Hearing ‘The Affair of Poisons’ might conjure up images of poisoners and food-testers and back-alley exchanges of tiny vials...but, The Affair of Poisons we’re talking about tonight is the name of one of the most infamous witch trials in France.
During 1677-1682 the fear of witches gripped France in fear and the trials would claim the lives of 36 people mark 319 subpoenas for court, and 194 arrests. There was an inciting event that can be pinpointed to a poisoner, though, and is the reason this witch hunt gained its strange name.
In 1672, years before the witch hunt was to begin, the French police headed to Gaudin de Sainte-Croix’s laboratory. The break-in was particularly scandalous because the young man was a recently deceased army officer who was rumored to be ridiculously handsome and gallant. While investigating the scene, the police came upon several a poisoner’s kit and incriminating letters from his married lover, Marie de Brinvilliers. This affair had put him in jail for a few months a few years before and it was in prison where he meant Egidio Exili...an infamous poisoner.
However, poisoners were also sometimes alchemists and there were rumors that he had attempted to turn base metals to gold and create an untraceable poison...perhaps the very same one that killed him.
The incriminating letters suggested that Madame de Brinvilliers had conspired with de Sainte-Croix to poison her father and two brothers in order to inherit their considerable estates. She was tortured using the water cure (drinking sixteen pints of water), then was beheaded. When she was dead, her body was burned at the stake. The sensational circumstances and punishments flew France into a panic, in particular wealthy nobles who were afraid they may be next.
This is the scene that Catherine Monvoisin, later known as La Voisin, found herself in when she was apprehended by police on March 12th, 1679. Paris was in a downturn for many reasons and people, in particular nobles, were shaken up at the scandalous events of the past and the seeming rise in “vindictive” women.
Catherine was a ‘divineress’ which, at this time, was not completely unheard of as a profession. Divineresses usually were considered wise women who could tell fortunes, cure diseases, or even help one find treasure. However, it was also rumored that they used their knowledge for evil, including poisons and potions bound to bring even the mightiest down.
Slowly, Catherine’s renown grew and she played the role of La Voisin well...it was said she wore a floor-length decadent robe with an embroidered two-headed eagle. She was bright and skilled and was said to have exuded an air of mystery. She even began to create potions more regularly, acquiring strange ingredients like Spanish flies and dust from human remains.
As she turned more and more to the occult and darker arts, powerful figures in society fearful of their futures turned to her for help.
When she was arrested, what once was seemingly harmless spun into dark madness. In torture, while allegedly drunk, La Voisin claimed that Athenais de Montespan, the well-known mistress of the king, had asked her to perform black masses to retain the king’s favor. As her tale spun out of control, it was claimed that the remains of 2,500 dead infants, victims of the black mass, were found buried in her garden.
La Voisin was burned in public on the Place de Greve after almost a year of imprisonment on February 22nd, 1680. La Voisin was far from the only witch burned or accused, but she was the most notable.
The investigation was declared over in 1682 by the king, who decided the trials and what they revealed about the inner workings of the noble class but the dark stain it left on the country, and of many innocent women, would remain for centuries.
Portrait of la Voisin,n.d. Antoine Coypel French from the Met (not currently on view) licensed under Public Domain.