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The affair of the poisons : murder, infanticide, and Satanism at the court…

by Anne Somerset

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315660,521 (3.39)2
The Affair of the Poisons, as it was known, was a scandal at which 'all France trembled' and which 'horrified the whole of Europe' as it implicated a number of prominent persons at the court of the Sun King, King Louis XIV in the late 17th century. It began with the trial of Marie Madeleine d¿Aubray,Marquise de Brinvilliers, who conspired with her lover, Godin de Sainte-Croix, an army captain, to poison her father and two brothers in order to secure the family fortune and to end interference in her adulterous relationship. The marquise fled abroad, but in 1676 was arrested at Liège. The affair greatly worked on the popular imagination, and there were rumours that she had tried out her poisons on hospital patients. She was beheaded and then burned. The Brinvilliers trial attracted attention to other mysterious deaths. Parisian society had been seized by a fad for spiritualist séances, fortune-telling, and the use of love potions. The most celebrated case was that of La Voisin, a midwife and fortune-teller whose real name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin and whose clientele included the marquise de Montespan, Olympe Mancini (niece of Cardinal Mazarin and mother of Prince Eugene of Savoy), and Marshal Luxembourg. No formal charges were made, and there is no evidence that they were seriously implicated, yet a permanent stain was left on their names. La Voisin was burned as a poisoner and a sorceress in 1680. A special court, the chambre ardente [burning court], was instituted to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft, and the poison epidemic came to an end in France. The affair was sympomatic of the witchcraft trials of the period throughout Europe. This bizarre witchhunt, which embroiled the gilded denizens of Versailles with the most sordid dregs of Paris society, remains both a fascinating enigma and an utterly compelling story.… (more)

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My main reason for reading this was for the opening section on Madame de Brinvilliers of whom I’ve been fascinated by for several years now. I was, therefore, disappointed with the short amount of space given to La Brinvilliers, especially when two whole chapters in this book have next to nothing to do with the Affair of the Poisons.

The two chapters in question feature irrelevant info like this:

“A performance of Alceste then took place in the marble courtyard, converted for the evening into a sumptuous theatre, decorated with orange trees in tubs on marble pedestals and lit by crystal chandeliers. Five days later a concert was held in the Primi Visconti observed that though the King occasionally appeared relaxed in private, he would instinctively straighten his bearing and assume a more dignified expression if he thought there was any chance he could be glimpsed through an open door.”

Louis XIV’s court and his mistresses are a backdrop and it’s pure filler material to devote one chapter to his court and another to his mistresses. Granted, Madame de Montespan features in the Affair of the Poisons, but we don’t need to know her life story; focus on her involvement with anything poison-related.

I am interested in Louis XIV and France’s Bourbon kings, as I am with the likes of La Montespan, Madame de Maintenon, et al., but when I choose to read a book on a specific topic, I expect it to be about that specific topic, not about info that has little or nothing to do with it.

Going back to my main point of interest, namely Madame de Brinvilliers, I feel this could’ve been much better presented. As someone who likes their history presented chronologically, I don’t like that it opens with La Brinvilliers’s trip to the scaffold.

Hugh Stokes’s bio on La Brinvilliers might’ve been published in 1912, but it’s in-depth and lively detail is a much more entertaining read than this book. He puts quotes from La Brinvilliers’s torture session and trial in dialogue, whereas Ms Somerset uses reported speech, which makes for passive prose. Very dry.

I realise, of course, that Stokes’s tome was all about La Brinvilliers, so I didn’t expect too many pages dedicated to her in this book; however, as already mentioned, it could’ve been expanded if those two irrelevant chapters were cut.

I did, at least, glean a couple of new things about La Brinvilliers's life that weren’t featured in Stokes’s bio, as certain topics – namely incest – would’ve been too taboo in the 1910s.

After the two irrelevant chapters we get on with the Affair of the Poisons. I was interested in this period of history before I started reading this book, particularly in La Voisin, and therefore expected to be engaged throughout. Sadly, I found it very hard going.

With so much detail, it proved an exhausting read, and I found it hard to remember who was whom. It doesn’t help that the author refers to people by their title one minute and by the first name the next. With so many people involved, this really confuses matters. Also, filler material keeps creeping in, which slows an already slow-paced narrative.

While I enjoyed this in parts, it was overall too dry and descriptive with way too much irrelevant information. ( )
  PhilSyphe | Apr 16, 2020 |
An almost-too-thorough blow-by-blow account of the Affair of the Poisons, a scandal at the heart of the French court in the late 1670s and early 1680s. Lots (and lots, and lots) of names and dates and crimes and accusations to keep track of, but if you're keen on the topic and willing to wade through it all, there's quite a fascinating story in here. ( )
  JBD1 | Jan 20, 2014 |
Great read ( )
  Jaime_Gonzalez | Feb 28, 2013 |
Very good; reliable, well-written and documented. I mention this book in my research blog:

http://www.blogger.com/publish-confirmation.g?blogID=3304407638943710859&pos... ( )
  SandraGulland | Dec 7, 2008 |
A very well written historical account of a major scandal in seventeenth century France.
The insights into the investigative and interrogative processes and procedures used in this period of history are the most fascinating part of the book. ( )
  lorelorn_2007 | Aug 21, 2007 |
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For Ella, With much love.
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At seven o'clock in the evening of 17 July 1676 a small woman in her mid-forties was led out of the Conciergerie prison in Paris.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The Affair of the Poisons, as it was known, was a scandal at which 'all France trembled' and which 'horrified the whole of Europe' as it implicated a number of prominent persons at the court of the Sun King, King Louis XIV in the late 17th century. It began with the trial of Marie Madeleine d¿Aubray,Marquise de Brinvilliers, who conspired with her lover, Godin de Sainte-Croix, an army captain, to poison her father and two brothers in order to secure the family fortune and to end interference in her adulterous relationship. The marquise fled abroad, but in 1676 was arrested at Liège. The affair greatly worked on the popular imagination, and there were rumours that she had tried out her poisons on hospital patients. She was beheaded and then burned. The Brinvilliers trial attracted attention to other mysterious deaths. Parisian society had been seized by a fad for spiritualist séances, fortune-telling, and the use of love potions. The most celebrated case was that of La Voisin, a midwife and fortune-teller whose real name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin and whose clientele included the marquise de Montespan, Olympe Mancini (niece of Cardinal Mazarin and mother of Prince Eugene of Savoy), and Marshal Luxembourg. No formal charges were made, and there is no evidence that they were seriously implicated, yet a permanent stain was left on their names. La Voisin was burned as a poisoner and a sorceress in 1680. A special court, the chambre ardente [burning court], was instituted to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft, and the poison epidemic came to an end in France. The affair was sympomatic of the witchcraft trials of the period throughout Europe. This bizarre witchhunt, which embroiled the gilded denizens of Versailles with the most sordid dregs of Paris society, remains both a fascinating enigma and an utterly compelling story.

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Fortune telling, poisoning, Satanism and black magic were all widespread during the reign of Louis XIV. An invesigation into this problem led to the extraordinary episode known as "The Affair of the Poisons." It's effects were felt across the whole of society, a many people were arrested and tortured. Numerous executions followed. The royal court was thrown into disarray; the Mistress of the Robes and a distinguished general were among the the suspects. And then the King's mistress was incriminated. If, as was said, she had engaged in vile Satanic rituals and sought to poison a rival for the King's affectations, what was Louis XIV to do?
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