The Terrible Light

There are times when foolishness does not go unpunished.

Many centuries ago the courts of Europe were selfish and lunatic worlds.  They glowed furtively like jewels trampled into the dirt.  Crossed in silver and gold, diseased and pampered hearts amassed their culture, a purchase of eternity.  Greed - ready with its dagger of embroidered steel – hid behind curtains writhing with velvet forests and brocaded gardens.

These worlds glittered with an ugly and magnificent light.  Beauty grew unnaturally out of this darkness, like toadstools.  Tragedy and celebration merged to create a ragged coat of arms, entwined and symbolic.

In 1393 the Valois court in France was an imperfect jewel.  For all its finery, it nursed a single flaw:  its king, Charles VI, known as The Mad.  Doctors nowadays believe that he suffered from a bipolar disorder.  But what then?  Were demons cavorting behind his inofffensive face?  Was his blood different from others' – did it flow thick and turgid like a sickly river?  Was it the devil's trick to corrupt flesh that was so white and meek?

During this time, Charles' reasoning struggled like a trapped animal.  He believed that he was made of glass.  He did not recognize his children or his wife.  He was lost in a brilliant, clouded land; and yet it was his duty to rule a country.

It was in this year that his doctors recommended a program of amusements for him.  So when one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting married, a masquerade ball was given in her honor.  Ladies and gentlemen clad themselves in costumes of myth and falsehood, and the court became a sea of fishes that shimmered with absurdity.

A particular group of men were dressed as 'wild men' – a cross between man and woodland beast.  They wore "costumes of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch…so they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot".  For safety's sake the lit torches were kept a distance away, but a stray, determined spark landed on one of the disguised satyrs.  Fire burst from their dishonest skins and panic – the chameleon of man's fear – adopted the colors of scarlet and black.  This grim incident became known as the Bal des Ardents ('Ball of the Burning Men').


One of these unfortunates had been following the Duchess of Berry in particular.  Now, she threw the train of her gown over him, smothering the vindictive fire.  And when she pulled back the melted tinsel and scorched jewels, she saw the blank, mad eyes of her king.  He stared at her pale, plucked face – looking like a star that had descended from the revolving galaxies and was now hovering over him.  He wondered who she was and what magic she possessed, that could douse the flames of Hell that had threatened him.  He wondered why she saved him from a life of darkness and judgement.

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17 responses to “The Terrible Light

  1. such the interesting print, the last one. is it a lithograph?

  2. Now that was a party! Laissez les bon temps rouler!

  3. Very fine writing Aubrey. You really bring history to life. I would think that spectacle would be terrifying for a mentally ill person. What were they thinking? The scene of people in costume would be pretty scary to one unsure of what is real and the fire would be terrifying. I would try to publish some of your writings Aubrey. They are very enjoyable.Lucy

  4. I also like the title very much!

  5. What a tragedy. What happened? Did he die? Did she save him?

  6. This tale is new to me! Where did you discover it?

  7. How fascinating. Was she accused of witchcraft?

  8. Jando – always happy to provide you with a daily dose of wow-ness.
    WBaby – this is a miniature, so I'm thinking that's a tiny painting.
    Doug – I hate to say; but I wouldn't have minded being invited to that party.
    Lucy – I thought much the same thing. What visions did he see? This was no evening of light entertainment. And your comment about the title amused me – it took me two days to think of it!
    JP – he survived; and lived for another 30 years. He lived during the 100 Years War with England; his daughter (grandaughter?) married England's V and passed his madness to Henry VI.
    Hangaku – in the course of studying history, years ago, I mean college years ago, I read about this incident and I never forgot it (kind of hard to!)
    EF – thanks! Good to hear from you, busy mommy!
    Emjay – no; I don't know what her life's story was; she must have been a clever and resourseful woman.

  9. The brave duchess' husband commissioned one of the most famous medieval manuscripts: look at the photos there and imagine what the splendor must be like.This Book of Hours is the first thing I ever saw on the Web. Back when no one had ever heard of it, the Louvre had one of the earliest websites and we clicked and waited long, long minutes to load up each of these pages.So she and her husband were quite the pivotal pair; he basically ruled while the king was too mad to do it.She was the king's aunt, and was a teenager at the time.

  10. Interesting! I don't think I'll be able to forget this incident.

  11. What a fantastic story.And funny that kings (and masters of the universe) are still mad.

  12. LT – Gosh – she was only 15! The Berry control over the king was challenged by his older brother, Louis – who, ironically, started the fire with a poorly held torch, and who allegedly had an affair with the queen. Boy, I love history.
    Singing Horse – Good! I hate it when something as minor as a distance of years makes us forget.
    Purplesque – Charles VI's madness was in the DNA, and didn't recognize status or wealth.

  13. Jawdroppingly fascinating. I wish that I had been fortunate enough to have you as a teacher of history. Truly amazing.

  14. What strange subjects you find to write about, yet you make them sound like lovely, little fairytales.

  15. Poor King Charles–they would think that his disorder was due to turgid blood rather than wrong brain chemicals wouldn't they? They would think it was some sort of devilry rather than a detour in biology. How truly horrific it must have been to have mental illness in medieval times. Thank god for modern medicine.

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