From the Glass King to QAnon
A long time ago, a French king believed he was made out of glass. Here's his story, why it matters—and how it can help us understand modern delusions such as QAnon or insane anti-vax theories.
What would it be like to believe—genuinely—that your body was made of glass?
This is a question worth pondering, partly because many unfortunate souls have been afflicted with this rather inconvenient belief and partly because that mental illness can teach us how culture, technology, and the era in which we live influences the manifestation of mental delusions.
To better understand modern delusions like QAnon or deranged beliefs that vaccines contain microchips that enable time travel, we must first turn—perhaps a touch unexpectedly—to 14th century France.
The Glass King, or how to dress when you’re feeling fragile
Charles VI, who ruled France from 1380 to 1422, was prone to fits of madness. In 1392, on a military expedition, a barefoot leper accosted King Charles and warned him that he should turn back. It was an inauspicious omen, but Charles continued his journey.
Unnerved, Charles soon became consumed by an intense sense of defensive paranoia, triggered when one of his men dropped a lance, creating a loud clang. Convinced that the convoy was being attacked, Charles began slashing wildly at his own troops in a flash of psychosis. When he stopped, four men—including a prized knight known as The Bastard of Polignac—lay dead.
Charles was haunted by guilt from these murders, so, a year later, his court figured it would be good for the king to enjoy a pleasant diversion. And, as everyone knows, there is no better way to cheer up a monarch than organizing a ritual in which several other men join the king to dance while dressed up as woodland savages, satyr-like wildmen who are covered with extensive body hair.
So, that’s what they did, each courtier adorned with a costume “of linen cloth sewn onto their bodies and soaked in resinous wax or pitch to hold a covering of frazzled hemp, so that they appeared shaggy and hairy from head to foot.”
These costumes were highly flammable, so torches were kept far away from the dancers, who writhed about the room while chained together, indulging in a ritualized “diabolical frenzy.”
Then, the king’s brother showed up, late for the party and stinking of booze. In his drunken state, he either foolishly decided to use a torch to inspect the dancers more closely in the darkened room or decided to kindly toss a torch at the dancers for the hell of it (historic accounts differ).
The costumes instantly roared into a blazing fire. According to a monk who watched the fire spread, “four men were burned alive, their flaming genitals dropping to the floor…releasing a stream of blood.” The king, Charles VI, was spared the same fate only because his quick-thinking aunt—who was just 15 years-old—tossed her voluminous skirt over the king and smothered the sparks before they consumed him in an inferno. The disaster became known as the Bal des Ardents.
This incident, as you might expect, did not improve the king’s mental health. He began regularly “howling like a wolf” while running down the corridors of the royal palaces.1 But his mental delusions were about to manifest in a far more arresting form.
As the future Pope Pius II observed:
His malady grew worse every day until his mind was completely gone. Sometimes he thought he was made of glass and would not let himself be touched. He had iron rods put into his clothing and protected himself in all sorts of ways so that he might not fall and break.
It produced debilitating paranoia, the king adapting his life to ensure that he would avoid the sad fate of his fragile body being shattered into a million pieces.
The Glass Men, Glass Delusions, and Madness as a Mirror
In isolation, this would be just the tragic, bizarre story of a mentally deranged monarch. But Charles VI was not the only man of his time who believed that his body was made of glass.
Instead, from the 15th to the 17th century, “tales of people afflicted with glass bones, glass heads, glass arms, and glass hearts abound in the medical and literary texts of the time.”
One report noted a man who was convinced that only his buttocks were made from glass, so he refused to sit down, lest he would painfully fracture his “crackling hinderparts.” As the expanded production of glass windows made glass an even more prized commodity, the same man became afflicted with a crippling fear that glaziers were secretly plotting to harvest his immaculate glass buttocks for a latticed window. To protect himself, he stopped leaving the house.
This was a phenomenon so widespread that it has a name: the glass delusion. And the reason for its emergence has much to teach us about how irrational belief and mass delusions act like a mirror of the societies in which they become widespread.
At the time of Charles VI—and the ensuing two centuries—glass became far more common as a building material.
As Professor Edward Shorter, a historian of psychiatry, argues, “the inventive unconscious mind has pegged its delusions on to new materials and the technological advances of the age.” Delusions are a universal feature of human societies, but their manifestations are swayed by the technologies—and beliefs—of the age in which they arise.
In the ancient past, there are stories of individuals believing that their bodies were made of pottery; in the 19th century, the glass delusion became less prominent, but reports rose of people believing that their bodies were made of concrete, a new and widespread building material of the time.
But glass wasn’t just becoming widespread in the life of Charles VI; it was also part of the belief in how the body and mind worked together. As the writer Amelia Soth points out:
The medieval understanding of the body held that health was achieved through a balance of the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile, which was itself believed, in the heat of the afflicted body, to take on a glassy sheen, “vitrea bilis.”
Then, there were the metaphorical meanings that glass took on at the time. In a 15th century literary work, the palace of Fortuna—the goddess of fortune and the personification of luck—was said to be supported on fragile glass pillars. These widely held metaphors, in which glass represented the fragility and fickleness of life, provide a possible explanation for why glass frequently became part of the mental disorders of those who felt they were living, within their minds, a precarious, uncertain existence.
The Cultural Reflections of Modern Delusions
In modern life, few people believe they are made of glass (though there are a few unconfirmed cases). Instead, the frequency of our modern delusions—whether derived from mental illness or conspiratorial paranoia—reflect our societies, our fears, and our culturally-specific anxieties.
As Shayla Love points out, in the past, delusions were dismissed as meaningless drivel that could tell us nothing other than that a mind was unwell. But today, it’s clear that delusions are not random. Rather, they reflect a snapshot in human culture.
It’s now understood that these beliefs don't appear out of nowhere, and that they're not random, said Clara Humpston, a research fellow at the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham…A person feels perplexed or confused about what is happening around them, and then “there is a moment of enlightenment,” she said. “They suddenly realize, 'Oh it's because I’m being persecuted or watched.' It takes time to develop a fully systematized delusion and the content is usually based on what gives the person meaning.”
These vary from era to era and culture to culture. One study of paranoid delusions compared their manifestations from Korean, Chinese-Korean, and Chinese populations of patients, and found that the cultural background of the individuals profoundly influenced how they experienced their symptoms. For example, as the One Child policy reduced the complexity of Chinese families, the Chinese patients experienced fewer family-related delusions than the others.
This becomes more obvious when considering some of the more culturally specific delusions that have been reported in modern America. One man, for example, traveled to New York City because he was convinced that he was trapped in a fake reality akin to The Truman Show—and that 9/11 had been invented to see how he would react, just as Jim Carrey’s character in the film was part of an elaborate fictional world. As Love reports, when the patient was admitted to a hospital, he asked not to see the doctor, but the “director.”
Had the Truman Show not been made, the delusion would have likely manifested differently, a clear example of how false beliefs can be swayed by a specific cultural moment—and the fears that become prominent within it, in this case, of surveillance embedded in an era of reality television.
In the history of mass delusions, technology often plays a role, too. In 19th century Britain, a man worried that gangs skilled in pneumatic chemistry had produced an “air loom” to control his thoughts and convince him to assassinate King George III. Decades later, a man had a similar delusion, but with a more advanced technology involving “boxes, cranks, levers, wheels, buttons, wires, [and] batteries.” Longitudinal studies of mental delusions elsewhere show that surveillance and control morphs from that which arises from dictaphones to radios to television, satellites, airplanes, the internet, 5G, and so on.
The delusions match our social world—and provide a window into that which many people fear.
Making Sense of QAnon and Anti-Vaccine Delusions
What, then, can Charles VI—the Glass King—teach us about QAnon?
The beliefs of QAnon are not random. Rather, they tap into an era of intense social dislocation, uncertainty, upheaval, and rapid change. Most of the adherents of QAnon may not be mentally ill in a medical sense, but they are prone to delusions as they’re searching for explanations that make sense of a feeling of being untethered from a familiar reality.
QAnon provides explanations that tap into modern cultural fears. Power, for example, has gravitated away from the local to the national and international, making many citizens feel not just powerless, but that power itself has become far away and unaccountable. The notion of a shadowy cabal feels more plausible in a world of unseen globalized power centers compared to a past in which those who ran banks were members of the local community and in which much decision-making took place locally, not somewhere unknown that hides behind an automated call center, arcane and impenetrable when anything goes wrong.
Likewise, the QAnon trope about the involvement of cultural elites in Hollywood and within the Democratic party capitalizes on a sense within conservative circles that culture is radically changing, in ways that are jarringly unfamiliar to the traditional, rural American way of life.
Then, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the world became rapidly uncertain in unprecedented ways. Lives were completely upended in a matter of weeks, as an invisible virus restructured every facet of our existence. This, in an anti-science culture like that of the modern Republican party, provided a tantalizing opening for those who would peddle delusions that exploited the fears of a hidden explanation—and one that made more narrative sense than the apparently random, undirected mutation of a tiny virus.
Daniel Freeman of Oxford University captured these dynamics, explaining how paranoia expanded within the uncertainty of the pandemic:
“It is a time of raised anxiety levels…Even just going outside can make us anxiously think: What is going on? And what is going to happen? And paranoia feeds off fear. As anxiety goes up, paranoia tends to follow in its wake. We may expect higher levels of paranoia in this crisis.”
Humans are, to borrow the phrase from Jonathan Gottschall, storytelling animals—and a compelling story will seduce us in moments of uncertainty. Those stories can become mass delusions.
Widely held modern delusions—like QAnon, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, Trump’s false claims that the 2020 US election was stolen, or that January 6th was a “false flag” organized by government—all provide a mirror for modern American society, a culture in which power feels opaque and distrust of government is at all-time highs.
Anti-vax theories about vaccines containing microchips is a way to make sense of uncertainty through bodily fragility, providing a sort of modern update to the notion that life’s fragility has manifested itself in glass limbs or a glass buttocks. It may not be a new building material spurring people to buy into delusional beliefs about their bodies, but the parallels are real and profound.
The lesson, then, is that we can learn something from taking delusions seriously. While we must do everything to educate people and stamp out such damaging and dangerous false beliefs in the modern world, we can also use delusional beliefs as a proxy for what anxieties we need to address as the fears and paranoias of modern life.
If we fail to address such paranoia, we will continue to learn the harsh lesson that our societies are as fragile as the glass king believed his body to be. And our politics will continue to produce unfortunate victims—the modern versions of The Bastard of Polignac—killed senselessly by those who see the world through the funhouse mirror of delusions that reflect contemporary culture and the dislocating fears it generates.
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Charles VI is but one of many monarchs afflicted by such delusions. King Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian empire suffered from Boanthropy, in which he thought he was a cow. He apparently grazed on grass.