Showing posts with label 1600s. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1600s. Show all posts

06 March 2016


by Leigh Lundin

So Tuesday, friends invited me to celebrate a birthday with dining and a movie. Our birthday girl selected a film applauded at Sundance, a ‘Christian horror’ flick that supposedly “terrified” Stephen King– she chose The Witch.

The Witch
Critics praised it with adjectives– thought-provoking, visually compelling, deeply unsettling, intelligent, meticulously researched, historically accurate, carefully crafted, detailed, brooding, numinous, magnificent, smart, artful, gut-wrenching, creepy, atmospheric, beautifully crafted– an immense atmosphere, a little gem.

And yet, friends and I literally struggled to stay awake.

Movie audiences often regard films more positively than reviewers, or rather they side with critics who give higher ratings, but are more reluctant to agree when professionals pan movies. Rotten Tomatoes calculated an 89% approval from 160 reviewers. It’s especially beloved by the Satanic Temple, which endorsed The Witch and hosted screenings. Meanwhile, only half of 22 000 audience members liked it.

Stirring the Pot

Is The Crucible still required reading in high school? We not only read Arthur Miller’s play, we studied the history of Salem witch trials. My girlfriend lived a short oxcart ride from Plimoth Plantation, where the story begins. She suggested a tour of Salem and the nearby cemetery with its slate headstones. I entered the movie theatre looking forward to the story and its history.

Puritans were singularly unpleasant people. The English could not abide them; the Puritans could barely tolerate themselves. They detested other brands of Christians. Once, they hanged two Quaker women– as inoffensive humans as ever one might encounter– passers-by in the wrong place at the wrong time. To take them in, the local Indians must have been saints.

The film commences in 1630, ten years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. For context, the Salem witch trials wouldn’t come until much later, 1692.

Family Portrait

The Witch features surprisingly few Indians… zero, by my count. Instead, the film focuses on one family: husband William, wife Katherine, baby Samuel, Katzenjammer-like twins Mercy and Jonas, coming-of-age son Caleb, and beautiful, ethereal daughter Thomasin. These are the children all parents want.

Caleb follows his father, learning how to build, plant, hunt, and the work that makes a man. Sexual awakenings confuse him. He shares with his older sister a protectiveness toward the baby in the family.

 Witch language: Enochian.

The focus soon shifts to gentle Thomasin and the remainder of the story plays out through her eyes. She seems too delicate for hardscrabble pioneering, yet she works uncomplainingly.

The characters are portrayed well enough, although growing to like people only to see them destroyed is always difficult.

Double, Double Toil and Trouble

Plimoth Plantation
Plimoth Plantation
What was wrong with the movie?

Our David Dean knows something about Christian horror as evidenced by his novel, The Thirteenth Child. That atmosphere builds, mystifies, intimidates and terrifies. In comparison, The Witch merely disappoints.

To writer-director Robert Eggers’ credit, he didn’t belabor the portrayal of witches, wisely choosing to understate. Unfortunately, his deft hand lacked in other ways. My overwhelming feeling was sadness for a likeable, struggling family unraveling through little fault of their own except, you know, they weren’t Puritan enough. Sadness and boredom… and I usually admire historical detail.

Eggers would have been well-served to study writings of New England horror by H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edgar Allan Poe. Lovecraft especially turned environment into atmosphere, forged words into weapons, nay, gnashing teeth that rend a reader’s imagination and devour hope.

Cauldron of Crises

The movie’s far bigger problem is a lack of plot. The family leaves the religious colony to homestead on their own. They face calamities in feeding themselves as crops, livestock, and hunting fail, and later, crises of conscience. William represents Job in the New World. If something goes wrong, it must be God’s will.

This isn’t a plot, it’s a premise, a series of vignettes maybe caused by witches, maybe not, barely threaded on the same spool. Worse, it’s an audience waster for anyone other than film students.

In the hands of M. Night Shyamalan, the production would likely feature a darkly intricate plot, more mystery, less ambivalence. Everyone has to start somewhere and this is Robert Eggers’s first film. But time and money are precious, and whereas we ponder the harsh lives of the Puritans, I suspect future generations will wonder why The Witch received an 89% rating.

01 August 2013

The Affair of the Poisons

Scandal!  Murder!  Secret poisons!  Death in high places!  Welcome to the 17th century, specifically the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, or, as one of my students once put it, the first king to live as a rock star.
Marquise de Brinvilliers
(after torture, on her way to execution)

The year was 1676, and a middle-aged woman, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, mousy, quiet, of minor nobility and married to same, was arrested for trying to kill her husband.  The investigation concluded that she had poisoned her father, her two brothers, and various strangers in hospitals upon whom she'd experimented with various types of poisons.  She tried to flee the country, but she was arrested in Liege, and tried and tortured.  She was executed (beheaded, and then her body was burnt).  During her trial, supposedly, she talked about how unfair her execution was since everybody did it.

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Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie
And maybe they did.  The chief of police in Paris at the time was Gabriel-Nicolas La Reynie, rich, smart, urbane.  He cleaned up Paris, protected Protestants, and did a better job than most, or at least more of what we'd recognize as a police chief's job.  He'd been warned by a priest that a lot of people were confessing to poisoning their relatives.  The break came, however, at a party when a Madame Bosse got drunk and started talking about selling poison to the quality trade.  Someone reported it, and an undercover officer went to her later, bought a bottle of poison, and then arrested her.  She started squealing, and soon the authorities were arresting every fortuneteller, alchemist, and self-proclaimed witch or seer they could find.  And there were a lot of them.  Interrogations followed, and this is where it gets dicey, because the standard criminal justice procedures of the day called for questioning prisoners under torture.  Subjected to the water torture (16 pints poured down a funnel in the throat for starters), the boot, the rack, thumbscrews, pincers (sometimes red-hot) and other "standard methods", they named names galore.  And one of them was Madame Voison, self-proclaimed witch and fortuneteller to the stars.  (Think Nancy Reagan's astrologer; or Elizabeth I's Dr. Dee...)

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Madame Voison
At this point, La Reynie knew he was playing with very dangerous people, who quite literally could have HIM arrested for investigating them, so he went to Louvois, the Foreign Minister, who in turn went to the King, who agreed to a very private investigation so that they could hush up what needed to be hushed up and arrest those who needed to be arrested.  They created the "chambre ardente" ("burning court" - burning being the punishment for witches and witchcraft) to be the central investigation/court.   And names came tumbling out:  countesses, duchesses, counts and dukes.  Even people in the royal family.  The only one not named was Athenais de Mortemart, Madame de Montespan, either because Athenais didn't do more than have a few spells cast or because Voisin was scared of being charged with treason. 

Why treason?  Simple:  Madame de Montespan, daughter of one of the oldest families in France, was the then official mistress of Louis XIV, by whom she'd had 7 children.  Supposedly, it was La Voison who got M. de Montespan her place in the King's bed, because, despite her undoubted beauty, tremendous lineage, acknowledged wit, and extreme willingness, at first Louis just wasn't that into her.  It might have been that Louis was still besotted with Louise de la Valliere, it might have been that Louis didn't appreciate Athenais' incredibly sharp tongue, it might have been that he liked blondes better (who are we kidding, Louis liked everybody), but in any case, until La Voison (supposedly) arranged a Black Mass for Athenais, complete with blood, blasphemy, and spells - all performed on Athenais' nude body or so the rumor went - Louis didn't look her way.  After that, he was hooked on Athenais for years.

File:Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart.jpg
Madame de Montespan
Now the truth is, there was never any proof of all the poisonings, spells, and witchcraft but the word of a group of tortured prisoners who all claimed to be witches.  (Yes, there were deaths - but people died suddenly and quickly all the time, from bad food, infections, blood poisoning, aneurisms, and everything else under the sun.  Remember, this is a world without antibiotics or vaccinations.)  But at the same time, Athenais did admit to buying love spells for Louis (he was not amused).  And even a love spell could be harmful, because no one was checking out the ingredient list - Louis remembered that he'd had terrible headaches during the time in question, although that could have been a retroactive reaction.  And poison of all sorts was widely available (as late as 1892 our own Lizzie Borden could walk into a store and expect to buy prussic acid over the counter), easy to manufacture, and widely used (arsenic and antimony and belladonna were all used for cosmetic as well as homicidal reasons).  And poison was instantly suspected in any sudden death.  When Louis' brother's wife, Madame (who, incidentally was another of the King's lovers - the man got around) died suddenly at the age of 26 in 1670, even she, as she was dying, believed she'd been poisoned and said so.  (Suspects included two of her husband's lovers; the primitive CSI team of the day performed an autopsy and concluded cholera morbus, a/k/a gastroenteritis; the dispute continues to this day.) 

The results of the Affair of Poisons were:  36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet.  A lettre de cachet was an unappealable, unexplained order signed by the king, locking someone away for life - it was frequently used by the nobility to imprison difficult relatives.  One of the ones who vanished was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, who (like Athenais) had played around with Black Masses (on Good Friday, no less!) and other debauchery.  For a long time, he was believed to be the Man in the Iron Mask - but it's been proved that his family had him locked up in the Prison Saint-Lazare in Paris.   One of the most interesting trials was that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who arrived in court surrounded by relations and fans, hand in hand with her husband and the lover for whom she was accused of trying to murder the Duc.  She was tart, saucy, pert, and laughed her way through the whole trial.  She was acquitted, but the King banished her anyway.   And there was the Marechal de Luxembourg, who was tried (for 14 months) for using spells to get rid of people, including his wife.  He was also acquitted but his secretary was sent to the galleys.  (More on the galleys next blog.)  The King banished Luxembourg for only a week before recalling him to command the King's armies. 

Basically, all the society people were acquitted, despite admitting that they'd been customers of La Voison - but only, they swore, for spells and love potions.  And then, under torture and threat of burning, Madame de Montespan's name was finally said - all the stuff about the Black Mass and love potions came out - and Louis XIV shut the chambre ardente down.  All those who had even whispered Montespan's name were put, by lettre de cachet, in solitary confinement for life, where they were whipped if they even spoke to their jailers, to prevent the mention even of her name.  Faced with a King who was determined to cover up everything (Louis XIV even burned all the records in his possession), La Reynie implied that he believed the worst when he said "the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard."  We know as much as we do because La Reynie kept his copies of the records safely locked away until they were rediscovered a few centuries later.

Madame de Montespan - well, Louis forgave her.  At least to the point where he kept her at Versailles for 11 more years, until she finally left in 1691 for the Convent of St. Joseph, with a half a million francs annual pension. 

I'm also happy to tell you that the sale of poison was strictly controlled from then on (official date August 31, 1682).  Private laboratories were abolished, and all occult arts forbidden. 

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Olympe Mancini
But perhaps the most important result of the Affair of the Poisons is linked to another major society woman under suspicion, Comtesse de Soissons, Olympe Mancini.  A warrant was issued for her arrest in 1680, but the King warned her ahead of time that they were coming for her and she fled the country.  He said, later, that he would have to answer to God for that, but she was an old lover of his, and if she wasn't, her sister definitely was (there is no end to former lovers of King Louis XIV), and he had his own notions of gallantry.  She was suspected of killing her husband, and since she fled, people assumed she was guilty.  

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Prince Eugene
Anyway, her son, Prince Eugene of Savoy, never believed that she was guilty, and was so furious at his mother's exile that he renounced his French citizenship and joined the Austrian army under the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.  This was a disaster for Louis XIV, because the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons were mortal enemies, and Eugene was a military genius.  He served 3 successive HREs, and beat Louis like a gong in every battle in the War of the Spanish Succession.  Even more importantly in terms of European history as a whole, Eugene was a major player in the war to take back Vienna and Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Turks.  His most spectacular victory was the 1691 Battle of Zenta, where his casualties were 2,000 to the Turks' 25,000, as well as capturing the sultan's harem, treasure chest, and Imperial seal.  The peace treaty after that Battle restored Transylvania, Bosnia, and Hungary to the Austrian Empire and, thus, to Europe, and put an end to Ottoman expansion in Europe. 

So.  Poison.  Murder.  Scandal.  And we end up with a free Eastern Europe.   You figure it out.

NOTE:  For further reading, while there are an infinite number of books on Louis XIV, and a variety on the Affair of the Poisons, I recommend Nancy Mitford's, "The Sun King", which captures perfectly the breathless, "Entertainment Tonight!", celebrity-obsessed world of 17th century France.