Babylon Berlin: Commies!


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In the first season of Babylon Berlin (which on Netflix is just the first 8 episodes), Communists play a fairly prominent role, so I thought I’d spend a post sorting through the complex tangle of Communists, Trotskyites, and White Russians. Understanding Soviet politics isn’t really necessary to enjoy the story, but I think it does help.


Spoiler Alert:If you haven’t watched the first season and intend to, this post is going to give away a couple important plot twists.


Who Was Trotsky?

 In October 1917, the Bolsheviks seized control of Petrograd and established a Soviet, a committee of factory workers and soldiers for the running of the city. Although Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Bolsheviks, Lenin was not actually in Russia at the time. The coup was substantially orchestrated by Leon Trotsky, one of Lenin’s closest allies. He immediately turned to arranging peace with the Germans and in February of 1918 he finalized the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which took the young Soviet Union out of the Great War, thereby breaking the stalemate that had dominated the war for the past three years. Trotsky was reluctant to actually conclude the Treaty, since he hoped to see a Communist uprising in Germany, but bowed to Lenin’s decision to accept the Treaty. He then took charge of efforts to establish a more functional Red Army.


Leon Trotsky


By 1918, Russia was already embroiled in a civil war. The Soviet Red Army was fighting to establish Lenin’s vision of a fully-Communist Russia. They were opposed by the White Russians, a loose coalition of factions opposed to the Soviets. This group was broadly nationalistic, fighting for a patriotic Russian identity (as opposed to the Soviets, who rejected nationalism as ideology and saw Communism as a literally international movement). They included aristocratic monarchists who wanted a re-establishment of the tsarist government, bourgeois liberals who wanted to establish a democratic republic of some sort, and Karenskyite socialists who wanted a less aggressive form of social democracy. A third faction, the Green Army, represented peasants who advocated for agrarian socialism and resented Bolshevik efforts to requisition supplies but were otherwise non-ideological. This war continued for 4 years, but ultimately Trotsky’s Red Army won the field. He listened to the advice of military specialists, established both concentration camps and compulsory labor camps, and aggressively worked to suppress property owners, all of which contributed to the Soviet triumph. Many Russian aristocrats and intellectuals fled the country by the end of the war.

However, just as the Soviets were achieving dominance, Lenin suffered a series of strokes that left him barealy able to communicate by March of 1922. That created a power vacuum within the Communist Party. Trotsky was the obvious man to succeed Lenin, having engineered both the success of the October Revolution and the victory in the Civil War. However, Josef Stalin used his position as chairman of the Communist Party to pack the party with his own supporters and he built alliances with two other key Bolshevik leaders, Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, persuading them that Trotsky was a threat to them. Whereas Trotsky was a revolutionary of burning fervor, Stalin was essentially a pragmatist and therefore a less threatening figure to others in the Party. While Trotsky was eager to export communism to other countries, Stalin was essentially content to use Communism to establish his own power in the Soviet Union. (Such, at least, is the traditional reading of Stalin. I understand that some historians are beginning to reassess that picture of him, but I’m not familiar enough with the scholarship on the issue, so I’m going to go with the traditional picture.) As a result, opposition to Stalin, known as the Left Opposition, congealed around Trotsky (among others).

By the time Lenin died in January of 1924, Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had largely undermined his support within the Party. Zinoviev and Kamenev orchestrated Trotsky’s removal as head of the Red Army a year later. By 1926, Zinoviev and Kamenev had broken with Stalin and sided with Trotsky and the Left Opposition, but by that point Stalin was ascendant. In October of 1927, Stalin expelled Zinoviev and Trotsky from the Communist Party; two months later Kamenev and most of Stalin’s other opponents were evicted as well. Kamenev and Zinoviev submitted to Stalin, but Trotsky refused and was sent into exile in Kazakhstan in 1928. In February of 1929, he was exiled to Turkey, where he remained until 1933, when France agreed to grant him asylum. In 1935, he was forced to relocate to Norway. A year later, Stalin put Zinoviev and Kamenev on trial, along with Trotsky in absentia, and found them all guilty of plotting to kill him. Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed, but Trotsky remained a thorn in Stalin’s side, writing copiously against him even after being forced to relocate to Mexico City. Stalin made at least three attempts to have Trotsky killed. The third attempt finally succeeded when Spanish Communist Ramón Mercader wounded him severely with an ice axe (not an ice pick, as is commonly reported).


Trotsky and Kamenev at Brest-Litovsk


By 1930, Trotsky had founded the International Left Opposition to oppose Stalin within the Communist Party, but by 1933, it had become clear that Stalin had complete control over the Party, so the ILO evolved into an organization that operated outside the Soviet Union. In 1938, its members founded the Fourth International in Paris to foment what they considered true Communist revolution.


Babylon Berlin’s Trotskyites

The first episode shows a conspiracy to smuggle of a trainload of phosgene gas from the Soviet Union into Germany. Unbeknownst to the people who smuggling the gas, a group of Trotskyite rebels in the Soviet Union have attached a single train-car filled with gold bars to that train. The Trotskyite leader in Berlin, Alexei Kardakhov (Ivan Shvedoff) wants to get his hand on that gold to send it to Istanbul to help fund Leon Trotsky’s struggle against Josef Stalin. That gold is the fortune of a dead White Russian whose daughter, Countess Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janusauskaité), is working with Kardakhov. He thinks she’s a loyal Trotskyite, but actually, she’s just using the Trotskyites to get the gold out of Russia for her own purposes. The phosgene and the gold act as MacGuffins throughout the first two seasons.


The treacherous Svetlana


As soon as the train arrives in Berlin, Svetlana contacts the Soviet ambassador and rats out the Trotskyites. The ambassador sends a couple of thugs to their hideout, where they are running an underground printing press, and massacres everyone except Kardakhov, who survives by hiding in a latrine. He spends the rest of the season on the run, desperately trying to find a safe hiding place, not realizing that Svetlana has sold him out until it’s too late.

The show makes little effort to delve into the quarrel between Stalin and Lenin. That’s fair, since the gold is simply a MacGuffin and not really a key issue in the show’s plot, and even the Trotskyites other than Kardakhov are gone after the third episode. But as this blog points out, the show’s depiction of the Trotskyites and the Communists in general is rather backward. The only hint of their ideology is Kardakhov’s statement that he wants to save his country. So the show seems to think that Trotskyism is about the Soviet Union. But as we’ve seen, Trotsky was deeply concerned about fostering Communist revolution across Europe, whereas Stalin was largely disinterested in spreading communism outside the Soviet Union.

One of Stalin’s strategies for sidelining the original Bolshevik true believers in the later 1920s was to appoint them as ambassadors to other countries. That got them out of the Soviet Union, which reduced their ability to influence developments in the key Soviet institutions (like the Communist Party). For much of the 1920s, the Soviet ambassador to Germany was Nikolay Krestinsky, who was one of Trotsky’s supporters until 1927. I’m not clear whether he was still in that post in 1929, when the first season occurs. In the show, the ambassador is the fictitious Col. Trochin (Denis Burgazliev), who appears to be a loyal Stalinist. It seems a bit improbable that the Communists could have pulled off a bigger slaughter than the St Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago and then smuggle all the corpses out of the city without anyone noticing.


The soon-to-be-liquidated Trotskyites


In fairness to the show, the Trotskyites are trying to foster a revolution in Berlin with their underground pamphlets. They are printing pamphlets encouraging Berlin workers to support a Communist rally on May 1stin favor of the Fourth International. Since the Fourth International isn’t even a concept in 1929, the show’s gotten its timeline wrong.


The Bloody May Incident

The show does a better job with its depiction of what became known as Blutmai, the Bloody May Incident. Leftist thought in Germany in the 1920s was broadly represented by two different political parties. The Social Democratic Party (SPD) had formed in the 1860s was a Socialist party focused on the rights of factory workers. The Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was an explicitly Communist party founded in December of 1918 after the suppression of the Spartacist uprising. Its founders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, had split from the SPD, which they came to regard as their archenemy. The SPD enjoyed considerable electoral success during the 1920s and was able to implement a range of legislation including welfare laws, veterans’ assistance, and regulation of working conditions. In Berlin, the SPD controlled the police force because one of their members, Karl Zörgiebel, was the police chief.

In contrast, the KDP was by the mid-1920s a pro-Stalinist organization and advocated for Communism fairly effectively. It too performed well at the polls, generally getting about 10% of votes. It maintained a paramilitary organization, the Rotfront, to protect KPD meetings from violence by the police and the Nazi Sturm Abteilung (the infamous SA or ‘brown shirts’). But because of its rivalry with the SPD, the two left-leaning parties were generally unable to organize a common opposition to the emerging Nazi Party.

In 1928, Zörgiebel banned public demonstrations in Berlin as a threat to public safety, since political demonstrations were usually accompanied by violence on the part of the Rotfront, the SA, or both. However, the KPD perceived this ban as an attempt by Zörgiebel to weaken the KPD, which was making electoral gains in the city. The KPD’s two major leaders, Walter Ulbrich and Ernst Thälmann, called for a major protest on May Day, the international Socialist/Communist holiday. They informed the police of their intended parade routes and rallying points, perhaps hoping for a confrontation that would give them grounds to push for a repeal of the ban on demonstrations.


A KDP poster promoting the protest


However, when May 1st rolled around, most of the unions opted for demonstrations and rallies within their factories. Zörgiebel’s police kept an eye on the protestors, but comparatively little happened beyond the dispersal of a few parades until late in the day when the factory workers left the factories. The police, eager for a fight, waded in with truncheons and brawls broke out. The police retaliated with water cannons.

The conflict escalated on May 2nd as workers erected barricades and the police began going door-to-door in working-class neighborhoods, arresting supposed troublemakers. The police responded to the barricades by sending in men with machine guns and armored vehicles, and running gun-battles ensued. When the smoke finally cleared on the 3rd, 33 people were dead (none of them police) and 200 injured. Zörgiebel sought to depict the workers as the cause of the violence, but the evidence points to the police as the ones who brought most of the guns. The government banned the Rotfront and the rift between the SPD and the KPD became permanent. The violence, which was perceived to be between the two left-wing parties, give Hitler fuel for his argument that the Communists were a threat to social order.


People fleeing the violence during the riot


In the show, the police are prepared for the protest with a speech by Zörgiebel (I think) about the need to prevent anarchy. The protest takes the form of an enormous parade complete with Soviet flags and chants of “Berlin stays red!” The police are armed with truncheons. As the police march toward the parade, one of the protestors throws a rock and a large riot ensues in which the police are shown as being the real aggressors. Gereon (Volker Bruch) and his partner Bruno (Peter Kurth) are assigned to search nearby apartments for illegal firearms. They are shown breaking into apartments and tossing them indiscriminately for weapons, finding only one 18thcentury musket.


The protest in the show


But then they stumble across barricades and are forced to take cover in a doorway as an armored car drives down the street firing indiscriminately. A group of protestors unfurl a large red flag from a third floor balcony and the police accidentally shoot two women standing on the second floor balcony just below it. Gereon rushes into the women’s apartment and after finding the women badly wounded, he goes to find a doctor, Dr Völcker (Jördis Triebel), who turns out to be a fiery Communist agitator. But it’s too late to save the women, both of whom die from their wounds. In later episodes, Dr Völcker leads protests about the violence, depicting the women as martyrs of police brutality and accusing the police of orchestrating a cover-up.

The police, desperate to point the finger at the protestors, find a police office who happens to have been accidentally shot in a completely unrelated incident and put him forward as proof that the protestors were seeking to kill police. Gereon eventually realizes this is untrue.


Just before the violence begins


The show’s depiction of the Bloody May Incident is essentially true, although it collapses three days of protests into a single day. I’m unsure whether the incident with the two women actually happened, and Dr Völcker is fictitious. I also don’t know if the details about the fake police victim of violence is true. But the show is correct that the worst violence came from the police, that they were indiscriminately searching apartments but failed to find much evidence of an armed plot, and that they were widely perceived as the aggressors and as covering up what actually happened.

In general, the show does a fair job of trying to capture the instability, tension, and violence that was coming to characterize Berlin in the late 20s. The Communists are a clear presence in the series and ever-present poverty helps the viewer understand why Communism was a popular ideology at the time. But the show makes only token efforts to explain actual Socialist and Communist ideology, assuming that the viewer will either understand the essential ideas or else not care about them too much. The Communists are generally presented sympathetically, especially Dr Völcker, who is one of the few characters who doesn’t seem to have a hidden agenda.

The show only provides glimpses at the bigger political picture around the events. There is no mention of the SDP at all, so the police appear to be representatives not of the Socialist movement but of the capitalist establishment. More seriously, the Nazis don’t appear until late in the second season and the viewer would be forgiven for thinking that Hitler hadn’t yet emerged as a political force in German politics. In reality, Hitler was a rising force by 1928 and the SA were a major factor in the street violence of the period.



Want to Know More?

Babylon Berlin is available on Amazon if you want to own it, and by streaming on Netflix. The novels by Volker Kutscher are also available: Babylon BerlinThe Silent Death, and Goldstein.


Babylon Berlin: Introducing the Weimar Republic


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Sorry I’ve been so long in updating this blog. The past couple of months have been hellishly busy with grading work. I’ve barely had time to get my work done, much less write any blog posts. But I’ve finally gotten through most of the grading and found time to start in on a show I’ve been working my way through, Babylon Berlin (German, with English subtitles), which one of my loyal readers has paid me generously to review.


Babylon Berlin is a 2017 tv production for German tv (reportedly the most expensive television show ever produced in Germany, and I can well believe it), based on a series of novels by Volker Kutscher. It is set in Germany in 1929, a period ripe with change, corruption, and conflict.

The main character, Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) is a vice cop in Cologne who is sent to Berlin to track down a pornographic film that is being used to blackmail an important politician. A veteran of the Great War, Rath struggles with PTSD and is a morphine addict. He’s also in love with the wife of his brother, who has been missing in action since the end of the war but is not yet legally dead. In Berlin, as he searches for the film, he gets caught up in a conspiracy involving a Trotskyite underground press, a train-load of illegal phosgene gas, a cross-dressing cabaret singer, a shady vice cop of uncertain allegiance, a drug-addled pornographer, a group of Nationalist military officers, and a train car packed with Russian gold.

Gereon also befriends a bright young police clerk named Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries) who moonlights as a prostitute and aspires to become a homicide detective and who slowly becomes his chief ally as he gets drawn further into the seedy side of Berlin. The show has a sprawling cast of morally-ambiguous characters: Communist workers, Armenian mobsters, homosexuals, Soviet diplomats, industrialists, and war veterans. Everyone has divided loyalties or a scheme they’re running, or a dirty secret to keep hidden. And over the whole thing hang two shadows, the long shadow of the Great War and the faint but looming shadow of the Third Reich.


The Weimar Republic

The Weimar Republic is the name given by scholars to Germany’s interwar democratic government, whose constitution was written in the city of Weimar. Prior to the Great War, the German government was a nominally democratic state but functionally one with a highly autocratic monarchy. Shortly before the end of the war, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and three months later in February of 1919, the Weimar constitution took effect, marking Germany’s first experiment with genuine democracy.

Unfortunately, the Weimar Republic was saddled with enormous problems. It had just lost the worst war in human history, suffering a staggering 1.77 million dead and 4.2 million wounded; of men between the ages of 15 and 38, 13% died during the war. The economy had been stretched to the breaking point by the war, and in defeat, things got worse. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war for Germany, imposed harsh annual reparations payments to France and Great Britain that hamstrung the young republic’s economy. In the period from 1919 to the end of 1923, the German Mark collapsed because the government was forced to constantly print new money. The result was hyperinflation, a situation in which prices inflate (or, seen from the opposite viewpoint, the value of the currency falls) on an hourly basis. In 1919, 1 US Dollar could purchase 4.2 Marks; in August of 1923, it could purchase 1 million Marks. This disaster destroyed people’s savings almost overnight and in places the economy reverted to barter. By 1923, the government had managed to bring inflation under control by scraping the old Mark and introducing a new one, the Rentenmark. But the damage had already been done. The Middle Class was traumatized and fearful.


Marks being used as fuel for a furnace


In the period after 1923, the economy began to recover, at least nominally, and by 1928, unemployment stood at a reasonable 6-7%. But by 1929 (when the Great Depression set in in the US), it had risen to 10% and was to climb to 30% by 1932, creating the economy crisis that allowed Adolf Hitler to rise to power.

The political situation was also unstable. It proven impossible to establish a long-lasting and stable governing party, and chancellors rose and fell repeatedly, few of them lasting more than two years. Many Germans distrusted their new government, which had been created out of the failure of Kaiser Wilhelm’s government, and many suspected that it had somehow been responsible for Germany’s defeat in the war. Starting in 1930, the President, Paul von Hindenburg, was forced to govern by emergency decree, undermining the government’s legitimacy and paving the way for Hitler’s rule.

This was also an era of plots and attempted coups. In December of 1918, the Spartacus League, a Communist organization, launched an uprising in Berlin that triggered smaller revolts across the country, but it was quickly suppressed by the army. In 1920, the right-wing Kapp Putsch sought to overthrow the Republic and establish a military government, but it collapsed in just four days after a general strike broke out. In 1923, Hitler and General Ludendorff attempted to seize control of the Bavarian government in the Beer Hall Putsch, but Bavarian authorities suppressed it and sent Hitler to jail for a year. After that, things stabilized, but agitation by both right-wing Nationalists, who were a powerful faction within and around the military and left-wing Communists, who were powerful among the factory workers and intelligentsia, continued to agitate and challenge the government in a variety of ways. The Bolshevik Revolution had just happened in Russia, and many felt that there was a very real chance that Communism might establish itself in Germany, while Nationalists dreamed of undoing Germany’s humiliation.

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A German Communist poster from the period


But the instability also offered room for society to transform in other ways. Women enjoyed far greater rights than they had a decade ago and a large percentage of them had joined the workforce, either willingly or as a result of the economic problems of the period. There was a strong air of sexual liberation, especially in the big cities like Berlin, and many women turned to prostitution or other forms of sexualized entertainment out of financial necessity. There was a growing acknowledgement of homosexuality, and it was widely tolerated at least within Berlin underworld. Foreign culture was becoming popular, especially American jazz; the black American dancer Josephine Baker was revered in Berlin. German culture entered into a short-lived cultural flowering that produced masterpieces such as the expressionist cinema of Nosferatuand the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the irrational work of Dadaist artists like Hannah Hoch and its Surrealist successors such as Max Ernst, and the architectural style of Bauhaus, which was founded in Weimar in 1919. But this new openness to foreign culture was scary to many, and fed into Nationalism, which promised to ‘restore proper values’ and ‘return women to the home’.


Marlene Dietrich captures the sense of new opportunities in Weimar-era Germany


Babylon Berlin

The show makes excellent use of its setting. There are extensive scenes filmed outside existing Weimar-era buildings (although many key locations, such as the Berlin Police Headquarters, were destroyed during World War II). The show also constructed a massive backlot set used to represent a variety of neighborhoods around Berlin, including the exterior of the Moka Efti nightclub, a major location in the show. There are a lot of nice touches, such as the fact that the Police Headquarters uses a paternoster elevator system, which were popular in Germany at the time (and still are, to some extent). The show’s art and set direction are also quite good. There are numerous posters in a 20s style advertising musical acts and the like. The Art Deco Moka Efti club really captures something of the style of the period.


Bruch as Gereon Rath

The show definitely explores the influence of jazz in German culture. Gereon and Charlotte both love to dance and there are numerous scenes set in various bars and night clubs where the more free style of 1920s dance is demonstrate. No fusty old waltzes for the libidinous Berliners of the era. (One false note is the lack of the black performers who helped bring jazz to Germany, although Josephine Baker’s famous banana skirt is referenced.) Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera plays an important role in one episode.

A particularly memorable scene involves the singer Nikoros performing what is essentially the show’s theme song, “Zu Asche Zu Staub” at Moka Efti. The song’s lyrics are both hopeful and ominous and manage to capture the desperate optimism that was so widespread after the Great War. Like everyone else in the show, Nikoros has something to hide. Give it a watch (be advised, the dancers’ costumes border on NSFW). Brian Ferry also cameos in one episode as a singer.

But the show doesn’t exactly glamorize 20s Berlin. The pall of the Great War hangs over these characters. Gereon is haunted by his inability to rescue his brother during the war and his barely-managed PTSD is a major plotline in the show. One of the minor supporting characters is a doctor of psychology who is exploring the potential use of hypnosis to address PTSD, a condition that many people deride as mere cowardice and fakery. Men with missing limbs periodically appear in the background of various scenes, usually begging. Gereon’s partner Wolter (Peter Kurth) is part of a group of soldiers who resent German’s loss in the war and commemorate the dead as heroes, unable to draw the lessons about why Germany lost the war. Gereon’s landlady is a lonely young war widow.

Poverty is ever-present in this show. Charlotte’s family is quite poor; she lives with her mother, grandfather, two sisters, brother-in-law, another man whose relationship to the family I missed, and an infant nephew in what is essentially a two-room apartment. The family’s poverty is part of the reason she works on the side as a prostitute. At the Police Headquarters there is always a pack of young women looking for temporary work as clerks and the like. Charlotte’s old friend Greta (Leonie Benesch) is out of work and homeless when she bumps into Charlotte, who offers her work as a prostitute. This poverty helps the viewer understand the emergence of both Communist and Nationalist agitation as well as the thriving criminal underworld. Most of the characters seem aware that they are lucky to have jobs.


Fries as Charlotte Ritter


In my next post on the show, I’ll look into the Communist movement in more detail.

Want to Know More?

Babylon Berlin is available on Amazon if you want to own it, and by streaming on Netflix. The novels by Volker Kutscher are also available: Babylon BerlinThe Silent Death, and Goldstein.

If you’re interested in the Weimar Republic, a good place to start would be with Eric D. Weitz’ Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Let’s Just Fake a Quote


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So I don’t mind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989, dir. Steven Spielberg). It’s a pretty fun movie that captures some of the spirit of the first movie and avoids everything that’s awful about the second one. But there is one brief moment in it that drives me crazy, like a raspberry seed between my teeth.


Partway through the film, Indiana (Harrison Ford) and his father Henry (Sean Connery) are trying to escape from some Nazi airplanes in a car. The car gets bombed and they’re trapped on a beach with a bunch of birds. Daddy Jones suddenly charges at a bunch of sea gulls flapping his umbrella. The startled gulls take off and the airplane flies through them and crashes. And then Henry says “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne. ‘Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds of the sky.’ “

Here’s the scene, if you need a reminder. The quote comes at the 1:45 mark.

What I hate about this scene is that the quote is entirely made up. It doesn’t derive from any actual source about Charlemagne. Jones Senior talks about “my Charlemagne” implying that he has studied Charlemagne’s writings, the way one might talk about “my Vergil” or “my Chaucer”.

But Charlemagne never wrote anything. It’s not just a case that nothing he wrote has survived, he actually didn’t write any texts because we know from his main biographer Einhard although Charlemagne tried to learn to write as an adult, he was never able to do so. To quote Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, “He also tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.” Charlemagne was a smart guy and quite learned in some subjects, thanks to the intellectuals at his court, but he never acquired the ability to write.

We do have the text of laws and letters written in his name, but it’s unlikely that he directly composed much of that, although in some cases a scribe might have taken dictation from him. But even so, his writing isn’t given to flights of poetry like talking about rocks and trees and birds as his armies.


A bust of Charlemagne

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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.


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.


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 his 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 to explain why Antoine went through 5 or 6 health crises in the later 1660s. 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 at court 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. Magdelaine 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).


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 mentioned 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.


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 priests to be 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 Masses 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 love spells, rituals to protect livestock from disease and wolves, and rituals to communicate 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.


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.


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 orchestrated 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 France 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.


Claude de Vin des Oeillets

Back to Versailles

So let’s take stock of how Versailles depicts 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 seller 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.


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).


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.



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 enemas, which were extremely popular in this era.

Poisoners also used a 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.)


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.


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 significantly 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.


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 season 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 jealousy 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.


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.


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.


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 the king 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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.

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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.


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.

VERSAILLES Saison 1 - Episode 7

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?



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.


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 Versailles grounded 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.