The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.
In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.
One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.
On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."
The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."
Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.
The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.
Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)
But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."
Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.
The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.
Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.
Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.
Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."
Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys