As an independent, sexually elusive 35 year old with flowing robes, suspicious herbal garden, dilapidated residence and proclivity for drinking large amounts of alcohol, Catherine Monvoison, named “la Voisin”, was the 17th century poster child for evil sorceress. Yet, despite her unflattering engraving (shown here) la Voisin was not some badly dressed charlatan scaring the local kids. She was the chief witch to the most influential members of Louis XIV’s court.
Members of the nobility would find themselves at la Voisin’s doorsteps for several reasons. She dabbled in the usual witch fare; tarot card reading, séances, horoscopes, abortions, palm reading, chiromancy, beauty potions, and an occasional aphrodisiac to make a reluctant lover fall hopelessly in love. When M. de Prade sought a marriage with the wealthy Madame Laferon, la Voisin buried a wax figure of de Prade in Madame Leferon’s garden. * Another recommended love spells was to bury menstrual blood. To get rid of an unwanted husband, la Voisin recommended obtaining some of his urine and discarded eggshells from the eggs he had eaten. If urine didn’t work then you better find yourself some pigeon or sheep’s hearts, mummy powder, iron filling, or a mole's teeth to work into a spell.
Ironically, la Voisin hated her husband so much that the typical polite greeting was to inquire whether or not he had dropped dead yet. La Voisin claimed that she never used her spells on her husband and he did continue to live on, but evidence suggests that she may have been "experimenting" with his meals. (Obviously, if she admitted to using her potions she would not only have been accused of attempted murder, but it also would have been bad for business.)
La Voisin's popularity as chief purveyor of potions and spells to the nobility soon earned her the moniker ‘a duchess among witches’, but also fate a less desirable than Psychic to the Stars. On March 1679, la Voisin was arrested on charges of witchcraft. A witch-hunt soon followed with over 400 people implicated in what became known as ‘The Affair of the Poisins.’ La Voisin’s daughter Marie started to talk and favored courtiers with a dangerously close proximity to the king were accused of practicing witchcraft. Some of these names even included Louis’ mistress, Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart, Madame de Montespan and his old crush, Olympe Mancini, comtesse de Soissons.
The accusations stemmed from La Voisin’s less innocuous repertoire involving poisons and love spells using dead body parts and celebrating Black Masses with sacrificial babies. Supposedly, Madame de Montespan paid a visit to la Voisin when she wanted to usurp her rival for the king’s affections, Louise de la Valliere. La Voisin recommended that Madame de Montespan sneak dead baby’s blood, bones, and intestines with a dab of toad and bat parts into Louis’ meat. Yum!
These allegations seem absurd when we consider Madame de Montespan’s extreme piety. To engage in any sinister black magic would have been an extreme crime against the church and dammed her soul. Even more ridiculous was the allegations that Madame de Montespan had sought to poison the king. Killing off her sugar daddy would have seriously cramped her decadent life style. (1)
Madame de Montespan may have experimented with beauty potions and aphrodisiacs such as the popular Cantharides – a medicine scraped from the wings of the Spanish fly beetle. As the pseudonym for sexual sadism, The Marquis de Sade is later remembered for unsuccessfully using Spanish fly to ignite the passions of young prostitutes. (The prostitutes died a painful death). Even George Washington had some Spanish fly in his medicine chest.**
But whether deserved or not, la Voisin is not remembered for harmless beauty potions and aphrodisiacs, but as one of history's great poisoners and raucous trouble makers.The Poison Affair ended with over 34 people executed and several courtiers banished from court. (Olympe Mancini fled in fear for her safety. ) A year after her arrest, la Voisin was burnt to death at the Place de Greve in Paris.
*History doesn’t tells us if these spells worked, but think carefully before you sneak into your neighbor’s garden with a wax doll.
**Get your mind out of the gutter. Spanish fly was used as a blistering agent to heal George’s throat infection.
Fraser, p. 181
Sources and Further Reading
Somerset, Anne. The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV, New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 2004.
Fraser, Antonia. Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. New York, NY: Nan A. Talese, 2006.