The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

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

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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