Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


If large numbers of men are to be ruled by one of their number, as seems more or less inevitable in the ordinary course of things, then, without doubt, the best model of what such a monarch's life should be, is to be found in that of Louis IX., who for nearly half a century was the ruler of France during our period. Of all the rulers of men of whom we have record in history he probably took his duties most seriously, with most regard for others, and least for himself and for his family. There is not a single relation of life in which he is not distinguished and in which his career is not worth studying, as an example of what can be done by a simple, earnest, self-forgetful man, to make life better and happier for all those who come in contact with him.

His relations with his mother are those of an affectionate son in whom indeed, from his easy compliance with her wishes in his younger years one might suspect some weakness, but whose strength of character is displayed at every turn once he himself assumed the reins of government. After many years of ruling however, when his departure on the Crusade compelled him to be absent from the kingdom it was to her he turned again to act as his representative and the wisdom of the choice no one can question. As a husband Louis' life was a model, and though he could not accomplish the impossible, and was not able to keep the relations of his mother and his wife as cordial as he would have liked them to be, judging from human experience generally it is hard to think this constitutes any serious blot on his fair name. As a father, few men have ever thought less of material advantages for their children, or more of the necessity for having them realize that happiness in life does not consist in the possession of many things, but rather in the accomplishment of duty and in the recognition of the fact that the giving of happiness to others constitutes the best source of felicity for one's self. His letters and instructions to his children, as preserved for us by Joinville and other contemporaries, give us perhaps the most taking picture of the man that we have, and round out a personality, which, while it has in the telling French phrase "the defects of its virtues," is surely one of the most beautiful characters that has ever been seen upon earth, in a man who took an active and extremely important part in the great events of the world of his time.

The salient points of his character are his devotion to the three great needs of humanity as they present themselves in his time. He made it the aim of his life that men should have justice, and education, and when for any misfortune they needed it, -- charity; and every portion of his career is taken up with successful achievement in these great departments of social action. It is well known that when he became conscious that the judges sometimes abused their power and gave sentences for partial reasons, the monarch himself took up the onerous duty of hearing appeals and succeeded in making the judges of his kingdom realize, that only the strictest justice would save them from the king's displeasure, and condign punishment. For an unjust judge there was short shrift. The old tree at Versailles, under which he used to hear the causes of the poor who appealed to him, stood for many centuries as a reminder of Louis' precious effort to make the dispensing of justice equal to all men. When the duty of hearing appeals took up too much of his time it was transferred to worthy shoulders, and so the important phase of jurisprudence in France relating to appeals, came to be thoroughly established as a part of the organic law of the kingdom.

As regards education, too much can not be said of Louis' influence. It is to him more than to anybody else that the University of Paris owes the success it achieved as a great institution of learning at the end of the Thirteenth Century. Had the monarch been opposed to the spread of education with any idea that it might possibly undermine his authority, had he even been indifferent to it, Paris would not have come to be the educational center of the world. As it was, Louis not only encouraged it in every way, but also acted as the patron of great subsidiary institutions which were to add to its prestige and enhance its facilities. Among the most noteworthy is the Sorbonne. La Sainte Chapelle deserves to be mentioned, however, and the library attached to it, which owed its foundation and development to Louis, were important factors in attracting students to Paris and in furnishing them interestingly suggestive material for thought and the development of taste during their residence there. His patronage of Vincent of Beauvais, the encyclopedist, was but a further manifestation of his interest in everything educational. His benefactions to the Hotel Dieu must be considered rather under the head of charity, and yet they also serve to represent his encouragement of medical education and of the proper care for the poor in educated hands.

Voltaire, to whom Louis' character as a supreme believer in revealed religion must have been so utterly unsympathetic, and whose position as the historical symbol of all that Voltaire most held in antipathy in medievalism, might have been expected to make the French philosopher avoid mention of him since he could not condemn, has been forced into some striking utterances in praise of Louis, one of which we quote:

"Louis IX appeared to be a prince destined to reform Europe, if she could have been reformed, to render France triumphant and civilized, and to be in all things a pattern for men. His piety which was that of an anchorite, did not deprive him of any kingly virtue. A wise economy took nothing from his liberality. A profound policy was combined with strict justice and he is perhaps the only sovereign who is entitled to this praise; prudent and firm in counsel, intrepid without rashness in his wars, he was as compassionate as if he had always been unhappy. No man could have carried virtue further."

Guizot, the French statesman and historian, whose unbending Calvinism made the men and institutions of the Middle Ages almost incomprehensible to him from their Catholic aspects, has much of good to say of Louis, though there is not wanting rather definite evidence of the reluctance of his admiration:

"The world has seen more profound politicians on the throne, greater generals, men of more mighty and brilliant intellect, princes who have exercised a more powerful influence over later generations and events subsequent to their own times; but it has never seen such a king as this St. Louis, never seen a man possessing sovereign power and yet not contracting the vices and passions which attend it, displaying upon the throne in such a high degree every human virtue purified and ennobled by Christian faith. St. Louis did not give any new or personal impulse to his age; he did not strongly influence the nature or the development of civilization in France; whilst he endeavored to reform the gravest abuses of the feudal system by the introduction of justice and public order, he did not endeavor to abolish it either by the substitution of a pure monarchy, or by setting class against class in order to raise the royal authority high above all. He was neither an egotist nor a scheming diplomatist; he was, in all sincerity, in harmony with his age and sympathetic alike with the faith, the institutions, the customs, and the tastes of France in the Thirteenth Century. And yet, both in the Thirteenth Century and in later times St. Louis stands apart as a man of profoundly original character, an isolated figure without any peer among his contemporaries or his successors. As far as it was possible in the Middle Ages, he was an ideal man, king, and Christian."

Guizot goes even further than this when he says, "It is reported that in the Seventeenth Century, during the brilliant reign of Louis XIV., Montecuculli, on learning of the death of his illustrious rival, Turenne, said to his officers, 'A man has died to-day who did honor to mankind.' St. Louis did honor to France, to royalty, to humanity, and to Christianity. This was the feeling of his contemporaries, and after six centuries it is still confirmed by the judgment of the historian."

Of Louis' wonderful influence for good as a ruler all historians are agreed in talking in the highest terms. His private life however, is even more admirable for our purpose of bringing out the greatness of the Thirteenth Century. Of course many legends and myths have gathered around his name, but still enough remains of absolutely trustworthy tradition and even documentary evidence, to make it very clear that he was a man among men, a nobleman of nature's making, who in any position of life would have acquitted himself with a perfection sure to make his life worthy of admiration. One of the most striking traits of his character is his love of justice, his insatiable desire to render to all men what was rightly theirs. A biographer has told the story that gives the most telling proof of this in relating the solicitude with which he tried to right all the wrongs not only of his own reign, but of those of his predecessors, before he set out on the Crusade. He wished to have the absolute satisfaction that he, nor his, owed any man any reparation, as the most precious treasure he could take with him on his perilous expedition. He wished even to undo any wrongs that might have been done in his name though he was entirely unconscious of them.

"As he wished to be in a state of grace at the moment of departure, and to take with him to the Holy Land a quiet conscience by leaving the kingdom in as happy a condition as possible, he resolved to carry out one of the noblest measures ever undertaken by a king. By his order, inquisitors were sent into all the provinces annexed to the royal dominion since the accession of Philip Augustus. All those who had been maltreated or despoiled by the bailiffs, seneschals, provosts, sergeants, and other representatives of the royal authority, came to declare their wrongs to these newly appointed judges, and to demand the reparation which was due to them; the number was great, since for forty years there had been much suffering in the country districts and even in the towns. . . . The royal officers had too often acted as if they were in a conquered country; they believed themselves to be safe from observation, so that they might do as they pleased. The people had much to endure during these forty years, and it was a noble idea to make reparation freely and with elaborate care. No prince had been known, of his own accord and at his own cost, to redress the wrongs inflicted on the people during the reigns of his father and grandfather. This made an immense impression, which lasted for centuries. Blanche's son was not merely a good king, be became the unrivalled sovereign, the impeccable judge, the friend and consoler of his subjects."

It is no wonder that so inappeasable a lover of justice should commend that virtue above all others to his son. When we read his letters to that son who was to be his successor, in the light of Louis' own career, we appreciate with what utter sincerity they were written. Louis realized that simple justice between men would undo more of the world's wrongs than most of the vaunted cures for social ills, which are only too often the result of injustice.

"Dear son," he writes in his Instruction, "if you come to reign, do that which befits a king, that is, be so just as to deviate in nothing from justice, whatever may befall you. If a poor man goes to law with one who is rich, support the poor rather than the rich man until you know the truth, and when the truth is known, do that which is just. And if it happen that any man has a dispute with yourself, maintain the cause of your adversary before the council so as not to appear partial to your own cause, until the truth is known. Unless you do this, those who are of the council may fear to speak against you, and this ought not to be . . . . And if you find that you possess anything unjustly acquired, either in your time or in that of your predecessors, make restitution at once, however great its value, either in land, money, or any other thing . . . . If the matter is doubtful and you cannot find out the truth, follow the advice of trusty men, and make such an agreement as may fully deliver your soul and that of your predecessors. If you hear that your predecessors have made restitution of anything, take great trouble to discover if anything more should be restored, and if you find that this is the case, restore it at once so as to deliver your own soul and that of your predecessors."

"The education of his children, their future position and well-being, engrossed the attention of the King as entirely, and were subjects of as keen an interest, as if he had been a father with no other task than the care of his children. After supper they followed him to his apartment, where he made them sit around him for a time whilst he instructed them in their duty; he then sent them to bed. He would direct their attention particularly to the good and bad actions of Princes. He used to visit them in their own apartment when he had any leisure, inquire as to their progress, and like a second Tobias, give them excellent instruction . . . . On Maundy Thursday, he and his children used to wash the feet of a dozen poor persons, give them large alms, and afterward wait upon them whilst they dined. The King together with his son-in-law King Thibault, whom he loved and looked upon as his own son, carried the first poor man to the hospital of Compeigne, and his two oldest sons, Louis and Philippe, carried the second. They were accustomed to act with him in all things, showing him great reverence, and he desired that they and Thibault should also obey him implicitly in everything that he commanded."

Anyone who still retains any trace of the old-fashioned notion, which used to be unfortunately a commonplace among English speaking people, that the medieval Monks were unworthy of their great calling, and that the monasteries were the homes of lazy, fat-witted men whose only object in taking up the life was to secure an easy means of livelihood, will be thoroughly undeceived, if he but read with some attention the stories of Louis' relations to the monasteries. In all his journeys he stopped in them, he always asked to see their libraries, he insisted on not being treated better than the community and in every way he tried to show his esteem for them. There is a story which may or may not be true in the "Little Flowers of St. Francis," which comes from almost a contemporary source, however, that once on his travels he called on Brother Giles, the famous simple-minded companion of St. Francis, of whom so many delightfully humorous stories are told. Brother Giles received his affectionate greeting but said never a word in return. After the first words the King himself said nothing, but both sat and communed in silence for some time, and then the King departed apparently well-pleased with his visit. Needless to say when Brother Giles told the story of the King of France having called on him there was a commotion in the community. But by this time the King was far distant on his way.

Indeed Louis took so many opportunities to stop in monasteries and follow monastic regulations as to prayer and the taking of meals while there, that he quite disgusted some of the members of his retinue who were most with him. One of the ladies of the court in her impatience at him for this, is once said to have remarked under such indiscreet circumstances that it was reported to Louis, that she wished they had a man and not a monk for King. Louis is said to have asked her very gently if she would prefer that he spend most of his time in sport and in excesses of various kinds. Even such remarks, however, had no effect in turning him from his purpose to live as simply and as beneficently for others as possible. His genuine appreciation of the monks must be recognized from his wishes with regard to his children. On the other hand his readiness to secure their happiness as far as possible in the way they wished for themselves shows the tenderness of his fatherly heart. A modern biographer has said of him

"He was very anxious that his three children born in the East during the Crusade -- Jean Tristan, Pierre, and Blanche -- and even his eldest daughter Isabella, should enter the monastic life, which he looked upon as the most likely to insure their salvation; he frequently exhorted them to take this step, writing letters of the greatest tenderness and piety, especially to his daughter Isabella; but, as they did not show any taste for it, he did not attempt to force their inclinations. Thenceforth, he busied himself in making suitable marriages for them, and establishing them according to their rank; at the same time he gave them the most judicious advice as to their conduct and actions in the world upon which they were entering. When he was before Tunis and found that he was sick unto death, he gave the instructions which he had written out in French with his own hand to his eldest son, Philip. They are models of virtue, wisdom and paternal tenderness, worthy of a King and a Christian."

Perhaps the most interesting feature of St. Louis' life was his treatment of the poor. He used literally to recall the fact that they must stand to him in the place of God. "Whatever you do to the least of these you do even unto me" was a favorite expression frequently in his mouth. He waited on them personally and no matter how revolting their appearance would not be deterred from this personal service. It is easy to understand that his courtiers did not sympathize with this state of mind, though Louis used to encourage them not only by his example but by personal persuasion. Every Holy Thursday he used to wash the feet of twelve poor people at a public ceremonial, in honor of the washing of the feet of the Apostles by Christ. It must not be thought moreover, that such a proceeding was perhaps less repugnant to the feelings of the men of that time than they are to the present generation. It might be considered that the general paucity of means for maintaining personal cleanliness in medieval times would make the procedure less disgusting. As a proof of the contrary of this we have the words of Joinville who tells of the following conversation

"Many a time," says Joinville, "I have seen him cut their bread for them, and pour out their drink. One day he asked me if I washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. "Sire," I answered, "What, the feet of those dirty wretches! No indeed, I shall never wash them." "Truly," replied the King, "you have spoken ill, for you ought not to despise that which God intended for your instruction. I pray you, therefore, first of all for the love of God, and then by your love towards me, that you make a habit of washing their feet."

Even more striking than this however, was his attitude toward the lepers of the time. These poor creatures were compelled to live apart from the population and were not allowed to approach healthy individuals. They were of exceeding interest to Louis however, who took every opportunity to mitigate the trials and hardships of their existence. Whenever he met them on his journeys he insisted on abundant alms being given them, and gave orders that every possible provision tor their welfare, consonant with the care that their affection should not be permitted to spread, be made for them. Over and over again he greeted them as his brothers and when his retinue feared to approach them, would himself go to them, in order to console them by his words and his exhibition of personal interest. There is an incident told of his having on one occasion, when a muddy stream intervened between him and some lepers, forded the stream alone in order to get to them, and neither any personal fear of contagion nor any natural repugnance was permitted to deter him from this sublime work of charity. It is no wonder that his people proclaimed him a saint, that is "one who thinks first of others and only second of himself," even during his lifetime.

The only supposed blot upon Louis' character is the denunciation by certain modern writers of what they call the fanaticism, which prompted him to go on the Crusades instead of remaining at home properly to care for his people. The opinion with regard to the place that must be assigned to the Crusades as a factor in history and national as well as European development, has changed very much in recent years. Formerly it was the custom almost entirely to condemn them and to look upon them as a serious mistake. Such ideas however, are only entertained by those who do not realize the conditions under which they were undertaken or the important results which flowed from them. Bishop Stubbs in his lectures on Medieval and Modern History, delivered while he was professor of History at Oxford, has been at some pains to correct this false notion, and his passage constitutes one of the best apologies for Louis' interest in the Crusades which could be written. He said

"The Crusades are not, in my mind, either the popular delusions that our cheap literature has determined them to be, nor papal conspiracies against kings and peoples, as they appear to Protestant controversialists; nor the savage outbreak of expiring barbarism, thirsting for blood and plunder, nor volcanic explosions of religious intolerance. I believe them to have been in their deep sources, and in the minds of their best champions, and in the main tendency of their results, capable of ample justification. They were the first great effort of medieval life to go beyond the pursuit of selfish and isolated ambitions; they were the trial-feat of the young world, essaying to use, to the glory of God and the benefit of man, the arms of its new knighthood. That they failed in their direct object is only what may be alleged against almost every great design which the great disposer of events has moulded to help the world's progress; for the world has grown wise from the experience of failure, rather than by the winning of high aims. That the good they did was largely leavened with evil may be said of every war that has ever been waged; that bad men rose by them while good men fell, is and must be true, wherever and whenever the race is to the swift and the battle to the strong. But that in the end they were a benefit to the world no one who reads can doubt; and that in their course they brought out a love for all that is heroic in human nature, the love of freedom, the honor of prowess, sympathy with sorrow, perseverance to the last, the chronicles of the age abundantly prove; proving, moreover, that it was by the experience of these times that the forms of those virtues were realized and presented to posterity."{1}

With the stigma of supposed imprudence or foolhardiness for having gone on the Crusade turned into a new cause for honor, Louis must be considered as probably the greatest monarch who ever occupied an important throne. Instead of being surprised that such a monarch should have come in the heart of the Middle Ages and during a century so distant as the Thirteenth, readers must now be ready to appreciate to some degree at least the fact, that his environment instead of being a hindrance in any sense of the word to the development of Louis' greatness, should rather be considered as one of the principal sources of it. Louis' character was representative of the men of that time and exhibits in their most striking form the qualities that were set up as ideals in that period. If the century had produced nothing else but Louis, it would have to be considered as a great epoch in history, for he was no mere accident but typically a son of his age. If this is but properly appreciated the true significance not only of Louis' life but the period in which he lived will be better understood than would be possible by any other means. Those who want to know the men of this wonderful century as they actually were should study Louis' life in detail, for we have been only able to hint at its most striking characteristics.

{1} Stubbs, "Seventeen Lectures on Medieval and Modern History," p. 180.

<< ======= >>