As research for something I’m writing, I recently re-read Aldous Huxley’s book The Devils of Loudun (1952), which is a very thorough, sardonic account of the 1630s outbreak of mass nymphomaniac diabolical hysteria instigated by a bunch of “possessed” nuns to get back at an unpopular local clergyman. I hate it when that happens. Nowadays the book is primarily known as the source material for Ken Russell’s salacious 1970s nunsploitation version with Oliver Reed, The Devils. Why this pertains to what I’m writing is not important to relate right now, but among the excellent background material about France in the 17th century is the following section about the general filthiness of things:
“The most grotesque of avoidable mishaps would mar the most solemn occasions. Consider, for example, the case of La Grande Mademoiselle*, that pathetic figure of fun who was Louis XIV’s first cousin. After death, according to the curious custom of the time, her body was dissected and buried piecemeal– here the head and there a limb or two, here the heart and there the entrails. These last were so badly embalmed that, even after treatment, they went on fermenting. The gases of putrefaction accumulated and the porphyry urn containing the viscera became a kind of anatomic bomb, which suddenly exploded, in the middle of the funeral service, to the horror and dismay of all present.”
* Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier (1627-1693) wrote a self-pitying memoir (with appalling grammar and spelling) in which she complained that being rich didn’t make her happy. When she died childless and unmarried she left one of the largest inheritances of any woman in recorded history.
“Such physiological accidents were by no means exclusively posthumous. The authors of memoirs and the collectors of anecdotes abound in stories about belching in high places, about the breaking of wind in the royal presence, about the gamy aroma of kings, the bromidrosis of dukes and marshals. Henri IV’s feet and armpits enjoyed an international reputation… The copiousness of these anecdotes and the delighted amusement, which the telling of them evidently evoked, were in direct proportion to the enormity of kingly and aristocratic pretensions.”
(Note: Cardinal Richelieu/Armand Jean du Plessis was the power behind the French throne from the 1620s until his death in 1642, a hugely powerful, influential clergyman and statesman, a major patron of the arts, and the founder of the Académie Française.)
“Identifying himself with a persona which was simultaneously princely, sacerdotal, political and literary, Cardinal Richelieu comported himself as though he were a demi-god. But the wretched man had to play his part in a body which disease had rendered so repulsive that there were times when people could hardly bear to sit in the same room as him.
He suffered from tubercular osteitis of his right arm and a fissure of the fundament, and was thus forced to live in the foetid atmosphere of his own suppuration. Musk and civet disguised but could not abolish this carrion odour of decay. Richelieu could never escape from the humiliating knowledge that he was an object, to all around him, of physical abhorrence…”
(Huxley here mentions that Richelieu, either despite or because of his power, was a popular figure of fun. Lewd, scatalogical songs and poems about his horrible anus circulated widely.)
“Hubris invites its corresponding Nemesis. That dreadful stench, those worms battening on the living corpse, seemed poetically just and appropriate. During the Cardinal’s last hours, when the relics had failed to work and the doctors had given him up, an old peasant woman, who had a reputation as a healer, was called to the great man’s bedside. Muttering spells, she administered her panacea– four ounces of horse-dung macerated in a pint of white wine. It was with the taste of excrement in his mouth that the arbiter of Europe’s destinies gave up the ghost.”
Lovely new cocktail idea, there. The Richelieu. You’re welcome.