Louis IX, King of France: what did he do and what is his heritage?
About a year after its purchase, the crown of thorns was welcomed to Paris in 1239 with a solemn procession led
by the king. One of his earliest biographers, Geoffroy de Beaulieu (as translated by Larry F Field), wrote of the event: “And with what joy did our pious king travel to respectfully take possession of these said relics ! And again, with what solemn devotion all the clergy and the people received these precious relics in procession in Paris, when the king himself, barefoot, carried this sacred treasure on his shoulders for some distance! The procession stopped at Notre Dame, but only briefly. It had a different final destination: the king’s private chapel in his palace, then dedicated to Saint Nicholas.
The “holy chapel”, that’s what Sainte-Chapelle means, was a special place in all respects. Legally, the Pope had exempted him from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Paris. It was the palace’s private chapel, but the general public celebrated special festivals in the courtyard and inside the palace. Inside, on the top floor, Parisians and beyond would have seen walls almost entirely of stained glass. Brilliant blues and reds sparkled the gold of the reliquaries, single-handedly illuminating the vibrant paintings that adorned the walls.
And of course, the paintings weren’t random or decorative; they told a story about God and royalty. They told the biblical story of Israel, starting with Genesis and continuing through the gospels. The story of the crucifixion appears directly above the altar where the relics were kept. But then the narrative continues on the south wall to tell a story of kings – those of ancient Israel, then Louis IX himself and the story of the relics arriving in Paris. Each window is adorned with the fleur-de-lis of the Kingdom of France. The message was not subtle. Kings, not priests, are here closest to God.
In 1240, the sentence against the Talmud is pronounced. But the fire that would occur more than a year later has hardly happened. The whole story is all about contingency, decisions that maybe weren’t made, or how things might have turned out differently. The archbishop of Sens, the most powerful among the judges of the “trial”, intervened. The papacy has said that now the Talmud should be censored for “offensive” material, but not banned or burned.
But Louis was on his way. Carts from the Talmud arrived at Place de Grève in 1242. Louis IX seems to have believed that a “very Christian” king had a special responsibility towards God to take care of his people and that this responsibility required zeal. The king was to zealously care for the poor and see that justice was done. For example, according to one of his hagiographers, “when a famine once struck some parts of Normandy, he designated such a large amount of money for the poor of that region that, just as from there it was usually brought to Paris a wealth of income in boxes and wagons, now on the other hand as much money was brought back from Paris in boxes and vehicles to be distributed to the poor ”. This hagiographer further explained that Louis himself washed “the feet of… poorer and older men who could be found, which he did on his knees, humbly, piously, and in a very secret place… in the same way. , he brought water to wash their hands, which he kissed in the same way. He then provided each of them with a certain amount of money, and he himself used them while they ate.
To be zealous meant not only to help fellow Christians, but also to fight against those who were considered enemies of God. Louis would continue his persecution of the Jews, threatening to arrest all French Jews and confiscate their property in 1268. This did not happen, but the Jews were formally separated from the Christians in 1269 and forced to wear a yellow badge or red on their clothes.
The world had to be purified.
The Death of a Crusader
It is not by chance that, following the burning of the Talmud, even before the consecration of the Holy Chapel, Louis resolved to launch a military expedition to Egypt with the ultimate goal of taking Jerusalem. It was a disaster, even if it started under good auspices with the capture of the great port of Damietta in Egypt.
Egypt was hot and the Christian army was prone to disease. Going up the Nile towards Cairo, Louis’ army found its advance hampered by the annual flooding of the great river. Louis was captured by the Mamluk General Baibars and had to pay a vast ransom, including the return of Damietta, for his release. However, the king would not gain such a reprieve during his next crusade – launched in 1270 – dying of dysentery shortly after landing in Tunisia. The sheer force of Louis’ desire to rid the world of heretics had cost him his life.
The statue of Saint Louis located in Central America – in the heart of the city that was named in his honor – recalls all parts of this medieval king. Erected in plaster for the 1904 World’s Fair, it was recreated in bronze in 1906 as a gift to the city, possibly as part of a larger trend in Civil War statuary being built at the same time. But it was not officially designated a city monument until 1971, when a special cultural district was created that included the zoo and the art museum.
The statue was, and still is, a civic symbol, a point of pride for many – and, thanks to the king’s official canonization, an important focal point for parts of the city’s Catholic community. But everything has a story. The event that created this particular statue, the 1904 World’s Fair, was known for its racism against blacks and Native Americans. As a monument of civic pride, an avatar in some ways of the city itself, the statue carries with it a long history of violence against blacks and Native Americans, most recently the police shootings of Michael Brown and Anthony Lamar Smith. Monuments, like people, are complicated; what some see as a point of pride is for others sites of great shame.
The legacy of Louis IX helps us understand why. His legacy must contain all of this complexity, all of his humanity – as a saint and a monster. Does the fire at Place de Grève change the way we have to see the beauty of the Sante-Chapelle, how we imagine that the light of the candles and the light of the sun are mixing – as the latter crosses the glorious stained glass, the pinnacle of Gothic art? Does Louis’ violence against minority communities call into question its sacred character, even though this violence was explicitly celebrated by the papacy during its canonization? It has to, because the man and his actions were real.
As writers and historians – one Jewish, the other Catholic – we can both remember the crackling of the burning pages and marvel at the beauty of the chapel. It is in this duality – the mess of real people who lived in the past – that we found the Bright Ages, informing our own study of the past.