During my research on the oral history of my own community in Southern Brazil about health and healing practices in the first half of the twentieth century, I remember hearing from my interviewees that, “back in the day”, the hospital was a place that you would go to die. Less than a matter of precarity – which could be the reality of several facilities -, people would only go to the hospital as a last resort. Fractures, diseases, and other ailments were first taken care of by local healers and home remedies. It was not necessarily a lack of trust in the medical help, and more a culture of taking care of one another within the community whenever possible. That perception of the hospital had changed by my parents’ generation, but it stuck to me how health care could be seen in a myriad of ways depending on the cultural, economic, and historical context.
This idea came back to me while I was studying the suspicion over acts of charity by nobles — particularly noblewomen — in the court of Louis XIV, and I noticed that there was this apparent concern over charitable acts at the hospitals. As we can imagine, hospitals in this context were different from what we know today. As Susan Broomhall explains in her chapter The Politics of Charitable Men, early modern French hospitals were institutions that, beyond health concerns, offered poor relief to “passers-by, paupers, the sick, aged, children, the elderly and mentally ill, as well as the first line of response in epidemics” (p. 137). Hospitals at the time were mostly secular institutions, which depended a lot on charity efforts. Institutions led by noblewomen offered not only monetary support but also caring staff to the hospitals. However, rarely these women would do the work themselves — they were primarily responsible for sending maids and nurses to attend to the patients and paupers. These efforts were seen as part of their responsibility as pious Christians and were commendable, both among peers and the population at large. Hospitals were meant as a safe haven for the most disenfranchised people. But scandals could always shake that image.
The conviction of Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers in 1676 shook life in court, particularly due to the direct involvement of the nobility in poisoning plots. She was accused of poisoning her father and her two brothers as well as plotting to poison her sister and sister-in-law, all with the help of her lover, the army captain Godin de Sainte-Croix. This not only instigated the poisoning paranoia in court but also put acts of charity under scrutiny. How could people separate between sincere generosity and public masking of nefarious private intentions?
The figure of the poisoner imposed upon Madame de Brinvilliers was carefully constructed in trial — both the testimonials of witnesses and the annotations of the interrogations stress the depravity of her character. In addition to the poisonings, she was accused of having committed incest, having illegitimate children, maintaining several love affairs, having abortions, and mistreating servants, among several other offences. She was also described as unwilling to perform charitable acts, going so far as actively resenting them. In the records, Madame de Brinvilliers was said to have wanted to poison her sister because her donations to charity were depleting the family’s fortune. This portrait of Madame de Brinvilliers seems to carefully oscillate between destroying her individual reputation while trying to preserve the charitable ideal for noblewomen. However, the accusations against her brought forth a new fear involving acts of charity.
Rumours had spread that Madame de Brinvilliers had been performing acts of charity for nefarious purposes. Accounts described how she would visit paupers in public hospitals under the guise of charity in order to experiment with her poisons. According to these rumours, she added poison to patients’ food or distributed poisoned pastries to the poor, subsequently analysing the effects in order to calculate the exact quantities of poison to be used later on her family. These rumours not only reflect a fear of the misuse of charity and its effects on vulnerable subjects but also reveal a different anxiety — the fear of human experimentation.
At the time, the norm was that only royal practitioners were allowed to perform experiments on human beings, and even then, only on convicted criminals. Alisha Rankin, in her recently released book The Poison Trials, adds nuance to the developments in human experimentation, showing how antidote tests on humans spread across continental Europe during the sixteenth century. This fear of underground activities using vulnerable people for experiments or rituals was crucial for legal developments during the Affair of the Poisons. This much larger scandal involved plots for murdering Louis XIV and reinforced the idea that “pious noblewomen” enacting charity could be more dangerous than it seemed.
If even the king was not safe, what can be said about the paupers at the hospital? In a moment of political crisis, even the very few resources available to the poor were seen as potentially untrustworthy. However, with the sources at hand, it is not possible to say how much the Affair of the Poisons actually impacted people receiving the relief efforts at the hospital and how they evaluated their own safety, or how much of it was more of a reaction from the authorities projecting onto their situation.
It is important to mention that there was no conclusive evidence of poison experimentations at the hospitals made by noblewomen, and according to the investigation led by the police chief la Reynie, the suspicion was sustained by rumours. However, that does not mean that experiments at hospitals did not take place. These experimentations tended to be with less deadly substances than poison, usually testing the extent of the efficacy of certain medications. In the eighteenth century, William Withering, for example, was outspoken about only administering his digitalis preparation for dropsy to his paying customers after carefully testing on his charity patients.
The fear of experimentation becomes more than granted when looking at early modern colonial experiences. Londa Schiebinger’s book Secret Cures of Slaves shows how colonial relations and the knowledge circulation within the Atlantic trade impacted medicine as we know. Her nuanced approach can be found in this illuminating piece for The Conversation, detailing how experimentation took place in colonial environments.
This broader contextualisation of the flow of medical knowledge in the Atlantic world made me thing of Brazilian natives communities, which in the early modern period were brought to Europe as curious specimens, and have taken the brunt of epidemics across centuries. Many missions sent to their territories used the disguise of care to exploit their people and their land. With the challenges they have historically faced, it would be understandable for them to be fearful of current relief and vaccination efforts in the thick of the Covid pandemic. This assumption, however, does not coincide with what we have heard from representatives of the indigenous communities themselves. About the Covid vaccinations taking place in Brazilian indigenous communities, the president of the Mainumy association, Arlete Viana dos Santos Guajajara actually declared that these efforts bring hope to the community, despite the distortions created by fake news in Brazil:
“For me and I believe also for many relatives, the arrival of this vaccine within indigenous territories is a sign of hope that our people will live longer. Because this damn disease has already killed many, many of us. So, for us, it is a great hope to have our people alive for a longer time. It is a pity that there is a lot of fake news. There are people who think they are living just to spread these fake news, both in Brazil and around the world. So, this ends up getting in the way of the issue of vaccination within the territories. But, as leaders, we have this role of actually articulating and denying these fake news within the territories. How can we do that? Calling relatives, talking and explaining how the vaccine works. Anyway, doing our part for the good of our entire population, because this vaccine is our hope for survival.”
The indigenous experience in Brazil is varied, and opinions will of course differ, but Guajajara’s quote reminded me of how easy it is to project fear onto a community that might be dealing with a situation in very different terms. This brought me back to the charity patients amid the poisoning fear, for whom I have not found a voice to echo here until now. To what extent this fear created by political unrest of the poison scandals affected them? Was the fear of human experiments something that they harboured themselves or something that the authorities latched upon at the height of the investigations? But more importantly, how these more vulnerable communities took care of each other in such times of suspicion and political crisis?
Although we are left with more questions than answers, I think it is an important exercise to bring history together with the present struggles. By looking at the past, we can see how challenging situations developed, how people responded to them, and what pitfalls can be avoided. By looking at the present, we historians can also be reminded that the past is made of multiple voices, and sometimes it is too easy to run on assumptions if we do not make an effort to listen to the whispers amidst the shouting.