Women’s Weapon, Women’s Work: The Oracle Glass and the Affair of the Poisons

Poison is frequently referred to as “a woman’s weapon” because it allows murder to be committed from a distance and often requires subterfuge to deploy, which is probably why it doesn’t come as a surprise that women were at the heart of the so-called Affair of the Poisons that plagued Louis XIV’s court from 1677 to 1682. [1] Both men and women of the court sought out supernatural means to win Louis’s favor. The king’s longtime mistress, Madame de Montespan, was accused of resorting to love spells to keep his affection after childbirth had changed her figure.

montespan
Madame de Montespan

The unravelling began with the execution of Madame de Brinvilliers, who was charged with poisoning her father and brothers in order to inherit their estates. She and her accomplice, the Chevalier de Sainte Croix, were alleged to have used Aqua Tofana, a poison that originated in Italy and was sold primarily to women who desired to be rid of their husbands, although other sources point to arsenic being the poison of choice. [1] de Brinvilliers was executed in 1676 by beheading and burning at the stake.

de brinvilliers
The execution of de Brinvilliers

It’s been written that in her final moments, de Brinvilliers implicated “half the people in town.” [2] Deaths of courtiers that previously seemed unfortunate but not suspicious were now looked at from a new perspective, jumpstarting an inquiry that would last for years and end in the execution of over thirty people.

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley is loosely based on this time period and straddles the line between historical fiction and fantasy fiction. The story is narrated by Genevieve Pasquiers, who later becomes the famed (and fictitious) Marquise de Morville. She describes herself as “an ugly girl who can’t walk right” [3]. Her father educates her in classical languages and philosophy, instruction which leads her to view herself as a woman of logic.

la voisin
La Voisin

Genevieve’s mother is based on the infamous Madame de Brinvilliers. It was purported that de Brinvilliers and her lover, de Sainte Croix, tested their poisons for the thrill of it, and much like them, Madame de Pasquiers is depicted as poisoning under the guise of charity. de Pasquiers and the woman she’s based upon are arguably psychopaths, as they need little encouragement to take a life beyond the prospect of their own pleasure.

When Genevieve’s mother poisons her husband and mother-in-law, Genevieve’s uncle assaults her in an effort to take her inheritance. Genevieve vows to avenge herself and her father, runs away, and crosses paths with La Voisin, a historical figure and, supposedly, a witch. La Voisin promises Genevieve, who can truly see the future by looking in an orb of water, to make her “strong enough to destroy” her uncle and transforms her into the Marquise de Morville, a 150-year-old fortune teller. [3] Fortune-telling allows Genevieve to support herself as well as repay La Voisin for the education. Although Genevieve focuses on fortune-telling and leaves the poisoning to La Voisin, she’s also determined to get revenge on her uncle, and she can’t escape getting caught up in the Affair of the Poisons.

oracle glassAs a doctor treats Genevieve for a broken arm, he correctly guesses she’d been injured by a man and says, “If it had been one of your witches, now, you wouldn’t have lived out the week, and there wouldn’t be a mark to show.” [3] The implication is that patience, thought to be one of women’s primary virtues, can also aid in immorality, for women are patient enough to wait for an opportune time to slip poison into a drink, to wait for a note covered in poison to be delivered, to wait for poison to take effect.

The Oracle Glass presents a variety of women who murder for a variety of reasons—for personal pleasure, for societal advancement, for money, for revenge. In real life, these women intrigue us because they’re statistically less likely to commit murder than men. Fiction allows us to explore the motivations behind such crimes and offers a means of coping with the fact that, in real life, there are often no easy answers.


[1] Frost, Natasha. “The Scandalous Witch Hunt That Poisoned 17th-Century France.” Atlas Obscura, 05 Oct. 2017. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/affair-of-the-poisons-france-witch-hunt-occult

[2] Duramy, Benedetta F. “Catherine La Voison: Poisons and Magic at the Royal Court of Louis XIV.” Toxicology in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Philip Wexler. Academic Press, London, UK. 2017. 135-140.

[3] Riley, Judith Merkle. The Oracle Glass. Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2012.

“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons”–My December Pick

As K.P. and I reflect on our past year’s posts, we decided to select first our favorite posts to write. Perhaps my “favorite” post is the one that started out to be the one I dreaded most–the post on our “women warriors.” This one was difficult for all the reasons I outlined in the original article, but once I got started, I kept finding more things to say. Though I also love my Arthurian articles, enjoying Camilla surprised me in a good way, and the article I procrastinated the most ended up being the most fun to write. So, without further ado, here’s a re-visit of “With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons.”

“With Pitiless Heart and a Woman’s Weapons: The Carnage of Camilla”

Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death: The Significance of the Oracle at Delphi

With the year coming to a close, I thought I’d take the chance to talk a little about some of my favorite posts I’ve worked on this year. My top favorite is rather recent but was a joy to write…Pythia of the Womb of Life and Death. Awgawd, I could analyze these concepts in history and literature forever. I’m sure, for those who follow our blog regularly, you will notice that I am particularly fascinated with this theme. When I was a college freshman, a dear professor of mine introduced me to Marija Gimbutas. The perspective offered by Gimbutas captivated me and gave me a new lens to study history. While Gimbutas’s work is not perfect, it is monumental in that it challenged us to flip gender expectations in history on its head. When we do, suddenly a lot of connections come along with that perspective. Pythia and this article was one of those moments. You can imagine how tickled I was when that dear professor of mine agreed to contribute to Unbound (Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg – highly suggest you check her bio on our Guest Contributor page). More on that in my next blog post. In the meantime, I hope you can enjoy this article either again, or for the first time.

Unbound

I count the grains of sand on the beach and measure the sea.

Oracle at Delphi – 560 BC

220px-John_Collier_-_Priestess_of_DelphiShe stands close to associations with the Earth, the musty damp womb of the dirt where decay and birth exist simultaneously. You can find her only after a journey, you can hope she will proclaim that you are destined for greatness or give clarity for your decisions, but she may also give omens of dread, of doom or mere unsatisfying riddles. Whatever she utters, for ill or good, are the words of divinity.

delphi-ancient-city-ruins-greece-mainland-tour-europe-dp7874493-1600_0Read the great mythologies of Ancient Greece and you will encounter over and over the Oracle at Delphi, the Pythia. She dwelled at a place that must have seemed to the ancients was the opening to the womb of the Earth itself, a seam from which the vapors arose giving the Pythia the power of prophesy. Her words…

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Funerary Artifact Highlights: Death and Rebirth in the Ancient Greek World

by K.P. Kulski

While Halloween is over, the leaves here in Ohio have turned into crisp yellows and warm reds and with those colors, beautiful death abounds. Autumn is the season of death, the passing of one thing, but also, the promise of something new.

November has always felt like a more appropriate time to think about these things. It is one of the reasons I chose an inscription on a Hellenic funeral stele for November’s theme. The inscription serves to memorialize the deceased woman, but to also remind that women play many roles in a single life, that while there may be the passing of one role, there can be many adventures waiting around the next bend.

For this week’s featured site, I’m actually going to point readers to a couple sites on Ancient Greek funerary steles. Along with some background for the curious, the sites (of course) include images of engaging and endlessly fascinating artifacts that shed light on Ancient Greek funerary practices and how they honored their dead. In turn, how they acknowledged and honored the many identities a person held within their lifetime.

The Hermitage Museum – Funerary Steles of Palmyra

Death in Antiquity – Strategies of Dealing with Death in the Ancient Greek and Roman World

North Carolina Museum of Art – Surviving Death: Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian Funerary Art

Morgan le Fay: Evil Queen or Loving Sister? (Part 2)

by E.J. Lawrence

Last week, we looked at the infamous “evil queen” of Arthurian literature, Morgan le Fay, and found that she’s too complicated of a character to warrant the stigma of pure evil. These complexities I labeled the “ugly” debate. This week, I want to offer some specific examples from the text, showing times when Morgan does acts that can be considered “bad”…but also times when her acts and motivations are more “good.”

Though, as I pointed out last week, medieval literature tends to be so plot-driven that it’s sometimes difficult to discern character motivations, there are times in Arthurian literature when the audience is aware of Morgan le Fay’s motives. One example of her “bad” side would be her jealousy toward Guinevere because of her own love of Lancelot.

Gawain_and_the_Green_Knight
When you think about it…it’s kind of amazing Morgan’s plan to kill Guinevere in this manner didn’t work

The few times we are explicitly given Morgan’s motives for her actions, we see a queen jealous of Guinevere, and there are several instances where Morgan tries to trap Guinevere or even cause her death via magic. One such instance is in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when Bertilak tells Gawain why his Aunt Morgan orchestrated the elaborate scheme of the Green Knight. He says that, while part of the ruse was meant to humble Arthur’s table (she thought them too proud), a secondary motive, the “icing on the cake,” as it were, was “to grieve Guinevere and to bring her to die/ aghast at that same ghoul with his ghostly speech/ with his head in his hand before the high table.”3 In other words, she’d hoped by disguising the man as a green giant, she would both prove Arthur’s knights prideful and frighten Guinevere to death. Two birds. One stone.

In another instance from Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, Morgan le Fay casts a spell upon a shield, which she gives to Sir Tristram in hopes that he will fight Lancelot. The shield, she tells him, represents Arthur, Guinevere, and a “knight who holdeth them both in bondage.”4 Her plan? To have Tristram fight this knight (whom Morgan knows is Lancelot) and expose Lancelot and Guinevere’s affair because “Queen Morgan loved Sir Launcelot best, and ever she desired him, and he would never love her nor do nothing at her request, and therefore she held many knights together for to have taken him by strength.”5 The plot fails at exposing Lancelot as a false knight, but does succeed in allowing Tristram to dominate at the tournament. However, I can’t really fault Morgan for wanting to expose Lancelot–Lancelot is in many ways a “false knight.” What one can fault Morgan for is her petty, jealous motive.

 

Lancelot_and_Guinevere_-_Herbert_James_Draper
Lancelot and Guinevere (Herbert James Draper)–Gee, when you put it like that, no wonder Morgan couldn’t stand them

 

But at the outset of this post, I mentioned Morgan le Fay could not truly be categorized as “evil.” Rather, like most human beings, she is marbled, and for the most part, the medieval narratives treat her thus. There are two instances in particular which show Morgan le Fay using her magic for more positive ends. In one, she shows a side to herself that is just. A knight leads another knight behind his horse, bound and blindfolded, toward a lake. The two men cross paths with the Queen, and she asks the man on horseback who his prisoner is.

The knight explains he caught the prisoner sleeping with his wife, and now he was going to take the man to the lake and drown him, and then throw his wife in after.6 Morgan questions the prisoner–is this accusation true? The prisoner denies that it is, and says he is a knight of Arthur’s court and cousin to Accolon of Gaul, a man whom Morgan had loved.

“Ye say well,” says Morgan. “For the love of him, ye shall be delivered, and ye shall have

Drawing_of_a_Knight_on_Horseback
Drawing of a Knight on Horseback (Randolph Caldecott)

your adversary in the same case ye be in.”7 And with that, the prisoner is loosed and the other man is bound. Though the text does not say overtly, it implies that Morgan’s magic allows for this switch. The former prisoner then promptly throws his captor into the lake, where he drowns.

Morgan has, at this point in the story, fallen out of Arthur’s good favor. Yet, rather than tell them knight, “Hey, be sure you tell my brother what I did for you so that maybe he won’t be angry with me anymore,” she tells him, “Tell [Arthur] that I rescued thee, not for love of him, but for love of Accolon, and tell him I fear him not while I can make me and them that be with me in likeness of stones.”8 Their feud, then, isn’t ended there, though Morgan does send him a peace offering a few days later, which Arthur accepts, saying “but little” except that she is a “loving sister”9 (perhaps a bit sarcastically?). However, it’s worth noting that many of the knights were so angry with her words, they called for her to be burnt at the stake, and though it’s clear Arthur is angry, he is more willing to allow peace rather than continue their passive-aggressive argument. Their relationship, more so than the relationship between Arthur and his other sisters, is not much different from how we perceive sibling relationships today. They fight, but at the end of the day, they are family. Even if one’s a king and one can call upon demonic powers.

Perhaps the best example of this love-hate relationship is at Arthur’s death. He commands Bedivere to throw Excalibur in the lake and then to put him on a barge where there are “three queens,” one of whom says, “Ah, dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me? Alas, this wound on your head hath caught over-much cold.”10 The implication is that this is Queen Morgan herself, come to her brother’s side. Her words make it clear that she wishes he had come to her sooner; then, perhaps, she could have helped him with her magic. As it is, he is too wounded even for her powers, and she ferries him toward Avalon from where, as the legend goes, he will return when England most needs a king.

The_Death_of_King_Arthur_by_James_Archer_(1860)
The Death of King Arthur (James Archer)

Women play no small role in Arthurian legend. And many of the female characters–perhaps, most especially, Morgan le Fay–are complex. Which is why it continues to surprise me when I read articles about how there are so few women in fantasy novels because medieval women did not live very interesting lives…so why would they exist as major characters in medieval-style fantasy novels? Yet, one only has to go to the medieval narratives themselves to discover a world in which women do more than sit at a spinning wheel and gossip. And if one digs a little deeper, going beyond the plot-driven narrative of a medieval story, one can even find women with motivations and desires strikingly similar to the motivations and desires people have today. At her core, Morgan le Fay is the good, the bad, and the ugly side of humanity altogether in a single person. Just like most of us, I’d wager.

 

  1. SGGK, stanza 99, http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/English/GawainAndTheGreenKnight.htm#anchor_Toc178583491
  2. Malory, 346, http://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf
  3. Malory, 346
  4. Malory, 123
  5. Malory, 123
  6. Malory, 123
  7. Malory, 124
  8. Malory, 732

Morgan le Fay: Evil Queen or Loving Sister? (Part 1)

by E.J. Lawrence

Every year in my British Literature classes, I teach an Arthurian unit. Every year, I mention King Arthur’s family tree, and his three sisters: Elaine, Margawse, and Morgana (or Morgan le Fay). The first two sisters rarely ever resonate with my students. However, when I mention the third one, they perk up and at least one student asks, “Wasn’t she evil?”

I suppose I can hardly blame them. I once thought the same thing myself. I mean, she was a magic user who used her “necromancy” to deceive various members of Arthur’s court; she tricked her own nephew (Gawain) into entering a beheading contest, where he was found to be less-than-honorable (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); she captures Lancelot and holds him in a cell (Le Morte D’Arthur); and let’s not forget the many times she tries to trap/kill/frighten Guinevere.

Given all of that information, the case for her does not look very good.

Arthur-Pyle_Queen_Morgana_le_Fey
Howard Pyle’s illustration of Morgana le Fey

And yet, one of the things I love about studying Arthurian literature is how marbled the characters truly are. We tend to categorize medieval romances by archetypes: the damsel-in-distress, the knight-in-shining-armor, the greedy dragon, etc. However, what makes that easy is the narrative structure of medieval prose.

When modern readers read a novel, they have certain expectations of plot, setting, and characterization. Yet, it would be wrong to superimpose those same expectations on a work of medieval literature. In fact, medieval prose spends very little time setting a scene or “digging” into the minds of a character. Medieval prose is typically concerned with one thing and one thing only: Plot.

Thus it makes sense that we can look at the surface-level of a medieval story and pick out archetypes–a plot is composed entirely of archetypes!

But, while plot is the most driving part of medieval prose, it isn’t the only part. There is characterization infused in a medieval narrative. It just happens to be quite subtle most of the time. In many cases, we can only read characters’ motives by judging their actions. Since this is meant to be a short blog post, and not a step-by-step retelling of the life of Morgan le Fay, I have chosen three examples of Morgan’s actions showing the good, the bad, and the ugly…in reverse order.

After Arthur’s father Uther Pendragon–who, even by the medieval accounts, was kind of a jerk–deceives Igraine into marrying him, one of his first acts as a new stepfather is marry off two of Igraine’s daughters, Elaine and Margawse.1 However, for reasons unknown, but perhaps because she was too young, Uther sends the youngest daughter, Morgan, to school in a convent, and “there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.”2 This is the first inkling the reader has that Morgan knows magic. And she learns it at a convent, of all places.

Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_Fay
Morgan le Fay (Frederick Sandys)

From a medieval standpoint, this is not a terribly unusual concept. The world existed in three realms: The Supernatural, the Natural, and the Unnatural. The Supernatural superseded the Natural world, existing before it and imposing its will on it. The Unnatural world is essentially a perversion of the Supernatural–it has powers of its own, but its powers exist in twisting the powers from above. The Supernatural and Unnatural Realms are at constant war with each other, but they cannot fight each other directly–they must attack through the Natural Realm. Thus is the Natural World constantly being assaulted by powers from below and powers from above.

In other words, our world is filled with unseen magic.

Humans can access this magic, but at a great cost. The type of magic they access depends upon which powers they call–the powers from above? In Arthurian narrative, this is where priests, nuns, and certain other mystical creatures draw their power.

Or the powers from below? In Arthurian narrative, this is where the femme fatales, sorcerers, and other mystical creatures draw their power.

The “ugly” side, then, is this: Morgan’s motives in using magic are often unclear. She learned necromancy from a convent, which in and of itself seems contradictory–“necromancy” suggests a communion with the dead, the ability to conjure magic from below (“unnatural”). However, a convent suggests communion with the supernatural, and the ability to conjure magic from above. Whose side, then, is she on?

1280px-Henry_Fuseli_-_Titania_and_Bottom_-_Google_Art_Project
Titania and Bottom (Henry Fuseli)

Even her nickname “le Fay” is confusing. “Le Fay,” of course, means “the faerie,” and faeries in medieval lore are difficult creatures to pin down. They are not happy, cute little humanoids with wings who go about sprinkling “fairy dust” to help people fly (thanks, Disney). Rather, to the medieval mind, faeries were capricious, impish creatures who could hurt as well as help someone for no real motive or reason whatsoever, other than the fairy’s own whims. (A good example of this is Shakespeare’s fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream–Puck causes mischief for mischief’s sake) Just as one cannot always discern a fairy’s motivation, Morgan le Fay’s own motives are difficult to pin down. Thus, I propose when studying Morgan le Fay (or any medieval narrative, really), that we avoid the temptation to neatly categorize characters into archetypes. Just because Morgan’s motivations are at times hard to pin down does not mean she doesn’t have them. And it also doesn’t mean her motives aren’t good ones. Morgan le Fay is no easy archetype, and she certainly isn’t a sociopath.

To prove this, next week, I’ll explore a few of the instances where the text actually gives us her motives for actions–both the “bad” and the “good.” But at least, for now, we can avoid calling her “evil” or “femme fatale” and just call her “human.” That is, human…with a bit of fairy magic.

 

  1. Malory, 35, http://www.heroofcamelot.com/docs/Le-Morte-dArthur.pdf
  2. Malory, 35