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The Black Masses of La Voisin: How a Fortune Teller Became a Murderess in the French Royal Court

The Black Masses of La Voisin: How a Fortune Teller Became a Murderess in the French Royal Court



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Catherine Monvoisin was a woman with a dark story. Her life influenced the world of the occult and the court of Louis XIV, a famous king whose golden palace brought him immortal fame and countless lovers. Her spiritual gifts made her a wealthy and powerful woman, but when the life of the lady known as La Voisin became combined with intrigue and scandal in the French Royal Court, there was no way it could have had a happy ending.

A Woman Like No Other?

Catherine Deshayes was born around 1640. When she was a young woman she married Antoine Monvoisin. Monvoisin had a jewelry shop in Paris, but life didn't bring him good luck in business. He went bankrupt and his wife decided to handle the family budget on her own. She must have been a well-educated woman as she had some medical knowledge. Catherine was a midwife and also provided women with abortions.

Apart from this, Catherine became well-known in the city as a talented clairvoyant and fortune teller. Eventually these gifts led her to become one of the most mystical and fascinating people in the second half of 17th century Paris.

17th-century print of Catherine Deshayes’ portrait held by a winged devil.

Catherine’s spiritual abilities became more and more admired, especially as she claimed her powers were a gift from God. She told people that she acquired her gift when she was nine years old. Catherine also studied many other disciplines and gained some knowledge about physiology. However, she based her medical work on what information she attained from reading faces and hands and forecasting the future.

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When Catherine had achieved enough monetary success she created a special mystical atmosphere in her workplace. It is known that she spent 1,500 livres to buy a crimson red velvet robe embroidered with images of eagles in golden thread. She spent quite a lot of money on her image - but the investment worked by increasing her number of clients as well.

In 1665, a priest of Saint Vincent de Paul's order and the Congregation of the Mission questioned her abilities. However, Catherine (now known as “La Voisin”) was intelligent, and she stood in front of the professors at Sorbonne University and explained how her gifts worked. She was set free for her skills in rhetoric and her impressive performance in front of her critics. With time, she improved her rituals and added a “black mass” to her skillset - in which she was used as a living altar for the spirits that were being worshiped.

Catherine Monvoisin and the priest Étienne Guibourg performing a "Black Mass" for the mistress of King Louis XIV of France, Madame de Montespan (lying on the altar). (1895) By Henry de Malvost.

The Witch’s Power

La Voisin soon became a very popular figure in the king’s court. Many important people asked her for help, advice, and secret medical procedures. Some of her clients were: François Henri de Montmorency-Bouteville, (the Duc de Luxembourg), Françoise-Athénaďs de Rochechouart Montespan, (the Marquise de Montespan and king's mistress), Olympe Mancini (the Comtesse de Soissons), her sister Marie Anne Mancini (the Duchesse de Bouillon), and the Comtesse de Gramont (known as "La Belle Hamilton").

Catherine Monvoisin was smart enough to survive most oppressions and criticisms. But when she became a part of an affair which was one of the greatest scandals in the life of Louis XIV her life was also put in danger.

Portrait of Madame de Montespan. (1640-1707)

It began when La Voisin was hired by Madame de Montespan to perform black masses. In 1667 the ceremonies took place in a house on Rue de la Tanniere. It is unknown if the king attended these rituals, although rumors suggested that his power came from the devil. A witness of the black masses suggested that Montespan was trying to find a way to secure Louis XIV’s love. During one of the meetings Montespan received a special potion and aphrodisiac - which she subsequently used to drug the king.

A close relationship with Montespan caused more problems for La Voisin. The king’s frustrated lover became so obsessed with him that she would have preferred to see him dead than with another woman. When the king became infatuated with Angelique de Fontanges in 1679, Montespan asked La Voisin to kill the lovers. Catherine disagreed at first, but it seems that with time she accepted the angry Montespan’s proposal. La Voisin created a poison and plan. However, things didn't go as she expected.

Portraits of Louis XIV from 1701 by Hyacinthe Rigaud and Marie Angélique de Scorailles, duchess of Fontanges (date unknown).

Unfortunately for her, Louis’ sister-in-law (the duchess d'Orleans) was poisoned instead. Moreover, many other enemies and rivals of Catherine’s clients were also killed with the poison. La Voisin was accused of the crimes, but during the hours of torture she never admitted her clients’ names nor told her persecutors who the people were that attended her black masses. It is believed that she was involved in the death of between 1000 – 2500 people.

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At the same time, Montespan was still one of the most trusted people in the king’s court. He didn't connect her with the deaths at all. There is even evidence that she was one of the king’s advisers during the trial. Montespan was almost freed from her involvement in the crime, but in July 1680 Catherine’s daughter, Marguerite, proved that Montespan was one of her mother’s clients. The king didn’t immediately believe Marguerite’s story. As Louis wrote in his letter to La Reynie in Lille, August 2, 1680:

“'Having seen the declarations of Marguerite Monvoisin, prisoner in my Chateau of Vincennes, made on the 12th of last month, and the examination to which you subjected her on the 26th of the same month, I write you this letter to inform you that my intention is that you should devote all possible care to elucidate the facts contained in the said declarations and examinations; that you should remember to have written down in separate memorials the answers, confrontations, and everything concerning the report that may hereafter be made on the said declarations and examinations (to the judges), and that meanwhile you defer reporting to my royal Chamber, sitting at the Arsenal, the depositions of Romani and Bertrand until you receive orders from me. Louis.”

Château de Vincennes keep, from the south-east corner of the moat.(Pierre Camateros/ CC BY SA 2.5 )

The Death of a Murderess

Catherine was burned at the stake in the Place de Greve in the heart of Paris on February 22, 1680. It is uncertain what happened to her daughter Marguerite. Did the king or one of his favorites save her? Or was she sentenced to death by murder in the dark streets of Paris?

The answer to this question is unknown. However, legends about her infamous mother continued long after La Voisin’s death. As for Montespan - she died in May 1707 as a 65-year-old woman and was never charged for the crime she committed with La Voisin.

‘The Execution of Catherine Deshayes.’ ( The Unknown History of Misandry )


Affair of the Poisons

The Affair of the Poisons (l'affaire des poisons) was a major murder scandal in France during the reign of King Louis XIV. Between 1677 and 1682, a number of prominent members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced on charges of poisoning and witchcraft. The scandal reached into the inner circle of the king. It led to the execution of 36 people. [1]


Black Masses, anyone?

La Voisin concocted or employed magic love powders made of verbena, Spanish fly (cantharides), or menstrual blood and soon arranged black masses for her wealthy customers who obviously wanted anonymity. It has been rumored that the royal mistress Mme de Montespan herself participated in the mass. If true, she would have been lying on a table with a bowl in which the blood of a baby was poured drop by drop. La Voisin even benefited from the help of a priest and an abbot.

Suppose you wanted to get rid of someone, whether a husband, a relative, an enemy or a competitor or a compromising lover, La Voisin could solve your problem.


The Satanic Black Mass: Delving Into Its Secret History

I believe this is the transcript of the documentary created by The Paranormal Scholar. I had the video embedded on this site since 2017 but it has since been set to private. I emailed “Laura” to see if it has been uploaded elsewhere but I have not heard back from her as of yet.

Anyway, not a bad short documentary, she touches on Anton Lavey (Howard Stanton Levey), a person that many people didn’t take seriously. The material she touches on about the Borborites and 17th and 18th century France is good…

The Catholic Church regards the Mass as its most important sacrament.However, since the beginnings of Christianity there have been those who have deviated from orthodoxy, relishing in darkness and unearthly delights.

Heretical groups’ divergence from the traditional ritual culminated in the birth of the Black Mass,a parody of the Catholic Mass which is said to be grounded in the worship of the Devil.

The origins of the Black Mass are obscure. One of the first known groups to practice a warped version of the Mass were the Borborites. Their rituals were highly sexual. Gossip about their depraved practices circulated wildly in the East at that time. The testimony of a contemporary author even suggests that they would extract fetuses from women who had been impregnated during previous rituals, and consume the unborn child as a gruesome variant of the Eucharist.

Whilst the Borborites may not have overtly offered themselves to Satan, their practices would help to form the legacy of the Black Mass. In 1608 an Italian author, Francesco Guazzo, produced a witch-hunters’ manual called Compendium Maleficarum. Regarded at the time as the authoritative manuscript on witchcraft, it describes witches as the agents of Lucifer, who inverted the Christian Mass and stole consecrated wafers from the Church in order to desecrate them. Such a ceremony was known as the Witches’ Sabbath, and was believed to have been practiced for many centuries for diabolical ends. Dreadful famines, plagues and unceasing warfare were all blamed on the witches. One of the most monstrous beliefs about the Witches’ Sabbath was that human flesh, preferably of unbaptised children, was consumed in the name of the Devil. It is in the history of 17th century France that one can find some of the first solid accounts of organised Satanic rituals.

La Voisin, a French fortune teller, poisoner and professed sorceress, was known to have killed anywhere between 1000 to 2,500 people in Black Masses.La Voisin entertained powerful guests. The richest and brightest stars of the French court would visit the notorious fortune teller to request that she whisper in the Devil’s ear on their behalf. One example was Madame de Montespan who employed la Voisin to conduct multiple Black Masses in order to secure the love of the King of France. Within one year, Montespan was Louis XIV’s official royal mistress. La Voisin’s Black Mass made use of a naked female human alter, in mockery of the sacredness of the Christian altar. The woman would lie naked with a chalice on her bare stomach, as she held two black candles in each of her outstretched arms. Such an aspect would become a permanent feature of future Satanic Masses. The power of blood was also an important feature of the Black Mass. La Voisin would have many children abducted to be sacrificed. An attendant of la Voisin was discovered to have buried the corpses of 2,500 infants. A confession at the later trial of la Voisin provides this chilling account of the Black Masses performed for Madame de Montespan around 1672:

Although la Voisin met a grisly fate upon the burning execution pyre in 1680, her dark legacy would continue. By the 18th century and the time of the infamous Marquis de Sade, knowledge of the inverted Christian Mass and sexualised rituals were commonplace in France. Sade’s writings popularised notions of Catholic sacraments being perverted. One scene between his heroine, Juliette, and the Pope in his 1797 book Juliette, descended into something akin to a Black Mass, with the naked female figure being once more parodied against the holiness of the Christian altar. Other authors would follow suit, including the French author of La-Bas, which translates to The Damned, in 1891.

The description of the Black Mass contained within the novel was claimed to have been based upon actual Satanic events in Paris during those years. The novel’s clandestine meeting takes place in an abandoned convent and is attended by Satanists who are reputable members of the community including a professor from the School of Medicine.

As the modern era approached, Satanists appeared to step out of the dark shadows of history and offer themselves up to public attention. This was the case in 1966 with the establishment of the Church of Satan, an international member organisation founded by Anton LaVey. One must simply consult their website to become a member and have access to Satanic resources including audio, video and essays. It was with the establishment of the Church of Satan that the first set of written instructions for how to perform a Black Mass turned up. Once more sexual in nature, the Church of Satan’s Black Mass advocated, in transcript form, the desecration of a wafer made to symbolise the Eucharist and the mockery of the Catholic Church. However, its validity can be questioned.

Appearing first in LaVey’s 1972 ‘Satanic Rituals’, little mention is given to the origins of the historic French text, La Messe Noire, which the Black Mass is purportedly based upon. The original text itself has never surfaced, with the ritual only ever being mentioned by one other, equally dubious, book. After an entire history of obscurity, it seems unlikely that Satanists would reveal all now.

In the modern day, there have been a range of allegations made against the rich and famous for their suspected involvement in Satanic practices. Some of the most horrific testimonies have been against the notorious British paedophile and children’s TV presenter Jimmy Savile. Those assaulted as children whilst in hospital have told of being forced to participate in a ceremony akin to the Black Mass. Savile and others were described as wearing hooded robes and masks, chanting the Latin Hail Satanus whilst sexually abusing their victims in the candle-lit hospital basement. Five years after the hospital attack, he is known to have abused another victim during another dark ritual held at a house in London, in which Savile acted as master of ceremonies. The woman was twenty-one years old at the time, and as such was able to provide greater detail in her testimony, leaving little doubt that this was indeed a Satanic Black Mass. There were further reports of Savile’s attendance at clandestine Satanic-themed meetings involving celebrities and local dignitaries. Many have been shocked at Savile’s ability to keep his child sexual abuse a secret for nearly fifty years, whilst mingling with royalty and others at the top of society. Indeed, many of those brave enough to inform the public about the Savile scandal have now lost their jobs. Such a coverup poses the question of why would such people protect him unless they too were affiliated with his Satanic practices?

Similar stories can be found all across the globe. In the US, FBI whistleblower Ted Gunderson reported that there are at least 3 million practising Satanists across America. Gunderson believed that there are secret networks of powerful groups who kidnap children, and subject them to Satanic ritual abuse and subsequent human sacrifice in Black Masses. At the time of his retirement in 1979, Gunderson was the head of the Los Angeles FBI making him a highly reputable source. Accusations in the modern day are shrouded in conspiracy and secrecy. If such allegations are true, they would be continuing a centuries’ old pattern of covert Satanic movements operating in the shadows of society.

One place, however, which openly practices their own version of the Black Mass in the modern day is the Mexican city of Catemaco. Since the 1970s, on the first Friday of every March the lakeside city becomes a destination for thousands of pilgrims. The acts performed at the annual meeting are an uneasy mix of Catholic rite and pre-Hispanic beliefs and rituals. When interviewed in 2015, chief shaman Enrique Verdon explained the syncretic nature of the ritual by saying that the “black magic stems from Native American Olmeca culture” and that he and others “are experts in calling upon the devil and his dark power”. Eye witnesses of the event have described brutal scenes of mass animal sacrifice, leading one tourist to state that “The next step would be human sacrifice […] and I frankly think these people have done it.” Following the sacrifices, shamans stand before inverted crosses and a large burning pentagram, before attempting to summon the devil through their chants. What follows is the swearing of oaths to the effect that their souls now belonged to Satan. At the height of the ritual, the committee of shamans scream “Hail Lucifer!” whilst the blood from the sacrificial offerings are poured over a statue of the Devil.

When writing in 1924, Aleister Crowley, renowned scholar and magician, stated that “blood is the life”. This notion has pervaded the Black Mass for centuries, from Early Christianity right up until the present day. When making a blood sacrifice, Satanists believe that there is a release of energy. This power will not only bind the participants of the ritual to the Devil, but allow them to align themselves with Satan’s power, which can then be used to bring their intentions to pass.

Ultimately, the aim of the Black Mass is to prove that the agents of Satan shall do what they will on Earth without a moral conscience.


The end of the trial

La Voisin was sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning, and burned at the stake on 22 February 1680. Marshal Montmorency-Bouteville was briefly jailed in 1680, but was later released and became a captain of the guard. Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert helped to hush things up.

De La Reynie re-established the special court, the Chambre Ardente (“burning court”) to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft. It investigated a number of cases, including many connected to nobles and courtiers in the king’s court. Over the years, the court sentenced 34 people to death for poisoning or witchcraft. Two died under torture and several courtiers were exiled. The court was abolished in 1682, because the king could not risk publicity of such scandal. To this, Police Chief Reynie said, “the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard.”


Aqua Tofana, also sold under the label “Manna of St. Nicholas of Bari.” Historians suspect that the concoction intended to work slowly over time, with multiple ingestions, is thought to have contained arsenic, lead, and belladonna.

One of history’s most prolific prisoners was Giulia Tofana. She was born in Palermo, Italy, in 1620. Giulia was just 13 years old when her mother, Thofania d’Adamo, was executed for murdering her husband. Some scholars believe that this early experience may have been the catalyst that propelled her into her life of crime.

Guilia found work selling cosmetics. This occupation put her in contact with apothecaries and with women customers. The women confided in her about their loveless marriages and abusive husbands. Divorce was not a possibility at that time, so the only way out of a marriage was death.

Whether she got the recipe for her famous Aqua Tofana from her mother or concocted it herself, Guilia soon became quite wealthy selling it to customers looking for what is euphemistically known as “an Italian divorce.” The recipe is no longer known, but reports indicated that it was odorless, colorless, tasteless, and effective with as little as three small doses. The difficulty in detecting it made it possible for her customers to kill without being caught.

“There was not a lady in Naples who had not some of it lying openly on her toilette among her perfumes. She alone knows the phial, and can distinguish it.” — from the letters of Ferdinando Galiani, 1805

The end came for Tofana when a customer exposed her operation to the authorities. Under torture, she confessed to the poisoning of 600 men in Rome alone between 1633 and 1651. Papal officers executed her in the Campo de’ Fiori, along with her daughter Girolama Spera and three helpers, in July 1659.


The Black Masses of La Voisin: How a Fortune Teller Became a Murderess in the French Royal Court - History

Between 1759 and 1760, all dogs on the streets in London were destroyed with a reward of two shillings each because of a fear of rabies. The first large scale rabies outbreak occurred in Franconia in 1271 when rabid wolves invaded the town and killed 30 people with the infection. In 1804, a single rabid wolf descended from the mountains in Crema, Italy, and spread the disease to 13 people, who all died of hydrophobia. A Peruvian outbreak of the virus occurred in 1803 killing 42 people in 90 days. Angola was ravaged by rabies in 2009 killing 83 children.


My sister got bit by a dog when she was little. She was sitting on the porch putting on roller skates when some mutt came up and bit her on the leg. They couldn't find the dog for a while and she had to start getting those rabies shots. She described the shots to me, how they used a long needle and shoved it in her stomach. She only ended up getting half of the shots because they finally found the dog, killed it and cut his head off and determined it wasn't rabid. That was enough to put the fear into me about rabies. I started carrying rocks with me whenever I had to walk through the neighborhood.
Once I was walking with my brother down a sidewalk and some guy opened his door and two pit bulls came charging out towards us. I nailed the lead dog on top of the noggin with a rock and he let out a yelp and ran back to his house. The other dog, seeing pain in his future, retreated as well. The owner started cussing at me but I didn't give a damn, at least I didn't get bit. On the was back I saw the two dogs peeking out the window at us.


Histastrophe!

What a beautiful palace you have, would be a shame if there were witches

Right now, most of us are stuck indoors waiting for the world to calm down. Or maybe we are frantically running amok buying out all the toilet paper for some reason. Either way, it’s likely that we’re all feeling a little bit of panic right now over whether or not we (or someone we love) will catch viral plague. Or perhaps we’re even worried over the thought of not being able to properly wipe our bums. The world has experienced many bouts of mass hysteria in its numerous cycles around the sun. Choosing just one to write about while I sit at home waiting to play Animal Crossing and trying not to think about if Idris Elba is okay is no small feat. I figure, why not go with one that is least likely to repeat itself as an epidemic event on a global scale in present day? Unless you think we are at risk for regicide conspiracies, cult black masses, conniving leagues of witches, and a whole lot of poison–then maybe close your browser and find something else to distract yourself with because the notoriety of the famous French witch La Voisin might be even more panic inducing for you.

The year is 1675 and France is currently experiencing something of a Golden Age under the reign of King Louis XIV, also appropriately known as ‘The Sun King’. Since becoming the monarch of France at the extremely concerning age of 4, Louis oversaw the construction of the Palace of Versailles, established absolute rule for himself and the monarchy, and ensured France’s place on the world stage as a global superpower. Proving the counter-argument to the claim of any moron who only knows about the World Wars and believes that France always loses–under King Louis XIV, France truly was (and still is) awesome. But Louis XIV had been king for a long time at this point, and imbibing the kind of lavish, self-idolatry lifestyle he was used to his entire reign turned Louis into something of a philandering dirt-bag. We all know the type.

Can you deny the glory of a King who wears heels?!

So, while King Louis XIV was likely fooling around with courtesans and shut in at his Palace of Versailles, a few years earlier a woman by the name of Madame de Brinvilliers was put on trial for conspiring with her lover to kill her father and brothers by poison so that she could secure the inheritance of her family’s estate. Aside from that ingenious plan, she also apparently went around hospitals poisoning poor people for fun because she was just that kind of twisted. Needless to say, since the advent of poisoning husbands was perfected as a science thanks to Giulia Tofana and now the infamy of the Brinvilliers case –all kinds of men (and poor people, I guess) were terrified of being poisoned for money or power. Including the King. Years prior, his cousin (and sister-in-law) Henrietta of England died at the age of 26 under mysterious circumstances, having complained about stomach pain and experiencing digestive problems–she drank a glass of chicory water and screamed in agony, declaring that she had been poisoned before kicking the bucket. And as the public rioted and panicked over the increase in these poisoning plots–other rumors of witches abducting children to be used in black masses arose. This wasn’t the Middle Ages hot off the publication of Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 and battling the Black Death a century prior, but the serious concern of an insurgency of devil worshiping witches hellbent on corrupting the world still provided a nice, toasty crust of genuine worry on the sandwich of mass hysteria in the 17th century. Whatever your beliefs about the witchcraft craze, and I certainly fall on the side of it being mostly a case of widespread misogyny myself–King Louis XIV was deeply troubled by the possibility of rampant witches and poisoners (especially in his court, recent deaths all the more suspicious now) and ordered an immediate investigation by the Parisian Police.

A ‘Black Mass’ is just a Catholic mass inverted. Typically Satanic, but not always, black masses are meant to mock/desecrate Catholicism and can be as simple as using a consecrated Eucharist in obscene ways, like rubbing on parts of the body that would make the Virgin Mary blush. Some of these parody masses were innocent enough, like the Feast of Fools, but for a more contextual vision of an evil ritual administered by witches please see the ending of the film Suspiria.

A decade prior, Catherine Montvoisin or La Voisin as she came to be known, found herself confronted by a jury of professors at Sorbonne University where she was questioned on the validity of her practice in divination as a fortune-teller. She won. La Voisin had begun her business after her worthless husband’s career as a jeweler and silk merchant went completely bust. She was forced to come up with some way to support her husband, children, AND her mother all by herself. At first, she started offering up her services in palm readings and then also in mid-wifery helping with childbirth (or abortions). Her reputation in both services surged and she collected many clients. When she started to notice similar patterns in desires and wishes from the people she saw, she realized there was another opportunity to cash in. Most of her clients came to her with three things–wanting someone (in particular, usually) to fall in love with them, a family member to die off so they could inherit, or a husband to keel off so they could remarry.

“Paris is full of this kind of thing and there is an infinite number of people engaged in this evil trade.” – La Voisin, as quoted over a drink with her interrogators.

La Voisin started devising ways to sell products to her clients in order to aid them in these desires. At first, innocently enough, she would tell them these dreams would come true if God willed it and that if they visited church, prayed to saints, or purchased a special amulet from her, their wish was likely to happen. Eventually over the years, her services escalated to selling ritual mass, aphrodisiacs or love potions, and poisons to get the job done. Some of her more generous services also included lotions meant to make skin beautiful and spells chanted to increase boob sizes. So, basically, La Voisin was the 17th century successful version of a modern ‘make your penis bigger’ spam email.

La Voisin’s famed Love Potion recipe supposedly included powder from the bones of toads, mole teeth, spanish flies, iron filings, human blood, mummy powder, and dust of human remains among other things…

It would seem like La Voisin was a piece of work, as we imagine all witches cackling into their brews to be. But her fame and notoriety brought her an amount of prestige that became an invitation to join the upper echelons of Parisian elite. She was known to have many of them as her clients and would entertain them in her lavish garden at night with violin music. Sure, she was a bit of an alcoholic but she was living it up–and also particularly with a retinue of gentlemen callers which included an executioner, a Vicomte, an alchemist, an architect, and a magician that was eagerly obsessed with her and wanted to off her husband so he could get even closer. All the while, La Voisin also kept up the habit of regularly attending church. So, she probably resembled more of a Disney Villainess in swagger alone.

La Voisin be like, ‘What? These aren’t mine!’

It was precisely this reputation which brought La Voisin perhaps her most controversial client yet–King Louis XIV’s future mistress Madame de Montespan.

Already floating about Louis XIV’s court with the intention of unseating his current mistress, Louise de La Valliere, Madame de Montespan was having trouble securing the King’s exclusive affection. So she sought out the services of famed La Voisin to help. With the goal in mind of winning the King’s love, Montespan allegedly partook in a black mass arranged by La Voisin and her associates where it was said that Madame de Montespan was the naked alter piece herself in which the ritual took place. Then, she was given La Voisin’s love potion concoction which she used to slip into King Louis’ wine and food when they met together for meals. Either Montespan dazzled the king with her award winning charm or the black magic did the trick, but she soon became King Louis’ maitresse-en-titre or official mistress. Montespan was so pleased with La Voisin’s services in this regard that she continued to employ her for years after with any relationship issues she would inevitably encounter with the King. When Louis’ wandering eye sought the comforts of another consort, Montespan would have La Voisin mix her another love potion to keep the King’s favor.

Portrait of Madame de Montespan, something tells me she didn’t really need the black magic…

However, by 1677, Madame de Montespan realized that tactic wasn’t enough to keep the King from sleeping around–so she went with the oldie but goodie threat of murder if he ever so much as thought of leaving her. King Louis XIV’s dick shrugged off this threat, however, and entered into a relationship with Angelique de Fontages in 1679.

Madame de Montespan was furious and apparently fully intent on keeping her promise to murder the King for his senseless debauchery when it no longer favored her. She approached La Voisin with the proposition of killing the King of France for his insolence, to which La Voisin supposedly hesitated on accepting–was quite a big job, after-all. And not many were all that successful in king killing outside of an episode of Game of Thrones. La Voisin was eventually convinced and took the conspiracy to her friend and colleague Catherine Trianon. A group was formed consisting of the two witches and two men who all agreed, despite any misgivings from those who insisted they had a Han Solo-esque ‘very bad feeling about this’, that the plan would be to administer poison to the King. They agreed that the best way to do this would be to poison a petition and hand deliver it to the King who would come in contact with the murder weapon by holding it in his own hands.

Let’s be honest, one of these people is probably a witch

And so on March 5th, 1679, La Voisin went to the royal court of King Louis XIV in saint-Germain to deliver the homicidal petition herself in person. Unfortunately, the conspirators had not planned for the likely occurrence of the King canceling a number of the petitions because there were too many already and would have likely preferred to spend his time elsewhere (probably with Angelique de Fontages). La Voisin wasn’t disheartened by this change in events. She gave the petition to her daughter to burn, as it was incriminating evidence of their conspiracy, and decided that she would meet up with Catherine Trianon tomorrow to figure out a new plan.

She never made it that far.

Remember that investigation King Louis XIV had ordered to uncover the secret cult of withcraft working undetected in Paris? The police force had been working tirelessly to apprehend any accused of witchcraft and, in doing so, had discovered a network of witches that had been operating like a criminal enterprise. Under torture, they had picked up a slew of fortune-tellers, alchemists, and others by name. Witches were telling on other witches and the threads seemed to point to all corners of Paris. And some were even stupid enough to declare their business openly at parties like La Voisin’s arch nemesis Marie Bosse did. Drunkenly, she told anyone who would listen that she was so rich from selling poisons to the French elite that she could retire. It didn’t take long for the Parisian Police to haul Marie Bosse in for questioning, and she took a particular satisfaction in naming her enemy and associating La Voisin with all kinds of evil magic and crimes including accusing her of aborting fetuses and sacrificing them in rituals. It was also Marie Bosse who gave the police force the solid tip of a ring of poisoners existing in Paris. Thanks to Marie Bosse, La Voisin was arrested after attending mass before she could meet with Catherine Trianon to devise a plan B to assassinate the King.

I’m so sick of these mother f’ing witches in my mother f’in Paris. – Paris Police Chief Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie, probably

Funnily enough, even though the police force was grateful to apprehend the most notorious poisoner and practitioner of witchcraft in Paris at the time, they were also a bit terrified to interrogate her. It seemed more to do with her ability to incriminate much of French high society with her association, however, rather than any real fear of black magic retaliation. They were under orders not to subject her to torture and instead, knowing her propensity to getting drunk, plied her with alcohol to get her to confess to her crimes. At first, La Voisin was quick to throw her enemy Marie Bosse under the carriage, insisting that she had referred all clients wishing to buy poison to her–but eventually, her frequent intoxication led to La Voisin naming other practitioners in the network and detailed some of her career in which her services were given to members of the royal court. La Voisin never admitted to being involved with Madame de Montespan, however, and denied having her as a client. She also denied participating in black masses, using poisons, or any of that baby fetus codswallop Marie Bosse had accused her of. Nevertheless, La Voisin was put on trial, convicted of witchcraft, and burned at the stake on February 22nd, 1680. But not before reportedly trying to kick away the hay that was piled around the stake, cunning to the last.

Idk, the Feast of Fools looks like a good time…

Though much of The Affair of Poisons and Montespan’s involvement or the extent of La Voisin’s crimes had yet to be proven, months after the execution the daughter of La Voisin came forward and detailed her mother’s working relationship with Madame de Montespan as well as the plot to kill King Louis XIV. This was apparently enough for the King and he hastily closed the investigation, sealed the testimonies, and ordered all further suspects to rot in jail forever. It is estimated that there were nearly 500 suspects, around 200 arrests, and 36 executions before the investigation had been closed. Madame de Montespan was never formerly charged, but she was sent off to exile in a Parisian convent and given quite a hefty allowance. Though the rumors and accusations would always follow her, she spent her remaining years as a supporter of charities and a patron of the arts.

As for King Louis XIV of France, he would continue to live on for many years after. Having been fortunate enough to evade a plot to kill him, it seemed he had little more run in with witches or murderous mistresses and passed away at the age of 76 after a long and fruitful reign . But, as we all know with the approaching 18th century–the descendants of his French Monarchy would not be so lucky, the guillotine awaits.

Ravaisson, Francois . Archives de la Bastille by François Ravaisson, 1870–1874, volume VI. Retrieved from:http://www.angelfire.com/az3/synagogasatanae/zacharias.htm

Herman, Eleanor. Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge. 2011.

Somerset, Anne. The Affair of the Poisons Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV. St. Martins Press, 2004.


Catherine Monvoisin and the Affair of the Poisons

Nothing makes history trickier to investigate than the whiff of scandal. Coverups and spin aren’t modern inventions, and when it makes every source you have unreliable then getting to the truth of the matter becomes all but impossible. So in today’s article all we can do is to report both the rumours and the official version and let you draw your own conclusions about Madame Monvoisin and the Affair of the Poisons.

The Pont Neuf in Paris in the 1660s.

Catherine Monvoisin’s early days are sparsely documented, but we know she was born around 1640 and probably in Paris. Her maiden name was Catherine Deshayes, and her family were poor. From an early age she was fascinated with fortune-telling, learning palmistry at the age of nine. She had a talent for “cold reading”, the ability to read somebody’s cues as she told their fortune and convince them that she knew things that she could not normally have known.

Catherine was married in her teens to a jeweler named Antoine Monvoisin, and they would go on to have at least three children. Their eldest was a daughter named Marguerite who was born in 1658. Unfortunately Antoine’s business failed, and the family fell on hard times. In order to support them Catherine drew on her childhood interests and lifelong hobby, and began telling fortunes for money.

Catherine’s main form of fortune-telling was reading palms, sometimes called chiromancy. This was considered a “pagan superstition” by the Catholic Church, but many people at the time believed there was a science behind it. It provided the ideal ground for her to use her cold reading skills, and she soon became very successful. As a professional alias (and a pun on her name) she adopted the friendly title of “The Neighbour” or in French La Voisin.

As with all such female fortunetellers, Catherine found that she was often visited by women with the problem of an illegitimate child on the way. Abortion was illegal in France at the time, of course, leaving women no option but to turn to shady characters like Catherine for assistance. Sometimes she gave them an abortion, sometimes she would deliver the child for them and then have it secretly adopted or otherwise dealt with. Either way, her utter discretion in these matters was probably a major factor in how she began to get more and more high-profile clients, including several from the nobility.

A rich lady visiting a fortune teller. Painting by Jakob Samuel Beck.

In the mid 1660s Catherine had become famous enough as a fortune teller that she was challenged by a priest over them. Rather than back down, Catherine chose to defend herself before the professors at the Sorbonne theological college. This college was well known for challenging “heretical” views (mostly Protestantism), but Catherine showed her mettle before them. She was an intelligent woman, far from what they had expected. Her spirited defence of the “science” behind her palm reading and her affirmation that any spiritual powers she possessed were gifts from God was enough to convince them to let her go. They were satisfied that she was not a heretic. But they were wrong.

By this time Catherine had graduating from telling fortunes to offering her clients a way to change those fortunes. This started out benignly enough telling them to pray to a certain saint for assistance or similar. However as Catherine became more involved with the “occult community” of Paris (most notably “Adam Lesage”, a self-professed magician) this began to change. Another common problem among her visitors was the desire for someone to fall in love with them, and Catherine began selling magic charms and special powders to aid them in this. In 1667 she was asked to do this on a major scale. Someone wanted her to help them become the lover of the King.

Madame Françoise-Athénaïs de Montespan being handed a bow and arrow by Cupid to win the King’s love. Painted by Pierre Mignard.

The “someone” was Marquise Françoise-Athénaïs de Montespan, though it was her companion Claude des Oeillets (a former actress) who approached La Voisin. The king was Louis XIV, the “Sun King” who had risen from a child who was used as a puppet monarch to become the first truly absolute ruler in French history. He was one of the most powerful men in the world, and to become his mistress there was nothing Madame de Montespan wouldn’t do. Even if it meant literally selling her soul to Satan himself.

The first ceremony for Francoise took place in Catherine’s house. An abbot named Mariotte presided, with Lesage and Catherine assisting. After prayers to Satan, a drug was prepared and given to Madame de Montespan to use on the king. Whether it gave her the confidence she needed to win him or whether it did contain some aphrodisiac ingredients, in a short time Francoise was the king’s new mistress. This success boosted La Voisin to new heights. Soon she had escalated into producing full Black Masses for her clients in order to win them lovers and marriages, among other things.

The best account of one of these “masses” comes from 1673, when Madame de Montespan returned. The king’s affections were wavering, and she had decided a Satanic boost was needed. According to Étienne Guibourg, the priest who performed the ceremony, they laid a black cloth on an altar. Francoise then lay down on it, face up and completely naked. (According to some accounts she forced her maid Claude to do this instead.) As the priest intoned a blasphemous version of the liturgy, an infant was brought to the altar. The priest laid the chalice on the naked woman’s belly. Catherine then cut the infant’s throat and let it pour into the chalice, spilling out onto the woman’s body. She threw the body into a nearby furnace as the priest raised the chalice and completed the ritual.

An 1895 engraving by Henry de Malvost showing the Black Mass being celebrated on Madame de Montespan.

Whether this was a genuine human sacrifice or just clever stage managing in a dark candle-lit room is hard to tell. Catherine’s daughter later testified that she bought pigeons for her mother and saw her cut their throats and collect the blood. She also said that the “altar” was simply a mattress on some chairs, with stools to the side for the candles. On the other hand at least one of the priests involved seems to have believed there was power involved and tried to use a Black Mass to prevent a friend’s mistress from conceiving. (It didn’t work.)

By the 1670s La Voisin had branched out into another line of work: poisoning. Her knowledge of chemistry, network of clients and reputation for discretion gave her the perfect alley for distribution of this type of substance. Soon she was at the centre of a network of distributors, a sisterhood of fortune tellers and backroom medics with a lethal sideline. Though their noble clients got the highest profile, they most commonly sold their poison to women trapped in abusive marriages who would find no relief from the legal system.

The poison they were distributing is unknown, but it’s likely to have been similar to one known as “Aqua Tofana”. This was a recipe that had been developed by an Italian woman named Giulia Tofana thirty or forty years earlier. The primary ingredient was arsenic, which was such a common poison that it was sometimes called “inheritance powder”. The gradual sickness it caused was perfect for allaying suspicions and for allowing the poisoner to manage the time of death. Other ingredients included belladonna and lead, resulting in a tasteless poison that looked like simple water and left the doctors of the time none the wiser.

Claude des Oeillets, Madame de Montespan’s friend and another of Louis’ “conquests”.

Marital fidelity seems to have been in short supply in 17th century France. The king, of course, usually had multiple mistresses competing (sometimes murderously) for his affections. He treated them all with a shocking callousness, casting them aside at a whim and bedding anyone who caught his eye. (Claude, for example, had a daughter who was almost certainly the king’s child.) The marriage of the Monvoisins was equally unfaithful Catherine had at least six lovers including her assistant Adam Lesage. Adam once tried to convince Catherine to poison her husband to get him out of the way, but Catherine decided against it.

It was the poisons that would lead to La Voisin’s downfall, through a path that began with a man who died in an accident in 1672. The dead man was Captain Godin de Sainte-Croix, an officer in the French army. In 1663 Godin had an affair with another man’s wife, Marie-Madeleine de Brinvilliers. Her father found out about the affair and had Godin imprisoned using a “lettre de cachet”. This was a French legal device where the king could order anyone imprisoned indefinitely without trial, something which nobles like Marie’s father could petition for him to do. Justice, under the French monarchy, was strictly optional when it came to punishment.

In prison Godin became friendly with an Italian alchemist named Exili. Exili taught the eager Godin about alchemy, including how it could be used to create poisons. When Godin was set free, he passed this knowledge on to Marie and soon they took their revenge on her father. His death was followed by that of her two brothers, which left her free to inherit the family fortune. (She later said that the real motive for killing her brothers was that they had sexually abused her when she was a child.) With her effectively separated from her husband, the two lovers were free to enjoy their lives together.

Marie de Brinvilliers.

Unfortunately for Marie, Godin was paranoid. Afraid that she might poison him as well, he left a full sealed confession among his papers. It was labeled “to be opened if I die before Madame de Brinvilliers”. Since he died in debt his effects were seized by his creditors, who opened the confession and read it. Marie managed to escape arrest and fled to London, then moved to the Netherlands before settling in Belgium. There she was tricked, kidnapped and illegally extradited back to France for trial. In July of 1676 she was tortured into confessing, and on the strength of that confession she was executed.

Whether Marie was actually guilty or not is sometimes debated. The sole evidence against her was the word of a dead man and a confession tortured out of her. What is true is that her conviction, and the idea that three aristocrats had been murdered without anyone realising, was enough to set off a panic among the upper classes. When a fortune teller named Magdelaine de La Grange was arrested for forging a will, she tried to bargain for her freedom by claiming that she had information about crimes of “national importance”. Though she didn’t have any tangible information to share, her testimony was what began the official investigation that became known as la Chambre Ardente – the Burning Court. [1]

Over the next couple of years, the Court (led by Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie) swept up alchemists, fortune tellers and others on the fringes of society who could be suspected of using poison. One of these was Louis de Vanens, who was suspected of selling poison that was used to murder the Duke of Savoy (one of the highest noblemen in the land). Though they became convinced there was a secret organisation to these poison-sellers, they had no luck in cracking it open. Then in 1679 they hit the jackpot when they arrested a poisoner named Marie Bosse.

Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie, organiser of the Burning Court and founder of the first real police force in European history. Painting by Nicolas Mignard.

Marie was arrested after she got drunk at a party and started boasting that she had become so rich by selling poisons to the aristocracy that she would soon be able to retire. One of the guests informed on her to the police, who set up a sting to buy poison from her. Once they had verified the deadliness of what she sold them, they swooped in and arrested her. (Allegedly when they arrested her she was in the middle of incestual relations with her two sons and her daughter.)

Marie was tortured into a confession which gave up the entire organisation of poison sellers in Paris, and which place Catherine Monvoisin right in the centre of it. La Reynie hesitated to arrest her, as he knew that she was connected to some very powerful people at court. He finally arrested her in March of 1679. In doing so he may well have prevented her from carrying out the most high profile poisoning of her career: that of Louis XIV himself.

Madame de Montespan had always said that she would kill the king if he abandoned her, or so it was claimed later. (It’s worth noting that this plot is the sketchiest part of some very sketchy history, and it may be that none of this is true at all.) At the time it looked like he might be about to set her aside and replace her with a young girl named Angelique de Scorailles. (Angelique did die the following year, possibly due to complications from childbirth or pneumonia. Of course, rumours said she was poisoned.) The alleged plot of Catherine and her accomplices was to present a petition to the king which had been treated with a contact poison. Her initial attempt was foiled because there were too many other petitioners for the poisoned one to be presented directly to the king. She was allegedly on her way to plan a new attempt when she was arrested.

This 1680 drawing by Antoine Coypel of a demon holding a mirror for Catherine is the only contemporary picture of her that exists.

Initially Catherine tried to defend herself by claiming that Marie Bosse had made the accusations against her in order to save her own skin by denouncing a rival. (This was undercut in May of 1679, two months after Catherine was arrested, when Marie and her children were all executed.) Catherine’s maid Margot, who had also been arrested, warned the investigators that they were playing with fire. The arrest of Catherine Monvoisin, she said, would impact on people “at all levels of society”. That convinced La Reynie to tread carefully, though he was quick enough to scoop up all of Catherine’s associates. Then he started figuring out exactly what he had.

Though an authorisation was issued to torture Catherine for information, it never seems to have actually been used. Perhaps La Reynie was worried about what she might say or he was aware of how unreliable information gained that way could be. Instead he took advantage of Catherine’s functional alcoholism and had his interrogators make sure she was permanently inebriated. It paid off initially she stuck to her story that she had sent anyone trying to buy poison to Marie Bosse but soon she was naming names. The first people she named were minor nobles who received minor sentences something which began leading people to denounce the court as a farce. In response Louis XIV declared in December of 1679 that the investigators should spare nobody, regardless of rank. It was a declaration he would regret.

Catherine Monvoisin went on trial in February of 1880. It was a very short trial, even given the amount of evidence against her. After the inevitable guilty verdict, a warrant was issued that she should be tortured to produce a confirmatory confession before the death sentence was carried out. However though the official records say that this was done, accounts at the time say that the order was ignored. The authorities were still doing their best to keep Madame de Montespan’s name out of these events, and had no wish to provoke an indiscreet confession.

“The Execution of Catherine Deshayes”, colourised version of an old woodcut. Source

Catherine was executed less than a week after her trial, burned alive in the Place de Grève. She did not go quietly to meet her fate. The night before she persuaded her guards to let her drink her fill and eat a hearty last meal, and it’s possible that as she was dressed in white and taken to her execution she was still quite tipsy. A priest tried to persuade her to confess, but she violently repulsed him. At the execution ground she had to be dragged, fighting every step of the way, to the stake. As the fire was lit she did her best to kick the burning straw away from herself, but it was all in vain. Soon the fires flared up, and when it died down she was dead.

The death of Catherine did not bring an end to the investigation of the poisoning ring, of course. In fact it seems to have intensified it. In part this was due to her daughter Marguerite, who seems to have realised that she would have to work hard to avoid following her mother to the scaffold. She and her brothers (who were living with their father) had initially not been arrested, but shortly before her mother’s trial the authorities had swept them up. This might have been part of the attempt to wrap up the investigation. If so, it failed. The arrest of Marguerite was about to begin a new and even darker phase of the affair.

Marguerite’s confession soon began to paint a picture that was even darker than the Burning Court had expected. The tale of black masses and human sacrifices that unfolded shocked them, but it also seems to have convinced them that Marguerite had played no part in the affair. Those she named (Francoise Filastre, Adam Lesage and Etienne Guiborg among them) were soon confirming the story.

Louis XIV. Louis the Great. The Sun King. The true villain of the piece.

As soon as Madame de Montespan’s name entered the picture, matters took a different turn. It was one thing that she might have used magic to ensnare the king’s interest, but the idea that she had tried to have the Queen to be set aside and for her to marry the king was unthinkable. But she was the mother of recognised and legitimised royal children, and for that reason alone she could not be caught up in this. In addition she was far from the only noble implicated. Olympia Mancini, the head of the queen’s household and the most senior female non-Royal at court was the most notable of those implicated. With such explosive accusations being leveled, it soon became clear that Louis’ declaration of disregard for rank was just empty words.

Instead, the Poison Case Investigation became the Poison Case Coverup. The records of the trial were burned (though the interrogation records from the Bastille survived and allow historians to reconstruct the events). Those who could be safely executed on other charges (like Francoise Filastre) were put to death, but it was decided that none of the others could be allowed to go free. Instead Louis issued a great number of the infamous lettres de cachet. Anyone even slightly implicated was to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives.

That included Marguerite Monvoisin, even though the investigators concluded that she was innocent of wrongdoing. Minor details like that barely mattered in the court of the Sun King. She was imprisoned on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer off the coast of Brittany, along with Margot the maidservant and Catherine Trianon among others. They were guarded only by women (to prevent them from seducing their jailers and escaping) but they were otherwise permitted to live under house arrest in the Palace Royal on the island. Catherine Trianon committed suicide in 1681, but the fate of the others (along with the men perpetually imprisoned, like Adam and Etienne) is unknown. When the king of France sought to make you disappear, you disappeared.

Anna Brewster as Madame de Montespan and Suzanne Clement as Madame Agathe (a character based on Catherine) in the BBC show “Versailles”. Source

As for those he could not make disappear, the Affair of the Poisons still marked a permanent downturn in their fortunes. Francoise de Montespan fell from the king’s favour, of course, but he still had to pay visits to her in order to maintain the pretence of a relationship and to “disprove” the rumours. Ten years later she was finally sent to retire to a convent, though her children were all given marriages and dowries suitable for royal princesses. Several other nobles, such as Olympia Mancini, were forced to flee the country. Her son Eugene was rejected from the French army because of this he emigrated to Austria where he became possibly the single greatest general of 17th century Europe. In fact his military genius is often credited with preventing Louis XIV from achieving control of Europe in the decades that followed.

The Affair of the Poisons soon entered into popular French folklore as an example of the perfidy and perversity of the upper classes, along with their tendency to protect their own. Louis XIV sought to suppress the truth but he didn’t realise that in doing so he was creating more fertile ground for the legend It became part of the history fueled a growing discontent among the people of France that would explode into revolution a century later. In the years since it has become the subject of novels, plays and films. La Voisin, it seems, refuses to be forgotten.

Images via wikimedia except where stated.

[1] The original Chambre Ardente was a nickname of the special court used at one time to prosecute heretics. Though it had been suspended over a century earlier, it was this legislation that was used to establish the new Burning Court.


The Surprising Historical Significance of Fortune-Telling

In 1786, 14-year-old Marie Anne Lenormand ran away from the convent school where she was raised. Lenormand set off to Paris on her own, where she learned the art of cartomancy—divination using a deck of cards. She worked for 40 years as a cartomancer and fortune-teller, advising Joséphine de Beauharnais (Napoleon’s wife), Robespierre, Marat, and other important figures on their fates.

Thirty years later, when Lenormand was 44 years old, she met with a young Frances, Lady Shelley, a socialite, aristocrat, and friend of the Duke of Wellington. The two met in Lenormand’s luxurious boudoir, but, as Shelley recounts in her diary, she was soon drawn into Lenormand’s cabinet d’étude to have her fortune read. Lenormand asked her date of birth, then the first letter of her name, the first letter of her birthplace, and then her favorite animal, color, and number. “After about a quarter of an hour of this mummery, during which time she had arranged all the cards in order upon the table, she made an examination of my head,” Shelley wrote. “Suddenly she began, in a sort of measured prose, and with great rapidity and distinct articulation, to describe my character and past life, in which she was so accurate and so successful, even to minute particulars, that I was spellbound at the manner in which she had discovered all she knew.”

What made Lenormand rich in eighteenth-century France—and what has made fortune-telling and games of chance mainstays of human society for more than six millennia—is that sometimes the possibility proposed by the fortune-teller is, in fact, perfectly spot-on. Sometimes what is predicted happens sometimes our lottery ticket is the winner sometimes we beat the odds. Games of chance point toward the correct value just often enough to keep us intrigued. In so doing, they have acted as social and political tools that play upon some of our greatest aspirations—that we’ll catch a “big break,” or that the poor can suddenly become rich. “Ability,” Napoleon famously said, “is of little account without opportunity.”

Upon Lenormand’s death at the age of 71, her nephew, a devout Catholic, inherited her possessions and extensive capital, valued at an estimated 500,000 francs. He pocketed the cash and burned all of her cards, crystals, and fortune-telling paraphernalia, according to Michael Dummett, a former professor of logic at Oxford, who co-wrote a book on the subject. Yet Lenormand’s legacy has persisted, particularly via Lenormand cards, an altered set of tarot cards commonly used by contemporary fortune-tellers.

Like Lenormand’s nephew, most Catholics in the region despised fortune games, which represented unknowability in a supposedly all-knowable world, one in which God pulls the strings. In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius introduces a character called Lady Philosophy who explains that “chance” is “an empty word…what room can there be for random events since God keeps all things in order?” Similarly, in Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” the first of The Canterbury Tales, Theseus reminds his subjects after a series of misfortunes that “the First Mover of the First Cause” determines all outcomes in accordance with an overarching plan. This is the same notion that Voltaire would later satirize in Candide. The wise man, Voltaire argued, realizes that a reversal of fortune is not part of a divine plan, but rather a kind of horrible happenstance that sometimes befalls one, based on no wish or advice of divine beings.

By providing an alternative to God’s omniscience, fortune-telling menaced the legitimacy of religion: Foreknowledge was the exclusive realm of God, and claims from anyone else—cartomancers or fortune-tellers, for instance—were a threat.

But there’s an acute irony to be found in the similarities between fortune-telling apparatus and Catholicism itself. Tarot cards, with their amalgam of ancient mythologies and pagan beliefs, can be viewed as a bridge toward Catholicism. The patron saints and icons of Catholicism, each of whom has defining characteristics, occupations, and symbols, mirror the characters of the tarot. For instance, in the Catholic faith there is the Archangel Gabriel. His symbol: archangel. His patronage: telecommunication workers and stamp collectors. His attributes: carries a trumpet is clothed in white and blue. In standard tarot decks, there is the High Priestess. Her symbol: Holy Mother Church. Her patronage: a link to the subconscious. Her attributes: wears a Papal tiara is clothed in white and blue.

What is perhaps most salient within the history of fortune-telling is the way it both reifies and subverts capitalist economics. Its subversion can be seen when one thinks of the ideological scandal that would ensue if one indeed had the ability to predict the outcome of the lottery, a feature of most capitalist societies. The capitalist ethos of self-mastery is undermined by the possibility of luck leading to success without proportional labor. As a result, games of luck tend to be sidelined in capitalist societies, looked down upon as pastimes of the poor and lazy.

“Patience, and shuffle the cards,” Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote. This notion serves as the foundation for the American myth of self-made success: One must work for success, but at the same time, anyone can achieve it. The American myth of the self-made man therefore creates a double bind: One must work, but one might also get lucky. As a result, those in inferior socioeconomic positions can feel that they still have the possibility of ascending by means of luck, while those in superior socioeconomic positions can feel deserving of their success as a result of their supposed hard work.

Through games of luck comes the notion of the “big break,” an idea that has been fundamental to diffusing socioeconomic frustrations for centuries, first observed by Louis Hartz in The Liberal Tradition in America. In the many hundreds of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European stories and fairy tales first told by the lower classes, one finds that the peasants never look to alter the royal system that oppresses them rather, a happy ending occurs when the peasant himself becomes the king through a series of chance events. That’s to say, the occurrence of “big breaks,” however seldom, is enough to keep the masses contented with an unjust social system they angle to be at the top of the current society, rather than looking to do away with the society entirely.

What has proven trickier for social elites to justify are the games of chance that are fundamental to their own success, the modern stock market being the quintessential example. How does a capitalist society make playing the stock market look like labor, so that the high earnings that often come from it appear to be derived from proportional work? How do the affluent “cleanse” their earnings, overcoming the taint of chance through the appearance of work, thereby conferring moral legitimacy on their positions of power? The elite solution has been to disguise the stock market as a place of complex probabilities and algorithms rather than what it fundamentally is: luck. It is chance rebranded as morally righteous labor.

While lotteries and games of chance have often been a vehicle for the elite to extract money from the less-informed masses without upsetting them (a disguised regressive tax, as pointed out by the sociologist Roberto Garvia), in certain circumstances, lotteries have also been used as a political tool—a patronage benefit for the politically useful.

Although lotteries in Europe date back to the sixteenth century, it was later, in 1694, that a “lottery craze” swept through Europe, according to Roger Pearson, a French historian at Oxford. This craze followed a familiar pattern: democratic possibility (anyone could theoretically become rich) mixed with aristocratic reality (those who already had access to capital and political connections stood a significantly better chance of winning). In a peculiar turn, it was Voltaire who saw that, for various reasons, the prize in each Parisian district was greater than the total cost of all its lottery tickets. By buying up as many bonds as possible from the Paris mayor’s office, he stood to win the lottery with near certainty and make out with more money than he’d put in.

In his autobiographical Historical Commentary on the Works of the Author of La Henriade, Voltaire wrote, “The authorities issued tickets in exchange for Hôtel de Ville bonds, and winning lots were paid in cash and all in such a way that any group of people who had bought all the tickets stood to win a million francs.”

But it wasn’t just his craftiness that helped Voltaire in his “infamous lottery and market speculation,” as referred to by the historian W. Johnson in “Voltaire after 300 Years” it was his connections as well. As Pearson has pointed out: “Clearly [Voltaire] had an understanding of sorts with the notaries appointed to sell the tickets, and it seems that he did not have to pay the full price of the tickets, so certain were he and his associates—and perhaps the notaries selling the tickets, presumably cut in on the action—of winning.”

Voltaire, therefore, exploited his political connections and presumably bribed the notaries—two groups of people who were surely more willing to work with him given his fame—in order to win what eventually amounted to be about 7.5 million francs, an exorbitant sum that allowed him never to work, to buy up châteaux, and generally live as a king might. It is hard to understate the extent to which there was a double standard in games of chance: The poor who engage in games of chance are looked down upon, whereas the well-known had games of chance intentionally turned toward their advantage.

But what, ultimately, is chance? What is this unpredictable, unknowable element that beguiled Frances, Lady Shelley, Marat, Robespierre, and Lenormand’s other patrons?

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle declares that, “Everything in the world looks coincidental by any current observation method, since any law or principle is expressed only probabilistically. No one can say whether a thing has absolute inevitability.” In this sense, a fortune-telling is simply an exhibition of one of many possibilities, rather than the absolute truth. It is, therefore, never really wrong, and although it affects core tenants of society—religion, economics—it is only ever absolutely correct by chance.


Black Mass

The Black Mass was the product of the creative imagination of medieval inquisitors. In the fifteenth century, the Spanish Inquisition turned its attention toward stamping out witchcraft (surviving remnants of pre-Christian Paganism), which was redefined as the worship of Satan (rather than the older Pagan pantheon). At the time, the Inquisition was limited in its task to the suppression of heresy (non-Orthodox forms of Christian belief) and apostasy (rejection of Christianity by former believers). Paganism, as another religion altogether, was outside its purview, hence the redefinition. Satanism, as the worship of the Christian antideity, clearly would qualify as apostasy.

Having created the image of an anti-Christianity, the inquisitors slowly built up a picture of what Satanists would do, centered upon the desecration and parody of Christian worship. The mass, the central act of Roman Catholic worship, would obviously be the target of Satanic abuse. Elements of the 𠇋lack” or satanic mass might include the desecration of a stolen communion wafer, nudity, sexual acts, the sacrifice of an infant, the saying of the Lord’s Prayer backward, and acknowledgment of Satan. The climax of the mass might be the invocation and appearance of Satan himself. Under torture, a variety of accused witches confessed to participation in such actions. The primary textbook offering a summary of Satanism was The Witches Hammer (Malleus Maleficarum) written by two Dominican inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger (1436�), and published in 1486.

It is to be noted that there is no acceptable evidence of an actual Black Mass being held until the seventeenth century. During the reign of Louis XIV (1638�), a fortune teller named Catherine Deshayes (d. 1680), popularly known as La Voisin, conspired with a libertine priest known as Abbé Guiborg to work magic on behalf of various people in the French court who wished to keep their place close to the king. In the process, Black Masses were conducted (some of which included one of the king’s mistresses as an altar). When these were discovered, the inroads of La Voisin into the court threatened to bring down the government, and the affair was largely hushed up, with trials held in secret and key people being either executed or banished.

Black Masses reappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, again in France, where J. K. Huysmans founded possibly the first of the modern Satanic groups. Huysmans authored a book, La-Bas (Down There), which included a detailed account of a Black Mass and would become a source book for future Satanic groups. However, few appeared to have picked up on the Satanic idea until the 1960s. In 1966, San Franciscan Anton LaVey (1930�) announced a new era of Satan and the formation of the Church of Satan. The church espoused LaVey’s ideal of a set of anti-Christian values such as individualism, selfishness, and the expression of human drives suppressed by the church.

In 1969, LaVey published The Satanic Bible, the primary book guiding the Church of Satan. It included guidelines for holding a Black Mass. During the first decade of the church, Black Masses were held to the entertainment of the news media, some being attended by celebrities. LaVey’s masses emphasized the sexual aspects, but given the church’s teachings about being law-abiding, they eschewed any taking of life. The church and its several offshoots continue to practice a Black Mass.

Satanism, both of the LaVey variety or its more informal variety, has been an extremely rare phenomenon. The Church of Satan never had more than 2,000 active members and was largely gutted in the mid-1970s, when a number of leaders left and its groups (called grottos) largely dissolved. With the exception of the Temple of Set, which counts its membership in the hundreds, the groups that have come out of the Church of Satan have been very small and ephemeral.

On very rare occasions, informal Satanic groups have formed and, during their short life, committed one or more homicides. However, the threat from Satanism remains largely an imagined phenomenon propagated by a small number of conservative Christian church leaders. In 2004 an Italian heavy metal rock band called the Beasts of Satan were accused of killing two of its teenage members in an act of human sacrifice. In response, a prominent Roman Catholic University, the Regina Apostolorum, introduced a course on Satanism and the occult into its curriculum.