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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 118 - The Puckered Window of a Public Toilet (Glass Week)

Tom's Notes:

Glass delusion

Audience feedback:

Craig: “Hallo, i am from aus and have been listening for bout a monthish maybe more now, i gotta say you 2 are funny as fuck im going through the entire catalog of your podcasts but id just want to say thanks for making me laugh every day. Sincerely a very sick minded visaully impaired individual.”

My choice of subject was inspired by a message we received from Charlie, a patron, regarding our episode on rivalries where I discussed the Wars of the Roses. Charlie pointed out that Henry VI, who had bouts of mental health, inherited this from his mother, Catherine De Valois. Catherine De Valois’s father was Charles VI of France and he also suffered from a mental health issue, including a vague condition known as ‘glass delusion’. So thank you Charlie. She also pointed out that Henry V of England died shitting himself on campaign in France. He had dysentery and was so weak towards the end of his life that he was carried around in a litter and by litter I mean a sedan chair carried by subjects, not a litter tray, like a cat, because he was shitting so much.

So let’s talk more about Charles VI of France. He reigned from 1380 to 1422 and was the man in charge when the French got a spanking at the Battle of Agincourt. But we’re not here to discuss his reign in general; we want to know why he went from being called Charles the Beloved to Charles the Mad. In 1392 he led a campaign against the Duke of Brittany because he was sheltering someone who had murdered a friend of the King. As the king and his men marched north, they encountered a begging leper, “Spare a talent for an old ex-leper! I was cured, sir. Yes, sir, a bloody miracle, sir. God bless you.” No not really, this leper shouted at the King that he was being betrayed and that he should turn around and go home. This leper was very persistent despite his lack of feet and hands and followed all the King’s horses and all the King’s men for about half an hour until humpty-dumpty, sorry I mean Charles VI, who had already been showing signs of being slightly nuts, began lashing out at his retinue, eventually being wrestled to the ground and pinned there where he went into a coma, but not before he killed a knight, the wonderfully named Bastard of Polignac who I guess nobody minded being killed because he was a Bastard who drank all the cognac.

This incident was the first of 44 periods of inertia, violence and confusion in Charles’s life. He was generally having a psychological episode for 3-9 months, then 3-6 months of sanity, then back to being unwell again for the rest of his life. There was a period when the King was convinced he was St George and another time when he refused to bathe or change his clothes for five months (this condition is commonly known as the first term at University). There were also times when he would run around his residence in Paris like, well, a madman.

But the psychosis we’re most interested in is when Charles VI suffered from ‘glass delusion’. In a nutshell, Charles VI thought that he was made of glass and could shatter at any moment. He apparently had rods of iron sewn into his clothing to stop himself from shattering and he wandered around keeping very clear of anything that he felt my smash him up like games of swing ball, kids playing with yo-yos and people skimming stones at the beach. He lay in bed for long periods covered in thick blankets.

‘Glass delusion’ was common enough during the Early Modern period to have its own name, ‘glass delusion’. Princess Alexandra of Bavaria, a nineteenth century figure, thought that she had swallowed a glass grand piano as a child. She would walk sideways through doorways and not make sudden movements for fear of the piano shattering. Things got really interesting when she spotted a little glass Jools Holland running around the house shouting ‘hootenanay!’ She followed him closely, careful not to make any sudden movements, and then snap! She grabbed him in one hand, swallowed him whole and from that day forward, whenever she felt hungry her tummy would rumble honky-tonk.

Cervantes, of Don Quixote fame, wrote a short story about a lawyer who thought he was made of glass in 1600. Huygens, a Dutch poet from the 17th century wrote a poem in which a man, quote; "fears everything that moves in his vicinity... the chair will be the death for him; he trembles at the bed, fearful that one will break his bum, the other smash his head". John Locke and Renee Descartes also refer to people who think they are made of glass in some of their works. Related but not exactly the same, Johann Becher, a German scientist and alchemist from the same period, concerned himself with the possibility of turning people into glass when they died so that relatives could surround themselves with glass effigies of loved ones, presumably in the positions they adopted as they died. “Oh there’s Uncle George, he died when he was knocked off his bike by a freight train, he doesn’t stand up very well on account of the wild positioning of his limbs, so we decided to hang him from the ceiling. And that’s Granny Wilma, she had a heart attack whilst trying to push out a stubborn poo. She was always constipated, too many cups of tea, too many biscuits and not enough prunes. We had a special glass toilet made for her statue.”

There are many other references to ‘glass delusion.’ Apparently it was common for suffers to only think that part of their body was made from glass. Interestingly, the buttocks were common amongst men and sufferers would wander around with heavily padded undies or cushions in case they needed to sit down.

So why glass? And not something else that shatters easily, like the hopes of England football fans or the bravado of a middle aged man. An individual might feel like everyone ignores them, like the glass in a window. Or perhaps an individual feels like everyone knows everything about them, their thoughts and emotions are transparent. Most obviously, it seems to be closely connected to anxiety. An individual feels vulnerable and glass is vulnerable. More simply, it could simply be that an individual wants some bloody peace and quiet and has heard about another nobleman who has successfully managed to get courtiers to fuck off and leave him along by pretending he is made of glass. I also can’t help but feel that the explanation in many cases could be much simpler, in a time when Western Medicine was in its infancy, and the language of medical discourse was in its infancy too, individuals could have just been saying that a certain body part felt like it was made of glass as a way of expressing pain and vulnerability. For example, the glass buttocks could just be someone with sciatica, or piles. Someone with a glass arm could have tennis elbow, or someone with a glass piano in the stomach could have Crohn’s disease. When I was researching this topic I did feel that maybe psychiatrists have been over thinking many of the documented case of ‘glass delusion’.

So what was the solution to some with Glass Delusion? Well there are a few historical examples of how it was treated. One sufferer, who slept on a bed of straw, was locked in his bedroom and had the straw set alight. The sufferer ran to the door and begged for it to be opened. The doctor then asked the sufferer why he wasn’t shattering with all the violent movements. The sufferer replied “I don’t think I am a glass vase but just the most miserable of all men; especially if you will let this fire put an end to my life.” Another doctor treated a man with glass buttocks by whipping them with a cane. When the man’s buttocks didn’t shatter, he was apparently cured.

So does glass delusion still exist? There have been examples in the last 100 years but I don’t think that is particularly useful when we think about the size of the population being studied, i.e. anyone who has had psychiatric problems and has had their condition assessed and recorded. So yes, there have been a few nutters who thought some part of them was made of glass, but probably fewer than the number of people who have claimed to be Elvis, or a prophet, or King Wumple-Sausage the Big-Eared from the Land of Schlurpppp-ploppy-ploppy ping pong.

Regardless, the ‘condition’ did seem to peak in the Early Modern Period and then died out. Interestingly, as it disappeared, a new condition seemed to arise; cement delusion: the same thing, just a different material. It could be that ‘glass delusion’ coincided with glassware being more widespread in the homes of wealthy people. Which I feel supports my minimally researched argument that people experiencing pain or fragility were just using glass as a way of describing their condition. Glass has of course been around for thousands of years. The Ancient Egyptians had glass marbles and the Greeks and Roman developed glass moulding techniques. Glassblowing was invented in Syria in the first century AD. However, it was in the Early Modern period, at the time of these cases of glass delusion, that glass ornament making became more sophisticated. Glass was still a luxury item mind you but it wouldn’t have been uncommon in the houses of the wealthy.

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