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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.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Vita or Gesta?

The Capetian kings of the eleventh and twelfth centuries have been little studied by English historians. Few of the ‘Capetian chronicles’ are available in English translations though the Anglo-Saxon and especially Anglo-Norman writings of historians like Orderic Vitalis, that have much to say on political relations between England, Normandy and France are.  My blog for the next few months will concentrate on the life and writings of Abbot Suger of St-Denis and includes a new translation of his life of Louis VI (Vita Ludovici grossi) based on an examination of most of the extant manuscripts and available French and English translations. This provides valuable insights into the nature of writing history in the early to mid-twelfth century where personal and political agendas often meant that the ‘history’ written was deliberately partial and ‘constructed’ to get across a particular message. It also deals with the problems faced by a French monarchy trying to assert its authority outside its own domains against the vested interests of an aristocracy that proved powerfully dangerous.

There are significant difficulties in defining the different types of historical writing from the medieval period[1]. When is a chronicle not a chronicle but an annal? The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a case in point: called a chronicle but clearly a set of annals. What is the difference between an annal and a chronicle? Is it simply a case of the way in which each was produced, the one written rather like an annual diary often by different writers, the other as a coherent piece of history in which the author adduces causation to events? Is the one a work of ‘history’ and the other a means through which history may be written? Yet, these questions, important though they undoubtedly are, do not resolve the problems with the different genres. If the difficulty of defining in any precise way what chronicles, annals, lives and deeds actually are is incapable of satisfactory resolution, perhaps historians need to look at their purpose, the agendas that lay behind these historical writings. Suger did not give his biography of Louis VI a title and the manuscripts containing the text gave it different names. However, in the prologue of the text in which Suger wrote to bishop Josselin of Soissons, he used the term ‘gesta’: ‘serenissimi Regis Francorum Ludovici gesta approbate scientie vestrie arbitrio delegamus…’ (I am sending for your approval and wisdom the deeds of the most serene Louis, King of the French) though at the beginning of chapter 28 he uses the term ‘Ut autem ad propositum recolende Regis hystorie revertamur…’ (But let us return to our aim, which is to write a history of the king.). The use of ‘deeds’[2] rather than ‘history’ or ‘life’ can also be found in comments made by Odo de Deuil[3], Suger’s successor as abbot of St-Denis and William, his biographer refers on three occasions to Suger’s account of Louis’ deeds[4]. The problem is that, with two exceptions[5], editors of the text have used the word ‘life’ rather than ‘deeds’[6]. The writing of the ‘deeds’ of particular individuals was an important feature of the historiography of the eleventh and twelfth centuries[7]. These works focus on the reporting of deeds rather than providing detailed biographical information. Essentially they tell the ‘heroic’ story[8] and Cusimano and Moorhead suggest that they are linked ‘perhaps’ to the old French chanson de geste[9]. Suger’s biographer William said that he was a lover of stories and that when he was in a good mood he loved to stay up to the middle of the night telling of the deeds of heroic men[10]. This, according to Cusimano and Moorhead[11] suggests that the episodic nature of the book owed ‘something to the techniques of a raconteur’. More to the point, I think is the continued importance of orality in a period when literacy was the preserve of the few. The problem with using the term ‘gesta’ for Suger’s study of Louis VI is that it lacks the distinguishing features of chronicles of this genre: a commitment to chronological progression through a reign or life; clear thematic development usually grounded in ethical precepts defining ‘good’ and ‘bad’ kingship; and a degree of historical completeness. The focus on Louis is often lost in favour of long digressions that even Suger recognises are of little relevance to his central character. He almost seems to need to remind himself to get back to the point. Perhaps it is better to look at Suger’s writing as a piece of ‘selective’ biography[12] much in the same way that William of Apulia’s poem on Robert Guiscard and William of Poitiers’ discussion of William the Conqueror are selective. Suger did not simply produce a collection of incidents arranged in a broadly chronological way since an examination of the individual sections shows both a clear internal logic and structure[13]. At the heart of Suger’s Vita Ludovici was an individual who protected the people, the church and, as in the case of the planned German invasion in 1124, France against disputes, disorder and attacks that threatened peaceful order. The innocent and disadvantaged came to Louis to seek his aid and Louis hastens to put things right. This is made clear in the opening chapter of the work: ‘You might have seen this young man dashing across the frontiers into Berry, then into the Auvergne, now into Burgundy, with a handful of men, and returning just as quickly to the Vexin…’. The proud and the recalcitrant are defeated or destroyed and the peace that had earlier existed was restored. There is a clear divine purpose in the text. The individual chapters may be more or less autonomous and more or less chronological but the tone of the text reiterates the same message: the king will restore God’s order and will defeat those who threaten that order. It is that divine purpose that gives the text its selectivity. Gabriel Spiegel argues that each chapter of the Vita Ludovici ‘contains the narration of a single ‘event-unit’ that may, but does not necessarily, delimit a comparable unit of historical time, hence the chronological imprecision all commentators on the text have found so puzzling.’[14] She points to the triadic structure of the chapters where disruption of the established order is followed by Louis’ attempt to deal with the results of that disruption and ends with a final restoration of the proper hierarchical ordering of society. This triadic structuring can be seen throughout the Vita Ludovici even in those chapters on successive popes who come to Philip I and Louis VI to seek their aid to put right certain wrongs. On occasions as, for example in chapter 26 where Louis is defeated at Brémule in 1119, Suger is hard-pressed to maintain the structure but maintain it he does even if the resolution of the disruption is far from convincing. To sustain this structure, Spiegel argues

Suger wilfully violates chronological order, conflating events or deferring the conclusion of a chapter until he can properly narrate the resolution of the disturbance and the restoration of order…The chronological looseness of the Vita Ludovici, therefore, is the result not of confusion but of narrative intention... [15]

In some respects, there is much of the traditional hagiographical tradition in Suger’s writing with Louis as a secular ‘saint’ translating into human events and actions the principles governing the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies of the Pseudo-Dionysius[16], the Areopagite whom the monks of St-Denis mistakenly identified with their own patron saint.. Suger certainly composed a series of lessons for the liturgical office at St-Denis on the anniversary of Louis’ death and, as early as 1124 he provided for Louis’ anniversary to be celebrated at St-Denis. A passage in the Chronicle of Morigny refers to Suger having composed lessons during the period 1139-1142.[17] Suggestions that the lessons were extracts from Suger’s text have been made by two of his editors[18] but there is some evidence to suggest that the text pre-dated the lessons even if it was revised after.[19] At the end of chapter 32, he referred to pope Innocent II in the perfect tense: ‘The lord pope in blessed succession enhanced the glory of the most Holy See by the merits of his life and his devotion to duty.’ This suggests that this was written after Innocent died in 1143 and the earliest references to his work on Louis VI occurred shortly after that date.[20]


More recent general texts on the Capetians available in English include: Dunbabin, J., France in the Making 843-1180, 2nd ed., (Oxford University Press), 2000, Hallam, Elizabeth and Everard, Judith, Capetian France 987-1328, 2nd ed., Longman, 2001 and Bull, Marcus, (ed.), France in the Central Middle Ages 900-1200, (Oxford University Press), 2002

[1] On the problem of defining medieval texts see Guenée, Bernard, ‘Histoire, Annales, Chroniques: Essai sur les genres historiques au moyen age’, Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, vol. iv, (1973), pp. 997-1016, reprinted in his Politique et Historie au moyen-age: recueil d’articles sur l’histoire politique et l’historiographie médiévale (1956-1981), Paris, 1981, pp. 279-298.

[2] Carpentier, E., ‘Histoire et informatique: Recherches sur la vocabulaire des biographies royals françaises’, Cahiers de civilisation médiévale, vol. xxv, (1982), pp. 3-30 provides support for the use of ‘gesta’ for Suger’s work.

[3] Odo of Deuil De Perfectione Ludovici VII in Orientem, edited and translated by Virginia Gingerick Berry, New York, 1948, p. 3.

[4] A. Lecoy de la Marche, (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, Paris 1867, pp. 382 and 403.

[5] Suger: The Deeds of Louis the Fat, translated with introduction and notes by Richard Cusimano and John Moorhead, Washington, 1992 and Suger: La geste de Louis VI et autres oeuvres, edited by Michel Bur,  Paris, 1994.

[6] What follows is grounded in a reading of Spiegel, Gabrielle M., ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, in Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, New York, 1986, pp. 151-158, printed in her The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, London, 1997, pp. 163-177.

[7] Examples of this genre include: Wipo’s The Deeds of the Emperor Conrad, William of Poitiers’ The Deeds of William the Conqueror, William of Apulia’s The Deeds of Robert Guiscard, the anonymous Deeds of Stephen and Otto of Freising’s The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa.

[8] Links have been made between Suger and the crusading works with ‘gesta’ in their title especially the anonymous Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum and Fulcher of Chartres Gesta Francorum Iherusalem peregrinantium and Suger twice stated that his book was an account of the ‘gesta Francorum’ in chapters 1 and 10. On this see Hunt, Tony, ‘L’inspiration ideologique du Charroi de Nîmes’, Revue belge de philology et d’histoire, vol. lxvi, (1978), pp. 580-606.

[9] Ibid, Suger: The Deeds of Louis the Fat, p. 7.

[10] William Vita Sugerii, in ibid, Lecoy de la Marche, A., (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, pp. 382 and 389.

[11] Ibid, Suger: The Deeds of Louis the Fatp. 7.

[12] The notion of ‘selective’ biography is not a type of historical writing exclusive to the medieval period. In the nineteenth century for example, politicians were especially prone to getting their biographies published so that they could tell their sides of the story and were often extremely ‘selective’ with the ‘facts’. We still have ‘official’ biographies today written by historians often with access to family papers unavailable to other scholars. The idea that biography should narrate an individual’s life ‘warts and all’ is quite recent and authors today are often at pains to emphasise that their conclusions have not been influenced by surviving family members. Take Harold Wilson, apart from his own self-justificatory writings and the biographies published while he played a central part in public life in the 1960s and 1970s, three biographies were published in 1992-1993: Pimlott, Ben, Life and Times of Harold Wilson, Morgan, Austen, Harold Wilson: A Life and Zeigler, Philip, Wilson: The Authorized Life of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, the first ‘balanced’, the second ‘critical’ and the third ‘official’.

[13] This is made clear in Spiegel, Gabrielle M., ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, in ibid, Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, New York, 1986, pp. 151-158, printed in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, pp. 163-177.

[14] Ibid, Spiegel Gabrielle M. ‘History as Enlightenment: Suger and the Mos Anagogicus’, pp. 151-158, printed in her ibid, The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, p. 166.

[15] Ibid, Spiegel, Gabrielle M., pp. 151-158, printed in her The Past as Text: The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, pp. 169-170.

[16] On Suger’s links to the Pseudo-Dionysius, see Panofsky, Erwin, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St-Denis and its Art Treasures, Princeton, 2nd ed., 1979 and Simson, Otto von, The Gothic Cathedral: Origins of Gothic Architecture and the Medieval Concept of Order, 2nd ed., New York, 1964. Modifications to their views are suggested in Zinn, Grover A., ‘Suger, Theology and the Pseudo-Dionysian Traditions’, in ibid, Gerson, P. L., (ed.), Abbot Suger and St Denis, pp. 33-40. Kidson, Peter, ‘Panofsky, Suger and St Denis’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. i, (1987), pp. 1-17 argues that there is no need to see Suger as having been directly influenced by Pseudo-Dionysius.

[17] Mirot, Leon, (ed.), La Chronique de Morigny (1095-1152), 2nd ed., Paris, 1912, p. 69.

[18] Ibid, Lecoy de la Marche, A., (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, p. v and Molinier, Auguste, (ed.), Vie de Louis le Gros par Suger, Paris 1887, p. xvii, no 1. Waquet, Henri, (ed.), Vie de Louis VI le Gros, Paris, 1929 ignored the question.

[19] Hugenholtz, F. and Teunis, H., ‘Suger’s Advice’, Journal of Medieval History, vol. xii, (1986), pp. 191-205 suggest that Suger’s approach to the Vita Ludovici was influenced by events that occurred early in the reign of Louis VII.

[20] The earliest references to the text can be found in Liber de rebus administratione sua gestis, ibid, in Lecoy de la Marche, A., (ed.), Oeuvres completes de Suger, recueilles, annotées er publiées d’après les manuscrits, p. 171 and this work has been dated by ibid, Panofsky, Erwin, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St-Denis and its Art Treasures, p. 142 to between 1144-1145 to 1148-1149.