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4.9 out of 5 stars
4.9 out of 5 stars

VINE VOICEon 22 October 2004
King Louis XIV's court was the most glamorous and powerful in Europe at the time, so it's easy to imagine the shock-waves that were generated when several of its core members were accused of poisoning, child sacrifice and devil-worship (David Icke would have been in his element!). At the core of the story are La Voisin, a thoroughly unscrupulous woman who plied her trade as a fake fortune-teller and backstreet abortionist, and her one-time lover, Lesage, who was a sort of predecessor of Aleister Crowley, in that he convinced many people he was a genuine magician, and in spite of his less-than-handsome appearance, had enough charisma to seduce plenty of ladies.
When this unwholeseome twosome were brought into police custody on suspicion of supplying poisons to members of the Parisian elite, they hit upon the idea of delaying their inevitable torture and execution by supplying the police with ever-increasing tales of murder and attempted murder amongst the very highest echelons of society. A sort of grotesque version of the "Arabian Nights". Eventually they implicated Madame de Montespan, a long-time mistress of the King, who had borne him no less than 7 children during her "career", but who was now past her prime, out of favour, and desperate to get back in it. She was accused of taking part in Satanic rituals in order to restore her standing at court.
All this was aided by the chief of police, who was rather too diligent in his rooting out of scandal. Eventually the situation became quite farcical, with the entire population of Paris seemingly conniving to poison each other! (I couldn't help being reminded of the Satanic Abuse scandals at the beginning of the 1990s). Anne Somerset has done exhaustive research on her subject, and never for a moment lets the sensational stories cloud her judgement. The cast of characters is huge and sometimes very confusing, but she makes a highly complicated story easy to digest. It's certainly intersting to see another side to the glittering reign of the Sun King.
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on 16 September 2015
This book gives an appalling picture of life in the 17th -18th century (in France) and a most cruel portrait of a king (Louis XIV).

The King
The ‘Sun’ King was everything but sunny. His main preoccupation was his ‘glory’ and, for him, this glory could only be achieved through WAR. (‘War is undoubtedly the most brilliant way to acquire glory’, ‘to increase his kingdom’s power and prestige’). He was rightly called ‘the terror of Europe’.
He sits at the root of ‘the fatal events of our times’ (E. Spanheim). During the Dutch war, many people were burned alive in their homes.
Besides war, there were the BUILDINGS: ‘nothing indicates the grandeur and spirit of princes more than buildings’ (Colbert).

His court
Versailles was a top location, but its main characteristic was stench through extremely bad sanitation (defecations and urinations in public inside the palace) and hygiene.
For the courtiers it was a world of boredom: ‘one gets up early in the morning, one dresses oneself with care, one spends all day on one’s feet awaiting a favorable moment to get oneself seen, to present oneself, and often one comes back as one went, except that one is in despair for having wasted one’s time and trouble’. They were immensely ‘superstitious, backward and deluded’.
The court was also a ‘bordello’ for all tendencies.
The top classes were obsessed by power. The infighting to become the favorite of the King was deadly: ‘all at court would have given themselves to the devil for love of the King (Primi Visconti)’. The court was full of ‘jealousy and spite, intrigue, ambition and avarice’.
Those who got ‘in the sun’, but risked to lose it, turned to poisoning, Satanism, infanticide, black masses, black magic with the hope to improve their prospects (again).

His countrymen, religion, the clergy
Versailles was the power centre of France. But, what about the rest of the country?
The common people lived a wretched life, full of penury. They were crushed by the oppressive weight of taxes … to be spend for the ‘glory’ of the King.
Religion had lost its attraction: ‘faith is extinguished in this country to the point where not a single young man is to be found who does not choose to be an atheist’ (the Duchesse d’Orléans). The first estate, the clergy, was corrupt, celebrating black masses on the stomachs of naked women. Priests cut a child’s throat and collected its blood in a chalice. The blood took the place of sacramental wine.’

Ultimately, the king backed away from the scandal, because his mistress was most probably involved in the affair. Moreover, it was very bad for France’s international reputation.

This book gives an astonishing portrait of the highest classes (the first and the second estate) and of one the most beautiful buildings in a European country in the 17th-18th century.

Highly recommended.
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on 26 October 2003
By means of focusing on a particular series of incidents, known as the Affair of the Poisons, Anne Somerset has written one of the most penetrating studies of Louis XIV ever published. The wave of hysteria and scandal which broke over the court of Versailles in 1677 starred a Rogues' Gallery of Poisoners, Blackmailers, Devil-Worshippers, Witches, Torturers and Cruel Inquisitors which makes the events portrayed in the Witches of Salem seem like an episode from a tea-party. The most fascinating thread in this history as written by Anne Somerset is the insight which the author gives us into the character and methods of Louis XIV. She describes and lays bare the mixture of superstitious vacillation and guilt-ridden indecision with which Louis dealt with an affair which implicated those closest to him in affection and family. This not the usual bland picture of the Sun King's magnificence, unerring powers of judgement and political genius. When we consider that Somerset's portrait of the King, although admittedly in cameo form, is competing with the works of Saint Simon, Madame De Sevigne, Voltaire and more recently, Nancy Mitford - among many others - this book is a very considerable triumph of scholarship and historical writing. As a bonus, The Affair of the Poisons is full of the highly enjoyable blend of sly wit and analytical clarity with which Anne Somerset has made her reputation as a scholar and historian - and it has the hallucinatory cinematic quality of Patrick Suskind's great novel, Perfume.
The Affair Of The Poisons is the rarest of historical works: one which reads like a compulsively page-turning thriller; and yet is the product of painstaking and unique research from original sources. Truth has never been more clearly shown to be stranger than fiction, than in this powerful book.
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on 4 February 2013
'The affair of the poisons' plunges the reader into the dark world of Paris in the late 17th century, inhabited by a bizarre cast of 'divineresses' and other cheats who sold their clientele not just predictions but also a variety of potions & powders and curses to be used against one's enemies. Most of this seems silly to the modern reader rather than dangerous. At the time however these practises were taken highly seriously; burying a pigeon's heart in the garden of an enemy was considered a serious crime, fully sufficient for a death penalty.
Worried by reports that shady practices had also penetrated Versailles, Louis XIV instituted a legal commission to act against the alleged poisoners. The zeal of the bureaucrats leading this commission together with contemporary legal practises (extensive use of torture) led to an explosion of arrests and convictions in a manner than reminds one of 'purges' in communist systems centuries later. Thankfully, as his former mistress Mme de Montespan ended up being implicated, Louis chose to shut down the commission to avoid embarrassment.
All in all this is a very entertaining and fascinating read, albeit sometimes a little repetitive.
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on 25 November 2009
Enjoyed this book immensely - so much so I ordered another copy as a gift.
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on 23 August 2009
This book was not easy to find, so I was delighted when these people kindly found it for me and delivered it so promptly and in very good condition to me.
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on 24 August 2016
This books is fascinating - I had never heard of this affair before - totally unputdownable.
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on 10 October 2015
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on 20 August 2010
A deeply researched and lucidly argued work about major scandal at the court of Louis XIV. The only minor niggles I have with this book are Somerset's use of the word "divineresses" and using the prefix "la" before every female character - la Bosse, la Vigoruex, la Filastre, which is unnecessary and clumsy.
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on 25 August 2014
great buy
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