I hope my American readers had a lovely long weekend, and that my non-American readers had a lovely ordinary-sized weekend. To lessen the sting of returning to the daily grind, Dirtbags Through the Ages is back with a new historical roller coaster—and let me tell you, friends, it's a doozy. I'm focusing on one main dirtbag in this story for brevity, but it would take a book, not a newsletter, to cover everyone who was getting up to weird shenanigans during this scandal.
That's right, this time we're talking about:
L'Affaire des Poisons!
I love this story for three main reasons:
1. It features another lady dirtbag, which we do not get enough of imo.
2. It's set in the court of the Sun King, and the fact that we haven't touched on that period yet is bonkers.
3. It briefly but memorably features some bears, which we will get to in time.
OK, so. Context.
King Louis XIV (the Sun King) ruled in France from 1643 to 1715, and he is primarily known for two things: his unoriginal first name, and his tendency to be absolutely, unnecessarily extra. Another country existed nearby? War. Interior decorating choice? Make it sparkly. Commissioning a royal portrait? Hold my Louboutins.
But this story isn't about the Sun King, really. I'm just describing him so when I say "l'Affaire des Poisons involved one of the Sun King's most famous mistresses," no one stops and goes "wait, would an actual person actually advertise the fact that he had multiple mistresses?"
Yes. This guy specifically would.
One of Louis XIV's most famous mistresses was a woman extravagantly named Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechaurt de Mortemart, Madame de Montespan. (I will be calling her Montespan, for obvious reasons.)
Montespan was, by all accounts, extraordinarily hot. She flirted so effectively with the king that she got the king's previous mistress sent to a convent. She got the king to throw her own actual husband in prison so she could carry on mistressing. She schemed, she flirted, she basically Margerey Tyrell-ed her way into being the de facto Queen of France.
Of course, the king's eye kept wandering, but did that stop Montespan? Absolutely not. When Louis XIV started to get the hots for another woman at court, Mademoiselle de Fontages, Montespan didn't waste a moment.
She sent a pair of her pet bears into Mlle. de Fontage's apartment to destroy everything she owned and deter the woman from pursuing the king.
YES. ACTUAL BEARS.
SEXYTIME REVENGE BEARS.
I LOVE THIS STORY SO MUCH, FRIENDS.
Bears and all, everything should have been coming up Montespan at this point, except for one unfortunate fact...
EVERYONE IN 1600s FRANCE WAS GETTING POISONED.
You think I'm exaggerating. I'm not exaggerating. This is a list of just the people actually convicted of poisoning other people in France between 1677 and 1682, not counting hundreds of other arrests or the victims of said poisoning.
As you can see, both nobles and commoners were dropping dead of poison at an alarming rate. So Louis XIV—worried that he too was gonna get poisoned, which would put a real damper on any reign—called on the chief of the Paris police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, to look into the spate of poison deaths and figure out just what in tarnation was going on.
La Reynie took his job seriously, and he started interrogating people to figure out who was behind this poison ring. (This had disproportionately bad consequences for female apothecaries and midwives, as you can imagine. Find me a weird history story that doesn't involve sexism and classism, and I've got a condo in Palm Springs to sell you.)
One of the ringleaders La Reynie discovered was a midwife named Catherine Monvoisin, who was incriminated by another lady poison mastermind, to give you a sense of how big this whole thing was.
Monvoisin's confession added a dramatic wrinkle to the story. Apparently, Monvoisin had been dealing poisons to multiple women in the court of the Sun King, who were using the Magic of Murder to advance their own position in the royal court. And one of those women was...
You guessed it...
Madame de Montespan, the king's attack-bear-wielding, husband-arresting, poison-happy mistress!
OK, But What Kind of Poison Did Montespan Use?
I'm glad you asked, because hold onto your butts.
According to the testimony, Montespan had been visiting Monvoisin to get potions that would make the king remain in love with her. (You know, in case the bears didn't do the trick.)
Allegedly—allegedly—these potions were made at black masses during which Montespan summoned the devil for aid, sacrificed multiple newborn infants, crushed their bones into a powder, and then slipped that powder into the Sun King's food.
You know. Normal relationship stuff.
I have to assume the baby powder plan didn't work out, because Montespan & Monvoisin's next plot was an attempt to create poisoned clothing that would kill both the Sun King and whatever other mistress he was sleeping with at the time. Which also didn't work, but I give her full points for style.
I literally cannot imagine what was going through Louis XIV's head in this moment. Probably this, to be honest:
Anyway, Louis XIV had Montespan sent to a convent, where she lived until her eventual death in 1707.
Moral of the story: um. Your guess is as good as mine. Don't try to make the king eat ground-up dead babies.
(Required disclaimer: the black masses of Madame de Montespan were never actually proven, and while people said they found baby bones in her back garden, that's never been proven either. But if you think I'm gonna find out about French Mistress Sexy Potion Baby Murder Garden and not share the story, you don't know me at all.)
OK, taking a hard left turn from poison.
Would you like to win a signed, annotated copy of A Tip for the Hangman? Good news: you can!
I'm participating in Books for Palestine, which is auctioning off bookish items and services to raise money for the Middle East Children's Alliance and The Palestine Children's Relief Fund. Along with some truly incredible items from amazing writers and book community members, you can bid on a copy of ATFTH with fun facts, historical asides, behind-the-scenes tidbits, and other marginalia from yours truly!
The auction is live from 6/1 to 6/4, so go on over, check out my item and all the others, and support children's relief in Gaza.
Until next time, friends: stay sexy, don't get poisoned by the king's mistress,