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Andrew Fenner is a musician, electronic composer, and writer of poetry and prose. He currently lives in Cincinnati. He delivers his writings to Mistress McCutchan on the back of a domesticated dragon, which he rides through the night wind following the magnetic field of the Earth. Just kidding, he actually had his cat deliver the stuff.
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The Cantharidic Bon-Bon Affair
Andrew Fenner
The Marquis gave a lesson in class;
one day while abusing a lass
he said “I beg of you missus...”,
as she cursed through her kisses,
“do keep a civil tongue... in my ass!”
To anyone who “gets the joke” of this Victorian limerick, the identity of “the Marquis” is obvious. It is, of course, one Donatien Alphonse François De Sade, the notorious French Libertine practitioner of all manner of sexual depravity and torture. Hence, no further historical explication of our hero is necessary here; however, a brief description of “cantharides” may be in order.
A cantharis is a small blister beetle more commonly known as the Spanish fly. Cantharides refers to an antique medicinal preparation consisting mainly of the dried, crushed bodies of Spanish flies. Its primary legitimate use was as a diuretic. Spanish fly, however, gained a deserved infamy during the 18th and 19th centuries as an aid to the sexual seductions of scoundrels. Not possessed of true aphrodisiac properties, the concoction nevertheless produces an obtrusive irritation in the urethra area of a woman when ingested in sufficient quantity. During an era when people were severely repressed sexually, for a young lady to be assailed by an undeniable itching or tickling from her privates while in the company of a young man could often lead to an explosive yielding of inhibitions, especially when accompanied by alcoholic beverages of some kind.
In the summer of 1772, the Marquis De Sade was involved in a scandalous event which soon became known all over France as the Cantharidic Bon-Bon Orgy. If one reconstructs the events using only the court and police records of the time, as some historians do, then the result is as follows.
De Sade and his valet, Latour, arrive in Marseilles in mid-June on a trip there to seek payment of some debts. Near the end of the month De Sade has Latour collect four young ladies, aged in their late teens and early twenties, for a day-long romp at the house of one of the girls. At least two of the girls are plied with some kind of anise-seed candy, the sugar of which has been laced with Spanish flies. All manner of sexual congress ensues, involving any number of different combinations of the six participants as well as extremely blasphemous and deviant behaviour on the part of De Sade and Latour.
Late in the day, De Sade has Latour procure yet another young lady, a prostitute, who joins in the orgy. The prostitute later suffers severe stomach cramping from the ingestion of an excessive amount of the cantharidic candies and is hospitalized. The police are called in to investigate a suspected poisoning, leading to another series of the many court cases in the life of De Sade.
If one gathers information from other historical sources however, it becomes apparent that this version of a day-long fling is merely an indication of the events that were actually prosecuted following what was in reality a much larger scale bacchanalia. For example, a diarist of the day, Marcel Bachaumont, wrote: “I am told that the Count De Sade, who in 1768 caused great disorder by his crimes with a woman on whom he wanted to test a new cure, has just played in Marseilles a spectacle at first amusing but later horrible in its consequences. He gave a ball to which he invited many people and for dessert gave them very pretty chocolate pastilles. They were mixed with powdered ‘Spanish flies’. Their action is well known. All who ate them were seized by shameless ardor and lust and started the wildest excesses of love. The festival became an ancient Roman orgy. The most modest of women could not restrain themselves... many persons died as a result of the excesses and many others still suffer recurrent pains.”
Though this account is obviously from gossip, it, along with many other similar descriptions of the affair, gives a better indication of what De Sade was up to. His extreme behaviour had eventually culminated in the aforementioned crimes, in which he had severely tortured a young widow, all merely to test a new ointment in order to determine its effectiveness in healing the flesh after subjection to extreme sexual abuse.
He had spent four years living at his family estate in Provence loosely under “house arrest”, which was really intended to just keep him the hell out of Paris. He was bored in Provence; though he had seduced nearly everything with an orifice for miles around, he longed for some truly libertine diversion. He probably planned the affair in Marseilles for months in advance with the help of aristocratic libertine acquaintances, prostitutes, procurers, and other connections. He made the trip to Marseilles with Latour, ostensibly to collect some overdue debts, but in reality he spends most of the time preparing his party and inviting guests: libertines as well as “innocents” from high society, hookers and other criminal underground types. The chocolate bon-bons which are served as dessert to a sumptuous repast, as well as anise candies and other “treats”, are certainly laced with cantharides, but also very likely with a combination of other genuine aphrodisiacs, of which De Sade was something of an expert, a scientist even (consider his salve experiment); conjecture has everything from hashish to a concoction of ergot mold (the organic basis for LSD), psychedelic Samoyed mushrooms, as well as African and Oriental sexual stimulators. The results are astounding, and the orgy that ensues reaches extremes of sexual abuse which leave a number of the participants hospitalized (though the widely reported deaths have been largely debunked as fictional) and lead to numerous arrests and imprisonments for De Sade and Latour.
This affair has become somewhat legendary among the kinkier elements of our culture, and many mythic anecdotes have sprung up around the legend. For example, some hypothesize that De Sade or his procurers who knew of the effects of ergot mold blew the spores into a convent from wheat fields. Under the spell of hallucinations involving devils and incubi, the nuns ran around naked committing all kinds of deviant behaviour. From this knowledge, De Sade created his formula for the bon-bons. There is actually some evidence that hashish was used along with the cantharides, but nearly every aphrodisiac known to modern man has been speculated at one time or another to have been included. There are even loopier “space cadet” members of our society who proclaim that the bon-bon orgy is a popular meeting place for time travellers who, among other things, have introduced Viagra there!
Whatever the case, the Marquis De Sade has given history one of its more entertaining examples of the sort of fiasco that can result from a man following the advice of his penis. Not even Bill Clinton could top this, though he would probably would have liked to have been there.