La Voisin or a 17th century self-made woman à la française

As the title suggests it will be a story of one intrepid woman who lived in the 17th century France. She didn’t have any wealth or titles to her name. Despite that fact she managed to educate herself and find a good, high-profile job or rather create one. In fact she was far more successful than her husband and she was able to cater for the needs of all her household. She became a very prominent figure in Paris, feared and visited
Catherine Deshayes,
Catherine Deshayes, “La Voisin”, 17th-century print of her portrait held by a winged devil (so you know at once she is bad). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
even by those rich and mighty. Still her job wasn’t exactly respectful – I would call it demanding and dangerous. No, she wasn’t a prostitute. She was a fortuneteller and a poisoner. Her name is Catherine Monvoisin, née Deshayes, but she was better known as “La Voisin”.

Nobody knows when Catherine was born. At that times children from lower classes weren’t registered at all, especially girls. It was most probably around 1640. You also won’t be able to find anything about her childhood or youth. Her public life started with a marriage to one Antoine Monvoisin, a jeweler with a shop at Pont-Marie in Paris. Antoine wasn’t a great businessman – soon enough he was ruined. Catherine decided to take things into her own hands – she started practicing chiromancy, face-reading and midwifery to support her family. Some say she specialized mainly in performing abortions.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from that facts. First is that Catherine must have had a real gift of reading people’s characters. She said that she developed the talent God had given her and, allegedly, she had been taught the art of fortune telling from the age of nine. It is known that she actively studied methods of physiology but without being a natural psychologist she would have never achieved so much. She was clever enough to spend a lot of money to provide the right atmosphere which would make her clients more inclined to believe in her authority and the prophecies provided. For example she acquired a special robe of crimson red velvet embroidered with eagles in gold for an exorbitant price of 1500 livres to perform in because her sessions were a kind of performance, no doubt of it.

In order to give you some notion how exorbitant a price it really was compare it to the expenses of one Aubert de la Chesnaye a merchant, fur-trader, seigneur, financier, member of the Conseil Souverain of New France who lived in the same period. Soon after his arrival in the colony La Chesnaye began to acquire land. In 1659 he purchased for 1,000 livres 70 acres on Coteau Sainte-Geneviève, one of the colony’s most favoured sites for agriculture by virtue of its proximity to Quebec, and a lot on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot in Lower Town where he built a spacious home in the 1660s. La Voisin seemed to aim really high, feeling the need to spend more on a robe.

During her work as a fortune teller, she noticed the similarities between her customers wishes about their future: almost all wanted to have someone fall in love with them, that someone would die so that they might inherit, or that their spouses would die, so that they might marry someone else. Her clients were her masters and she knew how to be flexible and meet their expectations. Initially, she told her clients that their will would be true if it was also the will of God. Then, she started to recommend to her clients some actions: to visit the church of some particular saint; eventually, she was selling them amulets and recommend magical practices of various kinds. She started to sell aphrodisiacs to those who wished for people to fall in love with them, and poison to those who wished for someone to die. The bones of toads, teeth of moles, Spanish flies, iron filings, human blood and mummy, or the dust of human remains, were among the alleged ingredients of the love powders concocted by La Voisin. Apparently not all her clients wanted to visit a church or believed in divine interventions so she was arranging black masses where they could pray to the Devil. It was only a matter of money.

Of course La Voisin hardly worked alone although her unlucky husband seemed to be content to keep to the background. Catherine found other, more skilled professionals, to cooperate with and soon enough she had a large network of colleagues and assistants, among them Adam Lesage, who was one of her lovers and performed allegedly magical tasks; the reneged priests Étienne Guibourg and abbé Mariotte, who officiated at the black masses; and poisoners like Catherine Trianon as La Voisin was not particularly skilled in that area and her clients, recruiting from those privileged, influential and rich, were more and more demanding. She had also an extensive network of associates and had been able to place young girls among the ladies-in-waiting at the royal court to spy for her.

That way Catherine had made a real fortune from her business. Among her noted clients were countess de Soissons, duchess de Bouillon; Comtesse de Gramont (“la belle Hamilton”), François-Henri de Montmorency, duc de Luxembourg, princesse Marie Louise Charlotte de Tingry, marchioness Benigne d’Alluye, countess Claude Marie du Roure, count de Clermont-Lodéve, countess Jacqueline de Polignac, duchess Antoinette de Vivonne, Marquis Louis de Cessac, Marquis Antoine de Feuquieres and Marechal de la Ferthe. La Voisin resided at Villeneuve-sur-Gravois, where she received her clients. Like a good businesswoman she tended to them all day and them she entertained them at parties with violin music in her gardens at night. The house also included a furnace, allegedly for the bodies of dead babies, who were then buried in the garden.

Officially La Voisin was a religious woman although it’s hard to say whether she truly believed in God or just pretended to do so in order to deflect any accusations and make a part of her clientele more comfortable with her services. Anyway she regularly attended the church of the Jansenist abbé de Sant-Amour, principal at the Paris University. On the other hand she was also interested in science and alchemy and financed several private projects and enterprises, some of them made by con artists who tried to fool money out of her. Privately it is said her glamorous life was also a stressful one – she suffered from alcoholism. It must have been a high-stress and high-risk career, full of unexpected pitfalls. For example in 1665/66, her fortune telling was questioned by the priests of Saint Vincent de Paul’s order, the Congregation of the Mission, but La Voisin defended herself successfully before the professors at the Sorbonne. She proved to be one intelligent lady but it was hardly the end of her problems.

The death of the king’s sister-in-law, the Duchesse d’Orléans, had been falsely attributed to poison, and the crimes of Madame de Brinvilliers (executed in 1676) and her accomplices were still fresh in the public mind. In parallel, a riot took place where people accused witches of abducting children for the black masses, and priests reported that a growing number of people were confessing to poisoning in their confessions. In 1677, the fortune teller Magdelaine de La Grange was arrested for poisoning, and claimed that she had information about crimes of high importance. It led to the arrest of the successful fortune teller and poisoner Marie Bosse and Marie Vigoreux in January 1679. All these events made the police aware that there existed a network of fortune tellers in Paris who dealt with the distribution of poison. They started to look for other members of that network but I suppose nobody could predict that they would be dealing with an attempted regicide soon.

Madame de Montespan

The most important client of La Voisin was Madame de Montespan, the official royal mistress to King Louis XIV of France. She was also her downfall. In 1667, Montespan hired La Voisin to arrange a black mass, allegedly celebrated in a house in Rue de la Tannerie. Adam Lesage and abbé Mariotte officiated, while Montespan prayed to win the love of the king. The same year, Montespan became the official mistress of the king, and after this, she employed La Voisin whenever a problem occurred in her relationship with Louis. As you can guess, she could practically take it for granted that sooner or later there would be problems.

In 1673, when the king’s interest in Montespan seemed to deteriorate, she again turned to La Voisin, who provided a series of black masses officiated by Etienne Guibourg. Allegedly on a least one occasion, Montespan herself acted as the human altar during the mass. I don’t doubt the royal mistress was a great client but she was also too ambitious for her own sake. In 1677 she made clear that if the king should abandon her, she would have him killed. When the King entered in to a relationship with Angélique de Fontanges in 1679, Montespan called for La Voisin and asked her to have both the king and Fontages poisoned. La Voisin hesitated, but was eventually convinced or blackmailed to agree. At the house of her colleague, Catherine Trianon, La Voisin came with a plan to kill the king together with other fellow poisoners, Bertrand and Romani, the last being also the fiancé of her daughter. Trianon was unwilling to participate and tried to make her change her mind by constructing an ill-fated fortune for her, but Voisin refused to listen to her. Perhaps she was in a very tight corner and I suppose she knew the best how worthless these fortunes were. The group decided to murder the king by poisoning a petition which was to be delivered to his own hands.

The 5 March 1679, La Voisin visited the royal court in Saint-Germain to deliver the petition. At that day, however, there were too many petitioners and the king did not take them in his hands, which made her return without having delivered it. Upon her return to her home in Paris, she handed the petition to her daughter and asked her to burn it, which she also did. The next day, she made plans to visit Catherine Trianon after mass, allegedly to plan the next murder attempt upon Louis XIV.

The 12 March 1679, La Voisin was arrested outside Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle after having heard mass, just before her appointed meeting at Catherine Trianon. In April 1679, a commission appointed to inquire into the subject and to prosecute the offenders met for the first time. Its proceedings, including some suppressed in the official records, are preserved in the notes of one of the official court reporters, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie.
Louis XIV

At the arrest of La Voisin, her maid Margot stated that the persecution would mean the end of a number of people of all positions of society. Still the commission didn’t hesitate to arrest Marguerite Monvoisin, the only daughter of La Voisin, Guibourg, Lesage, Bertrand, Romain and the rest of her network of her associates. La Voisin was kept at Vincennes, were she was subjected to questioning. On 27 December 1679, Louis XIV issued an order that the whole network should be exterminated by all methods regardless of the rank, gender or age of those involved.

La Voisin confessed to the crimes she was accused of and described the development of her career. She was never subjected to torture: a formal order was issued giving permission to the use of torture, but it was made clear that the order was not to be put in effect, and consequently it was never made use of. The reason it suggested to be the fear that she might give away the names of influential people if she was questioned under torture. La Voisin never mentioned the names of any of her clients during the interviews. She once mentioned to the guards, that the question she feared most was that they should ask her about her visits at the royal court. It is likely that she was referring to Montespan as her client and her attempt of murdering the king, and that she feared that such a confession should result in her execution for regicide. Other sources state that, after being held a year, she was subjected to three days of intense torture during which her legs were systematically crushed. Still she did not confess.

Her list of clients, the arranging of the black masses, her connection to Montespan and the murder attempt on the king was not to be revealed until after her death, when it was stated by her daughter and confirmed by the uncontaminated testimonies of the other accused.

La Voisin was convicted of witchcraft and was burned in public on the Place de Grève in Paris the 22 February 1680. In July, her daughter Marguerite Monvoisin revealed her connection to Montespan, which was confirmed by the statements of the other accused. This caused the monarch to eventually close the investigation, despite his earlier threats, seal the testimonies and place the remaining accused outside of the public justice system by imprisoning them under a lettre de cachet (a letter under the sovereign’s seal, often authorizing imprisonment without trial; literally: letter with a seal)

After many years of stories circulating throughout Europe of witches, Satanists, and black masses, largely believed to have been created by the imaginations of Inquisitors, the case of La Voisin appears to have been the first real registering of events that began to conform to the rumors. It would, of course, not be the last. Still La Voisin seems to me firstly and foremostly a successful businesswoman and a clever psychologist who was destroyed by her own ambition, not an evil witch.

La Voisin and her organisation is portrayed in a novel by Judith Merkle Riley: The Oracle Glass (1994), which was reviewed by Blodeuedd not so long ago.

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