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Man on fire showing representation of one of the victims at the Ball of the Burning Men (‘Bal des Ardents’)     Source: Daniele Depascale / Adobe stock

Ball of the Burning Men: Temperatures Rose at Hot Royal Party

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The world of medieval aristocracy was always plagued by extravagance, power, and eccentricity. Where there was an abundance of power and wealth, the great leaders and kings of the world descended into a world of pleasure, of art and music, balls and feasts. Their wealth and power allowed them to pursue the pleasurable paths of life, and to leave the toil and suffering to the poor citizens of their realms.

But when the lights went out, the curtains were lowered and the wine flowed freely, things could often get out of control. The sober minds calculated, the hateful plotted, and the lackluster were fooled. And that is how the great blunders of history came to pass. And one such blunder is the subject of our latest story - a grand ball of the French nobility that got terribly out of hand. Instead of fun, laughter and party, the nobles witnessed a terrifying incident that left lasting impressions on the entire state. It is known as the Ball of the Burning Men, and Charles VI of France was at the center of it.

Charles VI’s Start to Life

Charles VI of France was born on December 3rd, 1368. He was the King of France for 42 years - from 1380 until his death in 1422. During his rule he was known initially as Charles the Beloved, but later on as Charles the Mad. And it is the latter title that ties in perfectly with the incident that we are about to retell. 

Charles the V (the Wise) died in 1380, and was succeeded by his 11-year-old son, Charles VI. Four of his uncles acted as regents, ruling in his stead until the king came of age. This regency soon went sour - two of the uncles: Louis of Bourbon and John of Berry, showed little interest in governing the realm, perhaps being bribed not to. The third regent, Louis of Anjou, plundered the royal treasury, abusing his power, and fled to Italy. This left only Phillip of Burgundy as the regent - one of the most prominent nobles in Europe at the time. 

Depiction of the coronation of Charles VI of France at the age of 11. (Jean Fouquet / Public domain)

Depiction of the coronation of Charles VI of France at the age of 11. (Jean Fouquet / Public domain )

From the get-go, young King Charles VI was plagued with instability and difficulty. Inheriting the kingly crown from such an early age certainly brought its own burdens along. Wealth and aristocratic life most likely contributed to this fragility, and in no time, weaknesses of royal character came up to the surface.

Charles VI assumed full governorship over the kingdom when he came of age, i.e. when he was 20 years old. He quickly pursued a foreign policy that was markedly different than that of his regent - Phillip of Burgundy. He pursued peace with England, reinstated the traditional counselors of his predecessors, lowered the taxes, and worked towards centralizing his government. He managed to negotiate an important three-year truce with England, known today as the Truce of Leulinghem. By all accounts, his early independent rule was marked with a shrewd rulership and sensible policies. But soon after, things went south. 

Charles the Mad King, and the Prelude to the Ball of the Burning Men

Charles the VI began showcasing clear signs of insanity. The first of these attacks of insanity happened in 1392, and was only the first one of a lifelong series of afflictions. It was brought on by the intrigues and struggles that plagued the nobility of his court. His lead counselor, Constable of France, head Marmouset (nickname for Charles VI’s group of counselors), Olivier Le Vieux de Clisson, was attacked in an attempted assassination. The whole incident was knowingly orchestrated by John VI, Duke of Brittany. 

This was the spark that brought on an “ insatiable fury” in the personality of the young king. He took the assassination attempt on the Constable of France as a direct attack on the Crown, and immediately sought retaliation against the plotting duke. He quickly assembled a force of knights and footmen, and departed in a retaliatory invasion of Brittany.

Still, in an almost fantastical turn of events, young Charles VI quickly displayed further bouts of his increasing insanity. On the way to Brittany, he suffered an attack of insanity where he drew his weapon and turned against his followers, amongst them his brother, Louis I, Duke of Orleans. He attacked his own retinue, shouting: “ Forward! Against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!” In his insanity he slew four of his own men and had to be subdued. Soon after, he descended into a coma, which lasted for four days. 

Madness of Charles VI: The king brandishing a sword, mistakes the members of his retinue for enemies and attacks them. ( Public domain )

Not Fit to Rule

His uncles and ex-regents quickly took advantage of the situation, as they believed that the king was beyond salvation. They seized power, and disbanded the Marmouset counselors that Charles the VI had reinstated.

Luckily, the afflicted king soon woke up from his coma, and began a rapid period of recovery. He was soon well enough to return to Paris. Many of his nobles believed that their king was a victim of sorcery, or was a subject of a divine punishment. But it was clear that Charles VI was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, which was evidenced by his paranoid attack on his own retinue.

Even so, the king returned to the throne, but he was still plagued by bouts of insanity and general madness. For example, he claimed that he was made entirely of glass, and kept howling like a wolf. Many of the contemporary chroniclers of the French court confirm that Charles VI was thoroughly mad - his state was no subtlety, and was noticeable by all.

In time, the king’s chief physician retired, hopelessly refusing to treat his liege any longer. He advised that the king should be excused from all kingly duties, and that any work and pressure be avoided, alongside any irritation. This contemporary source tells us that the condition of Charles VI was anything but light. And the king’s court decided to heed the physician’s advice. This they did by throwing elaborate and lavish parties in the king’s honor, showering him with fabulous and extravagant dances and balls. And that is where our story takes a truly grim turn.

A Party to Entertain the King

On 28th of January 1393, a special masquerade ball was held for Charles. The event happened in Hôtel Saint-Pol, a royal establishment that was built by the young king’s father. The main orchestrator of the event was the king’s own wife - Isabeau of Bavaria. Even before that, she was the main person behind the lavish and eccentric balls and parties held for Charles VI. Consequently, she was openly blamed for the ludicrous expenses and eccentricities that were involved in these parties.

Depiction of Isabeau of Bavaria, the queen that organized the Ball of the Burning Men (‘Le Bal des Ardents’). (Master of the Cité des Dames / Public domain )

Nonetheless, she believed - apparently - that the parties would help Charles’ condition and that they would alleviate his insanity. And on that 28th of January 1393, she decided to hold a masquerade ball, seemingly to celebrate the third marriage of her own lady-in-waiting. By royal tradition that was well established in courts throughout Europe, such a re-marriage by a widowed woman was never celebrated in a solemn and normal fashion. Instead, it was cause for a silly party, full of charades, masks, and loud noisy music. 

As this ludicrous party heated up, the key event came to pass - and it involved the young king Charles VI. The king and another five of his close companions, disguised themselves as ‘wild men’ - hairy savages that were a common part of European folklore. This whole event was instigated by a certain Huguet de Guisay, a member of Charles’ court, and was a notoriously cruel and outrageous person. De Guisay was well known in the court as an arrogant and somewhat mad noble, who was termed as the “ cruelest and most insolent of men ”, who had a particular habit of abusing his servants and forcing them to bark like dogs.

The Temperature Rises at This Truly “Hot” Royal Party

On the suggestion of this man, the king and his companions dressed themselves in full body costumes. To emulate these hairy wild men, they wore suits that were first covered with resin, and then with flax, which simulated abundance of hair. The costumes were made from simple linen, and basically drenched in resin wax and pitch, which was the only way for the hair-like hemp to stick on. They also wore scary, bestial masks, as it was a masquerade ball after all. Therefore, no one could know their identity for certain.

Depiction of what the ‘wild men’ may have looked like at the Ball of the Burning Men (‘Le Bal des Ardents’). (Albrecht Dürer / Public domain )

Several sources cite that these six men - the king amongst them - were bound together by chains. They entered the hall where all the nobles were gathered, and danced in a wild frenzy, howling like wolves and creating a fun display of ‘wild men’. Beforehand, the officials strictly forbade any torches to be lit or carried inside the hall - to prevent the flammable materials of their costumes to catch fire.

The so-called Dance of the Savages went on, with the dancers acting out crazy movements and obscene gestures. All the while, the gathered nobles tried to guess their identities. Unknowingly to most, King Charles VI - hidden behind his wild-man mask - began teasing and making obscene gestures before a 15-year-old noble lady - Joan, the Duchess De Berry. At the same time, two men entered the hall - these were the king’s own brother, Louis I, Duke of Orleans, and one Phillipe de Bar - both of them were drunk and very late to the party. They stumbled into the hall carrying torches - even though they were banned - and quickly approached the dancing men.

What happened next was a disaster. Seemingly in order to discover the identity of the dancing ‘wild-men’, Louis I brought a lit torch close to the face of one of the dancers. Most of the contemporary sources state that a single spark fell onto the dancer, lighting his leg on fire. A single source states differently - that Louis I threw the torch. Either way, the highly flammable costumes of the dancers quickly caught fire, which spread from one dancer to another.

Depiction of the Ball of the Burning Men (‘Le Bal des Ardents’). (Philippe de Mazerolles / Public domain )

The hall quickly erupted into sheer chaos. The six men were completely aflame, the king included. His wife, Isabeau, began shrieking in despair, knowing that the king was amongst the masked men. Several of the onlookers caught fire, and the scene was one of utmost disaster.

The most composed person on the scene was also one of the youngest - the 15-year old Joan De Berry. This young duchess stood close to the king and recognized his features - she quickly gathered the enormous train of her dress, and threw it over the blazing king, stiffening the flames. The other men screamed terrifyingly as the flames consumed their flesh.

Charles VI of France huddling under the Duchesse of Berry's dress at the fiery Ball of the Burning Men (‘Bal des Ardents’) in 1393. (Master Anthony of Burgundy / Public domain )

In the Aftermath of Catastrophe

From the six ‘wild men’ dancers, only two survived the flaming ordeal. One was the king Charles VI, whose flaming suit was extinguished by the skirt of Joan De Berry, and the other was Sieur de Nantouillet.

The latter jumped into a huge vat of water, which extinguished the flame. The other four dancers died. They were: the Count De Joigny - who died at the spot in terrible pain; Yvain de Foix, heir to Count de Foix and Aimery Poitiers, heir to Count of Valentinois, both of them dying after two days of excruciating torment, and Huguet de Guisay, the main instigator of the whole ‘wild man’ charade. He lived for three days before succumbing to his catastrophic wounds. Contemporary accounts state that he kept cursing all the nobles and dancers, spewing foul curses until his final breath.

Depiction of the aftermath of the Ball of the Burning Men (‘Bal des Ardents’). King Charles is tended to by Joan De Berry with her dress putting out the fire. Sieur de Nantouillet jumps into the vat of water, while the others desperately try to put the fire out. (Jean Froissart / Public domain )

In the aftermath of this catastrophe, the citizens of Paris stirred in great commotion. Blaming the king’s brother, Louis I, and citing the depravity of the nobles and therefore, the common folk threatened to rise in revolt. They were at last calmed down when Louis I sought atonement for his mistake, and donated a great sum to build a chapel at the Celestine monastery in Paris. Furthermore, the whole court, including the king’s uncles and King Charles himself, rode through the city in a markedly apologetic royal procession of humility. 

In the aftermath, the reputation of Louis I, Duke of Orleans was thoroughly ruined, and the whole ordeal only cemented his history of odd behavior. He would be assassinated in 1407.

On the other hand, Charles the VI began his decline afterwards. His only later notable act as king, happened just a year after the fire, in 1394, when he expelled all the Jews from his realm, as ‘apparently’ they had been exploiting the Christian French citizens, and had continually deceived and abused all non-Jews. His mental health kept deteriorating after the infamous Ball of the Burning Men, and his role as a king was merely ceremonial up until his death.

Intrigues, or Simply the Foolishness of Nobility?

The Ball of the Burning Men presents a unique page in the rich history of French nobility. It also poses several key questions that concern the royal lines and nobles of medieval Europe. Was the excessive wealth and eccentricity of the nobles a clear weakness? Was it also the leap that further distanced them from the poor classes of their realms?

Moreover, were the actions of Louis I of Orleans purely accidental? Perhaps this was an attempt to assassinate his brother and usurp the throne. Either way, this chaotic and eccentric masquerade ball is one of the most intriguing events of medieval France, and it could easily fit onto the pages of a ‘ Game of Thrones ’ novel, filled with intrigues and medieval craziness.

Top image: Man on fire showing representation of one of the victims at the Ball of the Burning Men (‘Bal des Ardents’)     Source: Daniele Depascale / Adobe stock

By Aleksa Vučković

References

DeSpair, C. 2011. Morbid Facts Du Jour. Decidedly Grim. [Online] Available at:
www.decidedlygrim.net/?p=1892

Ross, G. 2013. Two Gruesome Incidents. Futility Closet. [Online] Available at:

https://www.futilitycloset.com/2013/03/16/two-gruesome-incidents/
Veenstra, J.R. 1998. Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France. Brill.

Comments

Aleksa Vučković's picture

109 times!

Pete Wagner's picture

Just proves that expelling the Jews never leads to favorable historical treatment.  

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