by Jacques Le Goff
translated by Gareth Evan Gollrad
University of Notre Dame,1016 pages, $75
Louis IX had one goal: to be a perfect Christian king. Judging from his press, even in this critical age, he appears to have achieved it. Historical revisionism has left the reputation of the saint king untarnished. And that is because he really was a man of extraordinary piety. He believed that the crown of France was given to him by God, who would hold him accountable for it. Le Goff’s history of Louis, originally published in 1996 and now translated into English, is probably the most complete available.
It begins with a straightforward biography based on an expert knowledge of the primary sources. Louis began his reign with a crusade. His expedition to Egypt and the Holy Land was one of the largest ever, although it failed to win any permanent conquests. After returning to France, Louis kept the plight of Jerusalem always firmly in mind, planning one day to rescue it from Muslim control. Over the course of his career, he won a wide reputation among friends and foes as a man of fairness, goodwill, and holiness. He was the only medieval monarch who could lecture a pope on morality—and be listened to. His last crusade in 1270 took his life. Just twenty-seven years later he was canonized.
For someone interested in only the life of St. Louis, this book is overkill. The second section is a detailed analysis of source constituencies used to tease out other, sometimes contradictory, aspects of the king’s life, goals, and personality. The final section tries to put all of the pieces together, but, of course, they never quite fit. Le Goff’s Louis is a pious, yet puzzling and complicated, man. This is a work of importance, but casual readers may find other histories by William Chester Jordan and Jean Richard more appealing and perhaps even more convincing.
—Thomas F. Madden