Dark Days in the City of Light: An Interview with Holly Tucker

tags: interview, Holly Tucker

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill Moyers.com, Salon.com, and more. He has a special interest in the history of medicine and human rights. He can be reached by email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

Professor Holly Tucker (Credit: Kimberly Wylie)

France. 1667. The Sun King, Louis XIV, was perplexed and annoyed by the rampant crime and vice in the city of Paris. The city was filthy and plagued by thieves, con artists, and murderers. In hopes of stemming this crime wave the king appointed Nicolas de La Reynie the first police chief of Paris.

La Reynie soon organized a police force, ordered the filthy streets cleaned, ferreted out known criminals, and installed streetlamps to illuminate the French capitol at night, creating “The City of Light.” Eventually, in the late 1670’s, he probed “the Affair of the Poisons,” a complex case involving a strange underworld of witches, fortune tellers, errant priests, magicians, and nobles. Conflicts were resolved with violence. Babies were sacrificed in secret rituals and romantic rivals and others were poisoned. Even the king seemed endangered, and some of his mistresses were under suspicion. La Reynie’s tireless investigation over the years led to the imprisonment of hundreds and the eventual execution of more than 30 accused offenders.

Professor Holly Tucker details this dark Parisian history in her new book City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris (W. W. Norton). Her engaging and vivid work is based on exhaustive research of court records, letters, diaries, drawings, maps, and other archival evidence, as well as La Reynie’s own notes that she uncovered.

Professor Tucker conveys this complex story primarily from the perspective of Chief La Reynie while providing historical context with background on the court of Louis XIV, the worlds of Paris and Versailles, and the strange and eccentric lives of Parisians in the world of black magic, satanic rituals, drugs, and poison, as well as figures in officialdom and law enforcement. Professor Tucker—an expert on the history of medicine—also describes the state of medical knowledge in late seventeenth century France with details on drugs, poisons, post mortem examination, and the grisly results and torments of torture.

Holly Tucker holds appointments as Professor in the Department of French & Italian (College of Arts and Science) and in the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society (School of Medicine) at Vanderbilt University. Her other books include the award-winning Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution and Pregnant Fictions: Childbirth and the Fairy Tale in Early-Modern France. She also is a recipient of Vanderbilt’s Chancellor’s Award for Research. She divides her time between Nashville, Tennessee, and Aix-en-Provence, France.

Professor Tucker generously responded by email to a series of questions on her work and on City of Light, City of Poison.

Robin Lindley: Professor Tucker, you’re a professor of French but you also deal with the history of medicine in your recent work. How did you come to take up the medical history as an area of study?

Professor Holly Tucker: When I first started my career, I worked primarily on how laypersons understood contemporary medical practice and theory. My first book was on, of all things, medical references in early-modern fairy tales. I discovered that tale writers—who were mostly adult women writing for other adult women—were using the genre to explore, and rewrite, dominant beliefs around childbirth and the role of women in seventeenth-century French society. This research is what got me started on medical history as medical history in early-modern France.

Robin Lindley: For context, what are a few things you’d like general readers to know about seventeenth century France and the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV?

Professor Holly Tucker: It was a rough and tumble world. It was also one in which appearance could be deceptive—and very dangerous.

Nicolas de La Reynie

Robin Lindley: Who was Nicolas de La Reynie and why did Louis XIV select him as the first police chief of Paris?

Professor Holly Tucker: La Reynie was a lawyer from Bordeaux who supported the monarchy during La Fronde (the civil war that took place between 1643-1648).  Colbert [King Louis’s powerful aide] was impressed with La Reynie’s attention to detail and thoroughness of his reports. When it came time to present names to the king for the new post of Lieutenant de Police, Colbert strongly urged his appointment.  La Reynie dove headlong into the challenge of addressing cleanliness and crime in Paris.  

Robin Lindley: Louis XIV had a series of mistresses and paramours, and those affairs play a role in the history you relate. Were the people of France aware of his affairs? How did his wife Queen Marie-Therese respond to his extramarital activities?

Professor Holly Tucker: Most of France was spellbound by Louis’s constant stream of mistresses. One of the most striking images I have is the trip the king took with his court to the Spanish territories during the War of Devolution. He brought with him his wife Marie-Thérèse, Henrietta Anne (a former love, now his sister-in-law), his current mistress (Louise de la Vallière), and the woman who would soon be his next maîtresse en titre, Athénais de Montespan: all together, all in a single coach. Hundreds of spectators turned out just for that show.

I have a lot of admiration for Marie-Thérèse. She put up with a lot. Some would like to think that she was unaware of her husband’s extramarital activities. She knew more than anyone believed, but she knew where she stood in the court. She knew what made Louis tick. Despite his infidelities, the king remained very attentive to Marie-Thérèse and did not allow anyone to show any disrespect to her.

Louis XIV, King of France

Robin Lindley: La Reynie relied on physicians in his investigations. What was the state of forensic pathology in determining cause of death, particularly when dealing with poisons?

Professor Holly Tucker: Medical forensics was still in a nascent state. Arsenic was the poison of choice. It is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. There were also no tests for it yet. The best that doctors and investigators could do was to do tests on animals to see whether or not suspect liquids and powders were toxic. That, and perform autopsies to confirm that a victim had died from unnatural causes.

Robin Lindley: Why did La Reynie eventually close his investigation of this complex plot?

Professor Holly Tucker: He was instructed by Louis XIV to put an end to it. We can’t be sure of the king’s motivations for doing this. Was it because La Reynie’s investigations were getting to close for comfort? Was it because the king was no longer convinced of their usefulness? Or was Louis trying to protect a few people with whom he had a very long history? My sense is, in the end, La Reynie was relieved to put an end to the Affair as well.

Robin Lindley: What inspired your recent book City of Light, City of Poison? Did it grow out of your research process for Blood Work on the study of blood transfusion and circulation during the scientific revolution?

Professor Holly Tucker: I came across the first blood transfusion experiments, which took place in the late 1660s, as I was preparing for a course I teach on the early history of medicine. It turned out that one of the first transfusion patients had been poisoned by a cabal of doctors as an attempt to stop transfusion in its tracks. My research for that case got me interested in poison more generally in 17th century Paris, which necessarily brought me to the Affair of the Poisons.

Robin Lindley: Your research for your new book was painstaking. Can you describe your research process and some of the source material you uncovered? 

Professor Holly Tucker: I worked primarily in the Archives de la Bastille, which contain transcripts of prisoner interrogations, tortures, proceedings of the secret tribunal in which cases were tried, as well as documents confiscated from suspects arrested for poisoning. 

Another key document was La Reynie’s own inventory of documents he put under seal at the request of the king, along with his summary of those documents and his assessment of them. Without La Reynie’s manuscript, which totals over 900 folios, it would have been impossible to write this book. Not long after La Reynie’s death in 1709, Louis XIV burned most scandalous and incriminating documents. A true loss for researchers. 

Robin Lindley: What was it like for you to read and interpret documents that were more than three centuries old? Deciphering some of the material must have been a challenge.

Professor Holly Tucker: Initially, it was a challenge to make sense of the many different hands I was dealing with in these manuscripts: notaries, prison guards, police lieutenants, and the poisoners themselves. 

Much of my early work consisted of spending time with the documents and sorting them into groups depending on their author. From there, I was able to get a better sense of how each writer made use of the page and what they typically wrote about. This gave me a better sense of each hand. From there, the reading got much easier. From despair to comfort: I think that most historians who work with manuscripts feel the same way.

Robin Lindley: When we talked about your book Blood Work in 2011, you described how your young daughter, then 10 years old, helped you as a writing partner. Did she help with your new book?

Professor Holly Tucker: My daughter was my accountability partner. I had to report each day my writing progress, down to signing a contract. We didn’t do that this time, but she was there cheering me on in the last months of the book. She’s an extraordinarily talented artist and is planning on going to art school after high school. It’s been a great experience for both of us to talk about writing and art in terms of a marathon. You can’t wait until you’re “inspired.”

Robin Lindley: You now live in Aix-en-Provence, France, for half of the year. How did you come to split your year between Nashville and France? How is living in France today with recent terrorist attacks and the rapidly changing political situation in Europe?

Professor Holly Tucker: I am the grand-daughter of French immigrants from the south of France. I think this explains the pull I feel toward the country. A few years ago, several family members and I pooled our resources and bought a small house in the hillsides of Provence, actually not too far from where Cezanne had his studio. I’m there as often as I can get there.

This said, I was in Paris on November 13, 2015. I was also near Nice on July 14, 2016. The horrors of those days have not been forgotten. It cast light on longstanding economic, racial, religious, and political tensions in the most brutal of ways.  

Robin Lindley: Do you see resonance today for the history you detail in City of Light, City of Poison?

Professor Holly Tucker: I cannot help but see some similarities between Louis XIV and Trump, particularly in the way the two men are so overtly focused on personal power. Much of that power came, for Louis XIV, through a skillful harnessing of propaganda. The Sun King was also keen on playing shifting favorites among his ministers and playing each one off the other. It was an ingenious strategy because it ensured that his ministers remained insecure in their positions and required them to show their allegiance at all times to the monarch or risk being replaced. The intrigues are not too different from what we’re seeing in the White House and, of course, Trump’s own Versailles in Mar-a-Lago.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or forthcoming projects?

Professor Holly Tucker: Stay tuned!

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Tucker for your insights and comments on your original research and congratulations on your work.