Zealous and dashing, chauvinistic and impulsive are all terms that describe the reign of Louis IX, king of France. He showed heroic virtues of character, but he also seemed blind to the contributions of people who did not share his own values. He took action against corruption, but he also had complicated relations with Jews and Muslims. He wanted to imitate the poverty of Jesus by living as a monk but contented himself with making penitence and humility his aim in life. He engaged in self-flagellation to curb his desires for food and sex and even gossip, and he wore a hair shirt under his royal robes. He was famous for showing mercy to his foes and generosity to the poor. He was the patron of French universities and several times invited Thomas Aquinas to dinner. When deathly ill in 1244, he promised God that he would fight a crusade if healed, and so he did in 1248. Captured in 1250 he was freed when he pledged to give up his conquest in Egypt and pay a huge ransom. He remained in Syria, attempted to draw the Mongols into the conflict on the side of the Europeans, and tried to stir up divisions among Muslims in the Middle East.

His conduct in battle reflected his piety. He opened up investigations against the crimes of the resident crusaders and paid restitutions. He ordered that Muslims should be captured alive. He worked hard to convert Muslims and brought many of them back with him to France, where he supported them. He told his fighters that they would go to paradise if they died in battle because they were martyrs—a teaching that ironically has adherents among certain Muslims today. When he was not piously fighting on the battlefield, he was piously applying his morality to domestic affairs. He limited his own officials from encroaching unduly on the jurisdiction of the aristocracy. He set up a system of ombudsmen (enqueteurs) to hold nobles accountable for their conduct in local settings. In this way he tried to standardize government administration. He reformed the national currency and asserted the right of the state to regulate money. He allowed the judiciary a degree of independence, and the Parliament was formed.

In France he was intolerant of Jews and heretics, especially those called the Cathars. He forbade usury, permitted no obscenity at court, ordered all blasphemers to be branded, and discouraged trial by combat. Against the Jews he was particularly prejudiced, allowing the public burning of the Talmud and ultimately requiring that Jews wear a red badge on their chest, eerily prescient of the Nazi practice of identifying French Jews by a yellow star. He embarked on another crusade in the late 1260s but was diverted to Tunis (North Africa), where he died in 1270. He was worn out by his self-imposed religious exercises, as well as by illness and dysentery. As he lay dying he summoned the Greek ambassadors and urged them to reconcile with the Church of Rome. His body was sent back to France. Wherever his body went, miracles were reported among the Christian faithful. He was promoted for canonization and named a saint in 1297.

Bibliography :

  1. Connell, Evan S. Deus lo volt! Chronicle of the Crusades. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 2000;
  2. John of Joinville. Life of St. Louis. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1955.