Dance of the Burning Men: A Medieval Costume Tragedy

Dance of the Burning Men: A Medieval Costume Tragedy

Anna Hoffman
Dec 3, 2009

A couple weeks ago, we looked at the splendors of Truman Capote's Black & White Ball of 1966. In honor of the holiday party season, with its fir trees and candlelight, let's take a look back at a (much) earlier costume party, one that went so horribly wrong that it is now known as the Bal des Ardents, or the Dance of the Burning Men.

France, 1393. Charles VI was king, Isabeau of Bavaria his consort. Charles ordered a wedding ball at court for one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting. The king had just experienced his first of many psychotic episodes (he was plagued with mental illness his whole life), and his doctors recommended courtly amusements to improve his condition. Because it was the lady's third marriage, custom dictated that there be a charivari, or a mock serenade with noisy instruments, and sometimes with costumes.

A courtier suggested that the king and five friends dress up as 'savages' for a little healthy fun. The six men came to the party in head-to-toe costumes of linen, flax and feathers, held together with a sort of resin (the same flammable semi-liquid used during medieval warfare, poured from fortified walls onto invading soldiers to scald them). No one knew who they were, but the king had supposedly ordered that torches be kept away from their obviously flammable outfits. Five of the men were chained together, the king the only independent one. You see where this is going.

The party was in full swing, the 'savages' dancing and chatting with the other guests — though still concealing their identities — when the king's brother, the duc d'Orléans, showed up after an evening at a tavern. Curious to learn who the costumed men were, he shone his torch on them, but got too close, and the costumes quickly caught flame. (There is also some speculation that it was an assassination attempt — definitely a compelling conspiracy theory, what with an insane king during an era of political tumult) Luckily, the king had been standing with his young aunt, the 14-year-old duchesse de Berry, who quickly suffocated his flames with her dress, saving his life (visible in Images 1 and 3). The others were not so lucky. Though one managed to unchain himself and jump into a bucket of water to save himself (visible in all images), the others all died of their injuries in the next few days.

Obviously this tragedy did nothing to improve Charles VI's mental health, and he shortly relinquished much of his power to his wife and others. At the end of his reign, France ended up in the hands of an English king, though was later wrested back to French control by Charles VI's son (wait for it…) Charles VII, with the help of Joan of Arc. Interestingly, despite the pre-existing international tensions (the Hundred Years' War, for example) and the much-discussed madness of the king, blame for England's usurpation fell on Queen Isabeau, one of many examples of foreign-born queens scapegoated in the popular press (hello, Marie-Antoinette!).

The medieval images of the story are small illuminations of a contemporary history by Froissart. Painted within a century of the event, these royal party scenes show the tragedy occurring, but also reveal the deep importance of textiles in medieval interiors. The artists use lavish damasks as their backdrop, with fabulous color combinations and patterns, like deer jumping (image 2). Textiles also differentiate spaces, like the patterned baldequins (visible in each image) where the ladies sit, and the fabric thrown over the musicians' balcony in Images 1 and 2. In Image 2, a display table shows off a suite of vessels from the royal treasury, a typical practice of the time (and on into the Renaissance and beyond). In the images, the women wear gowns made of sumptuous fabric, with classic medieval headgear like the conical hat (henin) with sheer veils, and the reticulated headdress that looks like a "V." In Images 1 and 2, you can see that the women's dresses are trimmed with fur, also common in winter (court) dress.

Rich visual evidence of a crazy party gone horribly wrong!

Source: Do you want to read the account in the original medieval French? Really? Here it is.

Images: 1 A mid-15th century illumination of Froissart's Chroniques, a contemporary history. There are so many amazing textiles in this image, including various richly patterned drapery and some sort of bench covering where the ladies are sitting. The clothing is trimmed in ermine. From Wikipedia Commons; 2 Another illumination of Froissart. This one is from 1470-75, was commissioned by Louis de Gruuthuse, and illuminated by Philippe de Mazerolles. Apparently, an illuminator known as the Master of Anthony of Burgundy, subcontracted by Philippe de Mazerolles, is responsible for the illustration. Note the careful perspective and almost 3D quality of the figures. You can see the duchesse de Berry using her blue dress to smother the flames on the king's costume, while the musicians look on helplessly from the balcony. The chandelier is also a lovely detail — painted red, no less! Image from a French website called Grande-Boucherie, which also contains the original Froissart text; 3 A black-and-white reproduction of another medieval illumination of Froissart. At left you can see the duchesse de Berry putting out the king's fire, and in the upper right you can see the other survivor dousing himself in a washing bucket. Image from French Wikipedia Commons; 4 The full-page view of Louis de Gruuthuse's manuscript of Froissart, from the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Want the look? Mix and match antique-inspired textiles from places like Brocade Home, Anthropologie and Dwell Studio. For more information on damasks, read this wonderful 2006 article from Martha Stewart Living by Shax Riegler. And if anyone can find a deer pattern like the one in Image 1, let me know — I love it!

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