Ball of the burning men

Six dancers in costume caught on fire at a ball in 1393 Paris. Only two survived; one of them was King Charles VI.

Bal des Ardents
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s offering is another in my series about the strange deaths of European monarchs. This one is a bit different: the king in question survived, barely.

January 28, 1393. King Charles VI was in charge, although his reign was tenuous. A lady-in-waiting of the queen was getting remarried. Such an occasion warranted a proper celebration. The young king (just twenty four years old) plus five other French nobles planned a wild man dance.

(Side note: the “wild man” – also known as the woodwose – was a common Medieval motif. Mostly or totally nude, covered in hair from head to foot, and dwelling in isolated regions, they were a popular symbol of pre-Christian pagan Europe.)

Now, most kings do not go naked. So Charles and his companions dressed up in linen costumes for the ball. Their costumes were soaked in resin so that flax would stick to them – that flax was supposed to simulate the hair of the hairy men.

But wrapping yourself in flammable linen, resin, and flax is never a good idea. Just six years earlier another European monarch, Charles II of Navarre, had burned to death encased in linen wrappings soaked in wine. And when the king’s drunken younger brother showed up at the ball with a burning torch, things were definitely about to heat up.

The six dancers caught on fire. One jumped into a vat of wine (oh yeah, it was that kind of party); the king sheltered under his aunt’s huge skirt, which apparently was big enough to extinguish the flames; the other four nobles sustained serious burns – they all died within three days.

Despite all this, this ball of the burning men – in French, the Bal des Ardents – was not the low point of Charles’ reign. It got worse… much much worse. But that’ll have to wait for another time.

[Thanks to Nicoletta R.]

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