Your Halloween Post, Plus An Answer To Your Dad’s Question „How Is Studying Medieval History In Any Way Useful?“
I’ve been hesitating to write about this incident for some time. I have a couple of guidelines for my Halloween posts that are not easy to meet: the post must be horror-themed, it must be about a true story, but it may not treat human suffering as a source of amusement. (I guess that pretty much encapsulates the problem with Halloween as such.) I therefore must apologize to my readers in advance that this post deals with an absolutely horrific death that I wouldn’t wish on my own worst enemy. If it makes any difference, the victim was a very, very bad person. Very bad. So bad, in fact, that „the Bad“ became his royal moniker. I am, of course, talking about Charles the Bad a/k/a Charles Le Mauvais(*) a/k/a Charles II, King of Navarre from 1349 to 1387.
Actually, this story popped into my mind when someone sent me a link to this nonsense about using vodka aerosol to “freshen up” fabrics. Like most normal people, I hate the word “hack” when used in any context other than chopping or computer stuff. “Life hacks” and “kitchen hacks” often represent the height of stupidity, but sometimes the advice doled out by bleary-eyed interns, tasked with churning out a weekly listicle of helpful tricks, is downright dangerous.
Anyway, back to the story. Charles was a high-ranking member of the French royal family. His maternal grandmother was the wife of the Dauphin and even a de facto Queen of France (albeit very briefly, before being murdered on her husband’s orders). In fact, her husband Louis X of France was likely Charles’ grandfather, though this is not certain. His father was also a prominent Capetian. Despite being such a high-born royal, Charles was barred from inheriting the French throne, by reason of dynastic machinations that are very interesting, but, I’m afraid, so complex, it would probably take me approximately 800 single-spaced pages to lay them out. So suffice it to say: Charles’ background made him the kind of cousin whose presence at family reunions makes everyone avoid eye contact with everyone else. Under different circumstances, he would have been first or second in line for the throne, after all of Philipp the Fair’s sons clocked out. As it is, however, he was relegated to ruling a small, landlocked, poor, rustic little statelet of Navarre in the Western Pyrenees. On the map, it looks decidedly like its bigger, more powerful, more glamorous neighbors’ rejectamenta.
Charles grew up with the knowledge of what might have been, and how events beyond his control deprived him of his legacy long before he was born. Needless to say, his default mood is best described as très énervé about the whole thing.
The 1300’s was a very dark century in the history of France. The early part of the century saw an economic depression and a succession crisis – the very crisis that made it impossible for Charles to ascend the French throne (at least not by peaceful means). Then the Hundred Years War started, and it was decidedly not going well for France in the 14th century (France would do much better in the following century, and ultimately win the conflict). Then, in the 1340’s, the Black Death arrived, wiping out at least a third of Western Europe’s population, and possibly as much as half. One very stupid King of France would be captured and imprisoned by the English in 1356 – then travel personally to strip his own beleaguered kingdom of silver and other valuables to pay the ransom (judging himself to be more valuable to his people than all of his country’s assets combined). French peasants, exasperated by the multiple predations of their own ransom-paying king, the aristocracy, and strategic pillaging by the invaders , would revolt in a fantastically bloody civil war in 1358. In other words, this was one of those historic periods that are very enjoyable to read about, but a nightmare to live through.
In such horrid times, bad men find their opportunity. Not an opportunity for heroism, mind you, but for self-dealing and indulging their serial-killer instincts. Charles II looked at the havoc that the English were wreaking in his cousin’s kingdom and thought to himself, “Hmm, I bet I could use that to my advantage.” And then he set about playing the various factions involved in the Hundred Years’ War, including England and France.
Like any aspiring psychopath, Charles began his adult career with a murder. It was a murder committed not for any political or material gain, but purely out of spite – which gives you a good idea of the man’s personality. Over the course of his life, Charles would commit murder on the regular – sometimes personally, sometimes using assassins.
He constantly switched allegiances and sold out his allies almost as soon as he made them, in a game that, remarkably, he pursued almost to the end of his life. He used an army of hired goons to wage private wars while France was being ravaged in an existential conflict; and, when convenient, he resorted to weaponizing the mob. After he no longer needed his mercenary army, he balked at paying them – and murdered its captain.
That first (known) murder he committed, of a French royal favorite, set the tone for his future career. I suppose his overarching ambition was to carve out some sort of a deal in the Hundred Year’s War, where he would either become the King of France, or have France dismembered and be rewarded with a large chunk. Given the chaos engulfing much of Western Europe at the time, this would not have been an unrealistic plan. Alas, Charles’ own rage-prone, impatient personality made it impossible for him to pursue a long game; his insatiable bloodlust and love of cutting the legs from under those around him (including allies), consequences be damned – he would have made a successful reality TV host in our own day — took precedence over calculated self-interest.
A thin-skinned, narcissistic, impulsive, violent, hateful man, Charles’ adult life was one long series of betrayals, reversals, backstabbing and stomach-churning acts of violence.
By his early fifties, Charles had been abandoned by everyone, living in his provincial petty kingdom and suffering from some very unpleasant decrepitude. We don’t know exactly what his health problems were, but he had lost mobility in his limbs. His physicians devised a perfectly sensible medieval treatment for this malady: have Charles wrapped from head to toe in bandages liberally soaked in brandy and rest by the fire.
So, there are two versions of what went down.
According to one, this being the age before Velcro or snap fasteners, the wrapping had to be secured by actually sewing the end of the bandage to the rest of the mummy outfit. One night, a maid was just completing the regimen when she absent-mindedly used a candle to sever her sewing thread (it was, apparently her custom when sewing things).
According to the other, Charles’ bed was being warmed with a pan of coals, which was also a standard medieval practice.
Alcohol + flames + man tightly wrapped in a mummy suit = you can see where this is going.
Whatever triggered the blaze, Charles went up in flames likes the goddamned Wicker Man. And, because his wrappings were so generously saturated with fuel, it took some effort to put out this human torch. Although, according to the first version, the poor servant girl who set the king on fire ran away in terror when the patient, engulfed in flames, began dashing about the room, thereby delaying the rescue.
According to chroniclers, Charles the Bad survived the initial incident. For the next twelve days, he suffered in unimaginable agony from the horrific burns to pretty much all of his body. On New Year’s Day in 1387, he finally died. (That must have been one sucky Christmas.)
Lessons to be learned from the story:
- Anyone familiar with this arcane trivia will know better than to spray their shirt or their couch with vodka.
- Beware of off-label use. Brandy is for imbibing, not sponge baths.
- Jesus Christ, 40-proof liquor is inflammable. Stands to reason you probably shouldn’t spray it on clothes. True, it isn’t jet fuel, but it can still ignite and burn long enough to give you nasty, possibly deadly, burns and set your residence/office/train station lounge on fire. Though I understand it isn’t a “life hack” unless it involves you risking life and limb to save a few bucks or avoid the inconvenience of doing laundry.
*As an aside, the English word “bad” just doesn’t capture the palpable, oozing, purulent badness of the French “mauvais”.