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A king of fire and light: Louis IX's tangled legacy

French ruler Louis IX was a Catholic hero and a vicious anti-Semite, a patron of exquisite art and a fervent burner
of books. Matthew Gabriele and David M Perry consider the tangled legacy of a man who embodies both the horrors and beauty of medieval Europe

Illustration of King Louis IX.
Published: January 14, 2022 at 5:29 pm
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It’s a beautiful spring day in Paris sometime in April 1248 as sunlight streams through the south-facing windows of Sainte-Chapelle. Natural light tangles with the glow of countless candles and smoke traces the lines of the stone as they vault towards the ceiling. Fire and light, a radiant king dressed in gold, the relics of Jesus’s crucifixion gleaming on the altar making the case that Jesus himself now resides in Paris, a new Jerusalem, the new centre of the world. But light can consume even as it illuminates, it can guide the harvesters who take in the wheat, and it can burn that which they consider weeds.

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It’s another beautiful day in June 1242 and a crowd has gathered across the Seine from the Île de la Cité, almost directly opposite the nearly completed cathedral of Notre Dame, its stone towers visible above the warren of wooden structures along the right bank of the Seine. Perhaps that crowd could even catch sight of the king’s palace, the site that would become Sainte-Chapelle. What lit this crowd was not the sun, but rather a great fire. The people in the Place de Grève, a great plaza and site of public executions in the medieval city, had come together not to burn bodies but to burn books – 24 cartloads of a text deemed dangerous and heretical: the Talmud.

It’s June 2020 and about 200 people have gathered in the heart of St Louis, Missouri, an ocean and a world away from 13th-century Paris. Here, opposing factions shout at each other in front of the Apotheosis of King Louis IX, a statue of the king mounted on horse, in armour, sword in hand but pointed downwards so that the hilt forms a cross. One faction demands the statue comes down, moving in harmony with the uprising that began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, citing the medieval king’s violence against Jews and Muslims. The other prays with their rosaries, accompanied by a priest who blesses the statue with a supposed relic of the king and saint. At one point members of a motorcycle gang, one with a long history of alleged criminal activity, step in between the factions to supposedly keep the peace.

Messy in the middle

The life, death and afterlife of Louis IX reveals the paradox of fire and light of medieval Europe. As The Bright Ages, our new history of medieval Europe, narrates, this was no Dark Age, but a human age, with all the beauty and horror contained in any era. But how both beauty and horror manifest, how the messiness in the middle unfolds, does change from era to era, and perhaps nothing embodies both extremes more than the story of this French king and saint. He was a “good” Christian king according to his own merits, with both great acts of charity and financial support for magnificent churches and works of art that we rightly cherish today. He also waged war in north Africa on behalf of Christianity, consumed by the confidence that his violence against Islam would earn him treasures in heaven. And to finance his campaigns, to attempt to unify his kingdom under a more cohesive Christian identity and maintain the support of church leaders, Louis persecuted the Jews.

The life, death and afterlife of Louis IX reveals the paradox of fire and light of medieval Europe

In 1239 Pope Gregory IX asked rulers throughout Christendom to investigate a book for possible heresy. The pope was concerned the book deviated from biblical truth. Most ignored the papal request, but the young Louis IX of France responded enthusiastically and commissioned a tribunal in 1240. The queen mother presided. The chancellor of the University of Paris, alongside the bishop of Paris, the archbishop of Sens, and several friars would lead the prosecution.

This was the early era of the papal inquisition, but that body – formed in the wake of a war against the so-called Cathars in southern France – was specifically designed to locate Christian heretics. Here in Paris, however, the defendants were rabbis, facing the charge that Jews who used the Talmud – a collection of commentary of law and tradition critical to the development of medieval rabbinical Jewish practice – were heretics from what the pope considered “biblical” Judaism.

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Louis was confident that his violence against Islam would earn him treasures in heaven

The outcome of the tribunal, of course, had a foreordained conclusion, with the Jews of Paris never given a chance to prevail. Medieval Jews had a theoretically protected status in European Christian kingdoms, but one always bounded by intellectual antagonism that could – and often did – quickly slip into physical violence.

The Jews, according to Christian thinkers like the fifth-century Augustine of Hippo, proved the truth of Christianity through history; Augustine pointed to the Jews’ servitude across the Mediterranean and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, all as God’s punishment for the failure to accept Jesus. As the historian David Nirenberg has shown, medieval Christians believed that Jews needed to be reminded of that subservience, often through violence: harassment, segregation, sometimes assault and murder – and, in this case, book burning.

Indeed, the Christian judges agreed that the Talmud was blasphemous and should be banned, its copies burnt. So in June 1242, hundreds, if not thousands, of manuscripts were brought to the Place de Grève, stacked in a pile, and set alight. The fire likely burned so high it may have reflected off the stained glass of Notre Dame across the river. Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, who himself witnessed the event, would lament later in the 13th century, that “Moses shattered the tablets, and another one then repeated his folly/ Burning the law in flames.../ I witnessed how they gathered plunder from you/ Into the centre of a public square... and burned the spoils of God on high.”

Rabbi Meir, in anguish, related that the fire that burned so high, so brightly in the City of Lights, that it paradoxically “leaves me and you in darkness”.

More than seven and a half centuries later, across the ocean in Missouri, these and other acts of persecution were much on the mind of the protesters who wanted to take down the king’s statue. His defenders, though, weren’t thinking of burning books, but of light streaming through glass windows.

Both are part of the history, though the beauty of the latter does nothing to offset the horror of the former.

Christ comes to Paris

And what Louis built was indeed beautiful. As he took the throne early in the 13th century, Notre Dame was slowly rising into its full medieval shape, enabled by the new “gothic” style. It was an architectural approach that soared, with ceilings in the nave of churches towering above everything else in their medieval cities. Pointed arches and exterior supports, known as “flying buttresses,” relieved the weight of the ceiling and distributed it outwards allowing the walls to move from solid and fortress-like to ethereal and light. In a world made of wood, stone impressed; but for a world before electricity, more important was light. This wasn’t a world lit only by fire, but one illuminated by the sun. Allowing sunlight inside, allowing an interior to gleam, was to capture something of the divine. So, heavy stone walls were replaced by translucent and radiant coloured glass.

Notre Dame was one example but that belonged to the bishop of the city, and the king wanted something grander. Even before the building was completed, King Louis needed a new kind of sacred space – not a cathedral for an archbishop or a palace to glorify a king, but a home for the King of Kings himself. In that year, Louis had scored a coup, purchasing relics of the Passion in a complicated debt-relief deal for the beleaguered Latin empire of Constantinople, itself a hybrid realm in a Byzantine empire torn apart by civil war and threat of invasion. And so by helping the Latin emperors financially, Louis IX acquired the most sacred objects in Christendom, first and foremost among them the Crown of Thorns.

It wasn’t unusual for relics, even important relics, to be transferred or translated from place to place. But the translation of the Crown of Thorns, wood of the True Cross, and other relics associated with the Passion, exceeded these traditions by an order of magnitude. Medieval Christians, perhaps like all people, lived not only in the physical world, but also a bigger imaginary geography not bound by the ordinary rules. When a sacred object moves, it drags the world with it and makes re-ordering possible. And so Louis and his supporters could argue that the centre of the Christian world – that Christ himself, that Jerusalem itself – had come with those relics to reside in Paris.

About a year after its purchase, the Crown of Thorns was welcomed into Paris in 1239 with a solemn procession led
by the king. One of his early biographers, Geoffrey of Beaulieu (as translated by Larry F Field), wrote of the event: “And with what joy did our devout king journey out to reverently take possession of these said relics! And again, with what solemn devotion did all the clergy and populace receive in procession at Paris these valuable relics, when the king himself, barefoot, bore on his own shoulders for some way this sacred treasure!” The procession stopped at Notre Dame, but only briefly. It had a different final destination: the king’s private chapel in his palace, at that time dedicated to St Nicholas.

The “holy chapel”, which is what Sainte-Chapelle means, was a special place in all ways. Legally, the pope had exempted it from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Paris. It was the private chapel in the palace, but the general public celebrated special feasts in the palace courtyard and inside. Within, on the upper floor, the medieval people of Paris and beyond would have seen walls almost entirely made of stained glass. Brilliant blues and reds made the gold of the reliquaries sparkle, illuminating on their own the vibrant paintings that adorned the walls.

And of course the paintings were not random or decorative; they told a story about God and kingship. They told the biblical story of Israel, beginning 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 from ancient Israel, and then Louis IX himself and the story of the arrival of the relics to Paris. Every window is adorned with the fleur-de-lis of the kingdom of France. The message wasn’t subtle. Kings, not priests, are closest to God here.

In 1240, the sentence against the Talmud was pronounced. But the burning that would occur over a year later almost didn’t happen. All history is about contingency, about decisions that might not have been made, or how things could have gone differently. The archbishop of Sens, the most powerful among the judges at the “trial”, interceded. The papacy said that now the Talmud was to be censored of “offending” material, but not banned, nor burned.

But Louis was set on his course. Cartloads of the Talmud arrived at the Place de Grève in 1242. Louis IX seems to have believed that a “most Christian” king had a special responsibility to God to care for his people and that responsibility required zeal. The king was to be zealous in caring for the poor and ensuring that justice was done. For example, according to one of his hagiographers, “when a famine once befell parts of Normandy, he designated such a large supply of money for the poor of that area that, just as from there was usually brought to Paris a treasure of revenues in coffers and wagons, now by contrast just as much money was carried back from Paris in boxes and vehicles for distribution to the poor”. That hagiographer further explained that Louis himself washed “the feet of the... poorer and older men who could be found, which he did on bended knee, humbly, piously, and in a most secret place... In similar fashion he brought water to wash their hands, which he kissed in the same way. He then provided a certain sum of money to each, and he himself waited upon them as they ate.”

Being zealous meant not only helping his fellow Christians, but also struggling against those seen as God’s enemies. Louis would continue his persecution of the Jews, threatening to arrest all French Jews and confiscate their property in 1268. This didn’t happen but Jews were formally segregated from Christians in 1269, and forced to wear a yellow or red badge on their clothes.

The world had to be purified.

A crusader’s death

It’s also not a coincidence that, in the wake of the burning of the Talmud, even before Sainte-Chapelle was consecrated, Louis resolved to launch a military expedition to Egypt with the ultimate goal of taking Jerusalem. It was a disaster, even if it started auspiciously enough with the capture of the major port of Damietta in Egypt.

Egypt was hot, and the Christian army was prone to disease. Marching up the Nile towards Cairo, Louis’ army found its advance hindered by the annual flood 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 earn no such reprieve during his next crusade – launched in 1270 – dying from 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 St Louis sited in middle America – in the heart of the city that was named in his honour – remembers all parts of that medieval king. Erected in plaster for the 1904 World’s Fair, it was recreated in bronze in 1906 as a gift to the city, perhaps part of a larger trend of Civil War statuary being constructed at the same time. But it wasn’t formally designated a city monument until 1971, during the creation of a special cultural district encompassing the zoo and art museum.

The statue stood, and still stands, as a civic symbol, a point of pride for many – and, through the king’s formal canonisation, an important focal point for parts of the city’s Catholic community. But everything has a history. The event that created this particular statue, the 1904 World’s Fair, was notorious for its racism against black and Native Americans. As a monument to civic pride, an avatar in some ways of the city itself, the statue carries with it a long history of violence against black 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, are to others sites of great shame.

The legacy of Louis IX must hold all of that complexity, all of his humanity – as saint and monster

The legacy of Louis IX helps us understand why that is. His legacy must hold all of that complexity, all of his humanity – as saint and monster. Does the fire in the Place de Grève change how we must see the beauty of Sante-Chapelle, how we imagine candlelight and sunlight mixing – as the latter passed through the glorious coloured glass, the pinnacle of gothic art? Does Louis’ violence against minority communities challenge his sanctity, even as that violence was explicitly celebrated by the papacy during his canonisation? It must, because the man and his actions were real.

As writers and historians – one Jewish, one Catholic – we both find ourselves able to remember the crackle of burning pages and wonder at the beauty in the chapel. It’s in this duality – the messiness of real people who lived in the past – that we found the bright ages, illuminating our own study of the past.

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech. David M Perry is a freelance journalist. Their book The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe is published by Harper in January 2022. You can listen to them discuss the legacy of Louis IX on our podcast soon: HistoryExtra.com/podcast

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This article was first published in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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