Glass Delusion: Bizarre Medieval Affliction Left People Shattered

June 9, 2020

There is a story dating back to the 1960s about a man who overdosed on LSD and became permanently insane. In his insanity, he believed himself to be a glass of orange juice. He was afraid to lie down, lest he be spilled, or go to sleep, lest someone drink him. This story is likely little more than an urban legend, but it parallels a real delusion that many people suffered with throughout the early Modern period from the 14th century into the 19th century.

This was the delusion that part, or all, of their body was made of glass. Some medical documents dating to that period also describe cases where patients believed that they were specific glass objects, such as vases or pitchers. The cause of this mysterious and widespread glass delusion is still a subject of debate today among scholars, though it appears to be related to a fear of fragility and possibly a desire to transcend normal human existence.

King Charles VI, the Most Famous Case of Glass Delusion

The most famous case of glass delusion is probably that of King Charles VI of France. Charles VI (1368-1422) ascended the throne in 1380 at the age of about 11, but he did not begin to rule independently until 1388. Up until then, he had been under the supervision of his uncles.

He was a promising young monarch at first. He implemented reforms to improve the bureaucracy and reduce corruption. He also involved himself in papal politics. At the time, there were two popes, a pope in Rome and a pope in Avignon, France. The two popes were in rivalry with one another over who was pope and who was anti-pope.

Charles VI approached Clement VII, the pope in Avignon, and discussed installing him as pope in Rome. Before he could go forward with this political move though, Charles VI became ill in 1392 and had what historians believe was his first schizophrenic episode. Charles VI came to believe that he was made of glass and he would not move without wearing reinforced clothing. This would continue intermittently for the rest of his life.

Aristocrats with Glass Buttocks

Charles VI is the most famous case, but he is only one of many aristocrats and scholars who suffered from this strange glass delusion over the past five or six centuries. Another account, told by two royal physicians from the late 16th and early 17th centuries, tells of an anonymous nobleman who believed himself to be made of glass and confined himself to a straw bed to protect himself from shattering. He specifically believed that he was a glass vase.

One day, his physician, frustrated from unsuccessfully trying to talk him out of his delusion, set the straw bed on fire and locked the nobleman in his room. When the man began to bang on the door, begging his physician to open it, the physician asked why he did not shatter with all the banging if he was made out of glass. This is said to have cured his delusion.

There are similar reports of men who believed that they had glass buttocks, which they were afraid would shatter if they sat down without cushioning. In one case, an exasperated physician gives a man suffering from this specific delusion a thrashing upon his buttocks. Afterwards, the physician tells him that the pain he feels must be from “buttocks of flesh.”

This delusion became much less common in the 19th century. One of the last classic examples of the glass delusion was Alexandra Amelie, the daughter of Ludwig I of Bavaria. In the 1840s, when she was a young woman, Alexandra came to believe that she had swallowed a glass piano in childhood. This led her to believe that she had to walk around carefully to avoid causing it to shatter.

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