King Charles VI of France, Wild Men and the Bal des Ardents

28 January 1393, the charivari held at the Hôtel Saint-Pol in Paris by Queen Isabeau of France ended in a fiasco known as Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men).
“...four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor ... releasing a stream of blood" (Michel Pintoin, c. 1350 – c. 1421, commonly known as The Monk of St Denis)

The Bal des Ardents “by the Master of Anthony of Burgundy (c. 1470s), showing a dancer in the wine vat in the foreground, Charles huddling under the Duchess of Berry's skirt at middle left, and burning dancers in the center”

King Charles VI probably hid behind the door when sanity was handed out among the members of House Valois. A
nd while he actually began his career as Charles the Good in 1388 his behaviour soon gave rise to sincere doubts. That he forgot who he was from time to time, or who his wife or his children or the members of his staff were, might have been overlooked by the contemporaries as an endearing quirk, but when his majesty attacked members of his hunting party with blank weapons in August 1392 and killed a few men was a bit over the top even in terms of royal quirkiness. However, what really unhinged the merry monarch was the accident during the Ball of the Burning Men.

Woodwoses or Wild Men, detail from a painting by Albrecht Dürer

Huguet de Guisay, the king’s pal, was probably a bit of a bastard and his idea to appear together with six other members of the court, including Charles, dressed up as “Wild Men” at the eve-of-wedding party of one of his queen’s lady-in-waiting, her third marriage actually, was positively more than good and clean fun. Remarriage was generally frowned upon in the Middle Ages since plighting one’s troth was usually understood as being valid beyond the grave and the appearance of the seven Wild Men may well have been a general attempt on the lady’s respectability. The group behaved quite savage during the ball ”in costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, so that they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot", chained together to underline their ferocity, bothering and molesting and dancing like madmen. Then, the king’s brother, the Duke of Orléans, arriving late to the party, came close with a torch to see who exactly was making a spectacle of himself there and all hell broke loose.

The Bal des Ardents, illustration from Froissart's Chronicle (around 1470)

Four of the “Wild Men” were wrapped in flames in the blink of an eye, Charles himself, according to the contemporary historian Jean Froissart had “proceeded ahead of [the dancers], departed from his companions … and came near the Duchess of Berry“ and the 15 years-old-lady reacted quickly and threw her wide skirts over him to protect him from the flames. The burning four died either on the spot or a couple of days later from their severe burns and Huguet de Guisay cursed and insulted” his fellow dancers, the dead and the living, until his last hour" and riots broke out in Paris over this proof of courtly decadence. Both Charles and his brother Orléans did public penance and the king had a chapel erected for the four victims where masses were read daily. Charles was finally nicknamed “Le Fou”, the Mad, after this event and seemed to have been completely gone for most of the time during the following 32 years of his reign, encouraging the invasion of Henry V of England and another climax of the Hundred Years’ War.

And more in Stephanie Dreyfürst's excellent article on