Being beheaded can really mess up your day. But according to Christian tradition, after Saint Denis was decapitated, he simply picked up his head and kept walking and preaching. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Denis (pronounced “duh-KNEE” in French) is the patron saint of headaches.
Paris, however, was still largely a pagan city. And the Parisians didn’t take kindly to Denis converting so many to Christianity. They took Denis and two of his companions to the highest hill in Paris — Montmarte — and decapitated them.
Painting of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois. The body of the Admiral Coligny’s body hangs from a window at the right rear. Catherine de’ Medici is shown at the left rear emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.
The massacre was one of the earliest events in the French Wars of Religion, a series of armed conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that took place throughout France during the second half of the 16th century.
“I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: Oh Lord, make my enemies ridiculous. And God granted it.”
— Voltaire, from a letter to Étienne Noël Damilaville
In 1733, the 39-year old Voltaire began a relationship with the Madame du Châtelet, a married mother of three. The pair would spend the next 15 years studying the natural sciences and becoming the leading French proponents of the work of English mathematician Isaac Newton.
But on a visit to Paris in 1744, Voltaire embarked on a new affair. His new lover was his sister’s daughter, Marie Louise Mignot (a/k/a Madame Denis). For obvious reasons, Voltaire and Madame Denis never married, though they lived together as husband and wife and stayed together until Voltaire’s death over 40 years later.
But the men with the biggest influences on Voltaire’s thinking were philosopher John Locke, scientist Isaac Newton, and William Shakespeare, whose plays Voltaire found both vulgar and compelling. Writing to a friend in Paris, Voltaire exclaimed:
“If you had seen a whole play of Shakespeare’s, as I have, you would think that our love scenes were pretty feeble.”
“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” — Voltaire
François-Marie Arouet — aka Voltaire — was one of the leading figures of the French enlightenment. He advocated tolerance, equality, and separation of church and state, in a time when these were still radical ideas. In his best-known work — the satirical novel, Candide, ou l’Optimisme ( “Candide, or optimism”) – Voltaire challenged the assertion by German philosopher and mathematician, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”
What is less known about Voltaire is that in his youth he was considered a royal pain in the ass. As a result, he was beaten on numerous occasions. He was exiled from France several times, and imprisoned for almost a year in the Bastille.
Noblewoman… mother… prostitute… widow… pirate. In the 14th century, Jeanne de Clisson – the “Lioness of Brittany” — was all these, and more.
Actually, no one really seems sure about the prostitute part. What is true beyond doubt is that the Lioness of Brittany was as vicious as any male pirate. The reasons for her rage, however, are perhaps a bit more compelling.
The king was Charles VI of France, who ruled from 1380 to 1422. Charles suffered from what was most likely schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder. During his recurrent episodes of madness, he had severe hallucinations and delusions. At one point, he even believed he was made out of glass. He forbade anyone to touch him, lest he break, and had his tailors sew rods into his clothing for additional protection.
Alchemist, forger, quack, pimp – in the 18th century, the self-styled Count Alessandro di Cagliostro was all of these and more. He might have been forgotten were it not for his alleged involvement in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1785. The event – involving the theft of an expensive diamond necklace by means of Marie Antoinette’s forged signature — cast suspicion on the unpopular queen and may have contributed to the French Revolution. Although Cagliostro was found innocent of any involvement in the crime, he nevertheless was held in the Bastille for nine months and eventually asked to leave France.
Cagliostro was most likely born Giuseppe Balsamo in Palermo, Sicily. Although his family was poor, Balsamo had a tutor and eventually became a novice in the Catholic Order of St. John of God. Before he was expelled, he learned chemistry as well as religious rites.