Poisoners, Policemen, and a Scandal in the Court of King Louis XIV: Exploring the Origins of Parisian Policing with Holly Tucker

City of Light, City of Poison_REV_978-0-393-23978-2Although Professor Holly Tucker wrote her new book for a non-academic audience, City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris begins with a scene uniquely suited to evoke terror and handwringing from historians. The preface, which Tucker entitles “Burn Notice,” is set in the palace of Versailles in 1709. King Louis XIV and his minister Louis de Pontchartrain stand before the hearth in the counsel room, where “Page by page, Pontchartrain handed … documents to the king, who fed each of them into the hungry flames. The two men watched the parchment curl and catch fire.” The king and Pontchartrain thought they were destroying all evidence of a seventeenth century scandal amongst the nobility, the Affair of the Poisons. “[T]he king silenced the horrors of the affair and the screams of its victims for good,” we read, before Tucker deftly assures us, “Or so he believed.”

Thankfully, the man who uncovered the scandal kept his personal papers separate from the archive of incriminating records that Louis XIV burned. Nicolas de La Reynie, Tucker’s central subject and the chief of police of Paris, was an obsessive note taker and recorder of information—indeed, this attention to detail was what made him so well suited to the job. From these papers and the records of the Bastille prison, Tucker painstakingly revived the characters and events of the Affair of the Poisons. In La Reynie’s investigation, noblewomen, debtors, renegade priests, and discarded mistresses were prime suspects in the epidemic of attempted poisonings so pervasive that not even the king was safe.

The captivating figure of La Reynie not only enlivens the story and creates a natural narrative tension, but he also makes City of Light, City of Poison so essential to historians of the carceral state. More than 160 years before British politician Robert Peel wrote the “Principals of Law Enforcement,” considered by many to be the foundational text of modern policing, La Reynie assembled a network of spies, a bureaucracy of commissioners, and a corps of officers to fight crime in Paris. Resembling a hybrid of municipal police forces and domestic intelligence services like the FBI or the French Gendarmerie, La Reynie and the Paris police defended the monarchy and the French state with the same vigor with which they defended Parisians from crime. I spoke with Holly Tucker about the parallels between pre-enlightenment and modern policing, what historians can learn from the Affair of the Poisons, and how humanities scholars should approach writing for a non-academic audience.

Avigail Oren (AO): City of Light, City of Poison tells the story of Nicolas de La Reynie, appointed lieutenant general of police by King Louis XIV of France in 1667 to clean up the city of Paris and improve public safety. The job seemed to be equal measures Director of Sanitation as Chief of Police. Why were sanitation and public safety so interrelated in seventeenth-century Paris?

Holly Tucker (c) Kimberly Wylie_300dpi
Photograph credit: Kimberly Wylie

Holly Tucker (HT): I think that although Louis XIV made Nicolas de La Reynie police chief, he was also really looking for someone who would serve, in a way, like Mayor of Paris. There had really been no one in Paris looking after the day-to-day aspects of life for Parisians. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was one of Louis XIV’s ministers, the prime interior minister, who was responsible for the construction of some of the eye-popping buildings built in seventeenth-century Paris. In the book I focus a lot on sanitation, but Nicolas de La Reynie was also responsible for responding in times of flooding. The Seine River flooded a lot. La Reynie dealt with the problem of bridges being swept away, and then the attendant problems of transportation. He was also very involved in food provisions, and policed and oversaw Les Halles, which was the main (huge) market for Paris. He looked as well at pricing mechanisms. In all, there was very little about Parisian infrastructure that he did not concern himself with.

AO: Although Nicolas de La Reynie was put in control of Paris in this hybrid role of police chief/mayor/bureaucrat, and he successfully implemented policies to light the city at night and have the streets cleaned by day, from your story it seemed that there were limits to how much control he was able to exert over Parisians. The Montorgueil quarter, for example, was a part of the city where La Reynie struggled to assert control over vice—to such an extent that it became the node, or the point of origin, in the web of events that became the Affair of the Poisons that you so vividly describe in the book. I was wondering if you could tell me what La Reynie would have seen while walking the streets of Montorgueil in the 1670s, in terms of both sights and sensory experiences?

HT: First, it’s really up for debate whether La Reynie physically went into the quarter. There’s some legend that he took a group of officers with him under the cover of night and went into the Court of Miracles [Ed: the name for the headquarters of beggars and organized criminals in Paris]. And that may indeed be apocryphal, but he did have a fair number of spies and other officers who would come into the quarter. But anyone who would have walked into that neighborhood would have seen abject poverty. They would have seen houses that were made out of wood, basically makeshift homes. And then at the same time, there was a major church and a few better-off residences, some homes made of stone—that still actually exist, there are a few seventeenth century homes that are still there. The bulk of the buildings on that street now are mostly eighteenth century residences, but the street grid is still the same. Of course, like the rest of Paris it would have been very dirty, perhaps even dirtier. Keep in mind that it’s just about five to eight minutes walking, assuming no obstacles, from that neighborhood to Les Halles, the main market, which was busy, crazy, stinky, and filled with thieves and prostitutes, and then from there only 10 minutes away from the Louvre, Louis XIV’s Paris Palace. I can walk from Montorgueil to the Louvre in 12 minutes.

AO: So this is really in the King’s backyard.

HT: Yes.

AO: In terms of geographic distance it seems incredibly close, but Montorgueil was in stark opposition to the opulent court of King Louis XIV, where much of the book takes place. Could you describe the Affair of the Poisons and how it demonstrates that the social distance between nobility and poor Parisians was closer than most people would suspect?

HT: Most inhabitants who would have been associated with the court weren’t living in the Louvre. The king himself was rarely at the Louvre. Louis XIV tended to be at a palace called Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the nobility themselves were over in the arrondissement that would have been about 20 minutes away. For as close as it is to many of the major landmarks, physically it would have been unlikely that we would have seen a lot of intersection between these two communities. But the Affair of the Poisons was basically a scandal—a very well known scandal in seventeenth-century history and amongst French historians—in which La Reynie, the police chief, discovered there was this cabal of poisoners, midwives, abortionists, so-called witches, and also renegade priests who were performing services for the nobility. And there was some question over time whether or not the nobility, particularly some of the king’s mistresses, were employing them in order to reach the king—either to have the king fall in love with them or to punish the king. And of course La Reynie wanted to clean up the city of crime, but he also wanted to protect the king to whom he was very, very dedicated. He ended up arresting over 400 people, over 200 people were tried in a secret tribunal, 30 people were executed, and among those many people were tortured. But what it showed was just how permeable the social spaces between the nobility and the lower classes actually were in the seventeenth century.

AO: I was really struck by that while reading the book. It didn’t seem so difficult for these noblewomen, whether they were the lower nobility or a mistress of the king like Athénaïs de Montespan, to seek out and get connected to some of these shadier characters.

HT: A number of people from the lower classes of course worked in the households as servants to these noblewomen. That was one of the “rewards” that could be had, that through these connections that the herbalists and midwives made, they gained an opportunity to place some women from the lower classes into jobs in noble households. And in fact, one of the king’s mistresses, Madame de Oeillets, the superstar actress who had been in the court of Montespan, came from Montorgueil. So as much as we’d like to think that these communities were so distinct, both physically in how the city was laid out, and socially, they were not as distinct as we would imagine.

AO: When translated to policing, I imagine that this social interplay lessened the distinction between controller and controlled. That could create confusion: what rules applied to whom, and who had the power to punish and enforce? You write a lot about how La Reynie exerted his control over the lower classes, but the King must have exerted control over the nobility and the members of his court as well. Ostensibly, until the Affair of the Poisons, it was not through the use of the police. Why did Louis XIV decide that a police force was necessary for Paris, but limit its reach into the King’s court?

HT: Actually the monarchy had been in great jeopardy not too long before, between 1648 and 1653 with La Fronde, the civil war. There was an uprising of the noble classes represented through the parliament, which is the main legal body of France. Louis XIV was only 5 years old and his mother, Anne of Austria, was regent. At the heart of the uprising was the very sustainability of the monarchy. Who would control the State? Louis XIV kept in mind throughout his adult years that, if not properly controlled, the nobility could bring about the end of the royal political structures. He also remembered being frightened as a child by death threats during the civil war that lasted five years. That’s also where we begin to see his reluctance to be in Paris. He was taken out of his bed in the Louvre when he was a very, very small boy and then taken to the palace of Saint-Germain, where he was born, and I think that he’d always seen Paris as being this unruly city. To the extent that we can speculate, I think for a while he was willing to let Paris go down its own path, it was just this necessary evil. Then in 1665, when two of the main proactive lawmen of the city—the criminal lieutenant and the civil lieutenant—were both killed, I think Louis XIV realized that by international reputation, Paris was out of control. I think it also was his call to action to make sure that the city did not give him more trouble, personally as monarch, than the nobility did years earlier. That’s why he gave La Reynie such broad powers, because my sense is he really wanted La Reynie to be acting as his physical proxy. La Reynie was very dedicated to the king, but Paris was his kingdom in a way, on behalf of the King.

AO: Although La Reynie was the lieutenant general of police, I was surprised that the force he oversaw did not seem to resemble the modern police departments familiar to most American readers. Most notably, La Reynie used a system of local commissioners to enforce his orders. In what ways did the seventeenth century police force differ from the professionalized police departments that would develop in the nineteenth century?

HT: I think we’re in the mid-range there, because the commissioners were part of the ad-hoc police force. There would be one or two commissioners per quarter responsible for receiving the complaints of the citizens who had already experienced some sort of crime or felt that they had experienced a crime. And La Reynie still engaged those commissioners in that he relied on them to collect the mud taxes, to mobilize their quarter according to his rules to clean and light the streets. But he brought in several hundred, if not up to one thousand, new officers, who were typically on horseback conducting surveillance in the city. He also had the Royal Musketeers as well, whom he would call in from time to time. So I wouldn’t call it the kind of modern police force that we might imagine, but La Reynie was definitely leaning in that direction. He ends up putting this all together in the matter of just a couple of years, which is really quite remarkable.

AO: In addition to these officers and commissioners, La Reynie collected intelligence “from a web of civil servants, lawyers, judges, doctors, and merchants,” and became known for his detailed reports about the goings-on in the city (p. 20). Indeed, King Louis XIV and his ministers came to trust and rely on La Reynie on the basis of the information he was able to collect and provide to them. This complex interrelationship between La Reynie, intelligence, and the state reminded me more of the FBI than a traditional urban police force. What does this early history reveal about how the relationship between national or state and local policing developed?

HT: I’ve also been really fascinated by spies and spying. Because so much of it was under the radar, it’s hard to know with great certainty what was going on. Information could be transmitted via little pieces of paper or parchment, folded and put in buttons that would be covered over in fabric.  It’s only in the 1660s that Louis creates the French postal system, which came primarily out of an interest in wanting to know what was happening and what the citizens were talking about. In the king’s palaces, it has been documented that for letters that were going among the nobility within the palace, to have a centralized postal service the letters would have to go to special room where there would be several people who had all different types of ways of opening the letters. So at the same time that La Reynie is starting his police force, the king has started the postal service—and all of this is for the purpose of spying and keeping an eye on things. In fact I stumbled upon several letters—some are at the University of Pennsylvania actually—letters between La Reynie and Colbert where Colbert was saying, “Hey, I’ve been hearing at court that this person or that person, they’re riding around Paris in these extremely elaborate carriages. Help me figure out what’s going on.” Or, “the king is very unhappy about this, help us stop it.” Another thing that La Reynie did is he made it illegal to gamble in private homes, in favor of requiring people to gamble in public spaces. Why? So he could actually put spies in there to get a sense of who was doing what, what they were talking about, who was losing tons of money and who was gaining tons of money. Now what he did specifically with that information, we can’t be sure, but knowledge gathering during this time period went hand and hand with state building.

AO: I think that comes out really clearly in the book, and raises very interesting questions for historians to think about the carceral state and about state discipline across more levels of policing, from local to national.

HT: Toward the end of the Affair of the Poisons, when it was clear that La Reynie’s investigations were getting closer and closer to some of the people who had direct contact with the king, the fact that Louis XIV, who wanted to know everything about everything, instructed La Reynie to stop the investigation and to put under seal the most incriminating documents—and then, years later, to burn those documents—shows a clear recognition that public knowledge of certain events could be extraordinarily dangerous and powerful. And that means private knowledge can also be equally powerful, if not more powerful.

AO: In the book’s epilogue, you quantify the impact of the Affair of the Poisons. You mentioned some of these numbers already, but 442 people were questioned and 218 were imprisoned—28 of them for life—and 34 were executed for the crimes. It seems from your narrative that justice was not meted out equitably, and that the accused’s class affected the punishment they received, with some very notable exceptions. We see similar patterns of racial and class bias in policing and in the justice system in America today, and I assume in France as well. Yet most histories of the carceral state do not extend back to the seventeenth century. What insight can the Affair of the Poisons, as a lens into early policing, provide to historians interested in the history of policing and incarceration in the 19th and 20th century?

HT: I do think that there’s been, in reception studies, work that has shown both the contributions and also the disservices that Foucauldian approaches to incarceration and policing have given us, and I do think that studies like this help make the thesis much more complicated—in ways that others have also done through the whole debate twenty years ago about Foucault. There is still a lot that we can do to provide welcome nuance. The very fact that you’ve got different prison systems for different groups, the nobility were more likely to be in the Bastille, the lower classes were more likely to be at the Chåtelet. The Conciergerie in Paris were for very high-level cases and were typically tried by the Parliament. But that doesn’t exclude, either, the ecclesiastical courts. So the court and particularly the prison system in early modern France was extraordinarily complicated. And it was complicated both from the legal point of view, of course, but also because of the socioeconomic standing of those on trial.

AO: I wanted to conclude with two questions about writing for a non-academic audience. City of Light, City of Poison is the second book you have published with a trade press. How did you begin writing non-fiction? What are the advantages of publishing with a press like W.W. Norton?

HT: I think that, as humanists, we often do ourselves a disservice by not recognizing that we are storytellers. So I gave myself the freedom to think of myself as an academic-slash-researcher-slash-teacher-slash-storyteller, because that’s what we also do in our classes—for those of us who teach history or cultural studies or literature, we are re-creating something for our students that’s based on scholarship. So when I started thinking about what my next book would be, and this was after tenure, I stumbled on an interesting story. I’d been teaching the history of medicine for a while and I was teaching about William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood in 1638 and I really wanted to pep up the lectures somehow. I decided to show some primary documents, so I started going through the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and searching for references to blood. And that’s when I stumbled on these blood transfusion experiments. And the more I looked into them, the more I thought, oh my gosh, this is all about a modern biomedical technology that most people can’t imagine medicine without, and it’s got this fraught history because the first experiments were animal to human. And one of the first blood transfusion patients was actually murdered in the 1670s and the transfusionist was put on trial for what appeared, for all practical purposes, to be one of the first malpractice trials. Blood transfusion was effectively banned after that trial and in the court record it said, “the three doctors responsible for the patient’s death will come to justice shortly.” I read that and thought, “Oh my, what? There’s a cabal of doctors who have done what?” And I discovered that the patient had actually been poisoned. And so when I was thinking about how I wanted to write this—this was going to be my promotion book—the story was so rich and the characters were so amazing and the implications were huge because, underlying the murder was this concern that if animals were being transfused to humans there could be a real possibility of creating chimeras.

AO: I mean, clearly.

HT: Right? So I decided that I didn’t want to write for a small handful of people. So whether or not I was going to get promoted, it didn’t matter, and so I did my research to figure out how one goes about publishing for a larger audience and so I pitched agents. Then I picked an agent who worked really well with me and then she pitched it to different publishers and actually we had a number of publishers interested in it. And so that’s why, it was an amazing story. The challenge was trying to figure out, so what does this mean? Because I was used to writing academically, and it’s a completely different experience to write for a larger audience than it is for an audience of one’s peers. And I will say these last two books that I’ve written have been the hardest intellectual research experiences that I’ve ever had. You really have to get into cultural documents to find ways to bring readers into that period. So it’s not just about the ideas, it’s not just about the events that occurred, it’s about providing an accurate as possible snapshot of the time period so that readers can live the experience. It’s really hard to do that.

AO: How would you recommend scholars who have an idea for a non-fiction project begin to pursue non-fiction writing? How should they go about acquiring an agent or a publisher?

HT: I think the advantage we have as scholars is that we know how to ask questions and we know how to get information, and so when I had this idea I just started Googling. And then also, as far as writing style, I read books targeted to larger audiences that I really appreciated for the scholarship, like those by Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky, Stephen Greenblatt, and a book I really enjoyed called The Most Famous Man in America by Debby Applegate. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so I got that book. I got Seabiscuit. We, as researchers in the humanities, we’re used to looking at texts carefully, digging through and looking at narrative structure, not just what’s being said but how it’s being said. I don’t think we give ourselves enough credit! If there was one good book I’d tell everyone to start with, it’s Susan Rabiner’s Thinking Like Your Editor. It’s a little bit older but I just looked at it again not too long ago and it gives extraordinarily good advice about how to know whether your idea is appropriate for an audience, and how to go pitching that, and what agents and editors are looking for, and how one goes about putting together a book proposal that is targeted for larger presses.

Avigail Oren is co-editor of The Metropole. She recently completed her Ph.D. in History at Carnegie Mellon University. More of her writing can be found here. Holly Tucker is a Professor of French at Vanderbilt University and also holds an appointment in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society in the School of Medicine. Tucker is also the author of Blood Work:  A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution and Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth & the Fairy Tale in Early-Modern France.

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