I am a history enthusiast who studied European history at Wilfrid Laurier University and now I write about it for various websites and magazines. While conducting research for another article, I came across a rare psychological disorder that famously afflicted two royal individuals, from two different dynasties, in two different time eras. It immediately caught my attention and became a new fascination for me.
I decided to write this blog in order to raise awareness of the condition, and hopefully educate others on the topic of the history of mental illness, especially in royal families, where it was virtually impossible to hide. There are many who assume that mental-ill health is a modern concern, but it’s far from that. In fact, one of my main examples here is medieval.
As someone who has my own issues with anxiety, I understand fully how the mind can convince a person to believe the most outrageously irrational thoughts. Although my anxiety has, thankfully, never reached such extreme heights, I can still approach this topic with empathy for its sufferers. I can imagine with clarity the fear, frustration, and physical and emotional exhaustion that accompanies such a condition.
As a historian, I can also see the impact this illness may have had on global politics as well, if only on a low scale. In general, it’s given me plenty to think about.
From our early elementary school days, we are taught in science class what our bodies are made of. As adults, it’s common knowledge. We are bones, organs, veins, flesh, and blood. Simple stuff.
But what if your mind complicated matters and tricked you into believing you were made of something far more delicate than these sturdy basic components?
What if your mental illness convinced you that you were instead made of glass?
The archetype of the ‘Mad King’ we see so often in fantasy fiction stems from very real-life contemporaries, and Charles VI of France — famously known as “Charles the Mad” — was one of them.
Interestingly, historians often suggest that his mother Joanna of Bourbon may have also suffered from mental health difficulties; specifically, what is now known as extreme postpartum depression (a condition following birth where the sufferer experiences heavy depression due to stress, trauma, and hormonal changes) following the birth of another child (born after Charles).
And Charles suffered from glass delusion, believing his entire body to be made of glass. As a King, few dared to challenge this belief or stop him from taking what he deemed protective measures that only enabled the delusions more. He had a special suit of iron ribs built to wear around his upper half. And for the lower half, he wrapped himself in thick, cushiony blankets.
Charles VI spent his entire adult life believing he could break into pieces at any moment. He often refused to be touched, even by his most trusted servants, and he once went a five-month stretch without bathing or changing his clothes, convinced his body was too brittle to do either. Expectedly, these behaviours harmed his image as a royal and as an effective head of state in the eyes of his people.
Her case of glass delusion manifested in the form of a memory that she had convinced herself was real. She believed she’d swallowed a valuable, glass figurine of a piano as a child, and by young adulthood she was convinced it was still inside her, ready to shatter and puncture her organs at any moment. Historians have long speculated that Alexandra also most likely had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) (a condition where the sufferer experiences/enacts irrational thoughts and behaviors) since her other preoccupations included wearing only white clothes and having her bed-chamber regularly deep-cleaned in accordance with her severe phobia of germs. Unlike the unfortunate Charles VI, she made up keeping her hygiene a priority.
Citing his daughter’s poor health as making her physically unsuitable for marriage and childbirth, her father King Ludwig I turned down any proposal for Alexandra’s hand in marriage — one suitor she could have married was Emperor Napoleon’s nephew, Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte. In fairness, I think this was probably a reasonable concern as I can’t imagine how Alexandra might have reacted to pregnancy if she already believed she’d swallowed a piano.
She was the only one of King Ludwig I’s legitimate, living children to never marry. Under her father’s authority, it was clear that Princess Alexandra was to never have the chance to start her own family and she had no say in it.
With Princess Alexandra, we can look past the gloom of her illness and lifetime loneliness and admire the fact that she developed a coping mechanism that was surprisingly modern.
Most mental health websites nowadays will suggest journaling as a way of organizing and disposing of frantic, racing thoughts. Princess Alexandra took this tool a step further and created a whole career out of writing. To sharpen and distract her mind, she wrote poetry, stories, essays, and plays, and often donated the profits to charitable causes after these were published.
As someone who also writes to release toxic feelings, I know personally what a comfort this must have been to her. Writing must have brought some semblance of control and identity back into her life when the typical path for a woman in her time — marriage, children, and a home of her own — was closed to her. And the fact that she gave so much to charity shows that it must have been an outlet for her generous heart as well as her creative spirit. She was never fully cured, but she learned to function.
Royals did not exclusively suffer glass delusion, though. Back in 2015, BBC News commissioned an article on this disorder that includes some studies of more contemporary cases, and more contemporary explanations for its existence. It can happen to anyone, without an irregular genetic background. A pattern you may notice as you read these cases include the sufferers having an accompanying social anxiety disorder as well. They employ their glass delusion as a reason to actively avoid physical contact and social situations where they cannot be guaranteed personal space. One quote from the article is particularly interesting, and relevant:
“The feeling of being made of glass could be a useful way of understanding how we negotiate society, a society that is increasingly crowded, in which modern technological advances isolate us and offer apparently boundary-less communication.”
With the ongoing, COVID-19 social distancing measures that have become necessary to individual and community safety, is there a possibility of glass delusion cases rising again? This was an infliction recorded mainly in the time period of the 15th-17th centuries, but the BBC article discusses some isolated 20th-century cases, such as the case of a Dutch woman in the 1930s who believed her legs and back were made of glass. Could the stress of the Great Depression have been a factor in her condition? Will the stress of the current pandemic have the same devastating impact on some people mental states?
If so, how will modern health care officials approach treating it? Like I said before, this topic has given me plenty to think about. This is the history they don’t teach you in school.
If you would like to learn more about glass disorder and all that I have discussed in this blog, here are a few books and journals that I’d highly recommend as helpful further reading:
Engstrom, Alfred Garvin (July 1970) “The Man Who Thought Himself Made of Glass.” Studies in Philology, Vol. 67, №3, pp. 390–405. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.
Famiglietti, R.C. (1998 edition). Royal Intrigue: Crisis at the Court of Charles VI, 1392–1420. AMS Press. First published in 1986.
Tuchman, Barbara W. (2011). A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Random House Publishing Group.