The Ball of Burning Men.
Medieval partygoers loved spectacles, and every decent feast would contain pranks such as dwarves leaping out of giant pies, or jesters climbing onto the dinner table and burying their heads into tubs of custard. But one joke performance went tragically awry in 1394 Paris. It was a wedding feast attended by the young French King Charles VI, who was given to fits of madness, and his long-suffering queen, Isabel.
One of the groom’s friends, a known party animal from Normandy named Hugonin de Guisay, decided to entertain the ladies by dressing himself and five accomplices (including the loopy king himself) as “Wildmen,” or savages. In secret, they donned their inventive outfits: Each man wore a linen body-stocking coated in resin and covered with flax to look like hair. The king’s squire, Evan, who clearly had more common sense than his master, realized that the materials were highly flammable, and ordered that all the torches in the banquet hall be kept at the back; he also suggested that the king not join the chain linking the other five. Around midnight, the six wildmen burst into the ballroom with great cries and bounded about dancing with the guests to the hilarity of all. Nobody could tell who they were, and the king was free to flirt with the youngest and prettiest of the girls at the party, the Duchess of Berry. So eager were the guests to know the wildmen’s identities that the king’s brother, the none-too-bright Duke of Orleans, grabbed a candelabra and went up for a closer look.
Horrifically, the wildman burst into a ball of flames, followed immediately by the others linked in the chain. The shrieks of the victims were “dreadful,” reports the chronicler Sir John Froissart, and any knight who tried to help received third-degree burns on his hands from the incandescent heat. One wild man managed to break his chain, run to the nearby buttery and throw himself into the dishwashing tub, saving himself, “but he was withal some time very ill.” The Duchess of Berry protected the king by throwing the train of her dress over him. The other four burned like Roman candles until water was brought; two died on the spot, two after days of agony.
“Thus the feast of this marriage brake up in heaviness,” mourns Froissart. It became known thereafter as the bals des ardents, the Ball of the Burning Men. • 5 November 2008
SOURCE/FURTHER READING: Johnes, Thomas (trans.), Sir John Froissart’s Chronicles of England, France Spain and the Adjoining Countries, (London, 1806).
Tony Perrottet's new book, Napoleon's Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, is a literary version of a Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins, July, 2008; napoleonsprivates.com). He is also the author of Pagan Holiday: On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists and The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games.