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The Greatest of the Saint-Kings?

Saint Louis

by Jacques Le Goff, translated from the French by Gareth Evan Gollrad
University of Notre Dame Press, 947 pp., $75.00
Musée National du Moyen Age et des Thermes de Cluny, Paris/Lauros/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library
King Louis IX; polychrome wooden statue, fourteenth century

The possibility that power and goodness might turn out to be two sides of the same coin has exerted a perennial fascination in Western society. The notion that earthly authority is underpinned by heavenly sanction may fly in the face of all known experience, but the hope that it might be so has proved remarkably hard to eradicate. Occasionally, no doubt, its persistence owes something to the exceptional personal qualities, real or imagined, of those who preside over the fate of nations. But underlying the charisma and glamour of JFK or Barack Obama, there runs a deeper longing, that brute political realities should be validated not only with personal integrity, but with the sanction of the sacred.

In the Christian Middle Ages, the conviction that the social and political order did or should reflect the will of God himself found its focus in the person of the anointed king. The anointing of a new monarch by a bishop (borrowed from the Old Testament) was taken as the sign (some even said the sacrament) of divine endorsement of the king’s authority. Monarchs were believed to be able by the mere touch of their hand to heal diseases like scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymph glands), known for that reason as “the King’s Evil.” Successive royal dynasties in both France and England practiced this miraculous touching by the roi thaumaturge well into the age of the Enlightenment.

The most sacred kings of all were those who added to the intrinsic sanctity of monarchy the personal sanctity of a holy life. The saint-king was doubly blessed, a personal as well as political icon of Christ himself, ruling his people with justice and mercy, defending the poor, restraining the rich, mastering the perennial temptations to tyranny, luxury, and lust that beset the powerful in every society.

Few medieval kings, of course, were even remotely plausible candidates for sainthood, but many medieval royal houses harnessed the reputation of saint-ancestors to validate monarchy in general and their own dynasties in particular. In twelfth-century Germany, Frederick Barbarossa promoted the royal cult of the Magi, the “Three Kings of Cologne,” and persuaded the anti-pope Paschal III to canonize Frederick’s “ancestor,” the Emperor Charlemagne. In thirteenth-century England, King Henry III encouraged devotion to his predecessors among the Saxon royal saints, and rebuilt Westminster Abbey as a shrine for the greatest of them all, Saint Edward the Confessor. The abbey would serve a double function, as a royal shrine and a royal mausoleum, investing the Plantagenet dynasty buried there with the borrowed prestige of their holy forebear.

The greatest of the medieval saint-kings, however, was Henry III’s contemporary and brother-in-law, Louis IX of France. Louis succeeded to the French throne in 1226 when still a boy of twelve, and after a long regency shared with his formidable mother, Blanche of Castile, ruled till his death in 1270. In the intervening years he led two Crusades to the Holy Land, carefully prepared and lavishly funded, but both of them catastrophic failures. During the second of these, he died of dysentery at Tunis. But long before his death, Louis had established a well-deserved reputation for personal integrity and just and compassionate rule. He had also presided over a cultural renaissance that saw the consolidation of the University of Paris as the intellectual powerhouse of Western Christendom, and the apotheosis of French Gothic art and architecture in the great churches of Chartres, Amiens, and Rheims.

The artistic vitality of France under Louis and the King’s own ardent piety came together in the creation of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the exquisite stone and glass shrine consecrated just months before he departed for his first Crusade. The building was designed to house the alleged relics of the passion of Christ—nails, lance, sponge, and crown of thorns—that Louis had bought for a king’s ransom from the bankrupt Latin emperor of Byzantium, Baldwin II. The Sainte-Chapelle and its relics therefore reflected the same ardent devotion to the Passion of Christ that lay behind crusading attempts to “liberate” the Holy Places from their Muslim rulers.

Louis’s reputation for sanctity, well established in his own lifetime, depended, however, on far more than his very public devotional patronage. He dispensed justice without pomp, seeing plaintiffs informally, often in the open air, seated humbly on the ground. His charity to the poor was both lavish and highly personal. Like other grandees, he washed the feet of the poor on symbolic liturgical occasions. But Louis also routinely with his own hands fed the poor with food and drink from his own table.

His scrupulous honesty was equally notable. Defeated and captured by Muslim forces at Fariskur in Egypt in 1250, he was ransomed for the immense sum of 200,000 pounds. His entourage managed to cheat his captors out of 20,000 pounds of this ransom. When Louis heard of it, however, he insisted that the gold be paid in full, an example of honest dealing with the infidel that bewildered most of Christendom, and that was cited as a wonder at his canonization. His personal (and sometimes stern) discharge of justice, his attempted reform of corruption in royal administration, and his success in arbitration both between his own barons and between foreign kings earned him a reputation for righteousness and peace, rex justus, rex pacificus.

In an age of relentless conflict between the popes and the German emperors, Louis managed to stay on good terms with both. He vindicated the French crown’s claim to the title “most Christian King” by collaborating with the papal Inquisition in enforcing religious orthodoxy in his realms. But he also resisted the more imperious demands of successive popes whenever he considered that they infringed the prerogatives and rights of the French monarchy.

Louis was widely recognized as a saint even before his death. When he died in 1270 at Tunis (lying stretched on a cross-shaped bed of ashes), his body was immediately boiled in wine and water to remove the flesh and entrails. Possession of the royal body was an important bargaining chip in the power vacuum that followed Louis’s death. His son and heir, Philip III, was determined to take the bones back to France himself, to help establish his own authority. Philip’s uncle, Louis’s brother Charles d’Anjou, King of Sicily, wanted for similar reasons to take Louis’s bones to Sicily. His determined nephew, however, fobbed Charles off with the gift of Louis’s entrails, and took Louis’s bones back to France for burial in the royal mausoleum of Saint-Denis.

But these secular maneuverings around the royal corpse were eclipsed by the popular feeling that the King’s coffin housed the relics of a saint. Crowds flocked to see and touch the casket, and the long progress by sea and land would be marked by miracles, duly recorded as part of the canonization process (similar miracles attended the progress of the entrails through Sicily).

The impression made by Louis’s cortege was grotesquely enhanced by the fact that it was accompanied by a macabre and growing procession of lesser royal bodies. Along with Louis’s relics went the bones of his son, Jean-Tristan, who had also died on the Crusade, and who had been similarly boiled down for ease of transport. To these were added en route the corpse of Louis’s son-in-law Thibaud, King of Navarre, who died on the return journey at Trapani, and then that of Isabelle of Aragon, wife and queen of Philip III, who fell from her horse as the royal cortege passed through Calabria and went prematurely into labor. The Queen’s body and that of her stillborn child were duly added to the bizarre entourage trailing the relics of the saint-king through Italy into France.

Canonization procedures were inaugurated immediately. The first biography, by Louis’s Dominican confessor, Geoffroy de Beaulieu, had been completed and sent to Rome within three years of the King’s death, to provide the basis for the official process. In the event, though, high papal mortality meant that the canonization itself had to wait till 1297, when Boniface VIII, anxious to promote good relations with the French crown, completed a process that had staggered on through eight earlier pontificates. Saint Louis thereby became France’s only canonized king, his role as an abiding icon of French identity and national pride marked in subsequent centuries not least by the bestowal of his name on cities and villages wherever France’s writ ran.

It might seem unsurprising, therefore, that one of France’s most influential medieval historians should crown a long and distinguished career with a full-scale biography of this most emblematic of France’s medieval kings. In fact, however, Jacques Le Goff approaches his subject with some degree of embarrassment. One of the leading representatives of the Annales school of history (so called from its association with the specialist social and economic history journal of that name), Le Goff has had a lifelong commitment to the writing of “total history” and the history of the longue durée.

The Annales school, whose founders included Marc Bloch, Le Goff’s teacher, was scornful of traditional political narrative, history conceived as the heaping together of mere “events,” and doubly suspicious of biography. For them, the interest of historical writing lay not in analysis of the actions of politicians and kings, those fleas on the back of time, but in tracing the longer and deeper transformations of societies and mentalities over centuries. Geography, climatology, statistics, and social anthropology all featured as prominently as diplomatic archives in their historical armory, and the representative Annales book was Ferdinand Braudel’s panoramic study The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.

Le Goff therefore feels the need to justify his risky descent into what Jean-Claude Passeron called “the excess of meaning and coherence inherent in any biographical approach.” But Louis’s role in his own times was so central that Le Goff can claim that the figure of the King was a “globalizing subject,” around which “the entire field of research” can be organized. Because the King stood at the center of the social, political, religious, and cultural history of his time, a study of his life inevitably becomes a profile of his age. In a (regrettably characteristic) burst of polysyllabic theorizing, Le Goff cites the judgment of Giovanni Levi that

biography constitutes…the ideal place for verifying the interstitial and nevertheless important character of the freedom that agents have at their disposal, and for observing how normative systems function in concrete situations that are never exempt from contradiction.

For Le Goff, however, there is another major obstacle to writing the life of Saint Louis. There are few surviving royal financial records from the mid-thirteenth century, no published edition of Louis’s acts, no modern edition of his edicts. The biographer must therefore rely on the testimony of narrative and anecdotal sources, the chroniclers, and the contemporary or near-contemporary biographers and hagiographers of the saint. But medieval hagiography is often more useful as a guide to the beliefs and expectations of the writer, rather than a reliable source of information about his subject.

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