The Medieval Review 10.05.22

Le Goff, Jacques. Gareth Evan Gollrad, trans. Saint Louis. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Pp. 952. $75.00 ISBN 978-0-268-03381-1. .

Reviewed by:

Meredith Cohen
University of Oxford

Would the "Century of Saint Louis" have been significantly different if the revered king Louis IX (r. 1226-1270) never existed? According to Jacques le Goff, Saint Louis was as much a product of his generation as a producer of it. His attitudes and actions responded to societal expectations with an ability that accounted for his eventual apotheosis to the status of saint. Under this perspective, Louis' agency was only secondary to the movement of history.

Yet as king, he made a number of decisions that had a significant impact on his time and were sometimes unpopular. Early in the reign, thanks to his conciliatory nature, a dispute that threatened the University of Paris was resolved, leading to papal approbation through the granting of a bull in April 1231, Parens scientiarum, the official Charter of the University of Paris, which definitively granted the University autonomy and privileges. With this, Paris became the undisputed center for the study of Theology, allowing for and generating the most important intellectual movement of the thirteenth century, scholasticism. Then there was the unpopular decision, in 1244, to take up the cross at a time when beliefs in the utility of crusade had waned. This campaign, which began in 1248, was pivotal in Louis' life and reign. After some initial success, the crusade developed into a miserable failure: before the first two years had passed, the troops died en masse from disease, Robert of Artois, his beloved brother, was massacred, and Louis himself was taken for ransom. With the crusade more or less over in 1250, Louis nevertheless decided to remain in the Holy Land for four more years. He returned to France in 1254 a changed man, repentant and with a renewed sense of purpose. Thus began one of the most significant reform efforts of the French monarchy to ensure justice, safety, and well being within and even beyond the borders of his kingdom. From this point on, his life reads as a series of good deeds, which aimed to instill peace and harmony in the kingdom primarily through Christian tenets of forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity. Thus Louis incarnated the role of an ideal king, deftly merging political astuteness with Christian morality and practice.

This is Le Goff's Saint Louis as brought to life in his 1997 biography, which has been recently translated by Gareth Evan Gollrad and published by University of Notre Dame press. As a biography, it represents a new genre for Le Goff, one of the most prominent figures since the 1970s in the French Annales school of history. As the Annales group generally defines their research through the examination of non-traditional sources, with an ethos of opposition towards history as directed by great white men and political events, Le Goff justifies his unconventional effort in the introduction to the volume. He reconciles what he saw as the anecdotal, pseudo-psychological and overdeterministic approach of most biographies by describing man in terms of his society, maintaining that "The individual exists only within a network of diversified social relations, and this diversity also allows him to develop his role" (xxviii). He thus presents Louis as what he and Pierre Toubert have called a "'globalizing' subject around which the entire field of research is organized" (xxii). Yet, Le Goff remains conscientious of the misrepresentation of the narrative "reality effect" of history, and also goes on to deconstruct the sources that produce our understanding of Louis IX. This analysis leads to the main question of this book, which is, beyond the ideological sources that describe the king's life, "Did Saint Louis exist?" (xxxiii).

The fulfillment of these goals and inquiries thus generated a hefty three-part tome representative of Le Goff's own impressive stature in the field but which only the most dedicated will read in its entirety. Because the book is much more than a chronological account of Louis' life, being also a synchronic study of the period and sources that created Louis, it contains a good deal of repetition. Still, the multiple perspectives to the subject complement each other, being both foundational as well as discursive.

Part I, "The Life of Saint Louis," provides a chronological account of the king's reign as well as an introduction to the major themes and issues of his time. It begins, in fact, before Louis ascends to the throne, but it is not a mere account of the administrative and diplomatic problems that the young king and the regent, his mother Blanche of Castile, inherited. The aim here is also to show how the ideals and mores of the previous generation conditioned the monarch's approach to the reign. For Le Goff, one of the most important legacies to shape Louis was the court's frustrated desire to canonize Philip Augustus, whose life did not lend itself to holy approbation. The desire for a royal canonization permeated the court, encouraging Louis to rise to the challenge: "Whether the child [Louis] had heard of the aborted attempt to canonize his grandfather or not, and, if this were the case, whether he thought about it consciously or unconsciously, in any case, he would succeed where Philip Augustus had failed" (9).

In recounting the events of Louis' life, Le Goff offers a new explanation for the great reform in royal administration of 1254. Most historians, beginning with Louis' own contemporary hagiographers, attribute the change to the failure of the crusade of 1248-1254 and the king's subsequent pious reformation. Le Goff, however, maintaining that the earliest sources conform to traditional hagiographic models, gives credit to Louis' encounter with the ascetic Spiritual Franciscan Hugh of Digne, whom he met in Provence in 1254 upon his return from the crusade. Joinville recounts how the friar counseled the king to execute justice so that the people of the kingdom would keep the love of God and so that God would protect the Kingdom of France. Louis subsequently urged Hugh of Digne to join his retinue, although the friar refused on moral grounds. Nevertheless, according to Le Goff, it was Hugh of Digne who showed Louis the possibility of becoming an eschatological king: "...this religious program corresponded to Louis' deepest thoughts and wishes and that it ended up defining the political program of the final period of his reign" (154-5). Here the Annaliste gives great importance to the influence of a single man.

Le Goff also opens the field beyond the events in Louis' life to relay some of the broader circumstances and practices of the thirteenth century. Inserted within the chapters are excursions into themes such as childhood in the middle ages, chivalry, the changing attitude towards crusade, and Purgatory. There are also accounts of Louis' relations with the world at large: England, the Empire, and the papacy, as well as his perception of the Mediterranean and his contacts with the Mongols. Thus the first part of the book presents a life of Louis IX as understood within the context of the greater thirteenth century, and as such it is useful both as a reference to the life of this king as well as a general compendium of the thirteenth-century world as it related to medieval France.

Part II, "The Production of Royal Memory: Did Saint Louis Exist?" methodically examines and deconstructs the primary sources concerning Louis IX. In exemplary Annaliste style, Le Goff considers diverse primary materials to probe the depths of Louis' persona. If it comes as nothing new at this point in time to learn that those who wrote about Louis--his Mendicant hagiographers, the monks of Saint-Denis, foreign chroniclers and Joinville--did so with their own ideological motives, this section nevertheless highlights the fragility of the historical, and particularly the biographical, enterprise. After all, even the acts only offer limited information concerning the approach of the king to his monarchy. An examination of kingship in the Old Testament as well as sources commissioned by or for the king also contributes to the unsettling notion that we do not and can not really know Louis, for he is but a production of diverse agencies.

What is left of Louis IX when the fictions and the lacunae are exposed? That is the question addressed in Part III, "Saint Louis: The Unique and Ideal King." Here, Le Goff aims to reconstitute Louis insofar as he can be understood from his actions and their relation to the society and world in which he lived. Louis is thus examined in relation to broader "objective" themes such as time and space, words and gestures, or the king's three functions to tease out a better understanding of who he was. This section ends with an analysis of Louis' "inner man" whom Le Goff determines from his analysis of religion as a suffering, Christ-like king. Yet as the author readily points out, the "individual" or "self" as we conceive these identities, did not exist in the thirteenth century. Thus, even this project is sometimes fraught with an illusory distinction between the subject and the model, as well as the problematics of biographical writing. Moreover, at times, these sections read less like critical analyses than subjective responses as Le Goff more closely approaches this historical figure, a fact he admits to in the conclusion (725-7). Nevertheless, this section also offers a greater sense of who Louis was as a person in relation to his time and the expectations imposed upon him. We identify a human in the position of king who was concerned with justice and good but who still saw the world in terms of the feudal hierarchy; one who detested disorder, sin, and heresy, although he sometimes had to control his anger and was indifferent to his wife; a man who was moral and yet narrow-minded and intolerant; and a king who was emphatically religious. For Le Goff it was above all Louis' innate ability to conform to expectations held of him, despite his human idiosyncrasies, that accounts for his canonization.

In the years that have passed since its publication, Le Goff's conclusions have been incorporated into the written canon that produces our understanding of Saint Louis. In other words, Louis IX the king is still most often seen in terms of his status as a saint. A sense of Louis' goodness and his exalted fate permeates the book despite its conscientious methodology. For Le Goff, because of the nature of the sources, it is impossible to see Louis in any other light. Yet we know more about Louis because there are so many more documents associated with him than with any previous king. It is worth considering how our interpretation of Louis IX would differ if Philip the Fair had not been successful in procuring the canonization.

Beyond those questions that remain of interest to scholars of Louis and thirteenth century France, Le Goff's approach to the subject, that is, his awareness of the ideology behind the sources and the examination of the relational network of forces that condition history, has become more or less standard, at least among Anglo- American medieval historians. The publication of this book in English makes it that much more accessible to Anglophone students and scholars of all levels. While there are some typos and some misnomers in the text, the translation itself into English produces not only a slightly more succinct but also a more concrete quality to Le Goff's loquacious and sequential French prose. It is regrettable that the images were not reproduced to go with the discussion of them in the text. Nevertheless, and even if the limitations of historical biography preclude our understanding of this king, Le Goff's Saint Louis is now and will serve for a long time as a valuable reference tool and source of inspiration for the study of Louis IX in English.