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.


Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

Jacques Le Goff, 1999

Two of the King’s hagiographers, Geoffroy de Beaulieu and William of Chartres, did indeed have firsthand knowledge of the King, having served as his chaplains on crusade. More importantly, Louis was the subject of one of the most vivid lay memoirs of the Middle Ages, an affectionate portrait, warts and all, by Jean de Joinville, seneschal of the province of Champagne and a devoted friend and member of Louis’s court and crusading army. Le Goff relies heavily on all three of these lives, but especially on Joinville’s memoir, which, he tells us, uniquely supplies “the meaningful details craved by the vampiric historian who traffics in the fresh flesh of history too often refused him.” Nevertheless, he is elaborately conscious of the limits, silences, and literary conventions that make it difficult to reconstruct the human being behind the conventional figure of the royal saint. And so, in a characteristic flourish, Le Goff asks, “Is it [even] possible to write a biography of Louis? D id Saint Louis exist?”

Le Goff answers “yes” to both these questions. He does so by dividing his investigation into three parts. The first is a narrative account of the King’s life from contemporary sources, concentrating on the known facts, and devoting relatively little time to motives or feelings. In the second part, Le Goff scrutinizes the medieval sources themselves, to see whether the real Louis can be separated from the conventional “production of royal memory,” with all the inevitable distortions imposed by the preoccupations and agendas of those who wrote about the King.

In the third and last part of the book, Le Goff attempts a grand synthesis of what can be said about Louis, exploring the tension between the King’s individuality on the one hand, and the stereotypes of monarchy and sanctity that characterized his age, and that he himself sought to embody, on the other. Saint Louis was a figure “more emblematic than creative,” a king who “wanted to be the living embodiment of…commonplace ideas.” Yet it is precisely in the perceptible gap between those emblems and commonplaces on the one hand, and the human idiosyncrasies revealed above all by Joinville on the other, that the three-dimensional “real” Saint Louis can and does appear.

This complicated threefold arrangement involves a considerable degree of repetition, as incidents and sources are visited and revisited from different perspectives. Terseness is not one of Le Goff’s strengths as a writer, and there are too many passages like the following:

Often, when weak periods in historical evolution are not followed by decline, they reveal the progress of the powerful forces at work in the long duration and the depth of structures. The break in the flow of these forces allows a leap forward and a stronger rebound to take place. Beneath the troubled surface of events appears the general thrust of the currents.

This sort of thing sounds better in French than in English, and here as elsewhere, Le Goff is not particularly well served by his translator. But there are many other passages in which the differences of ethos and attitude in historical writing in French and English become all too evident to the Anglophone reader. Few British or American medievalists would agonize as Le Goff does about the value of historical biography. Fewer still would feel as comfortable as he evidently does in the role of historian as preacher or moralist.

Le Goff devotes a good deal of space, for example, to an exploration of the royal saint’s treatment of the Jews of thirteenth-century France, insisting that even by the standards of his own day, Louis’s decrees against usury and his confiscations and burnings of copies of the Talmud were harsh and unjust. This sobering and valuable analysis, however, is accompanied by moral protestations that sound gratingly politically correct:

Our anti-racist societies recognize everything in this that we must reject in medieval Christianity’s descent into persecutions and crimes that culminated in the anti-Semitic crimes of our twentieth century whose historical roots we must denounce.

Le Goff is a man of strong opinions, and his book is peppered by confident generalizations that will give many readers pause, as no doubt they are intended to do. He subscribes wholeheartedly to the views of his colleague Philippe Ariès on the late development of the concept of childhood in European society, for example. And so, Le Goff assures us:

I would like to point out that in the middle ages there were small adults and no children. Childhood was a bad time that everyone had to survive.

The book is punctuated by many such sweeping ex cathedra pronouncements —“marriage for the sake of love had no meaning in the Middle Ages,” Louis was “the last great crusader,” his failed campaigns “sounded the death knell of crusading,” and after him “the adventure of the crusades was over” (in fact crusading in one form or another would continue to preoccupy European Christians for centuries). Or again, the mentality of the Middle Ages according to Le Goff was “basically Manichean” (an especially bizarre claim in a biography of a king who loosed the Inquisition against the Manichaean Cathars of the south of France).

Le Goff is repelled by much in medieval religion, but he has written an upbeat and optimistic book, not least about the ability of the historian to penetrate to the “real” Saint Louis. He has no time for postmodern suggestions that no one source is “truer” than any other, that all we can know are the texts and what they say. For all his initial caveats and provisos, in the end Le Goff is confident that Joinville’s memoir and the early hagiographies, rightly read, do indeed provide a reliable portrait of the King. “The intimate thoughts, inner life, and personality…of Louis IX are revealed to us by his…biographers, and his hagiographers.” In Louis, therefore, we can discover “a unique Christian king whom I believe that I am capable of approaching, not in any fiction or illusion but in historical reality.”

The result is a warm and largely admiring portrait of a king in whom power and goodness do indeed form two sides of the same coin. Though the French original of this book appeared fourteen years ago, there is more than a hint of Barack Obama in Le Goff’s account of his own gradual surrender to the attraction of the Louis who emerges from the sources, “the charisma of a king who did not need to wear the crown and the emblems of power to impress anyone, the charisma of a tall, thin, handsome king with the eyes of a dove,” whose directness and lack of pretension charmed all who came in contact with him.

Le Goff’s Louis is cheerful, ardent, devout, intelligent but unintellectual, skillful yet uncomplicated, a man in tune with his age but able to transcend at least some of its limitations. Where other biographers have seen in him “a king torn between his royal duties and a sense of devotion patterned after the Mendicant orders,” Le Goff sees a man who “had mentally and practically reconciled politics and religion as well as realism and morality without any tormenting internal conflict.” At the heart of this reconciliation lay the fact that for Louis, “pious acts and skillful political maneuvers” were one and the same. By “claiming to put nothing above the interests of God and religion” in a society imbued with Christian value, this supremely and intuitively Christian king simultaneously “served the interests of France and royal power.” For him, “devotion and political skill was [sic] one and the same thing.”

Le Goff is not, of course, uncritical of his hero. Though he challenges the notion that crusading was the defining element in Louis’s understanding of Christian kingship, he recognizes and frequently deplores the central place it occupied in his reign, along with Louis’s support for “the other perversion of the Inquisition.” At a more personal level, Le Goff worries about what he sees as Louis’s occasional harshness in punishing the erring, his lack of interest in his infant children, and his apparent emotional neglect of his queen, Marguerite, whom he did not sufficiently protect from the jealousy of “her hideous mother-in-law.”

Le Goff deduces these alleged emotional inadequacies from the absence in the sources of overt signs of affection for his family. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect such material in formal saints’ lives or even in a memoir by a companion in arms. In any case, silence is a poor basis for confident historical assertion. But Le Goff often brushes aside such silences when they run counter to his own intuitions. Sometime in the early 1260s, the monks of the royal burial church at Saint-Denis reordered the interior of their church, in what Le Goff calls “the largest funerary project of the Middle Ages.” Sixteen tombs of dead kings and queens from the seventh to the twelfth centuries were brought together, arranged according to their Carolingian and Capetian dynasties, in altar-tombs identified with matching recumbent effigies. For Le Goff this reorganization of the royal mausoleum opens a direct window into Louis’s “funerary politics.” The reordering at Saint-Denis, he believes, embodied the King’s distinctive understanding of monarchy and his commitment to “the fiction of dynastic continuity, the monarchical state, and the crown.”

The problem with this claim is that the only contemporary account of this reordering, the Annales of St. Denis, makes no mention whatever of Louis, and attributes the project to the abbot and monks themselves. The first source to mention Louis is Guillaume de Nagis’s chronicle, written two generations later, sometime after 1300. The abbot of Saint-Denis in the 1260s was Mathieu de Vendôme, a trusted friend of the King’s, who was appointed one of the regents of France during Louis’s last and fatal crusade. It is therefore by no means impossible or even unlikely that the King was involved in the arrangement of the royal tombs. But no one said so till long after the event, and there are some good reasons for thinking that the rearrangement of the royal tombs might have been initiated by members of the Saint-Denis community. They had similarly rearranged the tombs of their own abbots in 1259, a rehearsal for the later royal reordering in which no one has suggested Louis was involved.

The rearrangement of the royal tombs might have been designed by the monks to consolidate Saint-Denis’s links with the monarchy. Given the slenderness of the evidence either way, and the weight of the hypothesis Le Goff wants to erect on the claim that the project was Louis’s brainchild, one might have expected some discussion of alternative possibilities. Instead, he sweeps aside the difficulties, merely insisting that “I do not doubt that this was Saint Louis’ own idea and his own desired action.”

A similar appeal to his own intuition appears in Le Goff’s handling of an “astounding conversation” between Louis and the Sultan in Egypt in 1250. Our source for this incident is the English chronicler Matthew Paris. Le Goff concedes that Matthew’s account is “obviously staged and embellished.” Nevertheless, he is drawn to the story, because in it King and Sultan discuss their religious beliefs and motives honestly; they weep together, and Louis disowns any desire for conquest of his Muslim opponents, insisting he seeks only their salvation.

For Le Goff, here is an aspect of thirteenth-century religion to which a modern secular sensibility can respond. He suggests, therefore, that Matthew Paris’s admittedly “unrealistic text” is rooted “in a very real and very lively imaginary force,” and concludes his extended treatment of the story with an appropriately uplifting multicultural moral:

For several brief moments in Egypt in 1250, a Christian king and a Muslim sultan were able to express their mutual respect for one another as believers and as men. Why shouldn’t we believe this? [Emphasis added.]

Le Goff’s secular convictions sometimes overwhelm his overall admiration for his subject. He is prone to describe Louis’s penitential lifestyle and self-conscious imitation of Christ as “obsessive.” Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he is not always alert to the religious nuance of that deliberate imitatio. He returns repeatedly to Louis’s last words, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” without apparently grasping that in his extremity the King was quoting Christ’s last words on the Cross. Naturally, Louis quoted Christ’s words from the Latin Bible. Le Goff notices this lapse from the vernacular, “at death’s door, Louis abandoned his mother tongue in favor of the holy language, the language of the Fathers,” but fails to register that Louis was here making his final and most explicit act of identification with Christ.

Nevertheless, this is a rich and generous book, crammed with a lifetime’s learning. If its digressions, asides, and learned excursions sometimes irritate, they often reward and always stimulate. I hope it is not ungrateful to feel, however, that it would have been twice as good a book if it had been only half as long.

This Issue

April 8, 2010