Book review: De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts – what really caused their deaths?

It’s a book for fans of tv series like “Crime Scene Investigation” with an interest in real, historic cases and able to read French at at least average level. For unfortunately enough, dr Jacques Deblauwe’s “De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts?” is unavailable in English.

I came across this pocket in one of my favourite Brussels’ bookshops: Tropismes. If you stroll through the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert in Brussels, don’t forget to visit this shop – even if only to admire its ceiling. It mainly stocks French and Belgian books, but there is a small English section as well.

The nasty looking individual staring at me with fish-eyes from the book-cover, turned out to be the reconstructed head of Robespierrre. His death is discussed in chapter twenty-six of twenty-eight. For this highly interesting book goes into twenty-eight cases taken from French history. Using modern technologies and recent scientific developments, events leading to each person’s death are discussed. En route, legends are dispelled and truths revealed.

The first case dates from 1193. The Danish princess Ingeborg, just 18 years old and unable to speak any French, marries widowed King Philip II. Historic documents report that witnesses noticed something was very wrong the day after the wedding. Sure enough, the king accuses his wife of witchcraft. Ingeborg will spend over twenty years locked away in convents – through no fault of hers.

The last case deals with the birth and death of Napoleon’s son. The Duke of Reichstadt is raised in Vienna and suffers from “a weak chest”. His case is one of many which make one shudder at the kind of “treatments” doctors came up with. After reading this book, you realise how much medical science has improved, since relics and prayers were the only option when one fell ill.

Some cases are sad, like Queen Joan of France‘s story. Others are upsetting, like the case of Agnes Sorel, “La Damoyselle de Beaulté”. She became the first officially recognized French royal mistress. At her death, rumours started she was poisoned, either by her royal lover who was already falling in love with her cousin, or by his son the crown prince who hated Agnes.

It turns out Agnes Sorel died of a mercury overdose. It may have been an accident, for like many medieval people, Agnes suffered from worms and mercury was used as a remedy. Or mercury was used to ease a difficult birth. On the other hand, the rumours which started to circulate directly after her death may have been true and she was murdered. A portrait of Agnes can be admired in Antwerp.

Another painting, at the Musée des Beaux Arts in Brussels, shows murdered Jean-Paul Marat in his bath tub. It’s known who knifed him, so in this case the questions are: how could he bleed to death so quickly and why was he in his tub? For even by contemporary standards, he was a notoriously filthy and extremely dirty person.

As the conclusion of this chapter states: “… la reception de Charlotte Corday dans la bagnoire, et l’angle ideal pour le poignard, cascade de complications inatttendues d’un manque d’hygiéne!” Next time one of the kids refuses to shower or bath, try telling this story.

Cases include kings and queens, mistresses, politicians. There is the suspicious death of Henrietta, sister of Charles the II. There is the disastrous year towards the end of Louis XIV reign, when four crown princes died one after the other. Did Josephine de Beauharnais really die of a cold? What about the last Templars’ curse? In the latter case, it turns out  history was rewritten to create this legend.

This book is not only a fascinating read for those interested in pathology. It deals with history, while each chapter reads like a short detective story. Each case is brought to life by quotes and descriptions from official documents, eye-witness accounts, diaries, letters. Most chapters are short and can be read independently. This enables you to dip in and out of the book. Technicalities and horrid details don’t take up most pages of each story. Moreover, if you’re highly squeamish, these are easy to skip. The style is crisp and to the point, so: a thoroughly fascinating French book!

“De quoi sont-ils vraiment morts?”, Dr Jacques Deblauwe, 420 pp, 1st edition published by Pygmalion in 2013. This edition published in 2015 by Tallandier, Paris.

Additional information:
Tropismes website to order books and check their events
French interview with dr Deblauwe about this book