Spellbound by the City of Poison: Holly Tucker’s new book on 17th-century Paris
Paris in the late 17th century was not a place for the faint of heart. Despite the frightening ease with which you could be imprisoned without trial on the king’s command, the infamous lettre de cachet, crime, particularly at night, was rampant in the city. Paris was such a city of darkness in fact that it was in danger of becoming “an embarrassment” to the Sun King. In her new non-fiction book, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris, Holly Tucker tells the story of how that criminal darkness spread from the centre of Paris to the epicentre of power.
Tucker anchors City of Light, City of Poison around Nicholas de La Reynie, a relatively obscure lawyer from Limoges, using his personal notes to recreate a compelling character. La Reynie, a principled, dedicated but utterly ruthless man was above all completely loyal to Louis. The king created the position of Lieutenant General of Police for him and La Reynie filled that role very effectively. It was said that he “cleaned the streets; he conquered the night”. However, beneath that new light lay Parisian darkness and the author skilfully takes the reader on a tour of an almost medieval world of witchcraft and poisoning; an Affair of the Poisons that would soon reach right into Louis’s boudoir.
So, what was this Affair of the Poisons? When La Reynie started investigations into a potential conspiracy against the French king in 1678, he was astonished to discover a dark-magic underworld operating in central Paris. In the Montorgueil district, spells, love potions and poisons abounded, with arsenic the “poison of choice”. At the centre of this web of potions was Catherine Voisin, “palm reader, fortune-teller, and poison maker.” She sold to every social class and scandalously, some of her customers were from the French elite.
Perhaps that wasn’t surprising though when the French court at Versailles was a site of such intense competition among the courtiers. That struggle for royal favour ranged from the bitter rivalry between Louis XIV’s ministers Colbert and Louvois to the desperate attempts by ladies of the court to attract closer attention from the Sun King. The more La Reynie investigated, the closer the connections between Catherine Voisin and high-ranking members of the court appeared. Even a mistress of Louis XIV could have bought dangerous potions from Voisin. While this might sound like the plot of a historical murder mystery, City of Light, City of Poison is narrative history at its involving best. Tucker somehow manages to keep the bewildering web of poisonous intrigues straight in her account as well as in the reader’s head.
Women take centre stage in this tale of poisons and for a good reason. As Tucker rightly points out, “women in 17th-century France had little direct power” and so, “poison offered wives the possibility to escape from dysfunctional marriages or to exact punishment for transgressions in ways not provided by the male-dominated legal system.” However, some of those implicated in the Affair of the Poisons were high-ranking female courtiers. La Reynie recorded twelve women buying love charms and spells to ensnare Louis when he was looking for a replacement for his official mistress, Louise de la Vallière. The eventual winner of that contest, Madame de Montespan, was now suspected of being a regular client of the poisoner, Catherine Voisin.
Inevitably, details of La Reynie’s investigations leaked out and the public were thrilled and terrified in equal measure. Every sudden death in Paris was now deemed to be suspicious and arrests “along with rumors of suspects among the nobility triggered a panic among Parisians across all social ranks.” With an almost insatiable public interest in the affair, by 1679, Louis had no option but to appoint a special judicial commission to try those suspected of selling poison.
While the Affair of the Poisons has been covered previously in some detail by historians such as Lynn Mollenauer, Julia Prest and Anne Somerset, Tucker really builds on their work and uses her extensive archival research to highlight the sheer brutality of 17th-century French law and to flesh out the character of La Reynie.
In Tucker’s account, the first police chief of Paris is ruthless in his quest to root out the guilty. Her easy-to-read but hard-to-stomach descriptions of the torture methods he uses and the gruesome resulting injuries make full use of early modern primary sources, the trial accounts and La Reynie’s personal notes to really drive home the human costs of the brutal legal process. After three years of interrogations and trials, Louis finally called a halt to the commission just as it neared his own bedroom and his mistress Madame de Montespan. Tucker recounts that “the king simply chose to believe she [Montespan] was not guilty”, although her tenure as official mistress did come to an end later that year.
As La Reynie put his final report into the Affair of the Poisons together for Louis, even he must have been staggered by the outcome of his investigations. The judicial commission “questioned 442 people, put 218 of them in prison, executed 34, and sentenced another 28 to life in prison or the galleys”. Some suspects never even made it to the trial chamber but were imprisoned in solitary and silent confinement for the rest of their lives. Discussion of the affair by the court was strictly prohibited, “We do not speak at all of poison, the word is banned at Versailles and all of France.”
How the core of the research Holly Tucker used in her new account of the Affair of the Poisons survived is almost a story in itself. Despite the depredations of the French Revolution, librarian Hubert-Pascal Ameilhon managed to save some of the Bastille archives, on which so much of Tucker’s book is based, by secreting the papers in a church crypt until it was safe for them to be rehoused.
The reader of City of Light, City of Poison benefits hugely from Ameilhon’s work as Holly Tucker has, marshalling those archives, torture accounts and court transcripts, succeeded in telling a complicated story in an uncomplicated manner. She manages to illuminate both the poisonous intrigues and the investigator who brought them to an end. La Reynie, the first police chief of Paris was “both principled hero and cruel enforcer” and “a singular man of his time.”
About the contributor: Gordon O’Sullivan is a digital project manager, writer and researcher.
Posted by Claire Morris