The Medieval King who believed he was made of glass

One reason Charles VI  “the beloved,” became Charles “the mad” was his belief that he was made of glass.

Glass delusion King Charles VI of France

As part of this glass delusion, Charles would stay motionless for hours, wrapped in piles of thick blankets to prevent his glass carapace from “shattering,”

When he moved, a special garment, which included iron “ribs”, protected his glass organs.

Dance of the burning men

Dance of the Burning Men. King Charles VI and the Glass Delusion

By Philippe de Mazerolles – This file has been provided by the British Library from its digital collections. It is also made available on a British Library website.Catalogue entry: Harley 4380, Public Domain, Link

Charle’s life is marked by incidents of sudden, horrifying violence.

In 1392, struck with a fit of rage and paranoia, he slaughtered four of his knights.

The very next year, the King and five companions dressed for a masquerade ball as “wild men” in linen costumes soaked in resin to which flax was attached.

This made them appear “shaggy and hairy from head to foot”.

It was all very festive, but sadly highly inflammable.

An errant spark landed on one costume, and set it ablaze.

Soon all six were on fire, and only the King and one other companion survived.

The event went down in history under the name “Bal des Ardents,” or the Dance of Burning Men.

Ironically, this ball was intended  to divert and amuse the young king, after the previous year’s attack of insanity.

In 1393, Charles couldn’t remember his own name and didn’t know he was the king of France.

When his wife came to visit him, he simply asked his attendants to see what she needed and send her away.

Later, from 1395-1396, he thought he was Saint George. He recognized all of his officers and officials, but not his family.

Throughout his life, he had bouts of madness where, according to historian Desmond Seward, he ran “howling like a wolf down the corridors of the royal palaces”.

He refused to bathe or change his clothes for five months.

One of his doctor’s “treatments” was to have courtiers hide in rooms and jump out at the King, presumably to scare him straight!

The Glass Delusion

Strangely Charles VI wasn’t the only one suffering from the glass delusion. He was only the most powerful of those afflicted from the 15th to the 17th century.

A Glass Man travelled to Murano, an Italian island famous for its beautiful glass, hoping to fling himself into a kiln and be transformed into a goblet.

Yet another case tells of a scholar who believed that the surface of the world was made of glass, beneath which lurked a tangle of serpents.

He did not dare to leave his bed, for fear that he would smash the glass and fall in among the snakes.

One unfortunate man was convinced his buttocks was made of glass, and that sitting down would smash it into flying shards.

(There seems to be a bit of a preoccupation with buttocks.)

He was afraid to leave the house, in case a glazier tried to melt him down into a windowpane.

A 1561 medical account describes a patient:

“who had to relieve himself standing up, fearing that if he sat down his buttocks would shatter… The man concerned was a glass-maker from the Parisian suburb of Saint Germain, who constantly applied a small cushion to his buttocks, even when standing. He was cured of this obsession by a severe thrashing from the doctor, who told him that his pain emanated from buttocks of flesh.”

Obsessions Through History

According to Professor Edward Shorter, a historian of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, obsessions with novel  materials have been reported throughout history.

‘Man, like all animals, is glass and can return to glass’ writes the German alchemist Johann Becher in his work Physica Subterranea published in 1669.

Becher claimed that he had found the secret of turning dead bodies into transparent glass, so that we could surround ourselves with beautiful vases formed of our ancestors (preferable, he writes, to ‘hideous and disgusting cadavers’).

The making of glass at the time was seen as a kind of magic: the metamorphosis of sand and dust into transparent crystal.

Before the glass delusion, there were people who believed their bodies were composed of earthenware, and during the 19th century, people started to believe they were made of the dominant construction material of the day: concrete.

Our modern-day delusions tend to involve technology: sufferers may believe the government has planted a microchip in their brain or that a computer is constantly monitoring them.

Scholar’s Melancholy

According to the medical understanding of the day, glass delusion sufferers were afflicted by a form of “melancholia,” a disease particularly common to scholars and lovers.

It a kind of noble depression, often linked to aristocracy and genius.

Many sufferers, including Bavarian Princess Alexandra Amelie (who believed she had swallowed a glass piano) and King Charles VI, were considered exceptionally intelligent.

Gill Speak wrote the definitive essay on the glass delusion, in which she points out that people of the middle ages were convinced that the human soul was a physical thing that dwelled in the body.

To put it another way, the soul was the genie in the bottle.

The consensus on Charles VI is that he probably suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.

Contemporary psychologists speculate that believing one was glass could have been a way of expressing how vulnerable, fragile and exposed he felt in his public position.

People with the glass delusion seem to have in common a sensitivity to the fragility of the human body and soul.

When the author Giovanni Boccaccio was despairingly called a “man of glass” in 1393, he responded:

“We are all glass men, subjected to innumerable dangers. The slightest touch would break us, and we would return to nothing.”

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