One thousand pages on a medieval king, even one who is saint, is quite a lot. But Jacques Le Goff’s prize-winning study is not just about Louis IX of France, nor even about the saint who Louis IX became. In fact, it is probably fair to say that Saint Louis is not even one book, but three. This trilogy includes not only a biography but also extensive and fascinating studies in historiography and in hagiography. As such the book makes for an intriguing read. The fact that it is also well written, often consciously personal and well translated also helps. Don’t let the size intimidate you, the book may well draw you in and the hours will pass without you noticing.
The volume is divided into three parts that could easily stand alone as separate books. Part 1 is a biography of Louis IX that begins with his birth in 1214 and extends past his physical death in 1270 until his canonization in 1297. Looked at in this way, the life of Louis covers the entire thirteenth century. Part 2 asks the question that drives the entire volume, “Did Saint Louis exist?” Here Le Goff examines in detail all the sources that historians have at their disposal in creating a life of Louis IX. Because of Louis’ fame, both while alive and dead, these are more extensive than for most medieval kings. Each of the sources has to be treated with great care, for each has its own agenda and may or may not reflect an image of the historical Louis. Finally part 3 examines the myth of the ideal king and saint. What can Louis’ physical, religious and political placement tell us about who he was? How does the historian separate the man from the mythic saint? Each of these books in itself would be a valuable study; together they comprise perhaps the most complete historiographic study of one historical person every attempted.
Part 1 offered a detailed portrait of Louis IX and of his later canonization. Louis is placed firmly within the dynastic struggle for legitimation of the Capetian dynasty. Losing his father early in life, he came under the powerful influence of his Spanish mother, Blanche of Castile. She instilled in him a passion for religious devotion and for the just governance and defense of France. Together they jointly ruled France even after Louis came of age. Louis and Blanche managed a war with England and her allies brilliantly while Louis was still a young man. During this time, Louis also acquired the most valuable possession of his reign, the Crown of Thorns, for which he built the beautiful Sainte Chapelle. Louis is probably best known, however, for his crusades. The first, from 1248 to 1254, in some ways defined him. He took up the cross to fulfill an oath taken while ill and, despite objections from his mother and some of his court, he planned an extensive and disastrous campaign in Egypt. He was taken captive and had to be ransomed. Upon return to France, Louis undertook a moral and legal reform of his kingdom as well as espousing an even more ascetic lifestyle. He left for crusade a second time in 1270 and died in Tunis shortly upon arrival there. In a relatively short time, a case was prepared for canonization and Louis IX became St. Louis in 1297.
This brief overview does an injustice to the historical detail and engaging asides of the first part of the book, but they set the stage for the question of the second part. How much can we trust the sources upon which historians depend to create such a biography? Le Goff carefully dissects the agendas of the various sources. A strong supporter of the new mendicant orders, Louis was depicted by them in their hagiographies as a mendicant himself and they even suggested that he wished to join them. The monks of St. Denis as well benefited from Louis patronage and frequent visits. They painted him as the rightful heir of both the Merovingian and Carolingian kings who funded them and were buried at their abbey. Louis was often portrayed as the ideal king, very similar in fact to those described in the handbooks for kings that were popular in the twelfth and thirteenth century. Did writers of the time model Louis after these books, or did Louis model himself after the handbooks he clearly knew? Finally there is wonderful depiction of Louis by his friend and courtier, Jean de Joinville. Writing in his eighties after the death of Louis, Joinville wrote an endearing life of Louis that contains personal vignettes of Joinville’s youth spend with the king. Joinville’s account has the ring of authenticity, but is it the genuine coin? After an extensive analysis, Le Goff concludes that it is impossible to separate the man from the myth, partly because it seems that Louis fashioned his behavior after the models given to him. He consciously mythologized himself, as it were. Of all the sources, Le Goff most trusts Joinville to give us the “real Louis,” although Le Goff is not always clear why he gives his trust to Joinville.
Finally, in part three, Le Goff works to disentangle the historical king from the many mythic and saintly creations that make up Saint Louis. Le Goff examines Louis’ historical setting, particularly the effect of the ideals of the prud’homme (man of probity) and of the saintly man had on forming the historical person. Le Goff engages as well the historical disputes about whether Louis was a king of the older feudal system or a model for the future nation state. He also looks in depth at Louis’ ascetical practices, particularly the more severe forms he took on when he returned from his first crusade. In the end, Le Goff believes that Louis saw himself as a suffering king, an alter Christus, who suffered with and for his kingdom, particularly the poor and ill. In the end, Louis died a martyr in the eyes of many, if not of the Popes who canonized him, and, perhaps, in his own eyes.
This brief summary can hardly do justice to the detail and care of Le Goff’s careful study. Much more is covered in the book than can be discussed here. Nor does this description do justice to the lively, at times even passionate exposition of the book. Le Goff confesses that he came to believe he knew Louis, although he recognizes the illusion here. If the book has its shortcomings, they are those that come, one might suggest, from knowing the subject too well. Le Goff sometimes delightfully if not historically, tells us what he feels about Louis, even if he doesn’t have evidence for that feeling. There are many repetitions, again something might expect in a study of such depth. Le Goff also seems to trust Joinville too much. On the other hand, these asides and this longing to touch and hear the “real Louis” in Joinville come from one of the greatest living historians of France writing about one of France’s greatest kings. These asides and this passion are worth our attention and careful thought.