Jan 282016


The Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men) or Bal des Sauvages was a masquerade ball held on this date in 1393 in Paris at which Charles VI of France performed in a dance with five members of the French nobility. Four of the dancers were killed in a fire caused when a torch brought in by Charles’s brother, Louis, Duke of Orléans, caught the highly flammable costumes on fire. Charles and another of the dancers, the noble knight Ogier de Nantouillet survived. The event undermined confidence in Charles’s capacity to rule. Parisians considered it proof of courtly decadence and threatened to rebel against the more powerful members of the nobility.

Charles’s wife, Isabeau of Bavaria, held the ball to honor the remarriage of a lady-in-waiting. Scholars believe it may have been a traditional charivari, with the dancers disguised as wild men, mythical beings often associated with demonology, that were commonly represented in medieval Europe and documented in revels of Tudor England. The event was chronicled by contemporary writers such as the Monk of St Denis and Jean Froissart, and illustrated in a number of 15th-century illuminated manuscripts by painters such as the Master of Anthony of Burgundy. The incident later provided inspiration for the main scene in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Hop-Frog” (http://poestories.com/read/hop-frog )

In 1380, after the death of his father, Charles V of France, the 12-year-old Charles VI was crowned king, beginning his minority with his four uncles acting as regents. Two years later, one of them, Philip of Burgundy, described by historian Robert Knecht as “one of the most powerful princes in Europe,” became sole regent to the young king after Louis of Anjou pillaged the royal treasury and departed to campaign in Italy. Charles’s other two uncles, John of Berry and Louis of Bourbon, showed little interest in governing. In 1387, the 20-year-old Charles assumed sole control of the monarchy and immediately dismissed his uncles and reinstated the Marmousets, his father’s traditional counselors. Unlike his uncles, the Marmousets wanted peace with England, less taxation, and a strong, responsible central government—policies that resulted in a negotiated three-year truce with England, and the Duke of Berry being stripped of his post as governor of Languedoc because of his excessive taxation.


In 1392 Charles suffered the first in a lifelong series of attacks of mental illness, manifested by an “insatiable fury” at the attempted assassination of the Constable of France and leader of the Marmousets, Olivier de Clisson—carried out by Pierre de Craon but orchestrated by John V, Duke of Brittany. Convinced that the attempt on Clisson’s life was also an act of violence against himself and the monarchy, Charles quickly planned a retaliatory invasion of Brittany with the approval of the Marmousets, and within months departed Paris with a force of knights.

On a hot August day outside Le Mans, accompanying his forces on the way to Brittany, without warning Charles drew his weapons and charged his own household knights including his brother Louis I, Duke of Orléans—with whom he had a close relationship—crying “Forward against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!” He killed four men before his chamberlain grabbed him by the waist and subdued him, after which he fell into a coma that lasted for four days. Few believed he would recover. his uncles, the dukes of Burgundy and Berry, took advantage of the king’s illness and quickly seized power, re-established themselves as regents, and dissolved the Marmouset council.


The comatose king was returned to Le Mans, where Guillaume de Harsigny—a venerated and well-educated 92-year-old physician—was summoned to treat him. After Charles regained consciousness, and his fever subsided, he was returned to Paris by Harsigny, moving slowly from castle to castle, with periods of rest in between. Late in September Charles was well enough to make a pilgrimage of thanks to Notre Dame de Liesse near Laon after which he returned again to Paris.

The king’s sudden onset of insanity was seen by some as a sign of divine anger and punishment and by others as the result of sorcery. Mo