Fortune-teller, abortionist, sorceress and poisoner Catherine Monvoisin was born in around 1640 and was burned at the stake in 1680. Hers is an extraordinary story, and illustrates how deeply people believed in witchcraft during the 17th century.
Her nickname ‘La Voisin’ came from from her married name ‘Monvoisin’. Had her life as the wife of a Parisian jeweller and silk merchant gone to plan, it would have been completely unremarkable, but when her husband’s business was ruined she set up as a midwife and fortune-teller.
She was so successful that she was able to support the entire family – husband, mother and three children.
Gradually, in addition to providing midwifery services she also carried out abortions (which were illegal at that time), and as her clients came to depend on her help and advice, she could not resist selling magical objects and mixing love potions.
It was a hugely successful business; by 1660 her clientele included the richest and most powerful aristocrats in the land.
She was rich, famous and had multiple lovers – including an executioner, an alchemist, an architect, a magician and a number of counts and viscounts.
She had a house in Villeneuve-sur-Gravois, Paris, where she had her consulting room and gave evening garden parties with live music.
She dabbled in science and alchemy and experimented with poisons. At one time she even contemplated poisoning her husband, but eventually abandoned the plan.
Monvoisin was not the only famous fortune-teller in Paris at that time. Her rival, Marie Bosse, ran a similar business for much the same set of clients. Both women were making a living from the vicious competition for influence at the court of Sun King Louis XIV.
Royal favour could not only lift a person’s status, but could make them and their entire family rich for generations to come. Falling out of favour could result in banishment, life imprisonment or death.
As a result, advising courtiers how best to curry favour was a lucrative trade and ‘La Voisin’ spent a vast amount of money on clothes and other props to ensure that people believed they were getting their monies’ worth.
In time, her daughter Marguerite became her assistant.
Demand intensified: people were no longer satisfied with potions brewed from toad bones, moles’ teeth, iron filings and human blood – they wanted a Black Mass during which they could ask Satan to answer their prayers.
Some rituals reportedly involved sacrificing a human baby, others required only the use of a human baby’s blood. She began employing others to help, even calling on priests to officiate – for a price, of course.
Aphrodisiacs and poisons were all part of the service, and ‘La Voisin’, an expert at the new science of killing by poison, built up a network of apothecaries to supply the various mixtures required.
Her most illustrious client was Madame de Montespan, Louis XIV’s official mistress. Brilliant, beautiful and ambitious, having supplanted Louise de La Vallière in 1667, she was determined not to be supplanted by anyone else in turn in the rival-strewn French court.
Her scheming was complicated by the fact she was almost permanently pregnant – she had seven children as a result of her affair with the king, to add to the two she had born her husband.
To maintain the king’s affections and hold off the competition, Madame de Montespan turned to sorcery, black masses and love potions, all supplied by ‘La Voisin’.
Louis was never a faithful lover, taking numerous women to bed even during the periods when he had an official mistress, and over the course of their relationship Madame de Montespan slipped potions into his food. In 1677, however, so the story goes, Madame de Montespan found out that the king had started an affair with Angélique de Fontanges, and was so furious that she planned to poison them both.
She consulted ‘La Voisin’, who eventually agreed to hand the king a poisoned paper petition in person.
The plan failed and another was hatched. But before it could be put into action another well-known fortune-teller, Magdelaine de La Grange, was arrested for poisoning.
It was the start of a major scandal known as l’affaire des poisons which rocked Paris from 1677 to 1682.
The subsequent investigation uncovered a network of fortune-tellers, sorcerers and poisoners across the capital. A number of prominent aristocrats were also rounded up and sentenced for witchcraft and poisoning. In all, 36 people were executed and many more were imprisoned for life.
In January 1679, ‘La Voisin’s’ chief competitor Marie Bosse was arrested. It was inevitable she would betray her rival – and two months later Catherine Monvoisin was also detained.
By the end of the year, the whole network, including Marguerite Monvoisin, was in jail.
‘La Voisin’ was by this time a garrulous alcoholic; there was no need for torture. She talked about her career, admitted selling poison and magical services and named some of her lesser-known clients. In February 1680, she was put on trial and two days later burned alive on the Place de Grève.
Arrested some time later, daughter Marguerite confessed everything including her mother’s list of clients, the attempt on the king’s life and her connection to Madame de Montespan, along with a huge number of other high-ranking courtiers.
The story was corroborated by others in the network and the king was informed. The scandal reached right to the throne.
Louis closed the investigation, suppressed the gossip, sealed the witness statements, ordered the destruction of many of the documents in the investigation and had the remaining accused imprisoned under a ‘lettre de cachet’ which meant they virtually disappeared; they no longer had any legal existence.
They were split up and imprisoned in various strongholds around the country. It is not known when Marguerite or any of the others died.
Madame de Montespan’s reign as mistress-in-chief was over. Although the king still spent the night with her from time to time, by 1681 she had been replaced by the Marquise de Maintenon, the tight-laced governess to the king’s legitimate children, and that was the end of the ‘affair des poisons’.
Jean-Christian Petitfils, a historian, prolific author, and expert on the period, described Catherine Monvoisin as a woman of her time. “Her husband was useless, he tried all sorts of professions but was bad at all of them. So she started fortune telling, and turned out to have a better head for business. She made a fortune, and acted as a kind of agent, putting clients in touch with people who would do almost anything, for a price.”
He pointed out that before the Enlightenment, people were very superstitious. “They believed in God and, of course, so much of religion is based on miracles and magic, they were predisposed to believe in it.
“It was popularly believed that base metal could be turned into gold; that a talisman would protect you from harm during a battle; witches could cast spells; that love potions existed; that a person could be cursed... all of this was so ingrained that offers of this sort were commonly attached to other illegal services such as abortion and murder.”
People, he said, from the poorest peasants right up to the king himself, not only believed in God but in Satan, too. And if God could not answer your prayers, then Satan would.
‘La Voisin’, for example, used to baptise newborns before killing them as sacrifices. It was said that her garden contained the remains of up to 2,500 foetuses and newborn babies. Science had not started to explain the mysteries of life and death, and people still believed in mollifying the capricious humours of the devil with Black Magic, sacrifices and any number of other grim rituals.
“Even today, people still believe in fortune tellers, paying them good money to find out what life has in store.
“I’m not suggesting they are murderers like Catherine Monvoisin, just pointing out that people are still attracted to the idea of someone with special powers being able to somehow see into the future and give you advantageous advice. And look at how many people believe in horoscopes and all the rest of it!
“The difference is that, today, it is less connected to religion.”