Right now, most of us are stuck indoors waiting for the world to calm down. Or maybe we are frantically running amok buying out all the toilet paper for some reason. Either way, it’s likely that we’re all feeling a little bit of panic right now over whether or not we (or someone we love) will catch viral plague. Or perhaps we’re even worried over the thought of not being able to properly wipe our bums. The world has experienced many bouts of mass hysteria in its numerous cycles around the sun. Choosing just one to write about while I sit at home waiting to play Animal Crossing and trying not to think about if Idris Elba is okay is no small feat. I figure, why not go with one that is least likely to repeat itself as an epidemic event on a global scale in present day? Unless you think we are at risk for regicide conspiracies, cult black masses, conniving leagues of witches, and a whole lot of poison–then maybe close your browser and find something else to distract yourself with because the notoriety of the famous French witch La Voisin might be even more panic inducing for you.
The year is 1675 and France is currently experiencing something of a Golden Age under the reign of King Louis XIV, also appropriately known as ‘The Sun King’. Since becoming the monarch of France at the extremely concerning age of 4, Louis oversaw the construction of the Palace of Versailles, established absolute rule for himself and the monarchy, and ensured France’s place on the world stage as a global superpower. Proving the counter-argument to the claim of any moron who only knows about the World Wars and believes that France always loses–under King Louis XIV, France truly was (and still is) awesome. But Louis XIV had been king for a long time at this point, and imbibing the kind of lavish, self-idolatry lifestyle he was used to his entire reign turned Louis into something of a philandering dirt-bag. We all know the type.
So, while King Louis XIV was likely fooling around with courtesans and shut in at his Palace of Versailles, a few years earlier a woman by the name of Madame de Brinvilliers was put on trial for conspiring with her lover to kill her father and brothers by poison so that she could secure the inheritance of her family’s estate. Aside from that ingenious plan, she also apparently went around hospitals poisoning poor people for fun because she was just that kind of twisted. Needless to say, since the advent of poisoning husbands was perfected as a science thanks to Giulia Tofana and now the infamy of the Brinvilliers case –all kinds of men (and poor people, I guess) were terrified of being poisoned for money or power. Including the King. Years prior, his cousin (and sister-in-law) Henrietta of England died at the age of 26 under mysterious circumstances, having complained about stomach pain and experiencing digestive problems–she drank a glass of chicory water and screamed in agony, declaring that she had been poisoned before kicking the bucket. And as the public rioted and panicked over the increase in these poisoning plots–other rumors of witches abducting children to be used in black masses arose. This wasn’t the Middle Ages hot off the publication of Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 and battling the Black Death a century prior, but the serious concern of an insurgency of devil worshiping witches hellbent on corrupting the world still provided a nice, toasty crust of genuine worry on the sandwich of mass hysteria in the 17th century. Whatever your beliefs about the witchcraft craze, and I certainly fall on the side of it being mostly a case of widespread misogyny myself–King Louis XIV was deeply troubled by the possibility of rampant witches and poisoners (especially in his court, recent deaths all the more suspicious now) and ordered an immediate investigation by the Parisian Police.
A ‘Black Mass’ is just a Catholic mass inverted. Typically Satanic, but not always, black masses are meant to mock/desecrate Catholicism and can be as simple as using a consecrated Eucharist in obscene ways, like rubbing on parts of the body that would make the Virgin Mary blush. Some of these parody masses were innocent enough, like the Feast of Fools, but for a more contextual vision of an evil ritual administered by witches please see the ending of the film Suspiria.
A decade prior, Catherine Montvoisin or La Voisin as she came to be known, found herself confronted by a jury of professors at Sorbonne University where she was questioned on the validity of her practice in divination as a fortune-teller. She won. La Voisin had begun her business after her worthless husband’s career as a jeweler and silk merchant went completely bust. She was forced to come up with some way to support her husband, children, AND her mother all by herself. At first, she started offering up her services in palm readings and then also in mid-wifery helping with childbirth (or abortions). Her reputation in both services surged and she collected many clients. When she started to notice similar patterns in desires and wishes from the people she saw, she realized there was another opportunity to cash in. Most of her clients came to her with three things–wanting someone (in particular, usually) to fall in love with them, a family member to die off so they could inherit, or a husband to keel off so they could remarry.
“Paris is full of this kind of thing and there is an infinite number of people engaged in this evil trade.” – La Voisin, as quoted over a drink with her interrogators.
La Voisin started devising ways to sell products to her clients in order to aid them in these desires. At first, innocently enough, she would tell them these dreams would come true if God willed it and that if they visited church, prayed to saints, or purchased a special amulet from her, their wish was likely to happen. Eventually over the years, her services escalated to selling ritual mass, aphrodisiacs or love potions, and poisons to get the job done. Some of her more generous services also included lotions meant to make skin beautiful and spells chanted to increase boob sizes. So, basically, La Voisin was the 17th century successful version of a modern ‘make your penis bigger’ spam email.
La Voisin’s famed Love Potion recipe supposedly included powder from the bones of toads, mole teeth, spanish flies, iron filings, human blood, mummy powder, and dust of human remains among other things…
It would seem like La Voisin was a piece of work, as we imagine all witches cackling into their brews to be. But her fame and notoriety brought her an amount of prestige that became an invitation to join the upper echelons of Parisian elite. She was known to have many of them as her clients and would entertain them in her lavish garden at night with violin music. Sure, she was a bit of an alcoholic but she was living it up–and also particularly with a retinue of gentlemen callers which included an executioner, a Vicomte, an alchemist, an architect, and a magician that was eagerly obsessed with her and wanted to off her husband so he could get even closer. All the while, La Voisin also kept up the habit of regularly attending church. So, she probably resembled more of a Disney Villainess in swagger alone.
It was precisely this reputation which brought La Voisin perhaps her most controversial client yet–King Louis XIV’s future mistress Madame de Montespan.
Already floating about Louis XIV’s court with the intention of unseating his current mistress, Louise de La Valliere, Madame de Montespan was having trouble securing the King’s exclusive affection. So she sought out the services of famed La Voisin to help. With the goal in mind of winning the King’s love, Montespan allegedly partook in a black mass arranged by La Voisin and her associates where it was said that Madame de Montespan was the naked alter piece herself in which the ritual took place. Then, she was given La Voisin’s love potion concoction which she used to slip into King Louis’ wine and food when they met together for meals. Either Montespan dazzled the king with her award winning charm or the black magic did the trick, but she soon became King Louis’ maitresse-en-titre or official mistress. Montespan was so pleased with La Voisin’s services in this regard that she continued to employ her for years after with any relationship issues she would inevitably encounter with the King. When Louis’ wandering eye sought the comforts of another consort, Montespan would have La Voisin mix her another love potion to keep the King’s favor.
However, by 1677, Madame de Montespan realized that tactic wasn’t enough to keep the King from sleeping around–so she went with the oldie but goodie threat of murder if he ever so much as thought of leaving her. King Louis XIV’s dick shrugged off this threat, however, and entered into a relationship with Angelique de Fontages in 1679.
Madame de Montespan was furious and apparently fully intent on keeping her promise to murder the King for his senseless debauchery when it no longer favored her. She approached La Voisin with the proposition of killing the King of France for his insolence, to which La Voisin supposedly hesitated on accepting–was quite a big job, after-all. And not many were all that successful in king killing outside of an episode of Game of Thrones. La Voisin was eventually convinced and took the conspiracy to her friend and colleague Catherine Trianon. A group was formed consisting of the two witches and two men who all agreed, despite any misgivings from those who insisted they had a Han Solo-esque ‘very bad feeling about this’, that the plan would be to administer poison to the King. They agreed that the best way to do this would be to poison a petition and hand deliver it to the King who would come in contact with the murder weapon by holding it in his own hands.
And so on March 5th, 1679, La Voisin went to the royal court of King Louis XIV in saint-Germain to deliver the homicidal petition herself in person. Unfortunately, the conspirators had not planned for the likely occurrence of the King canceling a number of the petitions because there were too many already and would have likely preferred to spend his time elsewhere (probably with Angelique de Fontages). La Voisin wasn’t disheartened by this change in events. She gave the petition to her daughter to burn, as it was incriminating evidence of their conspiracy, and decided that she would meet up with Catherine Trianon tomorrow to figure out a new plan.
She never made it that far.
Remember that investigation King Louis XIV had ordered to uncover the secret cult of withcraft working undetected in Paris? The police force had been working tirelessly to apprehend any accused of witchcraft and, in doing so, had discovered a network of witches that had been operating like a criminal enterprise. Under torture, they had picked up a slew of fortune-tellers, alchemists, and others by name. Witches were telling on other witches and the threads seemed to point to all corners of Paris. And some were even stupid enough to declare their business openly at parties like La Voisin’s arch nemesis Marie Bosse did. Drunkenly, she told anyone who would listen that she was so rich from selling poisons to the French elite that she could retire. It didn’t take long for the Parisian Police to haul Marie Bosse in for questioning, and she took a particular satisfaction in naming her enemy and associating La Voisin with all kinds of evil magic and crimes including accusing her of aborting fetuses and sacrificing them in rituals. It was also Marie Bosse who gave the police force the solid tip of a ring of poisoners existing in Paris. Thanks to Marie Bosse, La Voisin was arrested after attending mass before she could meet with Catherine Trianon to devise a plan B to assassinate the King.
Funnily enough, even though the police force was grateful to apprehend the most notorious poisoner and practitioner of witchcraft in Paris at the time, they were also a bit terrified to interrogate her. It seemed more to do with her ability to incriminate much of French high society with her association, however, rather than any real fear of black magic retaliation. They were under orders not to subject her to torture and instead, knowing her propensity to getting drunk, plied her with alcohol to get her to confess to her crimes. At first, La Voisin was quick to throw her enemy Marie Bosse under the carriage, insisting that she had referred all clients wishing to buy poison to her–but eventually, her frequent intoxication led to La Voisin naming other practitioners in the network and detailed some of her career in which her services were given to members of the royal court. La Voisin never admitted to being involved with Madame de Montespan, however, and denied having her as a client. She also denied participating in black masses, using poisons, or any of that baby fetus codswallop Marie Bosse had accused her of. Nevertheless, La Voisin was put on trial, convicted of witchcraft, and burned at the stake on February 22nd, 1680. But not before reportedly trying to kick away the hay that was piled around the stake, cunning to the last.
Though much of The Affair of Poisons and Montespan’s involvement or the extent of La Voisin’s crimes had yet to be proven, months after the execution the daughter of La Voisin came forward and detailed her mother’s working relationship with Madame de Montespan as well as the plot to kill King Louis XIV. This was apparently enough for the King and he hastily closed the investigation, sealed the testimonies, and ordered all further suspects to rot in jail forever. It is estimated that there were nearly 500 suspects, around 200 arrests, and 36 executions before the investigation had been closed. Madame de Montespan was never formerly charged, but she was sent off to exile in a Parisian convent and given quite a hefty allowance. Though the rumors and accusations would always follow her, she spent her remaining years as a supporter of charities and a patron of the arts.
As for King Louis XIV of France, he would continue to live on for many years after. Having been fortune enough to evade a plot to kill him, it seemed he had little more run in with witches or murderous mistresses and passed away at the age of 76 after a long and fruitful reign . But, as we all know with the approaching 18th century–the descendants of his French Monarchy would not be so lucky, the guillotine awaits.
Fact Check it, yo!
Ravaisson, Francois. Archives de la Bastille by François Ravaisson, 1870–1874, volume VI. Retrieved from:http://www.angelfire.com/az3/synagogasatanae/zacharias.htm
Herman, Eleanor. Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge. 2011.
Somerset, Anne. The Affair of the Poisons Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV. St. Martins Press, 2004.
Summers, Montague. Geography of Witchcraft.1927