extracted by the threat of torture. He signs bizarre documents, seems to be afraid that his family is plotting his death, disinherits his daughter, compulsively sells properties to meet expenses that are not fully explained. And he constantly gravitates to Orléans, where he was happy and loved.

In 1435, to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the liberation of Orléans, Gilles paid for an elaborate mystery play, Le Mystère du Siège d’Orléans, to be performed, not just once but repeatedly, over a period of some months. Biographers are puzzled and disturbed by this and cannot work out what it might mean. Was it “discreet propaganda” (Jacques Heers) or “a cry of bruised love” (Gilbert Prouteau)? Whatever it was, it indicated that Jehanne had mattered immensely in his life. It was also a huge political error. It was virtually an unofficial canonisation of an executed heretic. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that it marks the moment when his family turned against him, and his enemies, some he thought of as his friends, started to plot his downfall.

DSH: What do you think are the most compelling pieces of evidence that Gilles de Rais was innocent?

MJ: What to choose? The case for his innocence is based on countless small details, which build up into an unanswerable refutation of the case for the prosecution. In fact, the evidence presented in court is so feeble that, properly examined, it is the strongest argument for the innocence of Gilles and his fellow accused. It was some 550 years before the first serious attempt at a biography was written, by the Abbé Bossard. The records of the trial were written in manuscript, in Latin and Old French, and there is no sign that anybody looked at them closely apart from René Mauldes, who transcribed them for Bossard. His is a redacted version, since he felt unable to write the sexual details even in the original languages (he had no such problem with the slaughter). Very few biographers since show any sign of having done more than glance at the records, if that. They have built up a cast-iron case, built on lies and half-truths.

The traditional version of the story is that hundreds of children disappeared and were attested to in court by their grieving parents. Gilles and his entourage would pass through a village and leave at least one bereft family in his wake. Charge 15 of the Articles of Accusation is quite explicit: “For the past fourteen years, every year, every month, every day, every night and every hour, [Gilles] took, killed, cut the throats of many children, boys and girls…”

Yet there are accounts of only forty or so missing boys, and only a dozen are given a full name. The rest have only a family name and sometimes an age. Several are simply “unknown boy”–there are no girls listed. Apparently there were no known victims between 1434 and 1436, and only one in 1437. Although many people testify in court, few are related to the supposed victims; the crowds of weeping mothers simply did not exist. The complainants allude to the fate of the disappeared children, which they could not possibly have known about. Where several complainants attest to the loss of a child, serious discrepancies appear–this is particularly true of the Hubert and Darel boys. On one occasion, Gilles appears to be in two places at once. Some cases are mere anecdotes–in one case, a man seen looking for his son. All this evidence is hearsay.

Moreover, the links between these disappearances and Gilles or his men are weak. Several take place in parts of the country which he was not known to frequent–a whole string of boys go missing in Machecoul while he is living at Tiffauges. To make up for this problem, we are told that several old women–among them the infamous Perrine Martin, La Meffraye (the Terror), and Tiphaine Branchu–scoured the countryside for handsome boys. These ladies were caught and imprisoned, but we do not have their evidence and we have no idea of their fate, although they apparently confessed and their confessions were conveniently made known to some of the complainants. Unfortunately, nobody told Poitou and Henriet, the only eye witnesses, or Gilles himself; they mention no female procurers.

It is fairly well known that the evidence of Poitou and Henriet shows clear signs of having been extracted by torture. What is less often noticed is that Gilles himself was almost certainly tortured–he was promised that, in return for a confession, his torture would be deferred till the next day, not that it would be waived. Unusually, the next day’s hearing took place in the evening rather than the morning, allowing time for the torture to be applied.

This is merely an indication of how biographers have cherry-picked the evidence to make a coherent narrative out of what is, in fact, a messy and contradictory tangle of hearsay and forced confessions. There is much, much more.

DSH: Although he was fully exonerated in 1992, why do you think so many English-speaking historians and biographers persist in believing he was guilty?

MJ: Several reasons. First, plain bad timing. News travels fast now, but back then there was no internet to spread it. Second, all the documentation was in French, and English-language newspapers only printed short, whimsical accounts. It was a nine-day wonder. It is actually more difficult to find out what happened in 1992 than to tease out the details of early 15th century events, and that, believe me, is difficult enough. You would think that, as the prime mover of the retrial, Gilbert Prouteau would have put all the salient facts in his book. You would be wrong.

Prouteau himself, excellent PR man though he was, is part of the reason the retrial is regarded with some suspicion. He was a naughty boy, and wrote a confusing and occasionally dishonest book. The first time I read it–in French, having naïvely waited some twenty years for somebody to publish it in translation–I was mystified. He wrote a novel, quite overtly, and tagged an account of a preliminary hearing (not the trial itself, which had not yet happened) onto the end. The novel section aped all the errors in the “magisterial” tome by Gilles’ first biographer, the Abbé Bossard, and that was clearly deliberate. Prouteau had done no original research, and the evidence presented in court was taken from the writings of earlier authors, such as Salomon Reinach and Fernand Fleuret. This was well and good, but certain elements from Prouteau’s fiction also crept into the peroration delivered in court. This is worrying, though I feel that behind his obvious mischievousness, he was perfectly sincere in his belief that Gilles de Rais was wrongfully convicted.

The retrial itself was not, as it is often claimed, an official process and the verdict carried no weight in French law. At the time, those who had spoken up in Gilles’ defence had planned to ask for the support of French President François Mitterand to look into the matter and formalise the rehabilitation. As far as I am aware, this was never done.

One final reason why many people refuse to accept that Gilles de Rais was neither a murderer nor Bluebeard: human beings hate to lose their villains. As seen by posterity, Gilles is the perfect model of a villain and his story is packed with excitement–black magic, murder, sexual depravity to rival the Caesars. Who would want to give that up to hear about politics and property transactions?

DSH: What do you make of his confession? Torture was clearly a factor. Do you think this was a case where he would agree to any ideas they suggested, or was it a total fabrication? The things he supposedly confessed to are so outrageously horrible, it would be difficult to dream them up, let alone actually do them. I keep thinking about it and wondering how they got there. It makes me think of the penitential literature of the period–a lot of the things people could confess weren’t things people actually did, they were just these lurid fantasies thought up by bored monks.

MJ: When we talk about a “confession” now, we mean something fairly spontaneous and given in the accused person’s own words. Even those can be suspect if the accused has been subjected to intense interrogation. In 1440, it was very different. This is what Professor Thomas Fudgé wrote in his 2017 book, Medieval Religion and its Anxieties: History and Mystery in the Other Middle Ages:

“Confessions in many inquisitorial proceedings relating to heresy or witchcraft are remarkably similar in many parts of Europe. This may be attributed to the nature and standardized questions asked of the defendant or deponent. Leading questions were often asked. In many records there are no specific answers provided, only the single word affirmat meaning the witness has affirmed the point in question. Sometimes a statement of confession written in the first person would be drawn up by the court, which the accused or deponent would be compelled to sign or otherwise affirm.”

Lazy writers will say that Gilles de Rais made two confessions before the ecclesiastical court. The first, made privately in his own quarters, is preceded by the Inquisition rubric that it had been delivered “voluntarily, freely, and without any coercion whatsoever.” We know exactly what this assurance is worth, since he confessed only under the immediate threat of torture. It is short, has little detail, and does not mention murder.

The public one, made in court some thirty-six hours later, is the one usually quoted from, as it is longer, far more circumstantial, and has all the gory details. However, there was an earlier confession, not produced by threats (as far as we know) in which Gilles accepted the truth of the earlier heads of the Acts of Accusation (1-11 and 14, interestingly omitting the two articles that dealt with the qualifications of the Inquisitor Jean Blouyn). This meant he really confessed to nothing, since the accusations only started at Article 15. He did go on to admit–aloud, in public–that he read a book about alchemy and evocations that he obtained in Angers, and that he practised alchemy, though he specifically denied dealing with demons. Now, alchemy was perfectly legal and considered to be a suitable hobby for wealthy men; at least one Pope had written a treatise on it. It only became illegal if the Devil’s aid was invoked, which Gilles denied, or if it was the low form known as arquémie, in which the alchemist attempted to turn base metals to gold. This was clearly what Gilles meant. It was a minor offence, akin to forgery. It was not sufficient to get Gilles executed and his property confiscated; more was required.

The other two confessions bear a marked resemblance to those of his valets, Poitou and Henriet. Their confessions were certainly produced under torture and seem to be textbook examples of the leading question followed by affirmation technique of interrogation. It is their testimony that is most often cherry-picked in accounts of the trial; Gilles’ account usually seems confused and lacking in detail, whether the subject is murder or evoking demons. In between the first, private confession and the second, in court, it is certain that torture was applied. He had been promised, in return for confessing, that the torture would be deferred, but not that it would be waived altogether. The second confession was delivered in an evening session; all the others except one, after the interrogation of his friends, had taken place in the morning. It is usually claimed that he confessed at the mere threat of torture, and implied that he was a coward, but this is based on skim-reading the documents.

The confessions themselves are riddled with inconsistencies. It is not even possible to determine exactly what form of sexual assault is described; the accounts given before the ecclesiastical court differ from those given before the civil court. The only eye witnesses, Gilles himself and his two friends, contradict themselves and each other at every turn, and state impossibilities as facts. All the bodies were burned to ashes (a thing that would have been impossible without leaving visible remains). Except, that is for the eighty that were left lying around for several years, unnoticed, and had to be burned in two batches, in mid-summer, without attracting attention. Some of the other cremations took place in a manor house in Nantes with the Duke’s castle at one end of the street & the Bishop’s palace at the other. Or were the bodies taken to Machecoul for burning? The accused men do not agree.

From The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais:

“Gilles is a serial killer without any discernible modus operandi. The children are killed in a number of different ways, sometimes by Gilles himself and sometimes by his henchmen. This is not wholly impossible, but it adds an air of improbability, as if a number of possible tableaux was being presented for the delectation of a shocked audience. Interrogated as to who killed them, [Poitou] responded that occasionally the said Gilles, the accused, killed them by his own hand, occasionally he had them killed by the said Sillé or Henriet or him, the witness, or by anyone among them, together or separately. Interrogated as to the manner, he responded: sometimes beheading or decapitating them, sometimes cutting their throats, sometimes dismembering them, and sometimes breaking their necks with a cudgel: and that there was a sword dedicated to their execution, commonly called a braquemard.”

All of the more lurid parts of these confessions, including the murders as well as the sexual assaults, are related with a detail and a relish that suggest the imaginings of a few frustrated and unworldly celibates vying with each other to appal. The charges are generic: Gilles de Rais was accused of the same crimes that all outsiders were charged with. Witches, Gypsies, Jews, heretics, the Knights Templar…all faced accusations of sodomy, child abduction, murder, dealings with the Devil. All except Gilles de Rais are now almost universally seen as innocent victims.

DSH: If you could tell the people reading this one thing, what would it be?

MJ: Believe nothing you read about Gilles de Rais. The internet thrives on copypasta, and the “facts” that you read will have been taken from unreliable sources, quite probably from fiction. I have seen Gilles described as “Joan of Arc’s serial killer brother” and read descriptions of sexual acts that even his judges never thought to invent. Biographies are not much better, since very few are based on original research. All rely heavily on his original biographer, Bossard, who was not a historian. He took many of his so-called facts from an utterly bogus version of the trial record written in the late 19th century by a sensationalist author called Paul Lacroix.

Much of what we think we know about Gilles was invented by Lacroix, parroted by Bossard, and passed on to other biographers in a process of Chinese whispers. The illustrated Suetonius that supposedly gave Gilles the inspiration for his crimes? Lacroix invented it. The Bishop rising up and veiling the crucifix at the most horrific moment of Gilles’ confession? Lacroix originally, elaborated and improved upon by the Decadent author J-K Huysmans in his novel Là-Bas. Biographies of Gilles de Rais are largely fictional.

Jessica Cale

Margot Juby is a writer and biographer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. She studied English at Hull, where, as poet Philip Larkin remarked to her some time later, she “got a First and (did) bugger all ever since.” Well, not quite bugger all. After years writing poetry, she decided to revisit a biography on Gilles de Rais she had questioned in school, and hasn’t stopped reading the sources since. Her upcoming book, The Martyrdom of Gilles de Rais, is a labor of love nearly a decade in the making. You can visit her at http://www.gillesderaiswasinnocent.blogspot.com.

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.

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