Versailles: The Affair of the Poisons

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The second season of Versailles covers is sort of inspired by the Affair of the Poisons, one of the most dramatic set of events in the reign of Louis XIV. Normally I don’t cover more than one season of a show, but I’m going to break that rule because it gives me an excuse to write about the Affair.

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The first episode of the second season introduces us to Madame Agathe (Suzanne, Clément) a close confident of Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster). Initially she seems to be just a fortune teller, but as the season goes on, it’s clear that she’s also a poisoner responsible for supplying poisons to a variety of people at the court, including Sophie (Maddison Jaizani), who slowly poisons her husband, and Gaston de Foix (Harry Hadden-Paton) who apparently murders several people, including one of Louis’ ministers, the man’s wife, and the queen’s favorite clergyman. Montespan, struggling to hold Louis’ affections, even turns to an associate of Agathe’s for a black mass that she hopes will rekindle the spark Louis had for her. It’s eventually revealed that Agathe is hoping to trigger Louis’ overthrow for reasons I couldn’t follow. The season ends with Sophie safely widowed, Gaston dead, Montespan in disgrace, and Agathe burning at the stake.

As we’ll see, that bears only the faintest resemblance to what actually happened.

 

The Prologue

In 1666, the groundwork for the Affair of the Poisons was laid by the scandalous revelations around Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, a dissolute young noblewoman. Both she and her husband Antoine enjoyed gambling and they maintained an open relationship, with Antoine actively introducing her to her lover, Captain Godin de St-Croix. As a result of their extravagant lifestyle, the couple found themselves in need of money. The Marquise fell out with her family, who objected to her affair with St-Croix and arranged for him to be thrown into the Bastille. This put St-Croix in contact with a poisoner who taught him a great deal. St-Croix then got into contact with a Swiss chemist who worked with him for three years to perfect a recipe for Acqua Toffana, an arsenic-based poison that was odorless and tasteless. While they were perfecting the formula, the Marquise was regularly visiting a charity hospital and feeding the residents pastries laced with the poison to observe its effects.

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The Marquise de Brinvilliers

 

So in 1666, having working out how to poison people, the Marquise allegedly began applying her knowledge. She placed a servant in her father’s household who spent six months poisoning her father so the Marquise could inherit part of her estate. As her father sickened, the Marquise played the dutiful daughter, tending to him and giving him the final dose. This allowed his estate to be split between the Marquise, a sister, and two brothers.

Then she decided she wanted to be rid of her husband, so that she could marry St-Croix. So she started to poison Antoine. But St-Croix had recently married and felt better having Antoine around, so he began to slip Antoine the antidote. At least, this is the rumor that was going around that explained why Antoine went through 5 or 6 health crises in the later 1660. Eventually Marie gave up and let him live. But she allegedly tried to poison her sister, a Carmelite nun, and her own daughter, both of whom survived.

By 1668, the creditors were pressing the Marquise quite aggressively, so she decided she needed to inherit some money. She paid St-Croix (who was no longer providing her his services for free) to place a servant in her brother Antoine’s household, and by 1670 he was dead. A few months later her other brother similarly departed this world. Marie split their estates with her sister.

Unfortunately, in 1672, St-Croix died, reportedly by accidentally poisoning himself, and the Paris police came into possession of a bunch of letters and diaries detailing the Marquise’ activities. She fled the country, but in 1675 she was arrested. She produced a 16-page confession of her crimes, but then recanted and insisted vehemently that she was innocent. A confessor eventually persuaded her to recant her recantation. She made a full confession and was publicly beheaded and her body burnt.

 

The Affair Begins

The scandal around Marie’s confession and execution made people begin paying more attention to what in retrospect seemed like suspicious deaths. Marie had hinted broadly that she was far from the only person who had poisoned someone, but she refused to name names.

In 1677, the Paris police arrested Magdelaine Guénisseau and her lover on charges that they had murdered her employer and forged evidence that she had been married to him, so that they could inherit his property. Madgelaine appealed to one of Louis’ ministers, the Marquis de Louvois, who reported it to Louis, who told him and Gabriel Nicholas de La Reynie, the chief of the Paris police, to investigate. (Louvois is a regular character on Versailles, and La Reynie is the loose inspiration for Fabien Marchal).

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La Reynie

 

La Reynie investigated and uncovered a loose network of alchemists, counterfeiters, and poisoners operating around Paris and having ties to various nobles. He found evidence of a plot to poison the king, but was unable to determine who might be behind it. Then he managed to apprehend two women, Marie Vigoureux and Marie Bosse, who seemed to be at the center of this network. La Bosse had boasted that with three more poisonings she would be able to retire comfortably. Although La Bosse insisted she only did palm readings and dabbled in love potions, a search of her apartment turned up arsenic, Spanish fly, powdered menstrual blood, and nail clippings. That evidence caused La Bosse and La Vigoureux to break down and implicate a wide range of people including midwives, abortionists (or ‘angel makers’ as they were sometimes called), sorceresses, a ‘toad vendor’, an herbalist, and several renegade priests. La Bosse admitted that she had sold soap impregnated with arsenic and ‘inheritance powders’ (as many of the poisons were euphemistically called) to a noblewoman who was trying to get rid of her husband.

Then in 1679, as La Reynie’s investigation widened, he reeled in an even bigger fish, Catherine Monvoisin, known generally as La Voisin, who is the inspiration for Madame Agathe. She was a palm reader, alchemist, and abortionist whose clients included Olympe Mancini and her sister Marie, two of Louis’ early mistresses (that link discusses Louis’ mistresses, several of whom will be discussed below). She had become wealthy enough that she moved freely at the top levels of Parisian society and frequently threw impressive parties. She sold love potions and magical amulets and arranged black masses for her clients as well. She also dabbled in poisoning, although it was not her main stock in trade and she was reportedly much less-well versed in it than others in her circle. Most importantly, she was in contact with two of Louis’ current mistresses, Madame de Montespan and Montespan’s servant Claude de Vin des Oeillets.

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La Voisin

 

The Black Masses

In 1667, La Voisin arranged a black mass for Montespan, the same year that Montespan became maitress en titre.Montespan paid for several more black masses  a few years later in 1673, when Louis’ eye began to wander, and she also purchased an aphrodisiac that she gave to Louis.

Paris had a thriving underworld of renegade priests in this period. These were men who had clerical training and ordination, but often did not have any sort of clerical position with which to support themselves (or else they regarded their regular income as insufficient). One way that these men supported themselves was by performing illicit rituals that drew on the power of Catholic rituals for unsanctioned purposes. They administered fake communions using unconsecrated hosts for patrons who needed to be seen taking communion but who were unwilling to make the required confession beforehand. They supplied chalices, crucifixes, holy water, holy oil, and consecrated hosts for a wide range of supernatural purposes such as a love spells, rituals to protect livestock from disease and wolves, and rituals to communicated with the dead or demons. Etienne Guibourg (the inspiration for Father Etienne in the show) frequently performed a ritual in which he wrote the names of a client and an intended target on the host, then consecrated the host during a regular mass at his church. He would afterward give the special host to the client with instructions to grind it into powder and mix it into the target’s food. This was supposed to cause the target to fall in love with the client. Another love spell at the time involved a priest blessing a pair of rings and going through a parody of a marriage mass for the client; this was supposed to ‘marry’ the target in absentia to the client.

What it casually called a Black Mass is actually, in this case, an Amatory Mass. A Black Mass is a form of Satan-worship that parodies the Catholic liturgy for malicious purposes. What Guibourg and others performed was not intended to subvert the mass but rather to harness its power for magical ends; in the case of an Amatory Mass, the goal was to cause someone to fall in love with the client. Thus although to the Catholic hierarchy the Amatory Mass looked profoundly disrespectful to Catholic belief, to men like Guibourg the ritual was actually expressing a strange sort of respect for the mass; they believed in the mass’ power to achieve magical things.

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A modern artist’s drawing of Guibourg performing an Amatory Mass

 

Trigger Warning: the following two paragraphs get rather gruesome. If you’re easily disturbed, skip down to the paragraph that begins “In 1678”.

Guibourg’s Amatory Masses involved using the body of a naked woman as the altar for the mass; a cloth was placed over her belly and a cross and other implements were placed on the cloth, along with a note describing the client’s desires. The women in question was ideally the client, but did not have to be. Guibourg then performed a standard mass except that when he elevated the host he read aloud the note along with an invocation to the demons Asmodeus and Astaroth. He then slit the throat of a newborn baby, poured its blood into the chalice, and cut out its heart, which was place in a vase with the consecrated host. He completed the ritual by having sex with the woman. Needless to say, an Amatory Mass was not only deeply sacrilegious, it was also profoundly illegal.

La Voisin was said to procure the babies from prostitutes. She reportedly disposed of the corpses of the babies by burning them in an oven and then burying them in her garden. Several witnesses claimed that she had bragged about disposing of 2,500 infants that way. (One sometimes reads that authorities dug up thousands of corpses from her garden, but that seems to be untrue.)

 

The Scandal Explodes

In 1678, when Louis became infatuated with Marie-Angélique de Scorailles, Montespan supposedly asked La Voisin to poison both Louis and de Scorailles. La Voisin reportedly tried to pass Louis a petition impregnated with poison, but was unable to do so. Before she could formulate a second plan, La Reynie caught up with her. La Bosse and La Voisin began accusing each other of increasingly severe crimes, implicating a substantial number of France’s lesser nobility in buying inheritance powders and procuring abortions.

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One of Louis’ last mistresses, Marie Angélique de Scorailles

 

Another of their associates, Adam Coeuret, better known as the sorcerer Lesage, got picked up and began trying to save his neck by accusing La Voisin of having of orchestrating black masses. She accused Lesage of helping her procure poisons, and Lesage retaliated by revealing the work she had done for Montespan. Lesage also accused the duc de Luxembourg, who was the captain of the king’s guards, of trying to arrange the murders of his own wife and Louvois’ son-in-law so that he could marry Louvois’ daughter. This revelation delighted Louvois because he hated Luxembourg and wanted to ruin him. Even more remarkably, Lesage produced a letter from the duc implicating him.

By this point, the accusations Lesage was making were so inflammatory (since Montespan was not only Louis’ official mistress but the mother of several of his acknowledged children) that Louis ordered La Reynie to keep a completely separate unofficial transcript of Lesage’s claims. Fortunately for modern historians, La Reynie’s records both official and unofficial survive for us to reconstruct the events.

La Voisin’s daughter, Marie-Marguerite, testified that she had frequently witnessed her mother and Lesage performing magical rituals, including baptizing wax figurines, making amulets involving pigeon’s hearts and consecrated hosts, and burning a piece of wood as part of a love spell to secure his love for Montespan. Pressed further, she spilled the beans about the poisoned petition. She also testified that she had personally attended two black masses that Montespan had participated in.

La Voisin denied these charges, but it didn’t convince anyone. The scandal had become too big and too widely known for it be swept under the rug, especially when the Marquise de Brinvilliers had primed people to think there were an epidemic of poisoning going on. La Reynie identified a total of 442 suspects, 212 of whom were arrested and questioned. Several suspects, include La Vigoureux, died under torture, and 36 people were publicly executed (generally by burning), including La Voisin and La Bosse. La Voisin’s daughter, Guibourg, and Lesage were sentenced to perpetual imprisonment; two other priests were executed.

Of their known clients, a good number fled Frances to avoid imprisonment or were sentenced to exile for varying periods. Olympe Mancini (who was suspected of poisoning her husband) was exiled and her sister Marie was banished from court. A few were executed, and a couple were fined. Luxembourg spent a short period in the Bastille but managed to return to Louis’ good graces. Most importantly of all, Madame de Montespan was never touched. When des Scorailles died suddenly in 1681, many thought that Montespan had poisoned her. But she was never publically accused of any crime. La Reynie kept his investigation into her role completely under wraps, and it’s possible that even Montespan did not know she was being investigated.

Madame de Montespan was too prominent a figure at the court for anyone to make an open accusation against her. Although the evidence that she was procuring love potions and Amatory Masses is pretty solid, the evidence that she was trying to poison the king is shakier. There are inconsistencies in the testimony against her. La Reynie thought that des Oeillets, Montespan’s go-between with La Voisin, was the real culprit. He suspected that she wanted to poison Louis because the king had refused to acknowledge his daughter by her. He theorized that she had switched some of the love potions Montespan was buying from La Voisin for arsenic. And she was Montespan’s stand-in during the Amatory Masses. So Louis either didn’t believe the poisoning accusations or he allowed her to go unpunished out of a combination of affection for her and concern about how the scandal would look. By 1683, she was out of favor, but remained at court for almost another decade before retiring to a convent in 1691.

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Claude de Vin des Oeillets

 

Back to Versailles

So let’s take stock of how Versaillesdepicts this material.

Yes, Agathe/La Voisin provided fortune-telling and love potions for Montespan. No she didn’t use tarot cards. She was a palm-reader.

No, Agathe/La Voisin did not provide poisons to Sophie or Gaston de Foix, because both of those characters are fictitious. But she or an associate certainly provided poisons to women looking to dispose of unwanted husbands. Yes, she sold love charms.

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Gaston scheming with Agathe

 

Yes, Agathe/La Voisin may have conspired to poison the king. No, it wasn’t because she hated the king or wanted to overthrow the government. No, Louis wasn’t almost poisoned with a consecrated host and wasn’t saved at the last moment, but yes, it’s possible that he was given arsenic at some point (if so, it would have been by Montespan, thinking it was a love potion). No, this wasn’t just Agathe/La Voisin and Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg; it was dozens and dozens of people involved in various capacities.

No, one of Louis’ ministers and his wife were not poisoned. The Affair never reached quite that high up the food chain at Versailles. And no, so far as we know, none of the poisonings were directly about politics. They were about inheritances and a desire to end unwanted marriages.

Yes, Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg did perform sacrilegious masses over the body of a naked woman, and yes those masses did involve the killing of babies. Yes, Montespan had such masses performed for her, but no, she didn’t act as the altar and may not have even attended them. Yes, Father Etienne/Etienne Guibourg may have used prostitutes’ babies for the ritual, but no, he wasn’t the one collecting them (unless La Voisin was making things up, which isn’t impossible). No, one of the masses was not broken up by Marchal/La Reynie. No, Marchal/La Reynie did not almost die trying to stop the poisoning.

No, no one at court took fast-acting poison when they were about to be exposed, and no, a priest was not poisoned with a lily. No, the poisons didn’t cause people to vomit blood and die quickly.

Yes, Montespan was desperate to keep Louis’ affections. No, she and Agathe/La Voisin did not have regular meetings to discuss her situation. She used her lady-in-waiting Claude des Oeillets as the go-between.

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Montespan meeting with Agathe

 

My verdict is that the second season is only VERY loosely inspired by the actual Affair of the Poisons, which was way more complex and, to me at least, interesting than what the show offers us. Still, it’s nice to see the Affair referenced so much. It’s a fascinating event.

 

Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

My favorite book on the The Affair of the Poisons is Lynn Wood Mollenauer’s Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s FranceIt’s an excellent look at the Affair from several different angles, including the occult underworld. Mollenauer has a lively, surprisingly humorous style, a rarity for an academic work like this.

 

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Versailles: Poison!

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The second season of Versailles focuses heavily on the Affair of the Poisons, and a good number of people get poisoned in the show, so I thought I would spend a post discussing the show’s treatment of poisoning before I actually discuss how well the show captures the Affair.

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In the show, a whole lot of people get poisoned. Henrietta (Noémie Schmidt) gets offed at the end of the first season, as does the female physician Claudine’s father partway through the season, and in the second season, there are a bunch of victims, including one of Louis’ ministers and the minister’s wife and the obnoxious Father Pascal (James Joint). Cassel (Pip Torrens) is poisoned by his wife Sophie (Maddison Jaizani). It’s all the work of Madame Agathe (Suzanne Clément), a fortune-teller and selling of love potions and poisons who hates Louis and is somehow planning to collapse his government by poisoning people.

With the exception of Cassel, the poisonings all basically present the same visually dramatic symptom; one consumes poison and sometime later one feels unwell and immediately begins to vomit blood and then die. In Henrietta’s case, there’s prolonged abdominal discomfort and time for a lengthy goodbye, but mostly death comes pretty quickly once symptoms present.

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Henrietta expiring

While that makes for interesting television, it’s pretty wildly inaccurate. I’ve already discussed three common poisons used in the Early Modern period: antimony, mercury, and acqua toffana (a mixture of arsenic and lead). Another window into the Early Modern poisoner’s toolkit is the so-called Assassin’s Cabinet, a small chest of poisons designed to look like a book (although it’s been argued that it might actually be an apothecary’s chest, since all of the substances in it had legitimate medical uses at the time). The chest contained drawers for 11 substances, all of which are poisonous in the proper concentrations: henbane, opium poppy, wolfsbane (aconite, monkshood), cowbane (water hemlock), mandrake, jimson weed, valerian, spurge laurel, castor oil plant, meadow saffron, and deadly nightshade (belladonna).

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The Assassin’s Cabinet

 

(As an aside, in the show, when Madame Agathe’s rooms are being searched one of the guards holds up something that strongly resembles the Assassin’s Cabinet. Props to them for doing some research!)

None of these substances have symptoms anything like the poison used on Versailles. For example, henbane poisoning causes hallucinations, confusion, restlessness, flushed skin, convulsions and loss of coordination, fever, and vomiting. Wolfsbane is a contact poison that causes respiratory problems, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, convulsions, paralysis, and confusion. Jimson weed causes nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, high blood pressure, rapid pulse, extreme thirst, convulsions, hallucination, headache, and coma. I could go on, but you get the point. So far as I can tell, none of these substances causes the victim to vomit blood, just regular vomit. I haven’t been able to find an historical poison that has as its primary symptom vomiting blood. (Honest, FBI, it’s all research for this blog!) So the show’s poison is basically fantasy poison.

But the show gets something much more wrong than just making up a poison. A poison with symptoms like the one Agathe sells wouldn’t have been a very popular poison for one important reason. It’s too obvious that the victim has been murdered.

To appreciate this, you have to reflect on the poor state of medical knowledge in the pre-Modern world. There were many things that could cause people to die suddenly: heart attack, stroke, aneurism, aortic dissection, appendicitis, various infections, and food poisoning could all cause an apparently healthy person to rapidly decline and die. As a result, anytime some died suddenly in apparently good health, there were always rumors that the person had been poisoned, because the true cause of death could often not be identified by physicians. As a result, I’m always very skeptical of claims that historical figures were poisoned. Sudden death always raised suspicions. If you’re a poisoner, you generally don’t want to raise suspicion. You want the death to appear natural. If you want to be blatant, you usually used other tools, like knives, because you were more certain of hitting the intended target.

So poison was mostly used by people who wanted the death to look natural or to mimic the symptoms of a disease. That’s how Sophie kills Cassel—with a poison that causes him to slowly sicken and decline. The primary symptom is coughing a lot and general weakness. That’s how poisons like antimony and acqua toffana operated. They required repeated doses administered over a period of time and they made the victim appear to slowly sicken from organ failure or other natural causes. That way the victim died and everyone thought that he or she had just died in the normal course of events.

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Henbane

 

In fact, we know a fair amount about the poisons used during the Affair of the Poisons. Arsenic was probably the most popular, because its symptoms resembled dysentery: organ failure, inflammation of the throat and intestines, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, confusion, and coma. One poisoner, Marie Bosse impregnated the victim’s shirt with powdered arsenic, which would get absorbed through the skin as the victim sweated. It caused sores that looked like a syphilitic chancre. Because most forms of arsenic have a strong taste, another popular way to administer it was through an enema, which were extremely popular in this era.

Poisoners also used as variety of plant-based substances, including mandrake, hemlock, aloe, buttercup, ergot, biting stonecrop, juniper, and nux vomica (strychnine). At least one type of poisonous mushroom was used as well. And it’s likely that some of the other substances in the Assassin’s Cabinet were employed as well.

The top of the line poison was secret du crapaud, or Toad’s Secret. This was manufactured in a variety of ways, all of which involved a toad in some way. The various methods all involve tormenting a toad, which causes it to release toxins in an attempt to fight off the attack. The dead toad might be dried and powdered and administered that way, it could be allowed to putrefy and then powdered, its urine could be administered, or it could be mixed with arsenic. Toad’s Secret drew on classical ideas that toads were particularly noxious creatures, so even if the drug wasn’t actually very poisonous, it could fetch a high price, especially because the methods for manufacturing it were not widely known. Marie Bosse’s son claimed to know a method to infuse a silver goblet with Toad’s Secret so that anyone who drank from the cup would die. But he eventually admitted that he had never managed to kill anyone that way.

As we’ll see next time, the Affair of the Poison didn’t become known because people started spewing blood during cabinet meetings. The real story is more tawdry than that.

If there’s a movie or tv show you’d like me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and if I can track down it down, I’ll review it.

 

Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

My favorite book on the The Affair of the Poisons is Lynn Wood Mollenauer’s Strange Revelations: Magic, Poison, and Sacrilege in Louis XIV’s FranceIt’s an excellent look at the Affair from several different angles. I absolutely loved it.

Versailles: The Latréaumont Conspiracy

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The first season of Versailles features a running plot involving sinister men in black robes and masks, who skulk around Versailles slipping coded messages to people, threating to kill the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams), and generally being sinister. This all climaxes in the discovery that the Chevalier de Rohan (Alexis Michalik) is plotting assassinate Louis (George Blagden) and kidnap his son. It’s fun stuff and ends with a solid cliffhanger, which unfortunately gets wrapped up in about 5 minutes at the start of season 2. Is it based on anything?

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The Latréaumont Conspiracy

Yes. It’s a rather fictionalized version of a plot known today as the Latréaumont Conspiracy (which the internet seems determined to spell as “Lautreamont”). It centered around two men, Louis de Rohan and Gilles du Hamel de Latréaumont. Rohan was a close associate of the king’s, being his Chief Huntsman (Rohan’s mother was a cousin of Anne de Rohan-Chabot, one of Louis’ mistresses). Since Louis loved hunting, this office brought Rohan into regular close contact with Louis, which was one of the most valuable forms of currency at Versailles. It paid off when Louis made him Colonel of Louis’ Guards, another important office. But then Louis soured on Rohan. (Incidentally, if you have trouble keeping track of the players, most of the women I mention are discussed in more detail in this post.)

Rohan was a close friend of the Duc de Nevers, whose sisters were the five Mancinis, two of whom, Olympe and Marie, were mistresses of Louis. A third sister, Hortense, was romanced by Charles II while he was in exile after the English Civil War. Her uncle, Cardinal Mazarin, rejected Charles’ offer to marry the girl, which meant that Hortense missed out on being Queen of England (and since she, unlike Charles’ eventual wife, was quite fertile, that marriage would have changed the course of English history). Instead, Mazarin arranged for her marriage to Armand Charles de La Porte de La Meilleraye, a very wealthy nobleman. But he was a terrible match for Hortense. She was free-spirited (and only 15), while he was violently jealous (he once reportedly knocked out a female servant’s front teeth so that men would not flirt with her). He seems to have been at least a little insane; when a fire broke out in one of his residences, he declared that trying to put it out was against God’s will, and he forbade wet nurses to nurse his children on Friday and Saturdays because those were Jesus’ death-days. That’s only some of his issues. (If you want to know more about their disastrous marriage, here’s a good post about it.)

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Hortense (in the middle) with her sisters Olympe and Marie

 

Anyway, soon after the birth of their fourth child in 1668, Hortense had enough of La Porte’s abuse. She fled into the streets of Paris to Nevers’ house. Rohan helped her escape the city, dressed in men’s clothing, and get to Rome where her sister Marie was living. This angered Louis, and not long afterward, Rohan was forced to resign all his offices. Because the real reason was kept secret, rumors circulated that Rohan was having an affair with Marie or that he was making moves on Madame de Montespan. (Incidentally, Hortense eventually wound up in England, where she became Charles’ mistress. She took the Countess of Sussex as a lover until the two wound up brawling in St James’ Park in their nightgowns. After her death, La Porte seized her corpse and travelled around France with it until Louis ordered him to bury it. Someone needs to make a movie about her life.)

Gilles du Hamel de Latréaumont was a military officer from Normandy. In 1657, he had briefly plotted with the Maréchal d’Hocquincourt to seize control of Normandy. That resulted in Latréaumont going into exile in Normandy, where he met Affinius van den Enden, a philosopher and teacher. By 1672, Latréaumont was van den Enden’s student, along with the Comte de Guiche. All three of them were unhappy about Louis’ invasion of the Netherlands. They relocated to Paris, where van den Enden opened a Latin school in his lodgings. They approached Rohan, who was badly in debt, with a plot to kidnap the 11-year old Louis the Grand Dauphin while he was hunting in Normandy, hold him hostage and seize control of Normandy, which they would turn into a republic. Then they would assassinate Louis and put the Grand Dauphin on the throne as their puppet. Both the Dutch and the Spanish liked the idea and their agents were soon meeting with the conspirators at van den Enden’s little school.

Unfortunately, one of the king’s musketeers was renting a room in the school and got curious about why a bunch of nobles and foreigners were meeting with a Latin teacher, so he alerted Louvois, the king’s minister for war. Louvois passed the information to the Lieutenant General of the Police of Paris, Gabriel Nicholas de la Reynie, who promptly arrested Rohan at Versailles, caught Latréaumont at the Latin school, and then rounded up the other conspirators. They found some letters about the plot that Rohan had written anonymously. Eventually they got Rohan to confess by claiming that Louis was willing to pardon him if he made a full confession. Latréaumont died from wounds received during his capture. Van den Enden was hung, and Rohan and the other nobles were beheaded in 1674.

The Latréaumont Conspiracy was the only significant conspiracy against the state during Louis’ reign, and given how hare-brained it was, it never had much chance to succeed. It had no lasting repercussions.

 

The Conspiracy in Versailles

Large elements of the actual conspiracy appear in the show. Latréaumont is completely omitted in favor of focusing on Rohan as the ring-leader. Rohan is shown as Louis’ huntsman, and he did hold that office into 1669. Since the show opens in 1667, that’s basically accurate, but the show omits his fall from grace and maintains that he held Louis’ favor down into the 1670s, which is untrue. His motive is not anger at Louis for his fall and a need to clear his debts, but rather just a vague desire to overthrow Louis because reasons. Nor was Rohan the huntsman who lured the young Dauphin out in the woods. In fact, the kidnapping never happened at all because the plot was uncovered before it could be put into motion. Louis himself was never in any personal danger.

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Michalik as Rohan

 

Fabien Marchel (Tygh Runyan) is basically a fictionalized version of La Reynie. He spends a good deal of time trying to chase down the mysterious letters that Rohan is passing to people and this is how the conspiracy gets uncovered (complete with an odd subplot about a cypher hidden in a book that Louis just happens to acquire). That’s untrue. The letters weren’t discovered until after the plot was found out.

The Comte de Guiche is entirely omitted, maybe because giving Philippe have two boyfriends would confuse the viewers, so instead the Chevalier de Lorraine is substituted, but instead of being out of favor like Guiche, he’s just been browbeaten into co-operating with Rohan. The entirely fictional Montcourt (Anatole Taubman) also gets some of Guiche’s story, being a disgraced nobleman who wants to get revenge on Louis. He eventually helps Marchal uncover the plot, so he’s also sort of a stand-in for the musketeer.

The whole ‘guys in black robes and masks sneaking around Versailles’ is totally made up and reads a lot like something from a novel by Victor Hugo. However, Versailles was actually pretty easy to get into. Whereas in the show characters are constantly being barred from entering rooms by guards with pikes, in reality, anyone at all could just walk straight into the palace. Even Louis’ personal apartments were open to everyone when he wasn’t in them. And Versailles does have secret passages.

So whereas the show significant tones down the sexual escapades at Versailles, it’s wildly exaggerated the Latréaumont Conspiracy far behind the facts.

 

Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

So far as I know, there’s no book in English about the Conspiracy or about Rohan or Latréaumont, apart from something published in 1845. In fact the only Wikipedia articles about these are on the French-language version of the site. When English Wikipedia doesn’t have an article on something, that’s usually it’s a real sign of obscurity.

 

 

Versailles: All the King’s Women

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Versailles devotes a good deal of its time to exploring Louis XIV’s rather complicated sex life, so I thought a post on that would be in order.

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The show’s first two seasons cover the period from 1667 to 1680, although you’d be forgiven for thinking that it only covered the period from perhaps 1667 to 1670, because none of the characters appear to age significantly. Even Louis’ son Louis the Grand Dauphin, who is perhaps 10 at the end of seasons 1 doesn’t appear to have aged more than a year or so by the end of season 2, even though 8 years have passed between the events of those two episodes. But Louis’s various relationships are complicated (and fun to read about) so I’m going to survey all the major ones, to give you a good sense of what’s going on. (Those who appear in Versailles have the actress’ name in parentheses.)

 

The Early Years

When Louis was fourteen years old in 1553, his mother, Anne of Austria decided that it was time for him to lose his virginity. She arranged for one of her ladies in waiting, Catherine Bellier, to spend two years sexually educating him, and then rewarded her by making her the Baroness of Beauvais. (IMDb tells me that Bellier appears in Versailles, but it must have been a very small and passing role, because I didn’t spot her at all.)

In 1654, while he was still sleeping with Belliers, Louis began a relationship with Olympe Mancini, one of the five nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, who, along with Anne, was running the government. That affair lasted until 1657, when she got married to the Comte de Soissons, but they resumed their relationship in 1660 for about a year. Her oldest son was born just six months after her marriage, raising the possibility that he was an unacknowledged bastard of Louis’. Her feelings for Louis seem to have been quite intense, because she repeatedly displayed jealous toward his later loves.

In 1658, Louis turned his eye toward Marie Mancini, Olympe’s younger sister. He fell deeply in love with her, and gossip began to spread that he might marry her. This upset Anne, who wanted to arrange his marriage to Maria-Theresa of Spain, and it also, somewhat surprisingly, upset Olympe and Marie’s mother. As a result, Marie was sent home to Italy, where she got married in 1661. On her wedding night, her husband remarked that he was surprised to discover she was still a virgin, so apparently Louis’ interest in her somehow never got consummated. In 1658, Louis also had a brief fling with the unnamed daughter of a gardener, who gave birth to a daughter who was never recognized. (Incidentally, Hortense, a third sister of Olympe and Marie, managed to become the mistress of Charles II of England.)

In 1660, Louis married his first wife, Maria-Theresa (Elisa Lasowski). She was his double first cousin (her father was Anne’s brother, while his father was the brother of Maria-Theresa’s mother). He appears to have been faithful to her for about a year, but after that he had both brief flings and long-term affairs for the rest of her life. That didn’t stop him from producing six children with her, although she had the enormous misfortune to outlive all but one of them. Maria-Theresa had little choice except to tolerate her husband’s numerous infidelities, and she even managed to develop friendships with two of his mistresses.

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Maria-Theresa of Spain

 

Henrietta and Louise

A year after Louis’ marriage, his brother Philippe married Henrietta of England (Noémie Schmidt), a rather attractive woman who became good friends with Louis. Rumors began to circulate that they were sleeping together. Even by the standards of the French court, this would have been a genuine scandal, because there was a considerable difference between a married man sleeping with an unmarried woman (which was considered simply fornication) and a married man sleeping with a married woman (which was considered adultery); additionally, it would have meant cuckolding his own brother. Since Henrietta was the sister of Charles II of England, a major scandal around her might well have had diplomatic ramifications. So although Versailles shows Louis and Henrietta being deeply involved and him getting her pregnant, most scholars think that this was just a rumor and that their relationship never moved beyond friendship.

To make Louis’ visiting Henrietta more acceptable, they asked Olympe, a close friend of Henrietta’s, to introduce Louis to one of Henrietta’s ladies, Louise de La Valliere (Sarah Winter), so that Louis could visit Henrietta while pretending to court Louise. The naïve Louise, not realizing that she was a pawn in this intrigue, fell in love with Louis and Louis found her sincerity and innocence so charming that he reciprocated her feelings. This relationship was the first of Louis’ affairs to have real legs. It continued until 1667 and produced five children, the last two of whom were eventually acknowledged, the other three dying in infancy. Louis kept the relationship a secret (at least formally) until 1666, when his mother died. At that point, he made the relationship public and Louise became his first maitress en titre, loosely translated as “official mistress”. Soon after Anne’s death, Louis took communion with both Maria-Theresa and Louise alongside him, a clear statement of Louise’ position.

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Louise de La Valliere

 

Louise was deeply religious, and while she loved Louis, she felt tremendous shame over what she was doing. She disliked their relationship being so open. At the same time, however, she wanted her position and was jealous of his attention to other women, so she wasn’t quite so unwilling to be his mistress as Versailles presents it. She repeatedly fled to convents, and in 1667, after the birth of their fifth child, Louis essentially terminated the relationship, although he kept her on as maitress en titre. Eventually, in 1674, he permitted Louise to join a Carmelite convent. By this point, she had become good friends with Maria-Theresa, who presented her with her veil during the veiling ceremony at the convent and continued to visit her off and on.

Despite having a wife and a mistress, Louis’ eye still wandered. Olympe Mancini hoped that, if he could be pried away from Louise de La Valliere, Louis might return to her. So she schemed to put one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne-Lucie de Mothe-Houdancourt, in his way, and it worked, at least briefly. Louis became quite infatuated with her. The queen employed Madame de Navailles to supervise the young ladies around them. Navailles went to extreme lengths to keep the young men of the court away from her charges, up to installing iron bars on the windows and chimneys of their rooms. Despite that, Louis climbed down a chimney to see Anne-Marie, and dismissed Madame de Navailles from court. But Anne-Lucie was interested in someone else, and apparently resisted Louis’ attentions. The Queen Mother became worried that Louis’ pursuit of Anne-Lucie would prove embarrassing to Maria-Theresa, so she ultimately dismissed Anne-Lucie from court. Louis consoled himself by briefly taking up with Anne de Conty d’Argencourt, one of his mother’s ladies in waiting. But she was also the lover of the duc de Richelieu, which irritated Louis enough that the affair didn’t last long.

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Olympe Mancini

 

In 1665, Louis got interested in one of his wife’s ladies in waiting, Bonne de Pons. Unlike most members of the court, Bonne’s family was upset about the prospect of their daughter becoming the royal mistress, so they shipped her off to get married. Louis’ court had a very rigid formal hierarchy, based on the degree of biological relationship to the king and the age of one’s lineage. (To simplify, first cousins outranked second cousins and so on.) But there was a second hierarchy that scholars call the Shadow Hierarchy. This hierarchy was much more fluid and dependent on less tangible qualities such as appearance, wit, royal favor, and skill at intrigue. Louis’ mistresses sat very high in the Shadow Hierarchy, with the maitress en titre right at the top. Having the royal ear was a precious commodity at Versailles, because position in the Shadow Hierarchy depended to considerable extent at being able to get the king’s attention. Whichever woman Louis was sleeping with enjoyed the rare privilege of spending time completely alone with him, so women who had Louis’ attention became power-brokers at court, able to perform favors for others by mentioning their concerns to Louis. Additionally, Louis rewarded his mistresses and their families with estates, titles, and offices. So the decision of Bonne’s parents to send her away from court is quite unusual.

By this point, Henrietta of England had gotten thoroughly jealous of Louise de La Valliere, so Henriette threw one of her ladies in waiting at Louis. Charlotte-Catherine de Gramont was already married, but her husband discretely chose to go off and fight in a war. Louis broke off with her a few months later, but she continued having affairs with other members of the court until 1668, when her behavior scandalized the court enough that Louis ordered her to leave (although he let her return in 1672).

 

Madame de Montespan

In 1666, not long after things with Gramont ended, Françoise-Athenaïs, the Marquise de Montespan (Anna Brewster), began pursuing Louis. She was a married woman, with two children, but also strikingly beautiful, witty, well-read, intelligent, and cultured. She was also the cousin of Bonne de Pons, and the younger sister of Gabrielle de Rochechaurt, who may have briefly occupied Louis’ bed at one point. Quite a number of men were interested in her, but she wanted Louis. She wisely cultivated friendships with Louis the Grand Dauphin, Maria-Theresa, and Louise de La Valliere. When both women became pregnant at the same time, they made the mistake of asking Montespan to help them entertain Louis at private dinners, and that gave her the opening she needed. By the end of 1666, she was rapidly displacing Louise in the king’s affections, much to Louise’ frustration. What must have particularly galled Louise was that he now used her as cover for his relationship with Montespan, a bit the way he had used her initially to cover his friendship with Henrietta. He moved Montespan into a room connected to Louise’ so that he could visit Montespan while maintaining the appearance of visiting Louise.

In 1667, Montespan became the maitress en titre, a position she held until 1681. Although Versailles shows them having only one child who dies in infancy, in fact she was the mother of seven of his children between 1669 and 1678, all but one of whom lived to adulthood and secured recognition from him. Unlike Louise, who did her best to stay out of the spotlight, Montespan openly vied with the queen as a rival. Although Montespan was legally separated from her husband in 1774, the fact that she was committing adultery led her to become the focus of opposition from the Catholic Church, and in 1774, a priest refused to give her communion at Easter. Despite Louis’ efforts to lean on the priest’s superiors, the Church hierarchy held firm and achieved a brief separation between the two. So the conflict between Bishop Bossuet and Louis in the show has a basis in fact, but Bossuet was not so foolish as to try to orchestrate a grand campaign against Louis, nor was the priest poisoned by one of Montespan’s allies.

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Madame de Montespan

 

Despite Montespan’s considerable attractions, Louis still found time for a fling with Anne de Rohan-Chabot, the wife of the prince of Soubise. Louis met her in 1669 and had a short affair with her. They either resumed the affair in 1673 or else it continued at a low level throughout that period, finally ending in 1675. She had two sons that her husband recognized, although many at the court felt they were both Louis’. In that same period, Louis also had a fling with Lydie de Rochefort-Theobon, one of his wife’s ladies in waiting. He “amused himself“ with her (as one letter to the king of Prussia describes it) off and on from 1670 to 1673. Montespan tried to prevent this by having her transferred to the household of Philippe d’Orleans’ second wife, but Louis may have flung with her as late as 1676.

One of Montespan’s challenges was maintaining Louis’ attention during her numerous pregnancies (given that she had used exactly such an opening to get between him and La Valliere). Between 1670 and 1676, her solution to this problem was to offer him one of her ladies, Claude de Vin des Oeillets, as a substitute whenever she was pregnant. Given her jealousy, this was a surprising strategy, but she seems to have concluded that having Louis involved with a member of her household was less risky than him getting involved with someone she couldn’t supervise. Des Oeillets was low-born, the daughter of two actors, which probably reduced the risk as well. He fathered a daughter on her, whom he never acknowledged.

Montespan’s concern for holding Louis’ attention was well-warranted. In 1675, Louis had an affair with Isabelle de Ludres, yet another of his wife’s ladies in waiting. Like Montespan, she was ambitious and hoped to become the new maitress en titre. But Louis wanted their relationship to stay a secret (perhaps because he didn’t want to quarrel with Montespan). So when Ludres openly stated her intentions of displacing Montespan, Louis dumped her. He took up with Marie-Charlotte de Castelnau, a married woman who was the sister-in-law of Anne de Rohan-Chabot, as well as of the Comte de Guiche, one of Philippe d’Orleans’ paramours. He got bored with Marie-Charlotte quite quickly after Montespan gave birth to their last child. But in 1678, he had a short affair with Elizabeth Hamilton, one of Marie-Charlotte’s sisters-in-law, much to Montespan’s irritation.

By this time, Louis was beginning to tire of Montespan. Unfortunately for her, he became interested in her good friend Françoise de Scarron (Catherine Walker), a down-on-her-luck widow of a minor noble. Montespan asked Scarron to look after her bastard children, which brought Scarron to Louis’ attention, although he initially found her strict religious observances off-putting. But he paid her well for her services as a governess and in 1675 he rewarded her with the title Marquise de Maintenon, as a result of which she’s generally known as Madame de Maintenon. Montespan began to quarrel with her, ostensibly over the way the children were being raised, but quite possibly because she was beginning to get jealous of Maintenon. But Maria-Theresa liked her because she felt that Maintenon was a good influence on Louis, remarking that he was treating her far better than in the past when he was more involved with Montespan (who was deeply hostile to the queen). Nothing seems to have happened between Louis and Maintenon in this period, in part because her religious sentiments led her to oppose fornication, but Louis was clearly attracted to her.

 

Stiff Competition for Louis’ Attention

Apparently unable to decide between the two women, Louis suddenly took up with Marie-Angelique de Scorailles, who was described as being quite beautiful but “stupid as a basket”. She was a lady in waiting to the duchesse d’Orleans. At first the affair was kept quite secret, but then Louis appeared at court wearing ribbons that matched ones she was wearing; she was noticed wearing a cloak made from the same material as his. He became quite infatuated with her, throwing a string of parties for her and taking her to the ballet frequently. Montespan bitterly commented that Louis had three mistresses: herself in title, Scorailles in bed, and Maintenon in his heart. Montespan took her revenge by having a pair of bears let into Scorailles’ apartments, causing the young woman to flee in terror. Scorailles gave birth to a stillborn boy, and although Louis rewarded her handsomely for “being wounded in his service” by making her the duchess of Fontanges, he had already started to tire of her. She died not long after this, in 1681, at the age of 19, probably because of complications from her labor. But word quickly circulated that she had been poisoned, and Montespan clearly had the motive to do so. This was part of the infamous Affair of the Poisons, a major plotline during season 2 of Versailles, so I’ll do a whole column on it later on. However, if you’ll notice, the show does not include Scorailles as a character all. Montespan was deeply implicated in the Affair, although no solid proof of her involvement has ever surfaced. But it marked the end of her reign as maitress en titre, although Louis allowed her to stay at court until 1691. He does not seem to have believed that she was involved in the Affair. Scorailles was the last woman to be a sustained mistress for Louis. After her, his attentions shifted toward Maintenon and to brief affairs with women who soon bored him.

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Marie-Angelique de Scorailles

 

Despite his infatuation with Scorailles, Louis also had a relationship with Montespan’s older sister Diane-Gabrielle. This doesn’t seem to have amounted to very much. He also had a sporadic relationship with Marie-Madeleine-Agnes de Gontaut Biron, who was rather plain-looking but quite good at court intrigue. She managed to get a good marriage out her relationship with the king, but not much else. He also had a short relationship with Jeanne de Rouvroy, a married woman, in 1681.

The same year, Louis turned his attention toward Marie-Anne de Wurtemberg. He bedded her briefly, but Montespan, who by this point was clutching at straws to revive Louis’ affections, persuaded Louis that Wurtemberg had once been the lover of a monk who was trying to find the philosopher’s stone. Since black magic was part of the Affair of the Poisons, even the hint that Wurtemberg was associated with the Parisian underworld scared Louis and he broke off with her.

Still trying to retain a hold on Louis, in 1681 Montespan pushed another of her ladies at him, Françoise-Therese de Voyer de Dorée. But after Louis slept with her, Montespan became jealous and Maintenon chided Louis for the affair, so he put Françoise-Therese  aside. There was also a quick fling with Marie-Antoinette de Rouvroy, but it went nowhere. The next year, there were brief affairs with Marie-Rosalie de Piennes and Madame de Saint-Martin.

In 1683, Louis became interested in Marie-Louise de Montmorency-Laval, who was a lady in waiting to his daughter-in-law. He got her pregnant, which required that she be dismissed from her post. Not wanting to legitimize the child, Louis had her quickly married off to the duc de Roquelaure, who accepted the girl as his daughter, wryly remarking at her birth “welcome, mademoiselle, I did not expect you so soon.”

Julie de Gueméné came from a family whose membership included Anne de Rohan-Chabot and the Chevalier de Rohan, whom I’ll discuss in my next post. The family had been losing its footing at Versailles (perhaps in part due to the Chevalier’s poor choices), so when she was 15, they maneuvered her into Louis’ attention, hoping that she might become his new maitress en titre. He did sleep with her, but nothing more came of the scheme.

 

Madame de Maintenon Triumphs

Gueméné has the distinction of being Louis’ last mistress. In the middle of 1683, Maria-Theresa fell ill and died. Louis mourned her, remarking that “this is the first chagrin which she has given me.” By this point, he was deeply involved with Madame de Maintenon, but she had probably resisted his efforts to get her into his bed. Montespan was convinced that she was holding out simply as a way to build Louis’ ardor for her, but it is more likely that it was her religious beliefs that motivated her to deny him. But Maria-Theresa’s death cleared the way. Some time between October of 1683 and January of 1684, Louis secretly married her. The marriage was never formally acknowledged, and she did not become queen. But their relationship was obvious. He gave her a lavish suite of rooms across the hallway from his own apartments, and he spent time with her every day from that point on.

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Madame de Maintenon

 

Madame de Maintenon became enormously influential at court due to her hold on the king’s ear. He became increasingly religious because of her, and this probably contributed to his choice to cease taking mistresses, which helped consolidate her position. But it is also possible that he simply loved her enough that other women no longer interested him. After all, his marriage to Maria-Theresa was an arranged one and probably not one he found emotionally satisfying, so it is likely that his many affairs were efforts to meet his own emotional needs (as well as the more obvious physical ones). With de La Valliere, Montespan, and Maintenon, he clearly found women who struck a chord with him emotionally, and when Maria-Theresa died, he was finally in a position to build a permanent relationship with a woman he genuinely loved. At that point, he had no further need of mistresses. Or perhaps his libido simply cooled by the time he was in his forties.

By 1700, she was virtually his prime minister, even though she had no official role at court. Over the years, she persuaded him to replace several key ministers. She was very interested in women’s education, founded a girl’s school at Saint-Cyr, and authored a treatise on education that helped inspire a 1724 ordinance establishing compulsory universal primary education (although it didn’t have much effect). After his death in 1715, she retired to Saint-Cyr. She had no children, unlike so many of Louis’ other women, but she seems to have had some real attachment to Madame de Montespan’s children, encouraging Louis to promote them at court.

Versailles shows Louis’ relationship with four women: Maria-Theresa, Louise de La Valliere, Madame de Montespan, and Madame de Maintenon. It also apparently has a brief appearance by Catherine Belliers, and it makes up a mistress, Sister Hermione (Hannah Arteton) whom he runs into years after he ended the relationship and forgot her. It shows us two children, one of whom died in infancy. The actual total for the period covered by the show is more like 18 mistresses of varying durations (not counting his wife) and 21 children born alive. So, as it did with its depiction of Philippe d’Orleans’ relationships, Versailles substantially tones down the degree of Louis’ womanizing. I find it kind of refreshing to get to say “No, actually, it was much more than the show gives us.”

If you have a movie or tv series you’d like me to review, please make a donation to my Paypal account and if I can track it down, I’ll review it (as long as I think it’s appropriate for this blog).

 

Want to Know More?

One of the better guides to Louis’ mistresses is Partylike1660.com. It has a page on each of his known mistresses, as well as a host of other details about life at the court of the Sun King.

As with Henry VIII, Louis XIV has attracted the attention of a lot of non-professional historians who write popular history. An easy introduction to Louis’ affairs is Antonia Frazer’s Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King. Frazer is one of the best popular historians, but always read her books with caution. Similarly, Lisa Hilton’s Athenaïs: The Life of Louis XIV’s Mistress, the Real Queen of France is popular rather than academic history, but it’s a good intro to this extremely important and interesting woman.

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Thessalus and Medea: A Mother-Son Reunion

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I’m in the middle of reviewing Versailles, but I wanted to take a break and review something rather different. Flying Dutchman Films, who brought us the lovely I Am Henry, is back with another short film, Thessalus and Medea. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to the 17thcentury next time.

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For those of you who aren’t familiar with the obscure details of Greek mythology, Thessalus is one of the sons of the Greek hero Jason and his witch wife Medea. Greek mythology is a little like comic books these days—there’s no one definitive version of these  characters and stories. Greek authors kept going back to the same stories and telling new versions of them, making up new details for old stories, changing the endings, and so on. The most famous version of the story of Jason and Medea is probably the rather harrowing version Euripides told in his tragedy Medea. In that story, Medea is a Thessalian witch who has helped Jason perform his greatest deed, the recovery of the Golden Fleece . They have two sons, Alcimenes and Thessalus. When they come to Corinth, Jason decides for political reasons to abandon Medea and marry Glauce, the daughter of the Corinthian King Creon.

It turns out that dumping your baby mama and your two kids for a new woman is not such a bright idea when your baby mama is the granddaughter of the Sun and a powerful sorceress. Medea wreaks havoc on the characters in the play. She sends Glauce a poisoned dress that causes her to literally catch on fire and burn up both her and Creon. Then she takes revenge on Jason by murdering their two sons and conjuring up a chariot pulled by dragons to fly off in. It’s a shocking conclusion that probably horrified the ancient Greeks even more than it horrifies us.

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Medea in her dragon chariot

But as I said, these stories don’t have fixed narratives. In some versions of the story, Jason and Medea have as many as fourteen kids. Many scholars think that the child-killing was invented by Euripides because there’s no evidence for it prior to the late 5thcentury when Euripides wrote his play. In some versions, Medea finds shelter at Thebes after the killings. In another, she goes to Athens, married King Aegeus and then persuades her step-son Thesseus to kill his father. In yet another, she returns to her homeland where she murders her uncle to put her deposed father back on the throne. Still another version has her flying in her chariot to Persia. Even the ancient Greeks found this plethora of versions somewhat bewildering, sort of like Marvel comics fans after three decades of non-stop reboots.

As it happens, in some versions her son Thessalus survives and goes on to become king of Iolcus. It’s this version of the story that writer-director Jan Hendrik Verstraten has used as the foundation for his short film. In this version Thessalus (David Cotter) survived because he realized something was wrong when Medea (Emanuela Ponzano) tried to poison him and poured the drink out when she wasn’t looking. As a result, when Medea fled, she mistakenly thought she had killed him, and she has lived in Thessaly in an underground labyrinth as an oracle. Now he’s a man of about twenty, and he and a friend, Poseidonius (Rhys Howells) have been sent by the king of Iolcus to kill her. The result is a story that doesn’t exactly tell any specific story from Greek myth, but which still manages to be relatively true to the spirit of the material.

The core of the story, obviously, is the confrontation between Medea and Thessalus, who is understandingly angry at his mother for trying to poison him. Medea, for her part, is shocked by this ghost from her past that has suddenly reappeared seeking vengeance. But like any oracle worth her salt, she quickly understands that there is something more going on here than just Thessalus intending to kill her. Although I generally include spoilers in my reviews, since this is a small film without wide distribution, I don’t want to give anything away about the plot twist that takes the story in a somewhat different direction than would be expected.

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Medea bringing a sheep back to life

Thessalus and Medeais anchored by Ponzano’s performance as Medea. She manages to be regal, witchy, and deeply human all at the same time, and she captures the complex mixture of fury at Jason, guilt over the killing of her two sons, and shock to discover that one of them is still alive. Verstraten, like Euripides before him, is interested in humanizing this demigoddess, but whereas Euripides explored her righteous fury at being abandoned, Verstraten probes the feelings she’s lived with since her murderous rage cooled.

Medea’s labyrinth is actually a Napoleonic-era fort. Its odd angles provide a great set for the characters to operate in, and it’s effectively lit with fire and torches to create a moody, mysterious atmosphere that works well for the story.

Overall, I don’t like Thessalus and Medeaas much as I liked I Am Henry. The resolution of the conflict between Thessalus and his mother leaves a little bit too much unspoken, and the film doesn’t explore Medea’s motives enough for my taste. But it’s still a nice effort to explore a forgotten corner of an ancient story.

At the moment, only the film’s trailer is available to the general public because the film is still competing at film festivals. It’s scheduled to become available for on-demand viewing on Vimeo in November. I’ve linked to the trailer below. When the film becomes available, I’ll post my interview with Verstraten.

Want to Know More? 

Thessalus and Medea  is will not be available until November. When it is, I’ll post my interview with Jan Hendrik Verstraten and a link to the film on Vimeo.

Til then, you might consider reading Euripides’ Medea. It’s a challenging play. Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art offers a good window into understanding the text.

Versailles: The Man Who Would Be Queen

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One of the things that really stands out in Versailles is its depiction of Louis’ brother Philippe, the duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos), as blatantly and unrepentantly homosexual. So this post is going to look at how accurate that depiction is.

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In the Show

Versailles’ Philippe lets it all hang out, so to speak. In the first episode, he makes out with his boyfriend, Philippe, the Chevalier de Lorraine (Evan Williams) as servants wander by. (To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to this Philippe as the Chevalier.) He openly flaunts the Chevalier in front of his wife Henrietta (Noémie Schmidt) and pretty much everyone else. He has a taste for group sex with men. Most startlingly of all, in one episode he comes to a formal event wearing a dress (well, skirts and a corset without a proper over-dress–thanks, Frock Flicks, for pointing that out!) and when someone sniggers about it, Philippe draws a knife and stabs the man in the eye.

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Vlahos as Philippe, getting very unhappy that someone doesn’t like his outfit

The Chevalier eventually gets entangled in a plot to overthrow the king and gets sent into exile, but early in season 2 he’s back and being fabulous, making grand statements about which color is going be the winter color this year. At the same time, someone poisons Henrietta, who dies in bloody agony.

 

In Reality

The show’s depiction of Philippe is broadly accurate. If anything, it tones him down.

Louis and Philippe were the sons of Louis XIII, who had a great deal of trouble with his younger brother Gaston, who was Louis’ presumptive heir until the birth of his nephew Louis in 1638, just four years before the end of Louis XIII’s reign. That fact made Gaston the center of a great deal of intrigue and he twice had to go into exile for plotting against his brother. When the Fronde (a revolt of the nobility against the Crown) broke out, Gaston fought on both sides, and at the end of the revolt, he was sentenced to internal exile at Blois. As a result of this, Louis XIII’s queen, Anne of Austria, was extremely worried that Philippe might grow up to become a problem for her older son.

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Philippe, duc d’Orleans

Anne feared that Philippe might some day challenge Louis or become a center of opposition to him, so she seems to have intentionally tried to cultivate a taste for feminine things in her son as a way to make him less threatening and perhaps even distasteful to the nobility. She referred to him as “my little girl,’ declared that he was “the prettiest child in the whole world,” and dressed him more as a girl than as a boy. That shaped him for life. As an adult, he was always comfortable in women’s clothing, and frequently attended balls dressed as a woman. He was noted for his love of ribbons, perfume, rouge, and high heels, although those things were not necessarily gendered female in the 17thcentury. Both Louis and Philippe was quite short and wore heels to add inches to their stature. So the show could put him in women’s clothing a lot more than it does without distorting the facts. This is a rare case of the media toning down historical excess instead of exaggerating it or making it up.

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That’s Philippe on the right

Anne was probably relieved when Philippe began to show a taste for men. In 1658, when Philippe was 18, rumors began to circulate that the duke of Nevers had “corrupted” Philippe with the “Italian vice”, and it was around that time that he first made contact with the Chevalier, with whom he formed a life-long, though hardly faithful, relationship.

Throughout his life, and regardless of his two wives, Philippe displayed a marked taste for handsome young men, whom he tended to shower attention and money on. He blew them kisses as he walked through Versailles, and much court gossip turned on the question of his favorites. Since Philippe was the king’s brother (and accorded the courtesy appellation of Monsieur, something the show leaves out), he was invariably an important political figure, although after the birth of Louis’ first son, his importance declined slightly. Who he was sleeping with was therefore an issue that could affect politics, especially in the intrigue-filled environment of Versailles.

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The Chevalier de Lorraine

The Chevalier was, strictly speaking, not French, since Lorraine was outside the royal domain. He was described as being “as beautiful as an angel,” although portraits of him don’t apparently do him justice, at least not by modern standards, He was considered vain, arrogant, greedy, and manipulative, and Philippe was an ideal partner for him. The perception at court was that he could easily manipulate Philippe into doing what the Chevalier wanted, since Philippe loved him deeply.

The result of this was that Philippe’s domestic life was exceptionally complex, even by the standards of a Jerry Springer show. Philippe’s first wife, Henrietta, was understandably jealous of the Chevalier, who lived in the same household with her. Philippe told her that he needed the Chevalier’s permission to sleep with her. In 1670, she persuaded King Louis to first imprison the Chevalier and then exile him. But Philippe prevailed upon his brother to call the Chevalier back after just a few months. When Henrietta died a few months later, there were rumors that the Chevalier had orchestrated her poisoning, although an autopsy determined that she had died of peritonitis. (Note that the show gets both the order of events and the cause of Henrietta’s death wrong.)

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Henrietta of England

In 1682, the Chevalier got in trouble again, this time for introducing Louis’ illegitimate son Louis de Bourbon to part of their circle. Philippe and the Chevalier had established a sort of secret club for men who liked men. This club met at taverns and brothels and had elaborate rules of a somewhat sacrilegious nature. When Bourbon was 15, the Chevalier introduced him to the club and required him to sign an oath of obedience to the club’s rules, an oath signed not in ink but in Bourbon’s semen, which the Chevalier helped him to collect. Eventually rumors of the club’s orgies reached the king, Most of the club’s members were exiled as a result, but Bourbon simply got sent to fight in the Netherlands, where he died the next year..

Back at court a few years later, the Chevalier got in trouble a third time for orchestrating the illicit marriage of Philippe’s son to one of Louis’ illegitimate daughters.

But Phillipe living with his wife and his boyfriend was just the start. He was also involved with another member of his household, Armand, the Comte de Guiche, who like the Chevalier was handsome, vain, and manipulative. Armand was Philippe’s lover, but he is widely thought to have been Henrietta’s lover as well. That apparently wasn’t enough for Guiche, because in 1665 he also tried to romance Louise de La Valliere, who was Louis’ chief mistress at the time. Louis exiled him in 1662 for plotting with Henrietta to break up Louis and Louise.

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The Comte de Guiche

On top of all that, Philippe also found time for a relationship with Antoine Coiffier, a minor noble who served as his head huntsman (whose father, incidentally, may have been a lover of Louis XIII). He is also rumored to have had a mistress, who might have been the married duchess of Mercoeur, since he flirted with her in public.

That last one demonstrates that Philippe might have been bisexual. He definitely had a complicated relationship with his first wife, with whom he had four children, as well as two miscarriages. When he married his second wife, the German Elizabeth Charlotte, he remarked that her plainness meant it would be hard for him to make love to her, but he still managed to father three children with her, including his only surviving son. So while he clearly had a strong preference for men, he doesn’t seem to have been exclusively homosexual as the show presents it.

 

Philippe and Louis

The two brothers had a rather complicated relationship, something the show manages to capture. In the show, Philippe says on more than one occasion that he was raised to not be the ‘cloud that covers the sun’, and whether or not the real Philippe ever said that, it certainly does describe the way their childhood played out. Anne expected Louis to be a very studious boy, but discouraged Philippe from book learning and encouraged him to play and be frivolous. The duc de Saint-Simon, whose enormous memoires are our best window into life at court, says that as an adult, Philippe was weak of mind and body, excessively timid, obsequious to his brother, and loved to gossip, often making up rumors just to see what would happen. He was also quarrelsome. But despite that, he was well-loved and a central figure at Versailles. When he died of a stroke in 1701, he was deeply mourned and Saint-Simon says that the court felt lifeless and still.

Louis, perhaps following Anne’s advice, worried that Philippe could have become a threat to him and worked to keep him away from any real power, and generally ordered him to leave when it was time for Louis to conduct business. Despite that, Louis adored his brother, who was his only sibling and probably the only person who could really understand him. We might imagine that Louis envied Philippe a little the freedom that he had. Although Louis seems to have despised homosexuality, which was a capital crime in 17thcentury France, he tolerated Philippe’s taste in men, although he was not willing to extend that tolerance to Philippe’s lovers when their other affairs became public. When Louis’ second wife complained that he needed to stamp out homosexuality at the court, Louis replied “should I start with my own brother?” That may explain why Louis was willing to turn a blind eye to the same-sex shenanigans at his court. He loved his brother too much to punish him, but punishing other examples of homosexuality at court would have made him look too much of a hypocrite.

To add further complexity to their relationship, Philippe was a far better soldier than Louis was. In 1667 he handled himself well during an invasion of the Spanish Netherlands. In 1677, he led the French forces at the Battle of Cassel against William III of Orange. He routed William and won the admiration of the court, but his victory irked Louis, who wished to be seen as a conqueror, and who may have worried that Philippe’s accomplishments were making him a threat. As a result, Louis never allowed his brother to participate in military matters again. What seems to have impressed people the most about Philippe’s victory was his intense bravery during the battle; it was joked that he was more afraid of getting sunburned or blackened from gunsmoke than he was of getting hit by a musket-ball.

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Louis loved paintings that presented him as a conqueror

So overall, Versailles’ depiction of Philippe and his relationship with his wives, his brother, and the Chevalier all seem pretty reasonable. Although the show tones down some of the luridness of Philippe’s private life, I think it captures something of his complex relationship with Louis and with the Chevalier. Was he actually as frustrated with his situation as the show makes out? I don’t know, but it’s not an unreasonable take on him.

If you’d like me to review a particular film or show, please make a donation to my Paypal account and request one.

 

Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

There’s not a lot available in English about Philippe. Nancy Nichols Barker’s Brother to the Sun King: Philippe Duke of Orleans is probably the best option. But it’s been criticized for a very negative depiction of Philippe’s homosexuality, so read it with care. You might also think about reading Saint-Simon’s Memoires, which are a remarkable and lively account of life at the court of the Sun King. Lucy Norton’s translation has been much praised for its style (although it is not the full text).

If you want to know more about homosexuality in Europe in this period, take a look at The Pursuit of Sodomy, edited by Kent Gerard and Gert Hekma. It has articles on a range of issues.



Versailles: The Queen’s Baby

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I’m a bit late to the party on this show, but I finally found the time to sit down and watch Versailles, the Canal+ series about the court of Louis XIV. I’d heard that the show was pretty wackadoodle, but as I watched the first episode, I didn’t see anything that I thought was outrageous. Then I got to the end of the episode and, yeah, ok, I see why some people think the show is over the top. There’s a lot for me to talk about in the first season, so you’re gonna get a number of posts on it. Hope you like the series.

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The first season is nominally set in 1667, but in reality it covers events from that year down to about 1670 or a little thereafter. Instead of offering a look at Louis (George Blagden) as an somewhat jaded older man, as most film treatments of the subject tend to, it offers us a Louis of only about 30 who is still working to master his kingdom. In the first season he decides to turn Versailles from a hunting lodge into a grand palace (in reality, that project had already begun in 1661), and he offers his court a vision of Versailles as the cultural center of the universe. Naturally, for any story set at Versailles, literal palace intrigue plays a major role in the story.

Incidentally, if you want to know about the show’s visuals, the ladies at Frock Flicks have rendered their verdict on the costuming and it’s not bad, other than the poofy shirts the men frequently sport. I was very skeptical about the hair, since Louis’ reign was famous for men in wigs, but apparently the wigs were more of a fashion statement later in Louis’ reign and the hairstyles in the show are not unreasonable for the 1660s and 70s.

 

The Baby

At the start of the show, Louis’ wife Maria Theresa (Elisa Lasowski) is pregnant. She’s presented as a dark-haired Spanish beauty, instead of the rather plain-looking blonde woman she was (like all the Hapsburgs, she had a great deal of German blood). At the end of the episode she goes into labor and much to the surprise of the king and his physician, she gives birth to a black girl. The official word is that the baby was stillborn.

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Lisowski as Maria Theresa

 

The physician offers the rather improbable sounding theory that Maria’s black dwarf jester Nabo played a joke on her and scared her so badly that it darkened the baby she was carrying. While that theory would be pretty bizarre if a modern obstetrician proposed it, 17thcentury doctors were constantly offering that sort of guess because they believed that a mother’s emotional experiences during pregnancy could have a profound effect on the fetus (a theory that was still circulating at the end of the 19thcentury). (And in fact the comment is based on something that Maria Theresa herself actually said.) Nevertheless, everyone who knows about the black baby assumes that the queen was getting it on with Nabo, and by the end of the second episode, Nabo turns up dead in a fountain.

In the third episode, Louis receives a visit from a Senegalese prince, and since he met the queen once before, it’s broadly hinted that he might be the real father. During the negotiations between Louis and the prince, Louis uses the baby girl as a bargaining chip of sorts, and the episode ends with the prince taking the baby with him.

So is there any truth to it?

 

Surprisingly…

Yes. Not much, but a little. First, it has to be said that the show takes liberties with the timeline (I know, shocking that an historical show would do that, right?). There is no way that Maria Theresa had a baby of any kind in the summer of 1667. On January 2nd of that year, she gave birth to the king’s fourth child, Marie-Therese, who was very definitely white. She gave birth to their fifth child, Philippe Charles, on August 5thof 1668. Even if Louis had knocked up his wife immediately after Marie-Therese was born, the baby wouldn’t have been born until October, and Louis would certainly have allowed his wife to recover for a few months before resuming intercourse with her. In 1667 he had two known mistresses, so it’s not like he was having trouble finding a date.

That being said, in 1664, Maria Theresa gave birth about a month prematurely to a baby girl named Marie-Anne, who died about a month later. Maria Theresa had been sick for more than a month before the birth and only recovered in January of 1665. Our best source of information about Marie-Anne was the duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the king who is today remembered for her memoires, an important source of information about Louis’ court. Montpensier says that Philippe, Louis’ younger brother, told her that the baby was born with a very dark, almost violet complexion. If true, the cause of the baby’s coloration was probably a lack of oxygen. Maria Theresa was devoted to Louis, and also probably quite aware of the danger of cuckolding the king, since that would be treason punishable by death. So it is rather improbable that she had an affair with Nabo, or a visiting African prince, or anyone else. The fact that he remained married to Maria Theresa until her death in 1683 is perhaps the best evidence against the rumor that she had given birth to a black child. But the fact that the queen was quite fond of Nabo may well have helped trigger the rumor that he had fathered a baby with her.

But there’s another complication to the story. The same year that Marie-Anne was born and died, another black girl was born. This girl, Louise Marie-Therese, grew up to join the Benedictine convent of Moret-sur-Loing, and was known as the Black Nun of Moret. Although not a lot is known about her, she clearly had some connection to the royal court. Her portrait was painted by an unknown artist who also painted portraits of 22 French kings including Louis XIV. She is mentioned by at least six different authors with connections to the royal court, including Montpensier; one of Louis’s mistresses; and Louis’ second wife, Madame de Maintenon. The duke of Saint-Simon, another important memoirist about court life at the time, says that Louise once greeted Louis’ son as “my brother”. Louis arranged for a rather handsome pension for her. As a result, some have conjectured that Marie-Anne did not actually die but was smuggled out of court and dropped off at Moret.

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Louise, the Black Nun of More

 

However, that scenario is probably untrue, because there’s a much better candidate for her parents. Louis had a Moorish (that is, black African) coachman who had a baby girl. Louis and Maria Theresa acted as godparents for the girl, a not-uncommon gesture for royal servants. After the coachman and his wife died, Madame de Maintenon arranged for the child to be placed in a convent as a favor to the parents. However, that’s not slam-dunk proof, because sometime around 1683, Maintenon secretly married Louis. Her claim that she had given this baby to a convent only dates from the period after the marriage, and it looks like it could be an effort to suppress the rumor that the unusual black nun at Moret could actually have been Marie-Anne. Could Maintenon have lied about the baby in order to help cover up the evidence that Louis was a cuckold?
It’s possible, but like I said, I doubt it. The best evidence points toward Marie-Anne being dark-skinned because she was premature and sickly. But it’s worth noting that what happened to Nabo is unknown. Maybe Louis did have him drowned in some fountain somewhere.

The up-thrust of this is that it’s wildly unlikely that Maria Theresa gave birth to a Senegalese prince’s son. But at least Versaillesgrounded its rather dramatic story in an actual rumor that was circulating at the time and didn’t just resort to making shit up whole cloth (cough Reign cough).

 

Want to Know More?

Versailles is available through Amazon.

Louis XIV has been the subject of numerous biographies. Anthony Levi’s Louis XIV is well-regarded.

Tulip Fever: Love Amidst a Speculative Bubble

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Tulip Fever  (2017, dir. Justin Chadwick, based on the novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach) is a modest little movie set in Amsterdam (I think) in 1637. It tells the story of Sophia (Alicia Vikander), a young orphan married to Cornelis (Cristoph Waltz), a wealthy merchant. As usually happens when Hollywood presents May-December marriages, Sophia has an affair with a man closer to her own age, Jan (Dane DeHaan), a painter that Cornelis has hired to do a portrait of the two of them. What sets the film apart from every other iteration of this film are two things, the attempted resolution to the adultery and the fact that history’s first economic bubble, Tulip Mania, was happening at the time.

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Spoiler Alert: If you’re thinking about watching this film, you might want to stop reading, since I give away a couple of big plot points.

 

The Plot

The set-up is, as I’ve already said, pretty familiar. You’ve probably seen a dozen films with that Spring-Winter love triangle. Sophia is Cornelis’ second wife, his first wife having died in childbirth along with the baby. After three years of marriage, Sophia has not produced a child and Cornelis is beginning to talk about divorcing her (which he could have, although realistically Dutch religious authorities only granted divorce in cases of adultery). When Sophia meets Jan, the two of them quickly begin an affair, with a little help from Maria (Holliday Granger), Sophia’s servant and confidante. But then Maria’s boyfriend gets her pregnant and disappears, leaving her staring down the barrel of social ruin. The two of them, aided by an unscrupulous physician, hatch a plot to solve all three problems at once. Sophia will pretend to be pregnant while they hide Maria’s condition from Cornelis. When Maria gives birth, the baby will be presented to Cornelis as his, but they will claim that Sophia died in childbirth, allowing her to run off with Jan. Needless to say, things don’t work out as planned.

The film offers a nice look at how all of those portraits that you see in museums were painted. Jan spends some time making sketches of the couple, and paints their faces onto canvas, but then uses stand-ins and manikins dressed in the subjects’ clothes to paint most of the rest of the painting. He makes multiple studies of their faces and other details before finally executing the commissioned painting. He also talks about the symbolism of the various objects included in the painting: a globe to hint at Cornelis’ occupation as a spice merchant, a pair of scales to indicate an awareness of God’s judgment, and a skull to demonstrate an awareness of mortality. 17thcentury Dutch Calvinists were expected to show off both their economic success and their godliness, so an expensive painting could do both simultaneously. The portrait is intended as a way of saying “Look at me, bitches, I’ve got money, but I know it’s really just a temporary blessing from God.”

Unfortunately, the paintings that Jan does in the film look a lot more like an mid-20thcentury portraits than 17th century ones. But let’s not quibble.

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Jan deciding how to pose Sophia

 

Putting the Tulips in Tulip Fever

A key part of the story is the wild speculation into tulip futures that today is known as Tulipmania. Both Maria’s boyfriend and Jan get involved in speculating in the tulip market. Jan borrows heavily to purchase a rare bulb that he plans on selling to finance his intended life with Sophia. So let’s look at Tulipmania.

The Tulip was introduced into Europe from the Ottoman Empire in the mid-16thcentury, and it became extremely popular in the Netherlands in the 1590s, owing to its deeply-saturated color. By this point the Netherlands was rapidly rising in wealth due to the strength of its maritime trade; in the 17thcentury, the Dutch enjoyed the highest per capita income of any people in the world (one reason for all those Dutch paintings). The Dutch had a lot of money to spend, just like Americans in the 1980s, and the result was a thriving market for luxury goods like flowers. The most highly-prized were the ‘Breakers’, tulips that had a primary color broken with stripes of a different color, caused the Mosaic Virus. The most highly-prized were the ‘Bizarres’, which had yellow or white stripes on red, purple, or brown backgrounds. (The film gets this wrong, claiming that the most covered were white tulips with red streaks. I think they decided that red on white was either more striking on the screen or else that red on white had a nice symbolism for Sophia’s lost moral purity.)

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Man with a wife and a tulip

 

In the 17thcentury, the Dutch had perhaps the most sophisticated financial sector in the world, with a thriving futures market. By the early 1630s, a market developed for speculation in tulip bulb futures, in which prices for the more unusual Breaker bulbs rose rapidly, and by 1636, the market for unbroken bulbs also heated up, and tulip bulbs became the fourth-most important export of the Netherlands. In 1635, one sale of 40 bulbs netted 100,000 guilders; for comparison, a skilled labor might earn between 150 and 350 guilders a year. So these bulbs were pretty much worth their weight in gold.

At that point, the market got quite complex. Investors bought contracts for future bulbs and then turned around and sold them immediately. What was changing hands was not the tulip bulbs themselves (which were still in the ground), but the contracts for ownership of those bulbs when they came out of the ground in the summer. Most of the people who bought the contracts never saw the bulbs they technically owned. Trading was done in taverns, with a small fee charged on each sale going to pay for wine, and one can easily imagine that some degree of inebriation played a role in the rising prices.

But then, in February of 1637, the market abruptly crashed. A group of buyers refused to show up to a sale in Haarlem because of an outbreak of bubonic plague in the city. The government declared that anyone could void a purchase contract by paying a 10% penalty, and as lawsuits occurred, judges concluded that these contracts were a form of gambling and thus unenforceable. And later in the month the Florists’ Guild decreed that those who held the futures contracts were not obligated to purchase the bulbs; in effect the futures contract became an option contract.

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The Semper Augustus Breaker tulip

 

In 1841, the first modern account of Tulipmania was published by the Scottish author Charles Mackay. In Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Mackay reported stories of mass irrationalities, lumping together the Crusades, dueling, fortune telling, and (most importantly for our purposes) economic bubbles. He identified Tulipmania as one of three major examples of speculative bubbles. An economic bubble arises when the trade price of something irrationally exceeds its intrinsic value. People buy the asset expecting the price to continue rising and then turn around and sell it, pocketing the difference between the purchase price and the sale price as profit. Eventually, however, the bubble bursts. People realize that the asset is over-valued and stop buying. That causes the prices to start coming down, and there’s a sudden scramble to unload the asset, generally at a loss. (The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the Housing Crash of 2008 are both examples of speculative bubbles.)

Mackay’s description of Tulip Mania presented it as a madness that caught a hold of the general Dutch population, with everyone from nobles down to chambermaids and chimney sweeps getting into the market. He reports a story in which a sailor mistakenly ate a rare bulb, thinking it was an onion. (The story is probably false because while tulip petals are edible, tulip bulbs are both unpleasant-tasting and poisonous to humans unless carefully prepared.) Contracts supposedly changed hands hundreds of times. When the bubble burst, thousands were left destitute and some supposedly committed suicide by throwing themselves into the canals.

Tulip Fever definitely presents this view. Maria’s boyfriend buys a batch of plain white bulbs, hoping to make a small profit, but gets lucky when one bulb turns out to be a red-on-white Breaker. He pays 18 guilders for the lot and sells the Breaker for 920 guilders, but then gets robbed. The Breaker’s buyer then donates the bulb back to the convent that grew it, enabling the abbess (an underused Judi Densch) to sell it to Jan, who goes deeply in debt to buy it. Buying it for 1200 guilders, he sells it for 8000. But his creditors refuse to let him leave to fetch the bulb, so he sends his drunkard servant (played by the always-annoying Zach Galifianikis) to pick up the bulb from the abbess, who jokingly tells him it’s an onion. On the way back, he eats the bulb, thus ruining Jan. The market inexplicably collapses the same day.

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If you’re a fan of big ruffs, this is the movie for you

 

The film mis-presents what’s going on. Instead of futures contracts, it shows the actual bulbs changing hands. The buyer gets a contract that is redeemed with the grower, who hands over the bulbs. I suspect the decision to show it this way was made because futures sales are a fairly abstract concept that is likely to confusing many viewers. But it’s hard to understand how a bubble could develop the way the film shows, since bulbs obviously take time to grow, which would probably act as a brake on the market. It was the very intangeability of the bulbs as an asset that allowed the market to get overheated. Also, if the bulbs themselves don’t change hands, that key moment of Jan’s bulb getting eaten can’t happen.

Nor does the film connect Tulipmania to the growing prosperity the Dutch were enjoying in the 1630s. As in 2008, there was too much money chasing too few investments and people felt flush with cash. Detached from its economic setting the whole Tulip Mania element of the film just feels a bit silly.

 

More Importantly…

Mackay’s story of Tulip Mania is wildly exaggerated. Mackay was a great story-teller, but he wasn’t an historian. In the 1980s, economists began digging into the facts behind his narrative, and much of the story collapsed, its own kind of narrative bubble. Mackay drew on a number of pamphlets written by religious authors who were hostile to the idea of a futures market in tulips because they saw it as immoral. These pamphlets argued that the crash was due to an improper concentration on material things rather than salvation. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence for the movement of tulip prices; the vast majority of evidence comes from 1637, making it hard to say for certain that the prices were actually in a bubble. Contracts did not in fact change hands hundreds of times; the most-traded contracts changed hands five times, and usually much less than that. No one committed suicide over the crash.

More importantly, in contrast to Mackay’s claims, most of the evidence suggests that the people who were investing in tulip futures were wealthy merchants with excess cash to play with, not poor laborers hoping to get rich. Only 37 people are known to have spent more than 300 guilders on a purchase. Whereas Mackay claims that thousands were financially ruined, in actuality, it was probably more like 5 or 6 men who lost their shirts. In fact, most sales didn’t involve actual money changing hands (that wouldn’t happen until the final buyer actually picked up the bulbs in May or June), so unless someone had bought a contract on credit, they wouldn’t have lost much when the market crashed. The only people seriously at risk were those who were expecting to get paid for their bulbs. They still had their assets, but if they had borrowed money on the expectation of the sale, they could have been in serious trouble.

So while the price of tulips did suddenly crash in February of 1637, the scenario that the film presents is basically untrue, though not entirely without foundation. Overall, Tulip Fever is not a bad little film but it’s not exactly a great movie either, and it’s easy to see why it came and went last year without attracting much attention. Maria starts blackmailing Sophia, Jan doesn’t seem like a man likely to inspire adulterous passion, and Cornelis becomes quite sympathetic as the film goes on, leaving the viewer not sure who to root for by the film’s denouement. For a romantic drama, it has a surprising amount of humor, although Cornelis’ repeated struggles to get his “little soldier to stand up” get kind of creepy.

If you have a film or tv show you would like me to review, please make a donation to my PayPal account and request one.

 

Want to Know More?

Tulip Fever is available on Amazon. Deborah Moggach’s novel Tulip Fever is also available.

If you want to know more about Tulipmania, Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds is still in print, and gets updated periodically. Or you could get Anne Goldgar’s scholarly study of Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age, which debunks much of Mackay’s narrative.



Pose: Life on the Margins

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FX recently debuted a new tv series by Ryan Murphy, and I’m really enjoying it, so I’m going to post about it, even though it’s only on its first season and I’ve only seen the first four episodes, which are all that’s been broadcast.

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Pose is Murphy’s effort to present the ball culture of Harlem in the 1980s to modern Americans. The show serves as an examination of the lives of gay and trans black people in that period, the AIDS Crisis, and the whole ‘Greed is Good” era, all at once. Its four main characters are Blanca (MJ Rodriguez), a latina transwoman; Angel (Indya Moore), a latina transwoman; Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young gay black man; and Stan (Evan Peters), a white stock broker who works in Trump Tower.

 

Ball Culture

Ball Culture has its roots as far back as the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, when an annual drag ball was an important social occasion in the black community. Modern Ball Culture was founded around 1968 when a black drag queen, Crystal LaBeija, became frustrated with the racism of mainstream drag pageants and chose to found her own pageant for black drag queens, the House of LaBeija Ball. By 1987, when the show opens, Ball Culture was flourishing within the Harlem gay and trans community (and it still continues today).

In this culture, a Ball is a combination fashion show and dance competition. Competitors participate in various categories such as Military, Royalty, Femme Queen Realness, or Butch Queen in Pumps. Competitors were judged on their costuming, their appearance and attitude, and their dance skills. There are two somewhat contradictory goals that need to be achieved in order to score well. First, the competitor had to demonstrate ‘realness’, roughly defined as the ability to pass as a member of the category within the boundaries of straight white culture. Second, the competitor had to demonstrate an ability to call attention to themselves in a dramatic way, particularly with the extremely flamboyant style of improv dancing known as Voguing (made famous in 1990 by Madonna’s Vogue video), which makes use of elements like catwalking, duckwalking, and exaggerated arm and hand gestures.

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Two men voguing

 

Ball Culture was (and still is) an expression of the complex social needs of black and latinx gay and trans people. Since these people tended to be rather poor, the balls gave them a fantasy of being well-off and ‘respectable’, while at the same time poking fun at a majority culture they couldn’t easily participate in. But it also showcased an important skill that many blacks and gays have to learn within a wider white heterosexual majority culture, namely the ability to pass as whiter, wealthier, and straighter than they actually are. The ability to pass as straight and middle class, for example, might enable a poor black woman to successfully navigate an encounter with a hostile bureaucrat or enable a gay man to avoid getting beaten up or denied a job. So while the balls were extremely playful, they were also a sort of training ground in which those who can figure out how to pass were rewarded by winning trophies while those who cannot pull off the intended look are scorned with poor judges’ scores and snide comments. While a majority of the contestants were gay or trans, there were categories, such as Military or Business Suit, where straight black men might compete in demonstrations of traditional masculinity, and black women had similar opportunities to showcase traditional femininity.

Because such a large portion of the Ball Culture were social outcasts due to their homosexuality or their improper gender identity, Ball Culture developed the idea of the House. Houses acted as alternative families whose members supported each other and often lived together. Houses were typically led by older or more successful members known as Mothers or Fathers who provided guidance, training in key skills, moral and social support, and perhaps economic assistance to their ‘children’. Members of a House usually adopted the last name used by their Mother or Father. For example, Crystal LaBeija’s ‘family’ were the House of LaBeija, and when Crystal died in 1982, another member, Pepper LaBeija, became the new Mother. Since Pepper’s death, the current Mother of the House is Kia LaBeija.

 

Pose

Ball Culture is the background to Pose. In the first episode, Blanca is a rather frustrated member of House Abundance, whose mother Elektra (Dominque Jackson) is both acid-tongued and ‘legendary’, meaning that she and her children have won a lot of ball trophies. She’s a tough, bitter transwoman who has a keen understanding of both how to make a splash at a ball and how harshly life can treat transwomen. She takes out her frustrations on Blanca and in the pilot she steals Blanca’s idea for a Royalty walk and then literally leads her children on a stealing spree from a museum. Later in the episode, Blanca gets the news that she’s HIV positive and this, coupled with her irritation with Elektra, goads her to strike out on her own and form the House of Evangelista. She recruits Angel, Damon, and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) into her house and moves them into a spacious but decaying apartment that she can somehow afford on her income as a nail technician.

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Moore as Angel, walking in the category Royalty

 

In addition to its look into the world of Ball Culture, what I like most about Pose is its willingness to explore the tough lives and choices that gay and trans black people had in the 1980s. Damon, who dreams of becoming a professional dancer, is thrown out of his house by his parents because he’s gay, and he spends time homeless before Blanca invites him into her apartment and her House. Angel, like too many transwomen, is a prostitute and stripper at a peep show, at least until she meets Stan. Lil Papi is dealing drugs, despite Blanca’s ban on it. The show generally makes clear that its characters are poor and living a hardscrabble life, although it occasionally gets into a certain amount of fantasy about what’s possible; for example Damon’s homeless boyfriend somehow manages to keep his gorgeous jacket in pristine condition despite life on the street. But most of the characters engage in ‘mopping’ (shoplifting) to find items to wear in the balls.

The show is also particularly honest about its trans characters and the struggles they face. The show set a record for the highest number of trans actors in leading or recurring roles (five); Blanca, Elektra, and Angel are all played by trans actresses. These three characters all offer distinct viewpoints on the trans experience. Angel, despite being a prostitute, has a somewhat naïve longing for a traditional romantic life and when she meets Stan, she agrees to let him set her up in her own apartment and be a kept woman. Despite knowing that Stan is married with kids, she tries to engineer a semblance of a normal life with him, but cannot help but worry about his wife. She struggles to understand how a man who says he’s not gay can be attracted to a woman with a penis.

Elektra is also a kept woman, but she has years of bitter experience that have made her hard; she has a keen sense of the limitations that transwomen of color face and her prescription for climbing the ladder is to accept those limits and learn to game them. At one point, she uses her ability to pass as a woman of means to sweet-talk a police officer into releasing Blanca after the latter is arrested. At the same time, while she looks down on many of the transwomen in the show, she is not above resorting to criminal behavior to achieve her goals. She longs to have what the show refers to as “transsexualism surgery”, but her man warns her that if she goes through with it, he’ll end the relationship.

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Rodriguez and Curiel as Blanca and Lil Papi

 

Blanca, however, sees a better world, a promised land for transwomen where they can at least be fully accepted in the gay community; early on she stages a defiant protest of a gay bar that caters to butch gay men and refuses to serve transwomen. This is a particularly nice touch. As gay culture has been presented in the mainstream media, gay men are generally depicted to being fully accepting of transwomen (if transwomen are depicted at all). In reality, transwomen have occupied a complex place in gay society. While queens and effeminate men were the driving force behind the Stonewall Riots, the more butch elements of the gay community have often been unwilling to fully accept them; draq queens and transwomen are celebrated as entertainers but often rejected as sexual partners and scorned for being too effeminate. (On contemporary gay dating sites and apps, it’s common for men to describe themselves as ‘straight-acting’ or to say ‘no fems’.) So it’s good for a show to explore that tension a little bit.

The show also explores the realities of the AIDS Crisis. Blanca’s realization that she doesn’t have a long life ahead of her spurs her to try to build up something that will last, namely a House that will become legendary but will also take better care of its children than Elektra does hers. In the fourth episode, Damon gets sick and Angel discusses the symptoms of seroconversion with him, one of the more frank discussions of HIV I’ve seen on television. The emcee for the balls, Pray Tell (the stand-out Billy Porter), has a boyfriend Costas who is dying of AIDS, and apparently he’s had more than one, as so many gay men in the 80s and 90s did. When he visits the hospital, he discovers that the nurse on duty has refused to bring Costas’ food into his room, and has just left it out in the hallway. That sort of callous, fear-driven treatment of AIDS patients was sadly common in the early days of the AIDS Crisis, and it highlights the need for chosen family of the sort that Houses provided. Thousands of gay men died abandoned by families and medical practitioners, often having to be nursed at home by a lover or gay friend because they either couldn’t afford medical treatment or because hospitals treated them so poorly. At one point Pray Tell discusses how the AIDS Crisis weighs on him and his sex life, and says “I’m scared.” Blanca replies “What is scared to people like us? It’s like water to a fish.” That’s probably the best one-sentence summary of gay life in the late 80s I’ve ever heard.

Refreshingly, the show avoids stigmatizing its characters’ sexual choices. Angel’s life as a sex worker is presented in a very matter-of-fact way, without any shaming of her for it. There’s no indication of how Blanca got infected; was it from a boyfriend, or did she, like Angel have to turn tricks at some point? Damon’s decision to give up his virginity to his boyfriend is explored as a serious choice, the same way it would have been with a straight white teen character, and Blanca gives him a very frank lecture about the realities of gay sex, even explaining that in gay sex there are ‘tops’ and ‘bottoms’. Lil Papi admits to have allowing guys to give him blow jobs for money. Stan is shown using a condom when he has sex with Angel.

Meanwhile, Stan struggles with the suffocating materialism of 1980s corporate culture. He’s trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, keep his wife happy, and earn the bonuses that are a measure of status in his social group, and Angel seems like his lifeline to something real and genuine and only for him. James van der Beek plays his Gordon Gecko-like boss with crass enthusiasm; apparently Dawson grew up and sold his soul. The contrast between Stan’s wealth and the other characters’ poverty offers an implicit criticism of Reagan-era economics.

Overall, I really applaud Pose for its choice to focus on such an under-represented segment of society and for its efforts to be relatively honest about the challenges this community had to deal with. Thus far, the show has focused on its characters as sexual minorities and has not really looked at them as racial minorities. I hope it does, because understanding the layered nature of their minority status is key to understanding them. They are not just a sexual minority, they are also racial minorities and in several cases gender minorities as well. The gay community has not fully reckoned with the degree to which white privilege permeates its lobbying efforts, and Pose could help address that problem. Give the show a look.

 

Want to Know More?

Pose is on FX. The best introduction to Ball Culture is Jennie Livingston’s 1991 documentary Paris is BurningIt’s an excellent introduction to the major elements of the culture, told primarily through interviews. It is also a good window into the lives of black and latinx gays and transwomen, who discuss their dreams and aspirations.

Troy: Fall of a City: Meh

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In my previous post, I talked about whether Troy was a real place and whether the Trojan War was a real event. Regardless of whether it was or not, the Trojan War played a central role in the two greatest works of Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and if you were a well-educated Greek, you knew these stories as well as modern people know Shakespeare’s plays. The two Homeric epics have stood the test of time and both tell profound, powerful stories. It’s surprising that modern cinema hasn’t drawn off these well-known classics more than it has.

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So I was sort of excited to see the BBC/Netflix series and how it would treat the Trojan War. Sadly, the series is pretty disappointing. The show’s pacing is simultaneously fast-paced and dull, an impressive accomplishment, but probably not one it was aiming for. The acting is nothing to write home about, the dialog feels limp, and the show offers little insight into these ancient characters nor anything to make the story feel relevant to the modern world. The scenery, with South Africa standing in for Asia Minor, is pretty though, and the show’s approach to the Greek gods is sort of interesting, albeit in a rather unsatisfying way. I want to like the show, but I just don’t.

Unlike the 2004 film version of Troy, Troy: Fall of a City makes some real effort to be faithful to the original material. It follows the broad outline of the Iliad: the taking of Chriseis by Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) triggers a plague sent by Apollo that forces him to return the girl. He soothes his wounded pride by taking Briseis (Amy Louise Wilson) from Achilles (David Gyasi), who furiously withdraws from the war effort, and so on.

And it tries to fit in as much of the back story to the Iliad as it can. At the start of the series, Paris Alexander (Louis Hunter) discovers that he’s not some rough commoner but member of the royal house of Troy, which is basically true to the myths, in which Hecuba and Priam are given prophecies that their son will destroy Troy so they order the baby killed, but the kind-hearted servant instead spares the boy. And then the gods ask Paris to decide which goddess is most beautiful. Aphrodite (Lex King) bribes him with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world, and the show’s plot is set in motion.

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Francis O’Connor as Hecuba

After he is reunited with his family, Paris is sent on a simple mission to Sparta to give him some experience at diplomacy but he falls in love with Helen (Bella Dayne), who basically Fed Exs herself to Troy, much to Priam’s (David Threlfall) consternation.

When the Greeks want to set sail, they discover that Artemis is angry and will not let them sail until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia to her. So throughout the show there are nods to actual Greek myths both large and small, instead of just focusing on the Iliad, which after all only covers one period 9 years into the war without either the beginning or the end. Sticking to just that material would have made a rather awkward story by modern standards.

Unlike the 2004 Troy, which tried to tell the story of Troy without the gods or anything else supernatural, this Troy does include the gods. Throughout the show, the gods intervene in small ways. For example, when Paris first sees Helen, Aphrodite slowly walks through the room.

But at the same time, the show also wants to modernize the story by making the characters more psychological and smoothing over some elements of the story that don’t play well for a modern audience. The show takes an essentially race-blind approach to casting, so that the Greeks and Trojans are played by various black or white actors; Achilles and Patroclus are both black, as is Zeus.

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Gyasi (left) as Achilles, talking to Patroclus

As it happens, Chriseis bares a strong resemblance to Iphegnia, so Agamemnon’s reluctance to give her up is more about his emotional trauma from having to sacrifice his own daughter. That’s not a bad twist on the material. But things work less well with Briseis. The show doesn’t want her to just be a slave girl, so Achilles insists that he’s interested in her as a person, and he and Patroclus have a bisexual three-way with her. As a result, Achilles’ anger isn’t over his wounded pride; it’s because Agamemnon has stolen his girlfriend. The reason that’s a problem is that in the Iliad, Achilles’ rage is about his own inability to empathize with anyone else, and the poem ends when Achilles is finally able to achieve a moment of empathy with his enemy Priam. Here, not so much.

Similarly, Andromache (Chloe Pirrie) is having trouble conceiving until Helen tells her about a fertility remedy she knows. That’s sort of a nice idea, given the pathos around what will eventually happen to the baby after the city is captured. (Spoiler: in the myths, baby Astynax gets thrown off the walls of Troy so that he can’t grow up to avenge his father’s death.)

But the show feels a need to insert a variety of boring sub-plots because it doesn’t find enough in the Iliad to make the mid-part of the story interesting. After a year of being sieged, the Trojans decide to dig a tunnel that will connect to one of their allied communities. But Paris and Hector (Tom Weston-Jones) have to *yawn* make a daring ride overland past the Greeks to get to that community and then the Greeks figure out what’s up and just after the tunnel gets opened the Greeks slaughter the allies and the Trojans have to close the tunnel. And then it turns out the Odysseus has a spy inside Troy   *yawn* and then Achilles sneaks in and sees his old girlfriend Helen who persuades him to leave but then one of the servants sees and starts to suspect her *yawn*, and then just as the Trojans are about the attack the Greeks, the spy releases all the Trojans’ horses, and…

Yeah. Having decided to tell the story of the Trojan War, the screenwriters immediately decided that they didn’t have enough story to tell and had to come up with something else.

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Paris (Louis Hunter) deciding which goddess he’s not going to piss off

Likewise, although the gods are characters in the show, they don’t actually do very much. For example, in the Iliad, Menelaus and Paris have a duel to settle the war once and for all. But when Menelaus is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite intervenes to magically carry him back to Troy, where he can be safe and have sex with Helen (she’s the goddess of love and sex, so the mortals she patronizes get to have a lot of sex). But in the show, all Aphrodite does is briefly distract everyone long enough for Paris to throw sand in Menelaus’ eyes and then run off into the wilderness where he spends an episode wondering why his parents didn’t love him.

At a different point, Hera accuses Zeus of having orchestrated the whole thing, but Zeus denies it, saying that he gave Paris free will to see what he would do with it. But that rests rather awkwardly with the fact that Aphrodite got everything going by bribing Paris with Helen’s love. It also doesn’t really fit with the prophecy that Paris is going to be the cause of the destruction of Troy, or with the fact that Cassandra can see the future. In Greek literature, prophecy is a rich source of irony. Priam, like Oedipus’ father, tries to avoid the prophecy but can’t, while poor Cassandra knows the future but can’t persuade anyone to listen to her.

The Iliad was written before the Greeks had really begun to wrestle with the whole tension between divine will and human free will. The gods are constantly causing things to happen. Athena and Hera want to see Troy destroyed because they are mad at Paris for giving the golden apple to Aphrodite instead. Zeus orders all the gods to keep their hands off Troy, but Hera intentionally distracts him so the other gods can sneak down and interfere. Athena actively suckers Hector into standing and fighting Achilles precisely because she knows that Achilles can kill Hector. So the gods are often ‘Homer’s’ way of giving characters some degree of psychological interiority. Instead of characters making complex emotional decisions, the gods whisper to them to get them to do things. So the whole story is about humans trapped by divine causality because the gods are angry about things. It’s a problematic dynamic, and one that later Greek authors like Sophocles would challenge by articulating notions of free will and human responsibility for their own mistakes.

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The show’s approach to costuming is not exactly faithful to Bronze Age Greece

So the show is compromising. It wants the gods to be figures in the show because they’re important to the Iliad, but it also wants the characters to be fully responsible for their own decisions and have complex interior lives because that’s how modern cinema operates. The result is muddy theology and gods that drift around getting dramatic camera shots but not really doing anything. It’s an unsatisfying solution.

So the show isn’t really that good. But if you’re looking for something that tries to tell the stories of the Greek myths, you don’t have a lot of other options, unfortunately.

Want to Know More?

There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.