In the 19th century, the “bal des folles” (ball of the madwomen) was a very popular attraction, a social event that brought together all of Paris around women suffering from dementia, abandoned or simply fragile.

A place of arms production

Like many places in Paris, this hospital was first a place of arms production. Its name comes from saltpetre, used to make gunpowder. It was used by Louis XIII to make the powder needed for the cannons of the French artillery. Between the 19th and the 20th centuries, Professor Jean-Martin Charcot, neurologist, gave public lessons at the Salpêtrière. Promoted on November 13, 1861, he then became head of the general medicine department. In lecture halls filled with curious men and medical students, the professor exhibits mentally ill women every Friday and uses hypnosis to put them in crisis states and make his audience shiver. He will draw from his work the certainty that hysteria is not a disease reserved for women.

the bal des folles ball of madwomen

Objects of fantasies

It is with the arrival of the teacher that the “bal des folies” is created. An event organized just after the carnival, at the end of February, and where the Parisian high society came running hoping to see a woman contort during the evening. Objects of fantasies, the insane were disguised for this reception to handpicked guests. The ball of the madwomen, was celebrated more exactly for the Mi-Carême. Mi-Carême has been celebrating Women’s Day in Paris since the 18th century (now called Women’s Carnival). In the Salpêtrière, the patients of the psychiatric services (called the “insane”) disguised themselves and adorned themselves with their finest attire for this celebration. The newspapers of the time spoke of it as a fantastic ball, as beautiful as a bourgeois party with refined decoration and elaborate costumes.

A sinister fate

Nearly a century and a half later, the women’s liberation movement, several filmmakers and writers, offer a much less idealized vision of this “ball of madwomen”. A moving vision of the sinister fate reserved for independent or rebellious female spirits in the era of triumphant patriarchy. The French actress and director Mélanie Laurent adapted the eponymous novel by Victoria Mas for the screen, and plunges us into the lair of the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, where he subjected his patients to the worst treatments.

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