As noted in a previous post, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Case in point, Louis XIV, the Sun King, one of the great over-indulgers of history. This is the same man who built Versailles, and more extravagant than that, it is hard to be. Between the painters and performers and the cakes and the wine and the women and the wars, he made time to confer with his perfumer Martial over new and exotic scents, and lots of them. Not only was he noted as the most brilliant monarch of his age, but also as the sweetest smelling.
Then, one day late in the seventeenth century, he just gave it up. Went cold turkey. Could no longer abide the stuff. Said anything but orange blossoms gave him headaches. What the king would not, the court could not. Women of quality fell into vapors at the mere sight of flowers and men declared (possibly truthfully) that they had hated perfume all along.
This one-eighty did something awful for the purveyors of scent, EU global marketing not being as big at that time as it is now, and it would take another generation to recover.
The question remains, though, why the sudden volte face? Why, in his late fifties, did he change the habits of a lifetime?
Ms DeJean in her The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafés, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour, suggests it was a delayed reaction to the overindulgence of his youth, rather like the ex-college student who can never feel quite the same affection for beer after graduation. Headaches and the vapors, you see.
More salaciously, she suggests that his use of artificial stimulants to maintain his thoroughly French libido might have played a role. He was, after all, King of France, dammit, and with that title came a reputation to, well, uphold.
There is another darker possibility, first suggested to me by Mrs. Allen, who knows her French history, and it puts certain words and actions in a creepier light. Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, seventeenth century chronicler of other people’s misbehavior, wrote:
“Jamais homme n’aima tant les odeurs et ne les craignit tant après”
“Never has any man ever loved scents as he did, nor feared them so much later.”
Now Saint-Simon was a tasty gossip and his memoirs are a lot of fun, but he’s not always a man to be taken at face value. In cross checking his accounts on any number of things, one finds his word as often as not is unsupported or even downright wrong.
That said, the choice of verb is interesting. Not disliked, not wearied of, not annoyed or irritated by, but feared. Craignit. Not quite so strong as avoir peur, but still, fear of any kind is a weakness in a king.
What gives? Writerly license on Saint-Simon’s part, or something more pointed?
A bit of background. Louis did indeed like the ladies, and one of his favorite popsies was Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise of Montespan. She had charm and sex appeal in spades by all accounts, and we have to believe it - over the years, the woman bore him seven children, the last in 1678.
Youth will fade and attention wander, and by the time Athénaïs had squeezed out number seven, she was pushing forty and worried that she might be losing her grip over Louis. This was no small matter, not for someone who lived in the style to which she had become accustomed.
And so, like anxious lovers from the dawn of history, she (allegedly) sought out supernatural aid.
Flashback again, to Paris, 1677. The police arrested one Magdelaine de La Grange, a fortune-teller, on a routine charge of forgery. She offered a plea bargain, claiming to have information about poisoners in high places.
Enter the police commissioner, Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie, an extraordinary man who, among other accomplishments, introduced street lights into Paris and something like scientific method into police work.
He interrogated her, then ordered a round up of some unusual suspects, chiefly fortune tellers and chemists (another perfume connection, notice). Slowly, inexorably, and for four years, the caseload expanded and moved ever higher up the social ladder. It seemed that so called “inheritance powders” were all the rage. Finally, in 1679, authorities picked up one of the most notorious suppliers, Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, aka ”La Voisin” .
La Voison claimed that she had sold aphrodisiacs to Madame de Montespan herself, presumably intended for the king. Worse, she claimed that de Montespan had engaged the renegade Abbé Étienne Guibourg to conduct Black Masses (Montespan herself supine and nude on the desecrated altar, that sort of thing) with a view to keeping the king fixated on her and her alone. Voisin went so far as to suggest that the death of at least one of Montespan’s rivals was down to poisoning.
It was a new low in a city riven with scandal – never a good thing for a government – and in 1682 the king ordered La Reynie to wrap up matters quickly, quietly, and for good. La Voisin had been burned at the stake (1680), the abbe sentenced to life behind bars. Montespan was retired to the Filles de Saint-Joseph convent on a generous pension, which she donated to various good causes, including the dramatists Corneille and Racine. Her final years were haunted by her past, and they say that she was terrified of being left alone and of the dark.
The king meanwhile ordered and personally oversaw the burning, sheet by sheet, of all official records relating to the investigation. There were some things no one really needed to know.
Louis replaced the yummy de Montespan with the impeccably prim Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, who remained as companion, and after 1684, the “secret” wife to the king for the remainder of his life. She influenced policy, not always for the best (e.g. revocation of the Edict of Nantes (again, allegedly), but was noted as never having profited personally (well, hardly needed to, did she?)
Given the association Louis might have had with his earlier louche lifestyle, and the connection of perfume with poison, and poison with everything he had read in La Reynie’s unsettling files, it becomes quite reasonable that the stuff should lose its charms for him.
Oh, and how do we know the whole grisly story, given Louis’ insistence on burning all the evidence?
Good bureaucrat that he was, La Reynie kept a carbon copy for himself, discovered after his death.
If none of this has put you off your food, you can read about the whole squalid affair in all its revolting detail in Frances Mossiker’s The Affair of the Poisons or Anne Somerset’s The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide, and Satanism at the Court of Louis XIV.
For La Reynie, well, years ago I saw some romans a policier featuring the fellow (or perhaps it was an underling?), but the only straight biographies I know of are La Reynie, policier gentilhomme by Francois Montmaur (1930) and La Reynie: le policier de Louis XIV by Eric Le Nabour (1994). Neither title is easy to come by, and mine are not for sale.