14.10.11, Gaposchkin, trans., Blessed Louis

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Meredith Cohen

The Medieval Review 14.10.11

Gaposchkin, M. Cecilia, trans., with Phillis B. Katz. Blessed Louis: The Most Glorious of Kings. Texts Relating to the Cult of Saint Louis of France. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. Pp. 328. ISBN: 9780268029845 (paperback) 9780268080709 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Meredith Cohen
University of California, Los Angeles

One of the most intriguing aspects about Louis IX of France (r. 1226-1270) is the apparent contradiction between his sanctity and his kingship. Blessed Louis offers a series of texts that present the unification of these normally opposing poles, which defined the image of Saint Louis in the later Middle Ages. Of the six texts brought forward here, two are published for the first time: Gloriosissimi regis and Beatus Ludovicus, both hagiographical and paraliturgical narratives penned in the wake of the canonization proceedings. These vitae served as the core documents for the proper liturgy for the Feast of Saint Louis (August 25), examples of which are also published here with elegant verse translations completed with Phyllis B. Katz: the mass Gaudeamus omnes, and the full proper office known as Ludovicus decus regnantium, commissioned after 1297 to the court composer and liturgist Pierre de la Croix probably by Philip IV ("the Fair," 1285-1314). The last two texts are sermons (Rex sapiens, Videte regem Salomonem) written in the first quarter of the thirteenth century by the Parisian Dominican (Jacobin) preacher Jacob of Lausanne (active 1303-1322). The varied genres of these texts reveal the different means by which the official ecclesiastical portrait of Saint Louis was transmitted to people beyond elite ambits. These texts also enlarge the number of primary source publications concerning Saint Louis, which in English has been limited to Joinville's Life of Saint Louis, an anecdotal biography known only to the court in the Middle Ages.

The introduction proves edifying even for people who are already well versed in the history of Louis IX. It begins with a brief outline of the life and canonization of the king, continues with very clear and concise explanations of the historical tradition and function of these texts, and contains a brief analysis of the image they generate of Louis IX. It also provides a short explanation about the choices made in the transcriptions, sources, and translations.

Improving the account provided in the last pages of Le Goff's Saint Louis by means of a focused, chronological relay of events, the discussion of the hagiographical and liturgical tradition for the royal saint distinguishes those people and texts most influential among the many that contributed to the memory of Saint Louis. It also clarifies how the texts ultimately became highly interrelated. Specifically, of the two vitae written shortly after Louis' death by his own Dominican confessors, it was the first by Geoffrey of Beaulieu rather than the second by William of Chartres that had the greatest impact in the later hagiographies. The third vita, composed around 1302-1303 by William of Saint-Pathus, the Franciscan confessor for Louis' wife, Marguerite of Provence, commissioned by their daughter Blanche (who lived in lay residence at the Franciscan convent of Saint-Marcel at Lourcines), also stands as an important text because it refers to now lost records of the canonization inquest testimonies and the approved papal life (vita curia approbata). These early documents, unfortunately remaining only in Latin editions, predate the texts published here, which demonstrate the finished product that is the portrait of the saint. Gaposchkin has signaled the appropriation of the earlier texts within the footnotes of the translations, proving the level of interrelatedness between them all. Indeed, it is only from such a coherent tradition that the unique portrait of the saint-king could emerge.

Anyone who lacks fluency in the structure of liturgy will also find the straightforward explanation of the proper office and mass useful in the general introduction and in the short introduction preceding the liturgies for Saint Louis. The author describes the format for the entire proper office and how it fits into the divine office, and explains the placement, form, and performance of antiphons, responsories, hymns, and lections. And while most medievalists will be familiar with the challenges of translation, the author masterfully demonstrates the types of changes required to provide a verse translation of the office that matches the elegance and spirit of the original Latin.

In a more analytical vein, Gaposchkin identifies the portrait of the king these texts present as a reworking of Louis' kingship and crusade in the saintly terms redefined primarily by the mendicants in the early thirteenth century. She points out that the vitae present a roughly chronological narrative of the king's life that highlight his acts in terms of the Christian virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity. Predictably, these texts often refer to the same events or anecdotes from the earlier vitae, but the exceptions to that general pattern are revealing, particularly on the subject of Louis' rulership on which Gaposchkin provides an insightful discussion.

The texts themselves provide some new material for students and scholars to employ in their own studies. Notably for this author, in mentioning the king's will to have a humble tomb (as written in Geoffrey of Beaulieu, 10.6), Gloriosissimi regis claims that "he [Louis] himself, as can be seen today, had provided that expensive tombs befitting of royal majesty be made for his royal predecessors" (53). This is one of the earliest direct attributions of royal tombs at Saint-Denis to the patronage of Louis IX. [1] The parts of these texts that recount specific acts and anecdotes about the king's life may remain the most interesting to most readers. Apart from the useful referencing provided to permit these types of distinctions, a portrait of the king based on these anecdotes alone, along with a tally of which were repeated most and which were not used or forgotten might also paint a novel portrait of this king.

Beyond the specificities of the subject matter, this book also makes a broader historical argument. In line with her previous articles and monograph on the production of Saint Louis, Gaposchkin asserts that these types of hagiographical and liturgical texts are the primary vehicles through which we as contemporary historians may access the medieval knowledge of Saint Louis (pp. 1, 8, esp. 20, 154, 224). Certainly a number of his deeds as king would also have contributed to this memorial portrait. Paris, for example, was permanently transformed by institutions and buildings bearing Louis' imprimatur: the Sainte-Chapelle and Palais de la Cité, at least eight mendicant convents, the Béguines, the charities of the Filles-Dieu, the Quinze-Vingts, the Bons Enfants, and his generous alms to and refurbishment of the Hôtel-Dieu, among others, all of which functioned as forms of royal representation. While most marked in Paris, Louis contributed similarly to many of the cities in his realm, and not only through new buildings and institutions, but also by improving the general quality of life through the changes in governance he instituted as a result of his inquests. Indeed, this is the period when Paris became the reigning cultural capital of Europe and there are real reasons why Louis' kingship is often described as a golden age. The distinction among these forms of representation comes down to the fact that Louis' buildings and acts construct a portrait to be interpreted, while the later texts present a readymade interpretation. There is no denying that these texts, with their idealized portrayal of Louis IX, have indeed formed a long-lasting legacy, one with a rose-colored perception about the king and his reign that endures up to the present day. And it is for this reason that these texts, as well as the introduction that precedes them, are important contributions that will long be useful to Anglophone (and/or non-Latinate) students and scholars.



1. This has been compellingly disputed in the scholarly literature as the monks of Saint-Denis had good reason to reinforce the royal presence there: cf. Georgia Sommers Wright, "A Royal Tomb Program in the Reign of Saint-Louis," Art Bulletin 56 (1971): 223–243. For the most recent discussion, see Elizabeth A. R. Brown, Saint-Denis: La basilique (Zodiaque 2001), 384-393. It is unlikely that the reference in Gloriosissimi regis is to Royaumont, which had royal family tombs but was Cistercian and well beyond Paris.

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Author Biography

Meredith Cohen

University of California, Los Angeles