In a previous post, we had discussed how Charles VI of France was crazy. Soon after his ascension to the throne, he had a breakdown and never got his feet back under him. He married and attempted to rule, but the bouts of madness got worse. At varying times, he thought he was made of glass, forgot his wife and children and tried to murder his brother. One of the worst scandals of his reign, was the Ball of the Burning Men.
On 28 January 1393, Queen Isabeau, Charles’ wife, held a masquerade at the Hotel Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting, Catherine de Fastaverin. Historian Barbara Tuchman explains in her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, that the remarriage of a widow was celebrated with “all sorts of licence, disguises, disorders, and loud blaring of discordant music and clanging of cymbals”. Joining in the wild atmosphere, Charles and several six high ranking knights decided to dress as “wild men”. Their costumes were sewn onto the men and made of linen soaked in resin with flax streamers attached as hair. Some reports said that the men were chained together. The audience did not realize the king was among the players, but had been instructed to not bring any torches or flames into the ballroom because the costumes were highly flammable.
Historian Jan Veenstra described the men as dancing in a “diabolical” frenzy howling and swearing at the guests. In the midst of the performance, the king’s brother, Louis Orléans, and Phillipe de Bar arrived late and drunk. Not having got the memo about fire, they came into the ballroom carrying lit torches. Again, reports differ as to what happened. Some say that Orléans lifted the torch to reveal his presence and a spark hit one of the “wild men”. Other accounts say a torch was thrown at the dancers. Whatever the case, the flammable costumes went up like tinder.
Queen Isabeau knew her husband was among the dancers and fainted when the fire started. However, he was lucky enough to be far enough away from the others that he missed the fire. His 15 year old aunt, Joan, Duchess of Berry, shielded the king with her skirts from the sparks. The other “wild men” were not as lucky. They screamed in pain as the fire devoured their costumes and they could not get them off. One man jumped into a vat of wine to try to put out the fire. The others burned to death, taking some of the audience members with them. The events were described by the monk of St. Denis as “four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood”.
As the story of the Bal des Ardents spread, the people’s confidence in the monarchy was severely shaken. Riots spread through Paris as the people threatened to kill the depraved courtiers around the king. To try to head off a revolt, the entire court did penance at Notre Dame and a shame walk around the city. Froissart, however, put the blame on the king’s brother, Orléans, saying “And thus the feast and marriage celebrations ended with such great sorrow … [Charles] and [Isabeau] could do nothing to remedy it. We must accept that it was no fault of theirs but of the duke of Orléans.” Orléans was also fighting rumors that he was a sorcerer and that the Bal des Ardents was revenge for the attempt on his life by the king in one of his fits.
In any case, the reputation of the duke of Orléans was in tatters.
Sources available on request