Post-classical history

Chapter Fifty-One


Louis the Saint

Between 1250 and 1267, the Pastoureaux attack the Church, but the king of France submits to it

FOUR YEARS AFTER the failed march on Egypt, Louis IX of France was still in the east.

He had arrived in Acre in late May, with barely a hundred surviving men trailing behind him. In early June, he had called them together for a council and posed his dilemma. “The queen my mother has sent to me,” he told them, “and beseeches me . . . to return to France, because my kingdom is in great peril, seeing that I have neither peace nor truce with the King of England. Those belonging to [Acre], with whom I have spoken, tell me that, if I depart, this land is lost. . . . Think well upon this matter, and you shall answer me according as you think right, eight days from today.”1

It was an uncomfortable eight days. Most of the surviving barons wanted the king to go back to France, assure the kingdom’s safety, and then relaunch the Crusade after proper preparations. The soldiers, Jean de Joinville among them, were reluctant to abandon the Crusade and the remaining hostages back in Cairo.

After hearing all the arguments, Louis decided to stay. His mother and regent, Queen Blanche, had “people enough to defend [France],” he concluded; but “if I depart hence, the kingdom of Jerusalem is lost, for none will dare to remain after I have left.” Instead, he sent his two surviving brothers home with a letter, explaining to his people that he intended to remain in Acre for some time to work for “the release of prisoners, the retaining of castles in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and other advantages for Christendom.” And he concluded the letter with a strong and unambiguous appeal: The Crusade was not yet over, and the knights of France could still fight for the Holy Land.

Come, then, knights of Christ, own soldiers of the Pope of the Living God, take up your arms and be strong to avenge these outrages and insults. . . . Those who come, or send effective help to us or rather to the Holy Land, while we are still here, will earn, besides the indulgences promised to those who take the Cross, the respect and gratitude of God and of men. . . . The nature of the task calls for speed, and every delay will be fatal.2

The appeal was answered from an unwelcome quarter.

While Louis was devoting himself to reinforcing the walls of Acre, a mad Hungarian monk began to preach, throughout northern France, that the Virgin Mary had appeared to him with a revelation: King Louis would be relieved not by barons and knights but by the humble and the poor. His message mined a deep vein of resentment of the privileged and powerful, the nobles and the knights. “The poor people . . . pay for all the wars of their lords,” the Norman churchman William the Clerk had written, not a score of years before, “and often weep thereat and sigh.”

The monk assured those same poor that shepherds and peasants had been “granted by heaven the power, in their humility and simplicity, to rescue the Holy Land . . . for, as he said, the pride of the French soldier was displeasing to God.” This was a popular message, and the monk, styling himself the “Master of Hungary,” soon stood at the head of thousands of followers. All of them—farmers, swineherds, cowmen, and a healthy salting of murderers, thieves, and outcasts—dressed themselves as shepherds, and the movement became known as the Pastoureaux: the shepherds.3

At first, their enthusiasm was widely praised, and the regent and queen mother Blanche herself welcomed them to the capital city and listened to the Master’s message. But soon the movement turned dark. Before long, the Master began to preach an anti-Church message even stronger than that of the Waldensians and Cathars a few decades before. “[He] condemned all orders excepting their own,” writes Matthew Paris; the Franciscans were vagrants, the Cistercians greedy, the priests and bishops “only money-hunters.” He was tapping into a deep vein of resentment, not just of well-to-do knights, but of all who prospered while the poor struggled. “I would like to strangle the nobles and the clergy, every one of them,” announces a character in a thirteenth-century French satire. “Everything that is tasty and good goes to them.”4

In January of 1251, the Pastoureaux entered Orleans, armed with “swords, axes, darts, daggers and long knives” (“They seemed to cherish the thoughts of war more than of Christ,” Paris remarks), and swept through the city, attacking and killing clergymen, burning and raiding as they went. Similar mobs stormed churches in Tours and Bourges. Blanche immediately withdrew her support. “I believed that they, in their simplicity and sanctity, were about to win the whole earth,” she declared. “But since they are deceivers, let them be excommunicated, seized, and destroyed.” Royal officials began a manhunt. Within the year, the Pastoureaux had been cut to pieces in hand-to-hand fighting, arrested and hanged, or driven into the rivers to drown; the Master himself was killed by a militant Parisian butcher wielding an ax, who “struck him on the head and sent him brainless to hell.”5


51.1 The Pastoureaux

France, vulnerable to English ambitions and wracked by internal chaos, soon lost its regent as well. In November of 1252, Blanche—well into her sixties—died after a short illness. Hearing of his mother’s death, Louis shut himself in his chambers for two days, speaking to no one, and then finally made preparations to return to France.

He arrived back in Paris on September 7, 1254. For six years, he had been away; he had managed to free some of his captured followers and had built new fortifications around the Christian cities in the east, but he had failed to recover Jerusalem. The collapse of the Seventh Crusade had changed him. “After the king returned from overseas, he lived in such devotion that never did he wear fur . . . nor scarlet, nor gilded stirrups and spurs,” writes Jean de Joinville. He gave up wine, declined elaborate feasts; he was ascetic in clothing, in food and drink, and in his habits, dedicating more and more of his income to the poor, praying constantly, studying the scriptures late into the night.6

His piety had a direct effect on France; Louis was as concerned with justice in his realm as with his own private devotions. Within two years of his return, he had passed multiple restrictions on the conduct of his royal officials. They were not to swear or to frequent taverns; they were to treat native Frenchmen and foreigners the same; bribes and gifts were forbidden, as were random seizures, jailing without cause, and violence. He banned duels as a way of settling legal arguments, outlawed prostitution and gambling and public blasphemy.7

Like the late Frederick II, he resisted the encroaching power of France’s bishops; unlike Frederick, he did so out of his conviction that the king should be a servant of the Church. When they petitioned him to arrest and “constrain” men they had excommunicated, as a way to bring them more quickly to repentance, he refused: it was possible, he told them, that the judgment of the pope might yet declare such men innocent, and the power of France could not be used to support the decisions of local bishops who might be mistaken. It could be wielded only on behalf of God (by way of the pope).8

King as servant of the church: Louis was, in this, following the views of the Dominican scholar Thomas Aquinas. Barely thirty, Aquinas had just finished his first teaching job at Cologne. He had arrived in Paris in 1252, and was now lecturing and writing in the French capital. Like Anselm at the beginning of the twelfth century, like Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard and Bernard of Chartres after that, Aquinas devoted himself to the study of the Greek masters and their synthesis with Christian thought. His greatest theological works were still unwritten, but he would manage to lay out in full, during Louis IX’s lifetime, a massive reconciliation of Aristotelian ideas with Christian revelation.9

In The Politics, now translated into Latin, Aristotle had argued that a just ruler works for the common good of all his subjects. Aristotle’s “common good” encompassed justice and prosperity for all, and by his definition Louis was indeed a virtuous monarch: “The king . . . made it his chief concern,” writes Joinville, “to find out how the people were governed, and their rights and interests protected. . . . [G]ood justice prevailed . . . and things were so much better, that goods and property and everything else sold for double their value.”10

Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s definition and then expanded it. Kings have the task of bringing justice and prosperity to their subjects, but leading them to ultimate salvation is beyond the monarch’s reach. “Man does not attain his [ultimate] end, which is the possession of God, by human power but by divine,” Aquinas concluded. “Therefore, the task of leading him to that last end . . . has been entrusted not to earthly kings but to . . . the chief priest, the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ, the Roman Pontiff.” There was, in Aquinas’s mind, no conflict between king and pope, any more than there was a clash between natural law and heavenly law, between reason and revelation. They walked hand in hand, the king attending to earthly matters, the pope to heavenly ones. But there was no question as to who had the final say: “To the Roman Pontiff, all the kings of the Christian people are to be subject,” Aquinas concluded, “as to our Lord Jesus Christ Himself.”11

The anticlericalism of the Pastoureaux had been the far swing of the pendulum; Louis brought it back to the other extreme. “Love and honour all persons in the service of Holy Church,” he told his son, at the end of his life, and added a further instruction: Even if wronged by the Church, the king should hold his tongue. For considering “the benefits God had bestowed,” it was better to give up royal privilege than to struggle against an authority bestowed by God.12


If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!