- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004


By Anne Somerset

St. Martin’s, $27.95, 377 pages

During the reign of Louis XIV, scores of upstanding citizens of France — and many not-so-upstanding ones

— were overtaken by the fear of being poisoned. Spouses eyed spouses with suspicion, rivals in love or politics watched their goblets and plates for bitter tastes, unfamiliar powders. It was an episode in French history that became known as The Affair of the Poisons, a tense period beginning in 1679 that was marked by hysteria, unreason and grisly acts of violence made worse — or so it would seem in hindsight — by a zealous and no less violent police commission (Chambre Ardente) installed to protect the king.

In “The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV,” British writer Anne Somerset diligently explores how the thick atmosphere of rumor and apprehension engulfed the upper echelons of French society, including Madame de Montespan. Louis’ mistress and Francois-Henri, Marechal Duc de Luxembourg, one of the kings top generals, each of whom were found innocent of any crime. The author also offers new insights into the personality of the Sun King and the courtiers who inhabited — and in some cases defiled — the gracious halls of Versailles.

This is an absorbing book, filled with incidents that show the author’s understanding of court politics within a historical context. (She is the author of the acclaimed biography “Elizabeth I”). Here, using original sources, letters and earlier accounts of the period, she clarifies and puts into perspective the mad goings-on of that distant time in France, beginning with the horrendous crime and punishment that set the paranoia and hysteria in motion — the very public torture and execution of the Marquise de Brinvilliers who was convicted of poisoning her father and brothers in order to secure the family fortune.

The depiction of how the marquise was handled offers a startling view of the customs of the times and starts the book off on an extraordinarily sensational (sadistic?) note. Reading the early pages about how the marquise was stripped, horizontally stretched and forced to drink 20 gallons of water before being led to the gallows where she was beheaded and then burned is tough going, and one wonders if the author will sustain this level of prurience over 300 pages.

Fortunately she does not. Apart from these opening scenes the book reads like a vivid history of a chaotic time and the author raises a number of compelling questions about that period of French history and Louis XIV’s role in it. Louis was particuarly concerned that the marquise be brought to justice. He was not disappointed.

It is impossible not to be fascinated and repulsed by the story of this privileged murderer with the “the huge blue eyes, which struck an observer as ‘gentle and perfectly beautiful,’” a woman who also planned to murder her sister and sister-in-law, who visited paupers in public hospitals and poisoned their food.

To make matters worse, she appears to have learned how to poison from Egidio Exili, “an Italian who knew more about poison than almost anyone in the world.” As the author explains, “Wildly exaggerated notions were held about Italian prowess in this field, for the French believed their neighbors had developed secret formulas for poisons that worked through inhalation, or proved fatal if they came in contact with the skin.”

Done in by her lover and her own confession, the marquise was surrendered to the mercy of the judicial system in place at the time. There was no jury, and no mercy for this French Lizzie Borden who was swiftly sentenced to die. Her punishment, cruel in the extreme, did not differ from the practices in place at the time. There were many onlookers at each stage of her punishment, many of whom were more than eager to record what they saw.

When the public execution was over, the fear in the air was palpable. With the marquise’s ashes in the wind, Marie, Marquise de Sevigne, a celebrated letter writer of the period, noted that “‘perhaps we will be taken by some kind of mood or poisoning which will surprise us all.’” Ms. Somerset adds, “She was of course being facetious (some might say tasteless) but events would show there were genuine fears that the ‘mood for poisoning’ was indeed rampant in France.”

But so was the mood for palmistry, alchemy and fortune telling. As fears began to spread, the first of the common people to be rounded up and in many cases sent to horrible deaths were those who helped make the potions and foretell the futures of the idly rich. And it did not matter that in some cases, those tripped up by amateur experiments with dangerous chemicals were more interested in finding a way to make their own gold than poisoning father’s stew.

A black mood swept the nation, owing in no small part to the fact that Louis became convinced that people were plotting to poison him. This was never proved to be the case. But his fears proliferated even as more servants were installed to taste his food, lick his cutlery and otherwise guard against the kind of demise faced, in fact, by earlier French monarchs.

The one person who stood to benefit from the king’s fears was Nicolas Gabriel de la Reynie, the chief of the police and the head of the commission that was charged with routing out dabblers in poison and related enterprises. That he undertook his task relentlessly — some would say obsessively — reflected the king’s own overwhelming fears.

In this atmosphere, no one was safe. The writer Racine, “who berated himself for becoming tongue-tied in the presence of the king,” found himself being accused by Catherine Voisin (“la Voisin”), a leading divineress, of poisoning his mistress. But the esteemed author was one of the lucky ones. Racine was never taken into custody. On the other hand, in 1679, after incriminating many associates and then confessing to murder, la Vosin was burnt at the stake.

However, no matter how the populace suffered, it is the king and his court that history has held accountable. Although the grotesque shenanigans at Versaille — debauchery, sloth and worse — were more than chronicled by the Duc de Saint-Simon in 1675, Ms. Somerset makes the point that Saint-Simon’s reports cannot be taken on face value. She adds that even in the letters she employed to support her there are “pitfalls” of subjectivity.

What is more astonishing is her summation of the actual numbers of those who actually lost their lives in this tumultuous period: “If one tries to give figures of poisoning which occurred in the fifteen years before the Chamber was set up the numbers do not appear very significant.” And after the commission finished its work?:

“For three years the realm was convulsed while La Reynie ‘turned upside down the best families in Paris, but the benefits arising from this upheaval were modest. The streets were rid of some undesirable charcters and a few cases of murder were resolved, but these could have been settled in the regular courts without undue trouble.”

As for King Louis, he “had sought to cleanse the realm of poisoners, but in reality it was his mind that had been poisoned.”In the end, Ann Somerset deserves praise for her conscientious book. All in all, a tale told well about what can happen when a paranoid leader is woefully mistaken.

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