This spring, we celebrated the 800th birthday of Louis IX of France (St. Louis). I still haven’t forgiven myself for not noting this event on the blog in any way, and so I feel it is my duty to mention it now on his feast day (though it is not the 800th anniversary of his canonization). It’s been difficult to decide what to write—my subjectivity makes me a poor scholar on the topic, and my French isn’t good enough to read a great deal of scholarship and original texts. There are plenty of websites on him as a saint and as the best of the medieval kings. Moreover, my admiration for him makes me a poor scholar on the topic–I could never write professionally or objectively on St. Louis. Rather than give you a scholarly piece, I’m going to celebrate today by posting one of the most memorable scenes from The Memoirs of the Lord of Joinville.
Whilst we were staying thus in Acre, the king sent for his brothers and the Count of Flanders and the other rich men one Sunday, and spoke to them as follows: “Sirs, my lady mother the Queen has sent to me and used her utmost entreaties, that I should go back to France; for my kingdom is in great danger, because I have no peace or truce with the King of England. The men of this country…tell me, that, if I go, this country is lost; for all those that are in Acre will come away after me, for that no one will dare to remain in it with so few men. Therefore I beg of you”—said he—”to think it over; and since the matter is a weighty one, I grant you a respite of a week from now, before you give your answer as to what you think best….”
On the next Sunday we came again before the King; and then the King asked…what advice they meant to give him?—to go?—or to stay?
They all replied:—that they had charged my Lord Guy Malvoisin with the advice that they wished to give the King.
The King ordered him to speak…and he said as follows:—“Sir, your brothers and the rich men that are here, have considered the state of your affairs, and perceive, that it is impossible for you to remain in this country, with credit to yourself or to your kingdom….”
[King Louis is not satisfied with this answer and asks each man for an individual response. All agree with Malvoisin, save Joinville, who urges the king to stay.]
And the Legate asked me angrily: How was it possible for the King to hold the field with so few men as he had? I too replied in anger…: “…It is said, sir—whether truly or not, I do not know—that the King has not yet spent any of his own money,—only the money of the clergy. Now let the King bring some of his own money into use…and when they hear the news that the King is giving handsome pay, then knights will flock to him from all quarters, so that he will be able to hold the field for a year, please God. And through his staying, those poor prisoners will be delivered, who have been captured in the service of God and himself, who will never get out again, if the King goes away.”
There was not a man present but had some of his nearest and dearest in prison, so that no one took up my words; but instead, they all began to weep….
[There is a brief argument.]
Then the King said to us: “Sirs, I have heard you attentively; and I will give you my answer this day week, as to what I think fit to do.”
No sooner had we left the place than I was attacked on all sides: “Well, Sir de Joinville, the King must be mad, if he listens to you, contrary to the whole council of the kingdom of France!” And as soon as the tables were laid, I seated myself beside the King at the board, in the place where he always made me sit, when his brothers were not there. Not a word did he speak to me all the time that the meal lasted; which was not his wont, for he always took some notice of me at table. And truly I thought that he was angry with me, because I had said, that he had not yet spent any of his own money, whereas he spent it generously. Whilst the King was hearing his grace, I walked up to an iron-barred window, that was in a recess by the head of the King’s bed, and stood with my arms thrust through the window-bars, thinking, that if the King went away to France, I would go and join the Prince of Antioch (who considered me a kinsman, and had sent for me) until another expedition should come out to the country, by which the prisoners might be delivered….
As I was standing there, the King came and leant over my shoulder and placed both his hands upon my head. And I thought that it was Lord Philip of Annemoes, who had plagued me enough that day, because of the advice I had given the King; and I said: “Leave me in peace, Lord Philip!” By mishap, as I jerked my head, the King’s hand slipped down over my face, and I recognized the King by an emerald that he wore on his finger. And he said to me: “Keep still; for I wish to ask you, how you could make so bold—a young man like you—as to venture to advise me to stay here, in opposition to all the great men and wise men of France, who advise me to go away.”
“Sir,” said I, “if I had such wickedness in my own heart, nothing should induce me to advise you to commit it.”—“Do you mean,” said he, “that I should be doing a wrong thing if I went away?”
“So help me God; yes, Sir,” quoth I. And he said: “If I stay, will you stay?” And I told him: “Yes, by some means; either at my own charge or that of someone else.”—“Now you may be quite easy”—said he—“for I am very much obliged to you for the advice you have given me. But do not tell anybody, all this week.” I was the easier for this conversation, and defended myself the more boldly against my assailants. (pg. 216–223)
This scene stands out because of the detail of description. Medieval literature does not often give a play-by-play of someone’s actions the way Joinville describes his own at the end. Throughout Joinville’s memoirs, but especially in this scene, we see how Joinville fills the often-conflicting roles of being the king’s sworn subject, councilor, and best friend. The memoirs are filled with Joinville’s memories of how the king both awes and irritates him. In this chapter, Joinville answers the king honestly but not eloquently, blurting out a lie to emphasize that they still owe a duty to their imprisoned men. Luckily, the king cares more about Joinville’s intent than his method. He takes Joinville’s advice against a council of older, wiser men.
The gesture of King Louis placing his hands on Joinville’s head is significant. It is a gesture of blessing—many Catholic rites and blessings include laying hands on the head. It’s a caring gesture of an elder to the younger in his charge, a difference made bigger by the ruler/ruled relationship (in this scene, King Louis is approximately 36; Joinville, 26). Their relationship exemplifies the medieval class system at its best. Throughout the memoir, we see how Joinville fulfills his duties to his sworn king and how King Louis fulfills his duties to his sworn subject. Here, honest advice is traded for continued protection. (In a later scene, Joinville asks the king to stop getting angry whenever Joinville asks him for something, and Joinville in turn promises not to be angry if he is denied his request.)
Perhaps the clearest view of St. Louis’s legacy during his own period is Joinville’s account of the last time he saw the king. Despite being gravely ill, King Louis leaves to lead another Crusade:
To my mind they committed a deadly sin who encouraged his going; for France had reached a condition when all the kingdom was at peace within itself and with its neighbors;—and never again has it been so since he left it; but the state of the kingdom has steadily gone from bad to worse. A very great sin it was in those who encouraged him to go, seeing how weak he was in health at the time; for he could endure neither to ride nor drive. His weakness was so great that he let me carry him in my arms from the Count of Auxerre’s house, where I took leave of him, as far as the Greyfriars. And yet, weak as he was, if he had stayed in France, he might have lived a good while and done a great deal of good. (pg. 380–81)
Thus, St. Louis is a patron of people with chronic illnesses. Emotion sometimes gets lost in the formality of medieval writing, but it’s clear that even decades after King Louis’s death, Joinville is still really pissed. If the translation is accurate (which I can’t confirm), the word choice is also important—not “I was asked to carry him” or “I had to carry him,” but “he let me carry him.” Keep in mind that Joinville is a member of the land-owning aristocracy, not a laborer. There is a great deal of emotion attached to Joinville’s last contact with his king and friend.
I’d like to end this post with a Made of Ƿ first—a link to Etsy. ReSouled Forever sells lovely St. Louis medals hand-cast from a French antique piece. Promoting an Etsy shop has little to do with the Middle Ages, but the owner is such a kind and skilled craftswoman, and I’ve wanted a chance to give her some traffic. If Lana doesn’t have any St. Louis medals in the shop when you visit, check again later or send her a message—she assures me that it’s still in production.