Troubled King Charles VI of France Believed He Was Made of Glass
For several centuries, beginning around the 14th century AD, a strange affliction known as the ‘glass delusion’ spread around Europe, particularly amongst nobles, royals and elite members of society. Sufferers of the glass delusion believed their head, arms, buttocks, or whole body were made out of glass and that they needed to exercise extreme caution to avoid shattering.
Charles VI (1368-1422) ascended the throne in 1380 at the age of about 11, but he did not begin to rule independently until 1388. He was a promising young monarch at first. He implemented reforms to improve the bureaucracy and reduce corruption. He also involved himself in papal politics.
But in 1392, Charles VI became ill and had what historians believe was his first schizophrenic episode. Charles VI came to believe that he was made of glass and he would not move without wearing reinforced clothing. He reportedly sat in a room, motionless, for hours, and would only move with extreme caution so as to avoid shattering. This would continue intermittently for the rest of his life. The future Pope Pius II wrote of Charles VI:
“His malady grew worse every day until his mind was completely gone. Sometimes he thought he was made of glass and would not let himself be touched. He had iron rods put into his clothing and protected himself in all sorts of ways so that he might not fall and break.”
A portrait of the troubled King Charles VI of France (Public Domain)
The glass delusion was surprisingly widespread among the upper classes of late medieval and early Modern Europe. It was common enough to be mentioned by several major physicians, scientists, and philosophers, including Rene Descartes. The reason why it was so widespread is mysterious. Equally mysterious is why it almost completely disappeared after the 19th century, except for a handful of obscure cases.
The human body was considered by many philosophers and theologians at the time to be a fragile, temporary vessel for the soul that would soon be discarded for a new resurrected body or a state of pure non-corporeal existence. This association of fragility with the human body and the material of glass may have given the delusion a sort of psychological credibility in the minds of early Modern Europeans. Sufferers of the glass delusion may have been acutely aware of their fragility and in pursuit of a way to cope with it.
Top image: King Charles VI had a glass delusion. Source: LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS / Adobe Stock
By Caleb Strom