Ball of the Burning Men: The Mad King Catches On Fire

King Charles VI of France inherited the nickname “the Mad King” for good reason. During his surprisingly long reign, he was the victim of notorious attacks of insanity. The most famous of which occurred at a royal ball where the monarch showed he could play with fire.

August 5, 1392. The young Charles VI of France led his cavalry regiment across the forest near Le Mans. The royal army was expected to reach Britany overnight, and bring order back in the threatened duchy. Nevertheless, there was a long way to go. The scorching sunlight reflected brightly on the silver armors. Slowly, the silent army staggered across the woods, over tortuous roots and collapsed trees. Nobody uttered a word as the silvery procession sheltered in the shade of the forest.

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Charles VI, King of France seemingly disappointed. (Source: BnF via Gallica)

Now the King was spearheading his company in the distance, riding his horse some meters away from the royal guard. Suddenly, an old man dressed in rags emerged from the bushes and seized the horse’s bridle, warning the monarch: “Do stop, noble King: you have been betrayed”. The watching soldiers immediately arrived to protect Charles VI and chase the recluse away; and soon enough, the army was back to its lethargic ride.

A powerful noise woke (again) the company up: some squire had dropped his spear, which ricocheted upon his neighbor’s helmet. This made the King of France run amok. Convinced that he was under attack, he grasped his sword and butchered his own soldiers. “Forward! Let us chastise the traitors! They want to turn me in!” he yelled madly. The Duke of Orleans – Charles VI’s own brother – was also targeted, and fled away wisely. Eventually the rest of the army managed to stop the King after an hour of frantic sword twirls; breathless, Charles VI fell unconscious on the leaf-covered ground.

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Charles VI swirling his sword over his head. Illustration extracted from the 14th century Chronicles of Jean Froissart. (Source: BnF via Wikipedia)

The feverish king was then tied up and carried back to his castle. There, many questions arose about his mental state… How to explain such a brutal insanity attack? Heat, witchcraft, poisoning? After all, the monarch’s genealogy was already riddled with lunatics, hysterics and depressed people. Plus, his own parents were cousins.

When the young Charles woke up, he seemed lucid all over again. He remembered what had happened, and begged forgiveness of every victim (he killed no less than four of his own men). Other madness episodes would soon follow suit: one day, the king somehow convinced himself he was made of glass, refusing thus to ride a horse unless he was carried in a padded wagon. Other strange obsessions pursued him throughout his reign. How should the court treat such an unpredictable, cumbersome monarch? Well, it was decided that the King should remain the King, although the regency fell into the hands of the monarch’s uncles. Charles VI’s role was limited to a representative one – he did not make any decision anymore. How could he? He was now certain to be an English army captain named George…

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Confined to bed, King Charles VI was examined by both physicians and sorcerers. (Source: BnF via Gallica)

In order to entertain her husband – and calm down his hysteria crises – Isabeau de Bavière, the Queen, organized a masked ball in January 1393. The King was excited about it – so much so that he prepared a little surprise for the party-goers… The ball took place at the Hôtel Saint-Pol, the king’s residence in Paris. An assorted crowd of rich courtiers gathered, chatting, eating, dancing… When suddenly, six men dressed as “savages” lined up – their costume made of linen had been covered with sticky pitch, with feathers on top of it. How fun (and racist) this must have been! It was a great success: the audience laughed, clapped. For good measure, the faces of the so-called savages had been darkened: could anyone spot the grin of Charles VI?

Wishing to examine the costumes in further detail, the Duke of Orleans – the King’s brother, just back from the tavern – brought a torch close to the dancers. Immediately, the highly-flammable pitch took on fire, as the six savages turned into live inferno! Panic ensued, featuring shouts, faints, and desperate runs in small tubs… The Duchess of Berry, only 14 years old at the time, saved the King’s life when she wrapped him into her robes, stifling the fire.

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Depiction of the “Bal des Ardents” (Ball of the Burning Men) from Froissart’s Chronicles. On the left hand-side, Charles VI is shown wrapped in a duchess’ blue robes. (Source: British Library, Harley 4380)

This event provoked long-lasting mental wounds for Charles VI. Historians believe it was the turning point of his madness: he then collapsed into a state of deep, no-way-back insanity. Hence, the monarch became “The Mad King”. He died in 1422, following forty-two years of dotted reign. As the funeral tradition goes, his body was boiled with a fistful of seasoning… How ironic: the Ball’s Burning Man ended up as a stew.

 

 

 


Sources:

  • Georges Bordonove, Charles VI : Le roi fol et bien-aimé (2006), Pygmalion.
  • Catherine Dufour, L’Histoire de France pour ceux qui n’aiment pas ça (2012), Fayard.
  • Jean Juvenal des Ursins, Histoire de Charles VI, Roi de France (1653), Imprimerie Royale, Paris.
  • Dr. Dupré, « La Folie de Charles VI, roi de France » (1910), in Revue des Deux Mondes, tome 60.

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