What was the ‘Ball of the Burning Men’?

In an unlikely sequence of events, what began as a joyful royal celebration in medieval France ended in a tragedy that claimed the lives of four people...

The Bal des Ardents (the 'Ball of the Burning Men'), from 'The Chronicler of European Chivalry' by GG Coulton (London, 1930). The 1393 tragedy claimed the lives of four people. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

On 28 January 1393, a masquerade ball was held at the French royal court to celebrate the marriage of one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. The young King Charles VI and five of his noble companions performed a dance as ‘wild men’, disguised in masks and shaggy costumes made from linen and resin.

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Late, and somewhat intoxicated, the Duke of Orleans arrived carrying a lit torch, being unaware of the strict prohibitions on bringing naked flames into the hall. One account describes how he then ‘threw’ the torch at the dancers, but others suggest he simply came too close to them while trying to guess their identities.

Whatever the case, the dancers’ highly flammable costumes soon became engulfed in flames. The King, standing a little apart, was saved when his teenage aunt threw her skirts over him to put out the fire. Another dancer leapt into a vat of wine.

The other four performers were less fortunate, being “burned alive… releasing a stream of blood”. The tragedy shook public confidence in the monarchy – destroying the reputation of the Duke of Orleans, in particular – and became known as the ‘Bal des Ardents’, or the ‘Ball of the Burning Men’.

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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine