A Greensighting of Mad King Aerys

aerys-game-of-thrones

In Episode Six of Season 6 (“Blood Brothers”), we caught a glimpse of the notorious Aerys Targaryen through the greensight of Bran – aka the incoming Three-Eyed Raven. We see flashes of the alchemists mixing the wildfire, a tunnel exploding, and King Aerys on his throne.

Some fans theorize that Bran caused Aerys’ madness by whispering at him through time.

The real-life Aerys-es’ madness had entirely different causes — one may have had paranoid schizophrenia and the other may have suffered from plain old stress.  (Well, that might be a little generous.)

Aerys’ catchphrase – “Burn them all”—sounds an awful lot like “Burning Ball,” the name of a terrifying incendiary event in the fourteenth century. As described in this article, in January 1393, Charles the Mad and six of the highest nobility snuck into a widow’s send-off costume ball disguised as wood savages.

In January 1393, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria held a lavish party at the Hôtel Saint-Pol in Paris to fete the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting, Catherine de Fastaverin.

In those days, before widows remarried, their friends and families often held very wild masquerade parties or even charivari. These disorderly parties often had costumes, lewdness, and loud banging music. (At these events, sometimes communities would try to jeer the unwed couple into marrying early, parading them through town clanging cymbals.)

Charivari-2

A thirteenth-century charivari. Communities sometimes held charivaris to publicly humiliate somebody who transgressed, such as a widow who married before her mourning ended. Communities might hold “stag” hunts against adulterers by chasing them with human “hounds” and then smear their doorsteps with animal blood. Some charivaris humiliated their targets so much they committed suicide.

To add a note of pagan wildness to Isabeau’s party, the king and company donned costumes and masks made of wax (or pitch) covered linen rags. The costumes had a shaggy air, and the men may have even been chained together.

The wood savages danced in a wild frenzy before the party goers.

The French nobles weren’t stupid and guards at the door barred anyone with a torch from entering. But, perhaps they didn’t have enough clout to stop the king’s brother.

ADurerWoodwoses1499

This painting by A. Durer depicts the wood savage (or “wild man”) archetype.

When the king’s brother, the Duke of Orleans, came in, he walked over to one of the wild men and held his torch near his face to see his identity. A spark fell and set the man’s leg on fire. (One contemporary claimed, however, that Orleans may have thrown the torch at the man.) Once the wild man was aflame, the other costumed men went up like, well, a wild fire.

bals-des-ardent

The Burning Ball, or as it is known in French , the “Bal des Ardents.”

The wild men screamed in agony as they caught on fire, and when the audience tried to rescue them, they too got burned and shrieked. Chaos broke out. Four of the dancers burned alive, their flaming genitals dropped to the floor and blood squirted everywhere1 .

Bal_des_ardents_1483-froissart

Froissart’s depiction of the Burning Ball in 1483. Presumably, the image is supposed to convey the hysteria and confusion of the bystanders coupled with the way one wild man doused his flames in a wine vat.

Assuming her husband was burning, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria fainted.

joan-berry-covers-charles-train

The fifteen-year old Joan, wife of the Duke of Berry, protected King Charles’ costume from sparks with her train.

Luckily, Charles was at the edge of the room and not yet on fire. A quick thinking 15-year old Joan Duchess of Berry threw her voluminous skirt over the king and protected his costume from igniting.

This was only lucky because it prevented a civil war over the succession. Charles was a terrible king, mainly because he was rarely lucid. He frequently suffered from an illusion he was made out of glass and ran howling down the halls of the palace.

(Quite intriguingly, J.R. Veenstra and Laurens Pignon, authors of Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France, describe the event as between Christianity and latent pagan believes that still existed in fourteenth-century France.2 ) .

Charles the Mad’s insanity may have trickled down the family tree to his grandson Henry VI of England, who also shares a few traits with Aerys. Charles’ daughter Catherine of Valois married Agincourt-hero Henry VI. Their son Henry VI’s reputed madness, or at the very least instability, contributed to the Wars of the Roses.

wildmen-manuscript

Wild men loom at the corners of this religious text. Why is that?

King Aerys is an awful lot like the allegedly mad King of England – Henry VI – who suffered what appears to be a nervous breakdown or even catatonic break while he was on the throne. Given that Henry’s first break coincided with England’s loss of its last French province, it might not be solely heredity that contributed to his insanity. After all, Henry VI was under enormous stress.

  1. Michel Pinoit, the Monk of Saint-Denis in J.R. Veenstra Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France p.91 []
  2. p. 97 []

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

9 Comments

  • Reply May 31, 2016

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    What a terrible event that Burning Ball was. Were the charivari the forerunners of the Skimmington Ride (Thomas Hardy featured one in “The Mayor of Casterbridge”)? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skimmington

    Looks like there have been unbalanced kings in history then. I don’t know much about her (well she featured in a historical novel I read – and quite enjoyed – but I am sceptical about taking historical novels as fact) but there was a Spanish queen who became known as Juana la local (the mad).

    There is a shop selling spells etc near where I catch a bus home from town. I take it with a fairly large pinch of salt. I met one lady who claimed to be a white witch – well she wasn’t hurting anybody so I just let her talk and nodded and smiled. It would seem paganism hasn’t disappeared even in the 21st century though.

  • Reply May 31, 2016

    WATCHER ON THE COUCH

    Oh dear, “Juana la local”! – and I thought I had proofread properly this time. Sorry, of course, it should be Juana la loca. In England if a person says “I’m off to my local” it means they are going to their neighbourhood pub (alehouse). By the way, I haven’t actually bought anything – or even been inside – the shop selling “magic” paraphernalia in my hometown. Wouldn’t it be nice if one could put things right with the wave of the wand, though?

    Thinking of there possibly being an undercurrent of paganism at the Burgundian and French courts, I’ve heard that some Christian festivals take place at more or less the same time as pagan feasts which predated them . Some people who are very scrupulous about Christianity disdain kissing under mistletoe or having Easter eggs or putting up decorations at Christmas-time because they think such customs (and I’m sure there are others) have a whiff of paganism – and heavens forfend that anybody dance around the maypole!

  • Reply May 31, 2016

    Jamie Adair

    Ha. 🙂 I’m fascinated by the pagan undercurrents in medieval society (and today). The way I was taught history, even in university, it sounded like a king just flipped the switch and everyone became Christian. They rarely talked about other belief systems that remained in place (or lingered) for hundreds of years. I had no idea! I also didn’t know how common it was for people to hold both pagan and Christian beliefs.
    I read once that 30% or 80%(?) or Christians believed in karma. To me this is a sign of eastern influence since the 1960s. If our beliefs today can absorb ideas from other religions, why not ones in the past? Why would medieval Christian beliefs be straightforward when our beliefs today aren’t like that? But this really surprised me when I started looking into the old gods and the new.

  • Reply June 3, 2016

    Apocalyptic Queen

    I wonder if Emperor Nero might also serve as inspiration for the “Burn them all” theory? I admit I haven’t read a great deal about the Roman Emperors (not my primary area of historical interest I’m afraid). Plus, Nero was also reportedly insane.

    • Reply June 5, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of Nero. I don’t know much about him myself, but I did see a documentary or a biography show about him once. I don’t think it is out of the question since most GRRM characters are based on multiple historical figures.

      • Reply June 8, 2016

        Apocalyptic Queen

        I think it is possible that Aerys might embody aspects of Nero. Recently read that many historians now doubt that Nero caused the great fire in Rome. Perhaps, this might serve as some foreboding. What might have been Aerys’ real motives?

  • Reply June 5, 2016

    Phillip Hallam-Baker

    GRRM often has references and allusions to historical events even if the actual plot is very different.

    I have a theory that the ‘madness’ of King Aerys will turn out to be very similar to the irrationality that is apparent in Cersei’s behavior. Believing in a prophecy, Cersei begins by murdering her best friend and it gets worse from there.

    We are told Rheagar is ‘obsessed by prophecy’. But Aerys seems to be the one who is acting in response to one. Rheagar’s actions might well turn out to have been merely an attempt to get out of the mad king’s path as his attempts to avoid the prophecy became increasingly erratic.

    I suspect ‘burn them all’ will turn out to be advice on how to deal with the White Walkers.

    • Reply June 8, 2016

      Apocalyptic Queen

      I agree. A lot seems to be invested in propping Daenerys up to be a potential irrational ruler with the subtle hints about rule and conquest but I think this will turn out to be a red herring, and that the dubious honour will go to Cersei.

  • Reply July 10, 2016

    Sandra Dermark Bufi

    I think it was being tortured at Duskendale that made Aerys snap/lose his sanity. He also felt Tywin had left him to die, hence Aerys going from being in what we now would call bromance to irrationally hating the Lannisters.

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