Monday, 9 March 2009

Vita or Gesta? 2

Certainly, Suger is ‘selective’ in his account of Louis’ life. There is much that is left out and historians have to turn to other historians like Orderic Vitalis to fill in the details. There is little on Louis’ life before the age of eleven, little on the tensions between him and his father over his second ‘marriage’ to Bertrada, their falling out over Louis being knighted away from home in 1098 or Bretrada’s attempt to have him imprisoned and poisoned in England in 1100-1101. Louis’ marriage to Adelaide de Maurienne in 1115 is mentioned briefly and his eldest son Philip is introduced only to die. It may be that Suger did not view these events as having any real bearing on the purpose of the text. However, there are other omissions that can be explained by Suger’s personal political and religious agenda. There is little on the factionalism of Louis’ court linked to the growing power of the Garlande family especially Stephen de Garlande leading to the crisis of 1127 when he was ousted from his position as chancellor. In fact, there is little on the mechanics of governing France under Louis. This was certainly deliberate on Suger’s part and reflects his desire, from the vantage point of the 1140s to distance himself and perhaps by extension Louis from the rule of the Garlandes.

He briefly mentions the house of St. Victor in Paris that Louis founded in 1113 and that played a significant part in twelfth century spiritual and intellectual life but he remains silent on Louis’ involvement with any other monasteries. St Bernard of Clairvaux and the religious tendencies he represented are ignored though there is a passing reference to his having advised on the coronation of the young Louis in 1131 in Manuscript F. It is Louis’ relationship with St-Denis that is the focus of his attention and particularly his relationship with Suger whose predecessor Adam gets scant recognition.

Establishing a clear link between the Capetian monarchy and St-Denis was at the heart of Suger’s writing. The abbey was under pressure from several quarters in the first decades of the twelfth century. First, to the church of Reims was promoting the cult of St Remigius as a rival to that of Dionysius: in his prologue, Suger described himself as ‘abbot of the blessed Denis the Areopagite’[1]. In 1090, the young prince Louis had subscribed to a document issued by his father confirming the possessions and immunities of the competing saint’s abbey in Reims. Louis had come into direct conflict with Reims over his coronation at Orleans in 1108 and although Both Philip and the young Louis were crowned at Reims in 1129 and 1131 respectively, the tensions between St-Denis and Reims comes out strongly in Suger’s text. Wherever possible, Suger showed Reims in a bad light. Secondly, during the 1120s, Peter Abelard had correctly challenged the claim that Dionysius the Areopagite was the patron of the abbey causing considerable internal dissension at St Denis. Abelard was accused as a traitor to the Crown, was thrown into prison, managed to escape and sought sanctuary in the lands of Theobald of Blois. Suger decided to drop the whole matter and allowed Abelard to live wherever he chose on condition that he did not enter another monastery. He did not object when Abelard became a very unhappy abbot himself a few years later and took no part in the attacks by Bernard of Clairvaux that resulted in Abelard’s condemnation at the Synod of Sens in 1140. Suger’s major concern in the years after he bacame abbot was the reform of St-Denis. He may have regarded his predecessor Adam as his ‘spiritual father and foster parent’ but he found the abbey buildings in disrepair, its revenues uncollected and its possessions alienated after Adam’s death. Thirdly, king Philip I had chosen to be buried, not in St-Denis but at the abbey of St-Benoit-sur-Loire reinforcing Suger’s less than flattering view of him unlike the Chronicle of Morigny that described him as a ‘man of wisdom’.[2] Suger contrasted Philip’s indolence with Louis’ activity to the extent that even during his father’s lifetime he was described as ‘defender of his father’s kingdom’. The language used in the text, especially the verbs and adverbs of speed reinforced the view that Suger’s Louis spent his life in continuous activity. It was Louis’ devotion to St-Denis from childhood and the fact that he lived a ‘good life’ and had a ‘good death’ that strengthened Suger’s claims for the abbey. Central to his restatement of the centrality of St-Denis to the French monarchy was Suger’s embellished account of the threatened German invasion of 1124. Louis conducted himself ‘with great humility’ at St-Denis asking the blessed Dionysius for aid, taking the battle standard, the mythic oriflamme[3] from the altar in a ceremony Suger implied meant that Louis recognised that he was a vassal of the abbey.[4] His account of events is open to question in several important respects but behind the rhetoric there is a king clearly devoted to St Denis. Royal donations and privileges especially the extension of St-Denis’ local jurisdiction and the concessions of the Lendit fair helped restore the legal and economic authority of the abbey. Louis’ support was essential and in his text, Suger shows again and again just how St-Denis profited.

Louis may have been at the centre of the canvas but St Denis and St-Denis were always in its background. They provided the link between the ideal visibility of human society and the order and justice of the invisible, divine hierarchy with Louis progressing from ‘a handsome youth…admirable for his development of moral character and for the growth of a well-made body’ to his approaching death when he ‘put off his kingship and laid down his kingdom’: the move from the material state of external beauty to the invisible state of enlightenment. The Vita Ludovici can be seen in terms of the Pseudo-Dionysian notion of anagogical ascent where readers, in contemplating the life of Louis VI share in the experience of enlightenment that his life reflected and that access to that enlightenment is achieved by following the mos anagogicus, the anagogical way. [5]

The Vita Ludovici operates on several different levels. First, it can be regarded as a ‘gesta’ to the extent that it recounts the deeds of Louis VI. Secondly, it is a ‘vita’ albeit a selective biographical study of Louis VI covering his life from his adolescence through to his death. In both these respects it is a partial account subject to the problems of reliability that historians encounter when dealing with medieval sources. The ‘gesta’ and ‘vita’ dimensions of the Vita Ludovici operate at the level of the visible in that they say what happened in a world in which there was disorder, threats to the authority of the Crown that were countered by an active and, within limits successful monarch. The degree of narrative credibility is determined by the third, and for Suger most important aspect of his work, its mystical and invisible quality. Suger has created a cultural image of kingship and its role in a cosmologically defined hierarchy of being, a means through which people may seek enlightenment through contemplating the ‘deeds’ and ‘life’ of Louis VI.

Suger wrote neither a traditional ‘gesta’ nor a traditional ‘vita’ in the sense that they are recognised in medieval historiography. The narrative of Louis’s life and deeds is important for the gloss it gives on the increasing authority of Capetian monarchy and the importance of individuals in bringing about fundamental political change. Yet to view the Vita Ludovici simply in those terms is to miss the central thrust of Suger’s writing. It is true that, unlike most of his ecclesiastical contemporaries, Suger never wrote a theological text but for a full understanding of why he wrote about Louis VI we have to recognise the centrality of the ideas of the Pseudo-Dionysius to his thinking. The Vita Ludovici can, in this sense be seen as a work of theology, a religious and educative tract using secular events as the medium through which Suger explored the Dionysian dualities of ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’, order and chaos, strength and weakness, authority and rebellion, secular and ecclestiastical, and good and evil. The memory of what had happened allowed others to contemplate what was to come. As Speigel says at the end of her paper[6]: ‘To Suger, the recollection of the past was not only a memory; it was also and perhaps more important, the promise of the future.’


[1] Robert Hanning has made some useful comments on the effects of chroniclers stating the rhetorical principles of historiography in their Prologues in his review of Lecroix, Benôit, L’Historiens au moyen age, Paris, 1971 in History and Theory, vol. xii, (1973), pp. 419-434. Hanning argued that the conscious expression of rhetorical tradition that occurred in much medieval writing had a paradoxical role: ‘in providing not a guide to perceiving and communicating the meaning of history but rather as a context within which the author and audience shared a common intention – to address themselves to the needs of the past for instruction and edification.’ He believes this provided a ‘verbal context’ in which historians located themselves and won acceptance from their audiences but do not describe the methods or purposes that governed or inspired their work. For Suger, this ‘context’ lies in friendship, duty and especially remembrance.

[2] Ibid, Mirot, Leon, (ed.), La Chronique de Morigny (1095-1152), p. 21. La Chronique de Saint-Pierre-le-Vif de Sens, edited by R.H. Bautier and M. Gilles, Paris 1979, p. 146 also viewed Philip more favourably.

[3] The practice of depositing the royal flag at St-Denis started with Hugh Capet. The flag did not belong to the monastery but had originally been Charlemagne’s. The Chanson de Roland is the main source for this: ‘Saint Pierre fut, si aveit num Romaine/Mais de Munjoie iloec out pris eschange’ and the Nova Gesta Francorum, written at St-Denis in the early twelfth century reiterated this legend: ‘Mox ut Leo in eius loco successit missis legatis ad pium regem Karolem clavis confessionis Sanct Petri simul et vexillum romane urbis direxit’ (Bibliothèque Nationale lat 11793, fol. 27v). It is described as a gift from Pope Leo to Charlemagne recognising his status as emperor of the Roman people; this explains why it is sometimes called ‘Romane’. The Chanson de Roland described it as an ‘Orie flambé’ (the flag with ears) and gives Monjoie as its preferred name. Until the end of the eleventh century, the banner retained its religious significance while becoming more and more important as a symbol of the nation. There was, however, a second standard at St-Denis, that of the Vexin. This was, in origin feudal without previous royal associations but its importance as a royal standard was sealed when Louis VI took it from the saint’s altar in 1124 and ‘invited all France to follow him’ to face the threat of the German invasion. Increasingly the distinction between the banner of St-Denis and Charlemagne’s Oriflamme became confused though probably not before the reign of Philip Augustus later in the twelfth century and this is reflected in the dual battle cry of the French: ‘Montjoie Saint Denis’. See Spiegel, Gabrielle M., ‘The Cult of Saint Denis’, Journal of Medieval History, vol. i, (1975), pp. 43-69, printed in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, especially pp. 153-155.

[4] The claims Suger made for St-Denis are based, to a certain extent on a charter that purported to have been given to the abbey by Charlemagne in 813: Muhlbacher, E., (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica Diplomatum Karolinorum I: Pippini, Carlomanni, Caroli Magni Diplomata, Hannover, 1906: D.Kar.286, pp. 428-430. This said that all archbishops and bishops should defer to the church of St-Denis, which is the head (‘caput’) of all the churches in the kingdom and that its abbot is primate of the church of France.

[5] What follows draws on the Pseudo-Dionysian arguments of Spiegel, Gabrielle M., ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, in ibid, Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, pp. 151-158, printed in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, see p. 175.

[6] Spiegel, Gabrielle M., ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, in ibid, Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, pp. 151-158, printed in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, p. 177.

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