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Posts Tagged ‘Le Ball desFolles’

Every year, the Parisian elite received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the Salpêtrière Hospital

Last year’s February post Mi-Carême: An Explosion of Joy in the Midst of Gloom described the joyous feasts of Mid-Lent during the month of February. Let’s recall that the Mi-Carême celebrations cut in half the forty days of strict and tedious Lent rules of penance, fasting, and prayers. This brief rest from enforced virtue was filled with public and private costume parties. Feverish preparations for the events helped to fill time with pleasant activity in the first part of the Lent, while happy memories did the same service during the second half.

If you received an invitation to the Madwomen’s Ball at the La Salpêtrière Hospital, you would feel flattered. Indeed, only the crème de la crème were thus honored. The celebrated Doctor Charcot, the head of the Neurological Clinic, would not allow a mere rabble to spoil the event. After all, meeting the female patients—there were no men hospitalized in this institution—demanded a certain seriousness and responsible behavior. With the mentally unstable patients, unpredictable accidents could happen. This or that inmate could behave oddly or succumb to a spectacular crisis of hysteria. Invitations were rarely refused for that very reason.

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Nurses stand at the ready among the costumed patients as they mingle with the visitors

The hospital provided a funding of 500 francs for costumes, and the patients got themselves busy with sewing and fitting weeks before the event. On the night in question, the Ball des Folles began at 8:00 PM to be closed at midnight. Finger food was served, but strictly no alcohol. The Tout Paris, as the Parisian elite was known, came to see the patients dance and make merry under the vigilance of the nurses. This curious event was repeated year after year until the early 20th century.

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Some of Dr. Charcot’s star performers

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Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Since Dr. Charcot’s lectures were opened to public every Wednesday, some of his patients enjoyed a celebrity status for their demonstrations of madness. The women usually came from dire poverty or harsh abuse, and many were grateful for the safe home they found at the hospital. One of the former inmates, Jane Avril, recalls in her memoir that her stay at La Salpêtrière was a complete bliss compared to her life at home. Jane became a celebrated dancer. You can read her story in another post here.

Related post:

Professor Charcot and the Amplification of Hysteria

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