Sunday, 12 July 2009

Chapter 33

With what courage he bore illness

The lord King Louis was in the process of failing not in mind but in body, as men habitually do, worn out by his corpulence[1] and by the continual strain of his tasks; for should anything offensive to royal majesty occur anywhere in his kingdom, he could not bear to let it go unpunished. Although he was sixty[2], he was so knowledgeable and hardworking that, had it not been for the perpetual obstacle of his swollen body, he would have overcome and destroyed all his enemies. He often groaned and complained to his friends this: ‘Alas, what a wretched state of affairs! It is hardly ever or never possible both to know how to do something and to be fit to do it. If as a young man I had known how, or now as an old one were able, I should easily have subdues many kingdoms.’

But weakened as he was by his corpulence, even lying flat on his bed, he put up so much resistance to the English king and to Count Theobald that anyone who saw him and heard of his famous deeds would praise his nobility of mind and deplore his ill health. Suffering torments, with a wounded leg[3], and scarcely able to be carried, he fought against Count Theobald[4] and ordered that Boneval[5] should be set on fire, except for the monastic buildings which he took under his protection. Another time although he was absent, his men destroyed Chateau-Renard[6], which was in Count Theobald’s fief and on his last expedition, with a splendid army he set fire to the castle of Saint-Brisson-sur-Loire, because of its lord’s greed and his depredations on merchants forcing both the lord and the keep to surrender.[7]

On his return from this expedition, at the new castle of Montraer[8], he had a very serious attack of diarrhoea, as sometimes happened, and began to be very worried. Foresighted as he was in counsel, he took care of himself and of his soul. He provided for his salvation with repeated confessions and devoted prayers, thus pleasing God. One thing he wished with his whole soul, that he should be carried by any means possible to his protectors, the saintly martyrs Denis and his companions, and before their most holy bodies should resign his kingdom and his crown, giving up a crown for a tonsure and the royal insignia and the imperial ornaments for the humble habit of St. Benedict, and thus be professed in the monastic order. Those who deride monastic poverty should see how not only archbishops but even kings prefer eternal life to this transitory one, and escape to the incomparable security and protection of the monastic order.[9]

Day by day his diarrhoea troubled him more, and in order to stop it the doctors gave him many unpleasant potions, forcing him to swallow various extremely bitter powders, which even healthy and vigorous men could not have borne. In these and similar sufferings he remained sweet-tempered and benevolent, spoke kindly to everyone, was available to all, and treated everyone as pleasantly as if he suffered no pain. 

As the disease grew worse and the weakness of his exhausted body increased, he scorned to die dishonourably or unexpectedly. So he called together the religious, bishops, abbots and many priests, and rejecting all false shame, he asked that, out of respect for God and his angels he might most devotedly make his confession in their presence and might fortify himself against his death with the most secure viaticum, the body and blood of the Lord. While they hastened to prepare, the king unexpectedly arose and prepared himself. To the admiration of all he left his chamber fully clad to come into the presence of Christ’s body, and with greatest devotion he stood up. Then in the sight of them all, both clerks and laymen, he set aside kingship, renounced the kingdom and confessed that he had reigned in sin. He invested his son Louis with his ring, obliged him to swear to defend the church of God, the poor and the orphans, to guard for each man his rights and to take no-one prisoner in his court if he had committed no crime then and there in his presence. 

Then for the love of God he distributed to the churches and to the poor and needy his gold and silver, his precious vases, his rich hangings and covered cushions, all the moveables he possessed and used, including his ornaments and royal clothes down to her very shirt. But his precious church plate, his very precious bible covered in gold and gems, his gold censer of four ounces, his gold candelabra of a hundred and sixty ounces, his costly chalice of gold and precious gems, ten copes of precious materials, and the very precious hyacinth inherited from his grandmother, the daughter of the king of Russia[10], he put with his own hand into mine and ordered that it be placed on the Lord’s crown of thorns.[11] All these he sent to the holy martyrs through me and he promised devotedly to follow the same road if it were possible. 

Delivered from this burden and filled with God’s mercy, he most humbly knelt before the holy body and blood of Christ, which those who had just celebrated mass had brought there in procession with devotion. He broke out in true and catholic confession of faith with hear and lips, not like an illiterate but like a most learned theologian[12]: ‘I, Louis, a sinner, confess there to be one true God, father, son and holy spirit; I believe that of this sacred trinity one person, the only begotten son, consubstantial and coeternal with God the father, was born of the holy virgin Mary, suffered, died and was buried; the third day he arose from the dead, he ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the father. He will judge the quick and the dead in the great and final judgement. We believe that this Eucharist of his body is the same body he assumed from the virgin, and which he delivered to his disciples, so that they might remain joined and united in him. And that this most holy blood is that which flowed from his side as he hung on the cross. We believe most firmly and confess with my mouth and heart that we shall be safeguarded at my death by this most sure viaticum, and we prefer to be defended by its most certain protection from all the powers of the air.’[13]

When, to the admiration of all, he had made first confession of his sins, he most devotedly communicated with the body and blood of Christ. Suddenly he seemed to be recovering, went back to his chamber and rejecting the pomp of all secular pride, he lay down on a simple linen sheet. When I saw him change from so great to so small, from so high to so low, I cried as other men would. ‘Do not weep, dear friend,’ he said, ‘on my behalf. You ought rather to rejoice greatly that God’s mercy had permitted me to prepare myself to meet him, as you see.’ 


[1] Orderic Vitalis had commented on his obesity ‘inherited from his father and mother’ at the council of Reims in 1119.

[2] Louis was no more than fifty-four years in 1135 but Suger represented his heroes as older than they were in reality. He speaks of Philip I as the same age.

[3] Wounded at Livry in 1128, he had delayed having the leg treated.

[4] Suger is the only source that deals with the hostilities between Theobald and Louis in the early 1130s.

[5] The Benedictine abbey of St. Florentine was founded in Bonneval in 857 and had received letters of protection from Louis in 1110. Bonneval is on the upper Loire about eighteen miles south of Chartres.

[6] Ibid, Luchaire, Louis VI le Gros, Annales de son vie et de son règne, n° 530 argued that the campaigns against Bonneval and Chateau-Renard, about fifty miles east of Orleans, took place in 1132-1133.

[7] Ibid, Molinier, Auguste, Vie de Louis le Gros par Suger, p. 124 n° 4 and p. 127 n° 4 dated the siege of Saint-Brisson-sur-Loire to 1137. However, Achille Luchaire’s dated the onset of Louis’ illness at the castle of Montraer to November 1135. Both historians cannot be correct. I am inclined to accept Luchaire on this occasion.

[8] The castle was in Chateauneuf-sur-Loire, upstream about forty-five miles from Orleans. The name of Montraer was already in use in 1154 and the castle fell into disrepair in the second half of the twelfth century. Louis fell ill here: ibid, Luchaire, Louis VI le Gros, Annales de son vie et de son règne, n° 559 dated this to November 1135.

[9] Louis’ desire lay down his crown and become a monk for his final years followed a long-established tradition of rulers who sometimes followed this route. Count Burchard of Vendôme and County Geoffrey Martel of Anjou had done this in the eleventh century and count William of Nevers did the same in 1147. However, by the 1130s such conduct was seen as being rather old-fashioned though Louis’ wish would have caused little surprise. Suger emphasises that Louis wished to enter St-Denis even though Montraer was close to the abbey of St-Benoit-sur-Loire where his father was buried.

[10] Louis’ grandmother was Anna of Kiev, daughter of Jaroslav the Great, prince of Kiev and wife of King Henry I: see Hallu, R., Anne de Kiev reine de France, Rome, 1973.

[11] The abbey boasted of possessing a piece of the Cross and the crown of thorns. It was said that these had been given to Charlemagne by the Byzantine emperor and taken from Aix-la-Chapelle to St-Denis by Charles the Bald.

[12] Louis’ statement of belief consisted of two parts of roughly equal length. The first closely followed the Apostles’ Creed, while the second part is a declaration of faith in the Eucharist expressed in the first person plural.

[13] The mention of ‘powers of the air’ refers to the activities of demons: see Ephesians ii: 2.

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