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The Real Story of King St. Louis IX

In this summer of disconnect we have endured a society-altering pandemic only to see long-standing statues of various historical figures come under fire for their perceived and real sins. The historical figures a society deems worthy of honor with statuary can change over time as the reasons for so honoring them are no longer remembered or as societal values change. In a civil and democratic society, reasonable people can and should debate such important questions. Yet, this essential feature of civic virtue is lost on the lawless mobs and thugs participating in a spasm of iconoclastic violence.

As the mobs target statues depicting George Washington, St. Junípero Serra, Christopher Columbus, Frederick Douglass, and a host of Confederate generals, it seems odd to include on the demolition list an imposing statue of King St. Louis IX. What could a thirteenth century French monarch, who never set foot in North America, have in common with slave owning founders of the United States, Catholic missionaries to the Southwest, and soldiers who fought the Union to preserve the institution of slavery?

According to protestors advocating for the removal/destruction of the saintly Crusader king’s statue, the monarch is guilty of “Islamophobia” and “anti-Semitism” and argue the statue should be removed, and the city of St. Louis renamed as well. One of the major ills in the modern world is the inability (or even outright refusal) to view history in context. Rather, modernity judges the past from a position of supposed superiority. Rarely is the attempt made to understand the actions of the men and women of the past in the context of their own times. Modernity, instead, casts stones at its ancestors because they did not live in accordance with modern, enlightened, “tolerant” views. It is therefore not surprising that the statue of St. Louis has come under attack.

However, the accusations against King St. Louis IX demand a response. Was this saint of the Catholic Church a horribly intolerant and cruel ruler, unworthy of honor by the very city named after him? In other words, who was the real King Louis IX?

Born on April 25, 1214 at Poissy, Louis was the second son of King Louis VIII (r. 1223–1226) and Blanche of Castile (1188–1252). Louis VIII died at the young age of thirty-eight, when Louis IX was only twelve years old. A child king had not ruled in France in more than a century. Since Louis was not of mature age, his mother ruled as regent until 1235, when Louis turned twenty-one. He had married Marguerite de Provence the previous year, and their union produced eleven children (six boys and five girls).

Louis was a dutiful father who loved his children and considered it his greatest duty to teach them the Catholic Faith. When separated from his children due to the requirements of the realm, Louis wrote letters in which he passed on his fatherly and saintly advice. In a letter to his son Philip, Louis exhorted him to always remember that God should hold primacy of place in his life and warned him to stay free from the stain of mortal sin. Louis exhorted Philip to frequent the sacrament of confession and encouraged him to remain devoted to the pope and to support and defend the Church. His temporal advice included an insistence on treating the king’s subjects with charity and not oppressing them.

Louis IX was concerned for his own salvation, but even more so for the salvation of his subjects. The king provided for the poor through almsgiving and even personally served the hungry in the kingdom. He founded hospitals throughout the realm to care for the sick and suffering. He was deeply devoted to God, practiced self-discipline and expected his royal officials to do the same.

The modern-day charge that Louis was guilty of “Islamophobia” is based on his participation in two Crusades aimed at liberating the Holy Land from Muslim occupation. The charge is ridiculous given the historical context of Louis’ life. The king lived during the height of the Crusading movement when Christian warriors were exhorted by popes and bishops to participate in an armed pilgrimage at the service of God, the Church, and their neighbor out of charity. Indeed, the monarch came from a family whose participation in the Crusades dated back to the first the end of the eleventh century. It was not out of hatred for Muslims that Louis organized, funded, and led two Crusades, but out of a sense of duty and love in keeping with the age in which he lived.

The medieval world had no modern sense of religious tolerance, so to expect modern day attitudes and behavior on Louis IX is folly and disingenuous. Medieval people lived in a world rooted in the Catholic Faith, which guided their personal and political actions. Relations between Christians and non-Christians were frequently peaceful but were always viewed religiously. Although the goal of Louis’s two Crusades was the liberation of Muslim-occupied Christian territory, the king treated his enemies with respect. His first Crusade, undertaken from 1248-1254, centered on Egypt. The campaign was an abject failure as the monarch placed his forces in a precarious tactical and logistical position, which necessitated his surrender to the forces of the Egyptian sultan Turan Shah and resulted in the king’s imprisonment. Louis negotiated a deal for his release in exchange for the payment of a heavy ransom. When Turan Shah received half payment, he released the king. Louis’ advisors begged him to leave Egypt and not pay the remaining half of the ransom, but the virtuous king refused and remained until the full debt was paid.

The rise of the Mamluk general Baybars and his merciless campaign of terror against the Christians in the Holy Land prompted Louis to take the cross a second time. Louis was in his fifties, and it had been twenty years since he first left on his first Crusade. The Crusade was a disaster from the start and ended with Louis’ death on August 25, 1270.

The accusation that Louis IX was “anti-Semitic” is also rooted in a modern worldview that fails to understand the medieval world in which the king lived. The kingdom of France in Louis’ time contained a numerous and dispersed Jewish population. Louis’ relationship with the Jews was influenced by his duties as king and his faith. He recognized the royal duty to protect them from harassment as loyal subjects, but he also shared the medieval religious views of Jews as an anomaly in Christendom. Medieval Christians found it difficult to dissociate the Jews of the time with those ancient Jewish leaders who advocated for Jesus’ death. As a result, Jews sometimes suffered harassment and persecution in Christendom.

Louis greatly desired the conversion of Jews in his kingdom and even served as the godfather for many Jews who sought baptism. Although he promulgated several edicts restricting and regulating Jewish life and practices in his kingdom, Louis overturned many of these laws towards the end of his reign.

His actions toward the Jewish people must be viewed in light of the historical context in which he lived. It is inappropriate (and anachronistic) to label the king an “anti-Semite,” since that term is a nineteenth century creation denoting a racial animus against the Chosen People. King St. Louis IX viewed the Jews through the lens of his faith and not through a disordered racial theory. At most, his actions could be considered “anti-Jewish” as described by Jacques Le Goff, a modern biographer.

King St. Louis IX had his faults, but as the saints of the Church attest it is the pursuit of sanctity that matters. St. Louis was canonized on August 11, 1297 by Pope Boniface VIII, nearly thirty years after his death. He was the last monarch of the Middle Ages so recognized. His life of piety and sanctity is worthy of emulation and certainly worthy of a statue in a city named for him.

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