Neglecting hereditary defects, mysterious microbes, hypothetical intoxications or improbable poisonings, XXth Century historians prefer to turn to psychology to explain the King’s illness. It is easy to imagine the excesses to which the Freudian interpretation of events in Charles’ early childhood or supposed troubles in his sexuality, which, by the way, was totally fulfilling, can lead. However, the strange relationship between Charles and his younger brother, Louis, whom he loves during his calm periods, and hates during his attacks, must be mentioned.
Away from all systems and theories, let us follow a path which has the merit of sticking to the established facts, and places them in the reconstituted social, psychological and spiritual environment of the epoch. Without this, nothing about this royal tragedy can really be understood. Francoise Autrand writes:
“It is better to stay with a simple description of the illness, without choosing among the different diagnoses which might have been suggested by medical science. Instructed, however, by modern psychiatry, we know that science is not ashamed of being attentive to the words of the patient during an attack, and to the comments of his entourage. We need not censure our sources, even if they report the most irrational words. We can then, with science’s blessing, listen to this man from past times and his words, which better suits the historian than guessing at doubtful diagnoses.”
First evidence: the King’s illness does not affect his physical health. He conserves throughout his whole life, the robustness which was his at twenty. Endowed with good eyesight, skilful in his gestures, the only other degradation suffered by him will be slight baldness. At over forty years old, he remains capable of riding for hours. At almost fifty, he participates in tournaments, which is a sign of solid health and excellent general condition. As a hunter, he pursues his prey untiringly, and consecrates himself to this favourite activity until the eve of his death. He plays chess and also cards; tradition even credits him with the introduction of this divertissement into France. These are all activities which necessitate a good intelligence and a sure memory. Nothing in his signature indicates any alteration of his intellectual faculties. If we exclude the attacks which affect his health, Charles is never ill. None of the illnesses which normally accompany an individual’s existence – infections, indigestions, passing indispositions, benign fevers – seem to have affected him, if the information furnished by the Silver Accounts are to be believed. These Accounts report the smallest purge or the use of the tiniest dressing… We know only that in October 1422, the King goes to bed and dies a few days later, at almost fifty-four, doubtless from catching cold too brutally. At an age which we can place very largely above the average life expectancy of the men of the time.
The King’s general health therefore appears to be satisfactory… if we except the appearance at irregular intervals, of serious mental troubles. At this moment, it is said that “the King isn’t well or is stopped by malady”. Just as quickly, “he returns to health and again finds good sense and understanding”. The attacks and remissions succeed each other very quickly sometimes, which bewilders both the entourage and the King, who can feel himself coming back from his attacks of “folly”. For example, the King is ill during the first two weeks of July 1397. Fully recovered, he relapses again after one week. From Easter 1399 to Easter 1400, he has seven attacks. The illness appears and disappears for inexplicable reasons. The year 1402 is one of the most difficult: affected in May, recovered in June, relapsed in July until 1 October, the poor man comes out of this state to plunge back into it two days later. In 1398, it is from March to May that the King is ill, at the moment of the visit of the King of Germania, Wencelas de Luxembourg. In 1405, the illness lasts six months, from July to December.
Doctor Brachet tried to establish a detailed calendar of the attacks, the remissions and the relapses, highlighting forty-three during the thirty years from the attack of Le Mans Forest to the sovereign’s death. It is impossible to detect any sort of cycle for them. The seasons, the cold, the heat do not seem to play any role… Sometimes, long periods of calm separate the attacks. In 1412 and 1414, Charles is able to spend the whole Summer in the country without being in any way affected by the fatigues of the adventure.
The length of the period during which the attacks were counted and described permits however to show a certain evolution in their manifestation. The first attacks are a lot more violent; Charles believes himself to be attacked by enemies. He screams and hurls as if he is wounded, “as if he were stung by a thousand iron spikes”. He attacks those present, stabs them with a knife – we have seen that, in Le Mans Forest, his attack costs the lives of four cavaliers who are accompanying him… crockery, tapisteries, furniture suffers the effects of the royal fury. This violence is accompanied by words about which the chroniclers of the time – for good reason – say little, as they directly blame the sovereign’s brother, Louis d’Orleans. The Equerry, Pierre de Fenin, recounts the attack of Summer 1393:
“The truth is that this sad accident started in this way: as he was hearing Mass, one of his servants came to give him a Book of Hours; upon which, straight after looking inside it to read his prayers, he rose, becoming and appearing as if all troubled and out of his senses; then he suddenly leaped in fury from his oratory and began to fight all those he met; he even hit his own brother the Duke d’Orleans”…
like eleven months before in Le Mans Forest…
In 1408, Jean Petit reports the words uttered by Charles, in the throes of another attack:
“For God! Take this sword which is piercing my heart away from me! What has the beautiful brother d’Orleans done to me? I must kill him.”
To be continued.