Into Your Enemy’s Stomach

Alexander Murray

Can a political leader be a saint? Private morality can’t be the sole criterion. Politicians have to make decisions in a cruel and perplexing world, and some consequences of even the best decisions will be morally repugnant. The question is inveterate. Our medieval forebears answered it by simply declaring some people to be ‘saints’. An early medieval king remembered as a saint was nearly always one who had either opted out of active kingship to lead a private life of exemplary piety while others did the dirty work, or one who had been killed in a Christian cause. An example of the first kind is Edward the Confessor; of the second, Edmund, murdered by Vikings in 869 for refusing to give up Christianity.

This demarcation between sainthood and active kingship was one way in which society tried to uphold high moral ideals in an immoral world. Clergy were banned from killing, sex and money-making, while above them (all this in theory) were monks, walled off to pursue moral ‘perfection’. Saints came even higher, but they had to be dead. At first, the only saints were martyrs. They were joined around 400 ad by holy men, like bishops, then by other categories, including those kings who may or may not have been saintly.

Louis IX of France was the first major king to be made a saint. His reign, from 1226 to 1270, forms the middle episode in an unbroken success story for the French monarchy, a story which had begun in 1180 with his grandfather Philip Augustus, and would reach a climax under his grandson Philip IV, who died in 1314. Louis’s fusion of kingly and saintly qualities was an indispensable element in that success. His heirs made sure he was canonised and ever since that happened, in 1297, ‘Saint Louis’ has been a cornerstone of French national history.

Jacques Le Goff’s brilliant biography, Saint Louis, came out in French in 1996, and is now published in a readable English translation (despite gaucheries, like the retention of the French forms of names: ‘Giraud de Galles’ for ‘Gerald of Wales’, ‘Compostelle’ for ‘Compostela’ and many more). Its publication gives Anglophones a book to set beside W.C. Jordan’s Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade (1979) and Jean Richard’s Saint Louis (1983, translated in 1992). Jordan remains invaluable on Louis’s administrative reforms, and Richard on the intricacies of French dynastic politics, but Le Goff excels in his knowledge of the biographical sources, which he subjects to close analysis, against the background – Le Goff’s home territory – of European mentalités. For instance we learn in passing that Louis’s contemporaries usually read aloud rather than silently; that French kings began to be numbered just after Louis; and much more.

The one description we have of Louis’s appearance is from the Franciscan chronicler Salimbene of Parma, who in 1248 saw him en route for his crusade. Although Salimbene wrote well after Louis’s death in 1270, his memory was clear. Louis was ‘tall, graceful and healthily thin’ (subtilis et gracilis … macilentus convenienter et longus). Dressed as a pilgrim, and without noble retinue, he ‘looked more like a monk with devotion in his heart than a knight armed for war’. Louis’s direct speech was also recorded (a first for a French king). Most of the examples come in the Life of Saint Louis by Joinville, a knight ten years younger than Louis who was often in his company. Although Joinville may have written his impressions down even longer after Louis’s death – he seems to have dedicated the Life only in 1309, when he was in his eighties – his memories were vivid.

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