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The Delusion That Made Nobles Think Their Bodies Were Made of Glass

The Delusion That Made Nobles Think Their Bodies Were Made of Glass

One day in the late 1840s, Princess Alexandra Amelie, the 23-year-old daughter of the recently abdicated King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was making her way through the corridors of the family palace. Her relatives noticed that the obsessive, highly intelligent young woman—who only wore the color white—was acting even stranger than usual. Alexandra Amelie was walking sideways through doorways and labyrinthine hallways, tiptoeing and carefully turning her body so that nothing would touch her.

When asked by her family what she was doing, the Princess explained that she had just discovered something remarkable. As a child, she had swallowed a full-sized grand piano made entirely of glass. It now resided inside her—wholly intact—and would shatter if faced with any sudden movement.

Surprisingly, Alexandra Amelie’s odd fixation was not an unheard-of disorder. The princess was, in fact, following in a long tradition of royals, nobles and scholars who believed that all or certain parts of their bodies were made of clear, fragile glass. Known as “the glass delusion,” this psychological malady, first recorded in the Middle Ages, would become quite common before virtually dying out in the late 19th century. It was so well known that it would be mentioned by Rene Descartes, Denis Diderot and in scholar Robert Burton’s 1621 medical compendium, Anatomy of Melancholy.

One of the first recorded patients to suffer from this delusion was probably its most famous victim. King Charles VI (1368–1422) had ascended the throne of France at the age of 11. Handsome, judicial and charismatic, he had spearheaded reform efforts after taking over from his corrupt regents in 1388—streamlining the royal bureaucracy and surrounding himself with enlightened advisors. These actions led him to be nicknamed Charles “the beloved.” But in 1392, he suffered a psychotic break (believed to be his first manifestation of schizophrenia), which would lead to sporadic violent episodes and periods of inertia and confusion for the rest of his life.

Charles “the beloved,” was now known as Charles “the mad.” Allegedly, the king had spells where he believed his body was made entirely of glass. To keep himself from “shattering,” Charles would stay motionless for hours, wrapped in piles of thick blankets. When he did have to move, he did so in a special garment, which included iron “ribs” to protect his glass organs.

Over the next few centuries, the delusion spread to the courts, monasteries and universities of Europe. According to researcher Gill Speak, who wrote the definitive paper on the glass delusion in 1990, two notable 16th-century doctors—Alfonso Ponce de Santa Cruz, the physician to Philip II of Spain, and Andre du Laurens, physician to Henry IV of France—told the story of an unnamed royal who believed he was not a human, but a glass vase. According to du Laurens, the nobleman was otherwise highly intelligent and well spoken.

The royal spent much of his time lying on a bed of straw to protect himself. Fed up, the man’s physician ordered that his bed of straw be set on fire and that the door to the man’s room be locked. When the man began to beat on the door begging for help, the doctor asked him why he wasn’t shattering despite the violent movements. The ploy worked. “Open, I am begging you, my friends and dearest servants,” the royal cried, according to PhD candidate Elena Fabietti, whose work focuses on the cultural history of transparent humans. “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.”

There are recorded references throughout the Middle Ages and into the 17th century of people who believed they possessed glass hearts, feet and heads. Others thought they were actually glass flasks. Men seem to have had a certain predilection for glass buttocks, which would shatter if they sat down without a pillow strapped to their behinds. Nicole du Plessis, a relation of France’s all-powerful Cardinal Richelieu, suffered from this particular delusion. Another man believing he possessed a glass rear end was beaten by his doctor, in the hopes he would realize it was his flesh that was sore from the thrashing.

Many who suffered from a glass delusion, including Princess Alexandra Amelie and King Charles VI, were considered exceptional people of great intelligence and ingenuity. Depictions of unusually clever victims of the disorder popped up in popular plays and literature over the centuries, most notably in Miguel de Cervantes’ short story El licenciado Vidriera (known variously in English as The Glass Graduate, Doctor Glass-Case and The Glass Lawyer), published in 1613. In it, a brilliant young lawyer called Tomas Rodaja is the victim of a love potion that causes him to believe he is made of glass. He renames himself Vidriera (window) and gives honest counsel to many, unencumbered by the bonds of flesh:

“He asked people to address him from a distance, and he said that they might ask what questions they liked, because he was a man of glass, not flesh, and since glass is of subtle and delicate matter, the soul works through it with more speed and efficiency than through the material of the normal body, which is heavy and earthy.”

So what exactly was the cause of this peculiar manifestation of mental illness? Scholars at the time, including Burton, attributed it to the now discredited diagnosis of melancholy—a kind of noble depression, often linked to aristocracy and genius. In the case of royals, contemporary psychologists speculate that believing one was glass could have been a way of expressing how vulnerable, fragile and exposed they felt in their public positions. It was a way of expressing humanity, sensitivity and perhaps a desire to be left alone.

“He shouted in the most terrible way,” Cervantes wrote in El licenciado Vidriera, “begging and pleading with predetermined words and expressions that no one come near because they would break him, that he really and truly was not like other men, that he was all glass from head to toe.”

Interestingly, at the time, glass—particularly clear glass—was a precious, novel commodity, mostly found in royal palaces, churches and government buildings. According to Professor Edward Shorter, a historian of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, fixations with innovative materials have been reported throughout history. Before the glass delusion, there were people who believed their bodies were composed of earthenware, and during the 19th century, people started to believe they were made of the dominant construction material of the day: concrete. Our modern-day delusions tend to involve technology: sufferers may believe the government has planted a microchip in their brain or that a computer is constantly monitoring them.

What people with these delusions have in common is that they all feel fragile. Indeed, when the author Giovanni Boccaccio was despairingly called a “man of glass” in 1393, he responded with a retort that could be understood by every human—from a high-born princess to a lowly pauper, notes Elena Fabietti in A Body of Glass, The case of El lienciaco Vidriera.

“We are all glass men, subjected to innumerable dangers,” he wrote in a written response to his critic. “The slightest touch would break us, and we would return to nothing.”


Charles VI of France

Charles VI (3 December 1368 – 21 October 1422), called the Beloved (French: le Bien-Aimé) and later the Mad (French: le Fol or le Fou), was King of France from 1380 until his death in 1422. He is known for his mental illness and psychotic episodes which plagued him throughout his life. Charles's reign would see his army crushed at the Battle of Agincourt, leading to the signing of the Treaty of Troyes, which made his future son-in-law Henry V of England his regent and heir to the throne of France. However, Henry would die shortly before Charles, which gave the House of Valois the chance to continue the fight against the English, leading to their eventual victory and the end of the Hundred Years' War in 1453.


Concentration of the glass delusion among the wealthy and educated classes allowed modern scholars to associate it with a wider and better described disorder of melancholy. [2]

Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) touches on the subject in the commentary as one of many related manifestations [3] of the same anxiety:

Fear of devils, death, that they shall be so sick, of some such or such disease, ready to tremble at every object, they shall die themselves forthwith, or that some of their dear friends or near allies are certainly dead imminent danger, loss, disgrace still torment others that they are all glass, and therefore will suffer no man to come near them that they are all cork, as light as feathers others as heavy as lead some are afraid their heads will fall off their shoulders, that they have frogs in their bellies, Etc. [4]

Miguel de Cervantes based one of his short Exemplary Novels, The Glass Graduate (Spanish: El licenciado Vidriera, 1613), on the delusion of the title subject, an aspiring young lawyer. [5] The protagonist of the story falls into a grave depression after being bedridden for six months subsequent to being poisoned with a purportedly aphrodisiac potion. He claims that, being of glass, his perceptions are clearer than those of men of flesh and demonstrates by offering witty comments. After two years of illness, Rodaja is cured by a monk no details of the cure are provided except that the monk is allegedly a miracle-maker.

The Dutch poet Constantijn Huygens wrote a Costly Folly (1622) centered on a subject who "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". [2] His Dutch contemporary Caspar Barlaeus experienced the glass delusion. [6]

French philosopher René Descartes wrote Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), using the glass delusion as an example of an insane person whose perceived knowledge of the world differs from the majority. [7] In the Essay (Book II, Chapter XI, 13) when proposing his celebrated model of madness, John Locke also refers to the glass delusion. [8]

In modern times, the glass delusion has not completely disappeared. There are still isolated cases today. "Surveys of modern psychiatric institutions have only revealed two specific (uncorroborated) cases of the glass delusion. Foulché-Delbosc reports finding one Glass Man in a Paris asylum, and a woman who thought she was a potsherd was recorded at an asylum in Merenberg." Andy Lameijn, a psychiatrist from the Netherlands, reports that he has a male patient suffering from the delusion in Leiden. [9]

The neurotic behavior of the 19th-century Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky seems reminiscent of the glass delusion, centering as it did on his difficulties caused by his belief that his head would fall off while conducting if he did not hold his chin. While the legend may be exaggerated, it seems to have some basis in fact:

In March 1868 in his first attempt [at conducting], Tchaikovsky conducted dances from The Voevoda, "and had felt that his head would fall sideways unless he fought to keep it upright" . (per David Brown, The Final Years page 97) . and so he avoided conducting . In October 1886 Tchaikovsky pointed out to his patroness "all my life I have been tormented by awareness of my inability to conduct. It has seemed to me there is something shameful and disreputable in not being able to stop myself trembling with fear and horror at the very thought of going out in front of the public with a baton" . However on Jan. 31, 1887 Tchaikovsky in his third attempt overcame his fear and conducted the premier of The Enchantress . as a further inducement "he was not unaware that a conductor could enjoy more celebrity in his own time than a composer." [ citation needed ]


Possible Causes for the Glass Delusion

Scholars of the time attributed the mental illness to the, now discredited, notion of melancholy. Melancholy was a disorder believed to primarily affect nobles and scholars. The reason for this diagnosis was likely that so many of the recorded patients were nobles and intellectuals. Interestingly, many of the people with these delusions were otherwise highly intelligent and creative individuals.

This is exemplified in a short story by the Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes , written in the 17th century, The Glass Graduate . In this story, an intellectually gifted lawyer is given a love potion that causes him to go mad and believe that he is made of glass. He does not let anyone come near him. He also sleeps on a bed of hay, only eats fruit, and only drinks water from a river by cupping it in his hands.

He does this all because he believes he is made of glass and must protect himself from shattering. Despite his delusion, he is still an intelligent and functional individual, who even draws crowds with his wisdom and sense of humor.

The glass delusion mirrors other delusions documented by physicians where people believed that they were made of clay, that they were headless, or that they were made of butter. All these delusions were also attributed to melancholy.

Melancholy dates at least back to Galen, Hippocrates, and other classical physicians who believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of the four humors. Melancholy, specifically, was blamed on an imbalance of black bile.

A woodcut from ‘Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe’ (1775-1778) by Johann Kaspar Lavater. Phlegmatic and choleric (above), sanguine and melancholic (below). ( Public Domain )

The explanations of late Medieval and early Modern doctors and scholars are no longer accepted by modern historians, but the reports of early Modern physicians are still considered illuminating. Two common themes of the glass delusion are the fear of being fragile and the belief that the body is transparent.

An example of the latter symptom is an instance in literature when a man tells his companion that he realized he was made of glass when he held up his hand to the sun and realized that it was transparent, like glass.


Tower Of London Unveils Memorial To The Executed

English Queens, nobles and a trio of unfortunate Scottish soldiers are amongst the names commemorated on a new permanent memorial, unveiled at the Tower of London on September 4 2006.

Designed by British artist Brian Catling, the circular memorial focuses on the ten executions that have taken place on Tower Green, within the Royal castle’s walls. It is intended to remember all those executed over the years at the Tower - providing a focal point for contemplation, reflection and remembrance.

“What struck me was that here you had one of the most interesting, significant and moving places, not just within the Tower but actually within the whole country,” said Michael Day, Chief Executive of Historic Royal Palaces. “Here’s a spot where some extraordinarily important national events happened and also some events of amazing human intensity.”

The new memorial replaces a modest aluminium plaque and small plastic notice that listed the names of the people put to death there.

“We could have just put up another plaque,” added Michael, “but I’m interested in what artists can bring to bear on interpreting spaces because it helps people see the place in a different way and I think this is what this project has done.”

Artist Brian Catling beat off competition from four other shortlisted artists to produce the memorial. Photo Mark Robinson courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

Comprising two engraved circles with a glass-sculpted pillow at its centre, the larger circle of dark stone bears a poem - written by the artist - around its rim, whilst the upper glass circle bears the engraved names of the ten famous and not so famous individuals executed in front of the Chapel Royal.

“I wanted to make people walk around the piece,” said Brian Catling. “Before, people would come and stand in front of the small plaque that used to be here – they just stood and didn’t know what to do so I thought: 'let’s give them something to do', they now have to walk around it to read the poem – they have to engage with it.”

“None of the names on here are really traitors,” added Brian. “Monuments are usually to people who have died in a war or a battle, this is different. You can’t really illustrate the brutal acts of dying that took place here but this I hope is a way of suggesting it.”

The polished memorial is a neat mix of the practical and poetic. As well as the circular poem, the arches supporting the upper glass disk engraved with the names of the executed, allows leaves and other debris to blow harmlessly through it whilst symbolically reflecting the arches of the chapel where the remains of the executed ten still lie.

These include the tower’s most famous executed Queen, Anne Boleyn, accused of infidelity and beheaded by a French swordsman near Tower Green on May 19 1536. It is reported that as the executioner held up her head to show the crowd, her eyes were still moving and her lips were still framing her dying prayer.

Photo Mark Robinson courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

Even more grisly was the execution on May 27 1541, of the Catholic martyr, Margaret Pole. Tried and convicted for attending a Catholic protest known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, for which she swore innocence, the executioner took several blows to finish her off. Some say this was due to the executioner’s incompetence – others that she put up a fight and tried to flee the scaffold.

A lesser-known execution highlighted by the memorial is that of the three Black Watch soldiers. In 1743 the Highland regiment, en route to Scotland for leave, was summoned to London by the King. About 100 soldiers went absent from duty and were rounded up and marched to the tower on charges of mutiny.

All but three of the soldiers were eventually pardoned and on July 19 1743 Farquar Shaw together with brothers Samuel and Malcolm Macpherson were shot by a firing squad made up of their comrades. A large slab of black marble is set into the floor in the southwest corner of the Chapel, marking the spot where the three bodies lie. Now their names are also inscribed beside those of famous queens and nobles.

“I was really keen to include them,” said Michael Day. “To leave them out would have said somehow we don’t think their lives and indeed their deaths were as important and significant as these other lives and deaths. Symbolically they seem to be just as important, and we thought it was an interesting juxtaposition to have them on the memorial.”

“What we’re really interested in doing is exploring stories and the tower and the other palaces are the repositories of these amazing stories – these are stories that characterise the nation and its identity and this is part of that story. This is the spot where they met their death, which is a very powerful thing.”

The public get their first glimpse of the memorial. Photo Mark Robinson courtesy Historic Royal Palaces

It is the first time Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity that cares for the Tower of London along with the four other unoccupied palaces, has commissioned a contemporary visual artwork for permanent display.

To mark the unveiling of the memorial, the Tower of London’s flashlights will turn red for two weeks after dark, whilst a special concert of memorial music will be held in the Chapel Royal on September 15 2006.

Brian Catling was awarded the commission in 2005 after five artists submitted proposals to interpret the execution site in a dignified and sympathetic way. Their ideas were judged by public consultation and a selection panel.


Bonus Factoids

  • In 1613, Miguel de Cervantes published a novella under the title The Glass Candidate (El Licenciado Vidriera). It tells the story of Tomas, whose girlfriend gives him a dodgy love potion. Instead of turning him into a paramour a woman can dream of, the drink turns Tomas into a man who believes himself to be made of glass. Tomas became reclusive and almost starved to death before overcoming his delusion. Cervantes did not, however, deliver a happy ending. Poor Tomas joined the army and died in a battle.
  • The Dutch poet Constantijn Huygens also had a go at fictionalizing the glass delusion. He wrote that the central character in his work �rs 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.”
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy was published in 1621. The author, Robert Burton, wrote about people agonizing “that they are all glass, and therefore will suffer no man to come near them.”

Obsessions Through History

According to Professor Edward Shorter , a historian of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, obsessions with novel materials have been reported throughout history.

‘Man, like all animals, is glass and can return to glass’ writes the German alchemist Johann Becher in his work Physica Subterranea published in 1669.

Becher claimed that he had found the secret of turning dead bodies into transparent glass, so that we could surround ourselves with beautiful vases formed of our ancestors (preferable, he writes, to ‘hideous and disgusting cadavers’).

The making of glass at the time was seen as a kind of magic: the metamorphosis of sand and dust into transparent crysta l.

Before the glass delusion, there were people who believed their bodies were composed of earthenware, and during the 19th century, people started to believe they were made of the dominant construction material of the day: concrete.

Our modern-day delusions tend to involve technology: sufferers may believe the government has planted a microchip in their brain or that a computer is constantly monitoring them.


TIL that several European nobles thought that their bodies were made of glass. This is called the Glass Delusion.

One of the first recorded patients to suffer from this delusion was probably its most famous victim. King Charles VI (1368–1422) had ascended the throne of France at the age of 11. But in 1392, he suffered a psychotic break (believed to be his first manifestation of schizophrenia), which would lead to sporadic violent episodes and periods of inertia and confusion for the rest of his life. Allegedly, the king had spells where he believed his body was made entirely of glass. To keep himself from “shattering,” Charles would stay motionless for hours, wrapped in piles of thick blankets. When he did have to move, he did so in a special garment, which included iron “ribs” to protect his glass organs.

There are recorded references throughout the Middle Ages and into the 17th century of people who believed they possessed glass hearts, feet and heads. Others thought they were actually glass flasks.

So what exactly was the cause of this peculiar manifestation of mental illness? Scholars at the time, including Burton, attributed it to the now discredited diagnosis of melancholy—a kind of noble depression, often linked to aristocracy and genius. In the case of royals, contemporary psychologists speculate that believing one was glass could have been a way of expressing how vulnerable, fragile and exposed they felt in their public positions. It was a way of expressing humanity, sensitivity and perhaps a desire to be left alone.

Before the glass delusion, there were people who believed their bodies were composed of earthenware, and during the 19th century, people started to believe they were made of the dominant construction material of the day: concrete.

What people with these delusions have in common is that they all feel fragile.

Edit: Had to resubmit the post due to a rule infraction with my previous title. Fixed it.


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