Anne Somerset's tale of poison, alchemy, Satanism and stupidity in the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, at Versailles and in Paris towards the end of the 17th century makes it clear that the human race has improved with time. This is a cheering Darwinian thought. However much lunacy surrounds public events in our Posh-and-Becks world, Somerset demonstrates that we are far ahead of our ancestors.
In France, more than two centuries ago, "people were indeed using poison and black magic to rid themselves of enemies". Louis XIV, learning of this, and fearing danger to his own sacred person, set up a Chambre Ardente (the Burning Court) to investigate such crimes. Louis XIV famously said: "L'Etat c'est moi." What this meant in practice was hunting, endless wars, building elaborate palaces and fornicating endlessly with a sequence of mistresses, and every occasional woman to hand. Today, it would be considered sensible to get rid of such a ruler (perhaps with a call to President Bush). However, then, through the medium of sorceresses, "divineresses", witches, abortionists and suchlike, women and men, both high-born and low, used whatever was suggested to rid themselves of friends and relations, and of husbands, lovers and babies. The Duchesse de Bouillon went to La Voisin - a notorious divineress who was later burnt alive for her assistance - "for a little bit of poison to kill an old husband".
Money was usually behind these plots; poison as a quick means of divorce was another, but sometimes merely jealousy or dislike would do. This was acceptable when the riff-raff of the Paris streets engaged in such activities, but when they reached a mistress of the king and his courtiers, the matter became a vast scandal. More than 300 suspects were arrested in the "Affair of the Poisons"; 34 were executed in the usual ways and two died under torture.
Somerset superbly evokes the miserable circumstances of life at that time. "Paris had the reputation of being the filthiest city in the world, clogged by stinking mud"; the king's subjects often pissed in public or defecated where they chose.
Justice for misdemeanour consisted of torture first, in the hope of extracting further information; death followed. The favourite method was breaking the body on the wheel: "Spreadeagled on a cartwheel, his limbs and torso were struck repeatedly with iron bars, breaking his bones and damaging internal organs. He was then left to die in agony." Other methods of death were strangling, burning alive, decapitation. Tortures varied from cutting to pouring 20 pints of water down the throat, or removal of tongues. Men were kept in fetters for decades or sent to serve in the galleys for life. Chained to the oars, they rarely lived long; women were incarcerated in convents or workhouses, where the opposite was the case. Otherwise the sexes were punished without much distinction.
Black magic and sorcery were an advanced form of these activities, and Somerset presents a gruesome panoply of the child sacrifice, live pigeons, buried sheep's hearts, extracted fingernails, naked women and salivating priests that were obligatory for these practices. As to the distillations provided by the charlatans, they ranged from "refined arsenic and essence of toads", bats' blood and powdered glass to potions, powders and aphrodisiacs like cantharides. One antidote was to urinate into a shoe and drink the contents.
Much of this is fascinating, and Somerset uses original sources well. The book begins with an absorbing description of the trial and punishment of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who poisoned her father and her two brothers. This is followed by an equally lively account of the vivacious but unfortunate AthenaIs, and of her replacement in the king's affections by the forbidding Mme de Maintenon.
But then the narrative falters. This should have been a much shorter work. The book sags in the middle under the weight of detail; tedium takes over as each of the accused invents a wealth of lies, fantasies and fabrications in a desperate effort to escape torture and death. It would, however, be a perfect textbook for study of the French revolution, providing as it does every reason for its occurrence.
Carmen Callil is writing a book about Vichy France