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Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV's France.

Lynn Wood Mollenauer. Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV's France.

Magic in History. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007. x + 214 pp. index. illus. bibl. $70 (cl), $25 (pbk). ISBN: 978-0-271-02915-3 (cl), 978-0-271-02916-0 (pbk).

Lynn Wood Mollenauer's well-researched and wickedly fascinating study of the Affair of the Poisons, from 1678 to 1682, reveals all of the known nefarious plots to poison and manipulate the king and other victims at Versailles and around Paris at this time. In what amounts to a veritable demimonde of sorceresses, renegade priests, and abortionists, including over 400 suspects in all, this study is like a veritable crowbar that lifts up the lid of a polished, refined court to reveal all the filth and vermin lurking underneath the nice surface. In fact, the king's bewitching mistress, Mme. de Montespan, is even named during these trials as a participant in trying to manipulate Louis's feelings toward her through amatory masses and potions. Drawing on police and court records, in addition to sources from many archives such as the Archives de l'Arsenal and the Bibliotheque de l'Assemblee National as well as personal diaries, memoirs, and the ever requisite, invaluable letters of Mme. de Sevigne, the author has done an excellent job in shedding light on these scandals which "open a unique window into the social, cultural and religious values of Louis XIV's subjects" (3).

After the introduction, which provides a clear, concise background and description of the Affair of the Poisons and Louis's response to it, chapter 1 ("Investigating the Affair of the Poisons") gives readers more specifics regarding the suspects and cases that Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie, the king's sharp police lieutenant, gathered during this time. Chapter 2, "Medea and the Marquise," is not about the king's mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, but rather the incredible but all-too-true case of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who was beheaded in 1676 for poisoning her brothers to avoid sharing her family's inheritance with them. As a touchstone for what was to follow two years later with the Affair of the Poisons, this incident--in which the Marquise not only successfully poisoned her brothers but also attempted to poison her own daughter--is compared to the life of the mythological Medea, a well-known sorceress and poisoner popularized in plays at this time. It is all about power and how it is gained especially through supernatural and abominable plots. Chapter 3, "The Criminal Magical Underworld of Paris," shows the connections that these individuals had with each other and their various methods and concoctions used. Then there is my personal favorite, chapter 4, "The Renegade Priests of Paris and the Amatory Mass," in which various priests performed weird masses that supposedly cast love spells on their agents' victims.

This chapter ties in well with chapter 5, "The Magic of Mistresses at the Court of Louis XIV" and the conclusion, "The End of Magic?" Apparently, Mme. de Montespan was directly or indirectly involved in some of these games with sorceresses and necromancy at court. And she was not alone, by any means. As Mollenauer so succinctly puts it, "To ignore the central place of women at Versailles at Louis XIV's court is to fundamentally misapprehend its structure" (8). Indeed, the king's body was the repository of royal and God-given power, so it only followed that his mistresses had unlimited and great influence at court. Is it any wonder these women would do anything to remain in favor with Louis? Of course, this study is about how both men and women of all social classes used magic and other powers in order to achieve their ends. The Chambre de l'Arsenal, the special court that heard these cases, was dissolved in 1682 and Louis learned his lesson soon after the Affair of the Poisons ended, for shortly after this episode in his reign, he ended his affair with Mme. de Montespan, and when he visited her to see his children, he never went alone. Even more interesting, the king was faithful to his second wife, the famously devout Mme. de Maintenon, who, ironically, had once been the nanny to Louis and Montespan's children! Yet, after all of these strange acts and escapades, Mollenauer correctly concludes that "Parisians still continued to have a criminal and magical underworld" (131).

Mollenauer's Strange Revelations offers such a fascinating side-view of life in seventeenth-century France. In my view it would be a fine selection as required reading for a class in gender studies, Bourbon France, general European history courses and courses in science, magic, and religion. The cost of the book is not especially prohibitive in the paperback edition. Students and general readers alike will not be able to put it down once they begin reading it, and will also learn a great deal from the informative footnotes and thorough bibliography. This book is a worthy contribution to The Magic in History Series: in fact, is it spellbinding.


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Author:Weiss, Camille
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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