In the late 1600s, noblemen and women at the glittering court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, began dropping like flies.
Of course, court was always a dangerous place to be, with no end of intrigue, conspiracies, and relentless jostling for the King and Queen’s mercurial favor. The kind of snake pit where those who endured knew to watch their backs, even in the company of “friends.” But as the infamous affair of the poisons began sweeping through the aristocracy, so many influential players dropped dead—many of mysterious, gruesome symptoms, others seemingly out of the blue—that rumors ran wild. The court was rife with whispers of seances, divinations, the peddling of lethal poisons known as “inheritance powders,” and even scandalous Black Masses in which the nobility called upon the devil himself to grant them favors. As the rumors gained in fervor, even natural deaths were likely exaggerated into something ripped from a nightmare.
By 1975, the King himself had become alarmed. He called upon the Lieutenant General of the Parisian police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, to establish the chambre ardente, the burning chamber. Through interrogation and torture, Reynie’s forces uncovered a ring of alleged fortunetellers and alchemists—including Catherine Monvoisin, better known as La Voisin, the divineress seemingly at the center of this tangled web. Catherine even claimed to have helped the Louis’s own formal mistress, the Marquise de Montespan, wheedle her way into the King’s bed by appealing to Lucifer.
By the end of the trials, thirty-six people had been condemned to death for murder by way of poisoning and witchcraft; Catherine herself was burned at the stake in 1680. The investigation was only halted because so many of those found to be guilty were at the uppermost echelons—essentially too powerful to be punished.
Reader, I was hooked. Lurid and macabre decadence, brushed by the supernatural, is the kind of story that I live for. So why had I never even heard of Catherine Monvoisin, before I went looking?
After writing Blood Countess, which is about the infamous Elizabeth Bathory and her twisted relationship with her servant and confidante Anna Darvulia, I’d begun hunting for my next irresistible murderess. After wading through way too many, way too depraved women who preyed on the sick, the old, and the very young, I finally discovered La Voisin. While Catherine Monvoisin was rumored to have sacrificed babies in her satanic rituals, most historians dismiss this claim. The services she actually offered included midwifery, abortions for women in dire straits, and the sale of questionable substances, like aphrodisiacs and poisons for those looking to rid themselves of rivals and offensive spouses.
Catherine was apparently notably wasted while under interrogation, so many of her more outlandish claims were likely fabrications. But that she was the mastermind an entire ring of devious fortunetellers who sold both their knowledge of poisons and their alleged metaphysical expertise to gullible nobility—even as Louis XIV shunned superstition in favor of science—is indisputable. The Affair of the Poisons by Anne Somerset is a particularly fascinating account of everything that went down, if you want a deeper dive.
Reading about Catherine got me thinking—what kind of person would have had the brains, the guts, and the extremely malleable morals to pull so many strings, and so fearlessly at that? Money is a potent motivator, but could it possibly have driven her to such lengths for its own sake? In young Cat, I imagined a clever, resourceful, damaged girl, both ambitious and conflicted. Touched by real magic and inexorably drawn to the occult, fueled by a furious drive to keep herself from falling back into the abject poverty she barely managed to survive… and an even fiercer devotion to never again becoming a man’s chattel, stripped of agency and power, as were so many women of her time.
A woman like that would have been formidable—and terrifying, once her desire for power dismantled her already shaky moral compass. The opposite, in every way, of the nurturing, maternal, safe archetype of femininity the patriarchy knows and loves. The kind of woman, in other words, who rarely gets a fair shake when it comes to historical coverage, no matter how fascinating her story.
While we’ll never know the real Catherine’s deeper motives, I hope readers will find something compelling to relate to in Cat’s plight, and in her particular brand of bravery and boldness.
Poison Priestess by Lana Popović
Book 2 in the Lady Slayers series, about French murderess and fortune teller Catherine Monvoisin
In 17th-century Paris, 19-year-old Catherine Monvoisin is a well-heeled jeweler’s wife with a peculiar taste for the arcane. She lives a comfortable life, far removed from a childhood of abject destitution—until her kind spendthrift of a husband lands them both in debt. Hell-bent on avoiding a return to poverty, Catherine must rely on her prophetic visions and the grimoire gifted to her by a talented diviner to reinvent herself as a sorceress. With the help of the grifter Marie Bosse, Catherine divines fortunes in the IIle de la Citee—home to sorcerers and scoundrels.
There she encounters the Marquise de Montespan, a stunning noblewoman. When the Marquise becomes Louis XIV’s royal mistress with Catherine’s help, her ascension catapults Catherine to notoriety. Catherine takes easily to her glittering new life as the Sorceress La Voisin, pitting the depraved noblesse against one other to her advantage. The stakes soar ever higher when her path crosses with that of a young magician. A charged rivalry between sorceress and magician leads to Black Masses, tangled deceptions, and grisly murder—and sets Catherine on a collision course that threatens her own life.
Lana studied psychology and literature at Yale University and law at Boston University. She is a graduate of the Emerson College publishing and writing program and the author of YA novels Wicked Like a Wildfire, Fierce Like a Firestorm, Blood Countess, the forthcoming Poison Priestess, and the forthcoming adult rom-com, Payback’s A Witch, from Berkley Books (10/5/21). Lana was born in Serbia and lived in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania before moving to the United States. She lives in Chicago with her family.