How Important was Piety in the Reign of Louis IX?

 There is no reason to believe that the piety of Louis IX was not deep and sincere; indeed a confessor revealed that at one point in his life Louis considered abdication in favour of joining a monastery.[1] This being said, historians such as Jean Richard and Margaret Labarge have raised questions whether the institutional piety of St. Louis (as opposed to his personal devotion) was a success of Louis himself, or of the hagiographers who were to research his life for the canonisation enquiry.[2] This essay examines how important piety was in the reign of Louis IX, to which end, the role of piety in Louis’ reign must be examined, as well as the benefits to Louis’ descendants of inflating his piety. It is worth considering that definitions of piety in the middle ages do not necessarily correspond to definitions of piety which we find today. One of the aims of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 was to find better definitions for piety and of the Christian faith, the essence of which is to believe in the doctrines of the church and to live a life of “right faith and good actions”, which for Louis meant good and righteous actions as a king.[3] Although piety was personally very important to Louis IX, as an aspect of his reign it made up part of the royal policy, which was a priority when it was also a priority for France.


The Christianity of France was a policy issue for Louis IX. The term policy may seem somewhat anachronistic, but it is a useful way of thinking about his attitude towards religion amongst the laity of France; that piety was to be encouraged and a lack of piety was a problem to be solved. Upon returning from the Holy Land after the Seventh Crusade, Louis came to strongly believe that he was responsible for the salvation of his subjects.[4] This was not new thinking, in his letter to Pope Leo III, Charlemagne declared that it was his duty as king and emperor to bring Christianity to the Pagans, but it was an approach which had fallen out of style by the High Middle Ages.[5] More contemporary rulers tended towards the Two Swords system of governance favoured by monarchs such as Frederick Barbarossa, the idea that god vested secular authority in the kings and spiritual authority in the papacy.

Louis’ move to take responsibility for the salvation of the laity was not a regression to early medieval methods of rule in the style of Charlemagne. This follows a progression throughout Europe with better definition of the roles and duties of monarchs. Elizabeth Hallam and Juliet Everard make the case that this policy based expression of piety can be found in developments within the ecclesiastical structure of the thirteenth century. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 in particular influenced Louis’ policies regarding religion, particularly with the obligation of confession, and the entourage of confessors that Louis kept.[6] Furthermore, the Fourth Lateran Council realigned the church’s focus to the salvation of the laity and the individual.[7] To this end, Louis was in compliance with contemporary developments within the church. King Louis represented the Lateran ideal of the pious laity through his (relative) asceticism, his charitable nature, and his love of the poor.[8] It was to this end that Louis adopted the piety of the laity as part of his royal policy.


In The Life of St. Louis, Jean de Joinville writes that upon returning to France after the seventh crusade, the Bishop of Auxerre (on behalf of all French bishops) declared to Louis “…Christendom is falling to pieces and melting away in your hands, and will fall away still further, unless you study to remedy It…” and Louis was left to counter the issue.[9] The solution is not so important, but the fact that the Bishop brought this issue to the attention of the king as a problem to be solved shows that religion and piety should be thought of as part of the policies of King Louis. Just as today it can sometimes be difficult to separate politicians’ policies into distinct categories such as “economic policy” or “foreign policy” so too was this difficult in the middle ages, more so, as Louis had no manifesto to which he could refer throughout his reign.


This difficulty of separation can be seen in Louis’s approach to Dominican and Franciscan monasteries. Louis IX was an enthusiastic patron of the Franciscan and Dominican orders and though Louis no doubt was a supporter of the religious practices of the orders, the massive investment which the Franciscan and Dominican monasteries received from Louis was a part of a larger (yet unofficial, in the modern sense) programme for charities which benefitted the disadvantaged of society.[10] In his Chronicles of the Crusade Joinville writes


the king daily gave countless generous alms to poor religious, to poor hospitals, to poor sick people, to other poor convents, to poor gentlemen and gentlewomen and girls, to fallen women, to poor widows and women in childbed, and to poor craftsmen who from old age or sickness were unable to work or follow their trade.[11]


Therefore, it seems that Louis’ donations to charity took the role of a form of social welfare. Were Louis IX a politician standing for election today, he would talk about the need to care for the disadvantaged, especially women. Louis saw it as part of his kingly duties to care for the poor and the sick, and did so through the Franciscan and Dominican houses. The donations to institutions which care for the destitute made up a big part of Louis’ reign resembled what we would think of today as social welfare, and as a divinely appointed King, Louis felt the provide for the sick. Louis also felt this need as a Christian however, and his personal donations to the poor and sick show that charity was of great personal concern to him.[12]


One of the schools of thought regarding the piety and particularly canonisation of Louis IX comes from Collette Beaune, who claims that Louis’ pious image became important as an icon for developing a French national identity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in particular his valour, which was dependent on his piety.[13] There are recorded examples of Louis’ image being changed after his death. For example, in life his was considered “threadbare”, not judged to be sufficiently regal in his dress, to a majestic iconographic image after his death.[14] In the same way that it benefitted those commissioning the iconography of St. Louis to portray him as a majestic ruler, so too did it benefit Louis’ descendants to have him portrayed as the epitome of righteousness. It would be incorrect to state that religion was not important to Louis IX, but it should be considered that Louis’ role and perception as a pious leader was important in securing the position of future Capetian kings.  Louis’ canonisation in August 1297 was partially as a form of reparation with regards to the conflict between Louis’ grandson Phillip IV and Pope Boniface VIII.[15] The canonisation of Louis was something desired by Phillip to raise the status of the French monarchy to a special place in Europe.[16] Despite this clearly being beneficial to Phillip, Pope Boniface used to opportunity to further his own religio-political aims. By canonising Louis, Boniface was able to set a standard of kingship which other kings in Europe should aspire too, a standard which was beneficial to the aims of the Papacy.[17] This being said, there were calls for the canonisation of Louis as early as 1275 by individuals who had far lesser vested interest in the canonisation of Louis such as the Franciscan Simon de Brie, and the Archbishop of Reims.[18] Although it was important to both Louis’ descendants and (later) the Papacy that Louis be thought of as a good and holy king, both to secure the position of the Capetians and create a standard for the papacy to ask other monarchs to conform to, this does not mean Louis was not a pious monarch who was deserving of cannonisation. If Louis had not been genuinely pious, neither the French monarchy nor the Papacy would have had a case for canonisation.


That religion was just a part of Louis IX’s royal policy is evident in the conflicts between Louis and the church, despite his acknowledged devoutness. For example, in 1247 Louis sent two delegations to Rome, complaining to Pope Innocent IV that papal taxation was too high.[19]  This is not evidence that Louis was not pious. It demonstrates that Louis believed in his role as God’s anointed, and thus was concerned as a king would be about what was best for the people of France. Louis’ support for the Papacy seems somewhat dependent on the Papacy’s aims coinciding with his own: Louis wanted a well functioning French Church, he wanted the continued consolidation of his position as king and he wanted the Holy Land to be recaptured and he cooperated with the papacy to this end.[20] Further evidence that Louis only supported the Papacy when it suited his efforts is found in the struggles between Frederick II and Innocent IV. Only when Frederick captured and arrested members of the French clergy would Louis protest on the Papacy’s behalf.[21]  This shows that while Louis would support the Papacy in theory, in practice it was only necessary to do so when Louis’ own political interests were supported. Joinville recounts an occasion at the French parliament in which the Bishops criticised the King’s financial attitude towards the clergy. Joinville writes,


‘The Bishop of Chartres,’ said the King, ‘desired me to restore him on credit what I held of his; and I told him that I should not do so until my castle were paid for. And I told him that he was my sworn liegeman, and that he was behaving neither well nor loyally towards me, in trying to rob me of my heritage.’[22]


While this appears to demonstrate a convenient realpolitik on the part of Louis, it actually demonstrates that Louis’s adherence to the Two Swords theory which Louis moved away from in other regards. Louis would not tell the clergy how to preach, and required they left terrestrial matters to him. Whether or not this in itself was realpolitik is somewhat irrelevant, the ideals of piety where still being upheld.


Furthermore, the saintly virtue of Louis is found in being a good king, and the previous examples are evidence of Louis’ good kingship.[23]  Joinville recounts:


“After King Louis had returned to France from overseas, he bore himself very devoutly towards our Saviour, and very justly towards his subjects; wherefore he considered and thought it would be a fair thing, and a good, to reform the realm of France.”[24]


Joinville then goes on to list some rather dull administrative reforms which Louis dictated to his bailiffs. It is interesting that this was published in the Chronicles of the Crusades, alongside accounts of Louis’ struggles in the Holy Land and of his devotion to charity, which are clear displays of his piety, as it gives evidence that for Louis, good kingship is a part of being pious. Indeed, in his descriptions of Louis, Joinville believes that Louis’ conduct as king was the manifestation of his piety, as it showed Louis representing the divine justice.[25] Therefore, even ignoring Louis’ religious devotion, piety became important to Louis because ideals of piety and good kingship were deeply connected.


The piety of Louis IX was beneficial to both his own political aims and the aims of his descendants, and was important part of his reign, both personally and as part of his policy.  Louis’ charitable donations to monasteries are reminiscent of an early social welfare system, demonstrating cross over between the religious aspects of Louis’ reign and other areas of policy. Louis’ conflicts with the church appear to demonstrate medieval realpolitik with regards to the French religion, but it rather demonstrates that the piety of good kingship was of the highest importance to Louis. Piety was, therefore, extremely important to the reign of Louis IX, as it was a central part of his royal policy.




Charlemagne, Charlemagne’s Letter to Leo III. From the Lecture One Handout.

De Joinville, J. (1309) HE MEMOIRS OF THE LORD OF JOINVILLE A NEW ENGLISH            VERSION. Available at: (Accessed: 6 March 2016).Translated by Ethel Wedgwood. Accessed via the University of Indiana

De Joinville, J. and Villehardouin (1908) Memoirs of the crusades – 1908, page v by           Villehardouin, Jean De Joinville. Available at:   (Accessed: 6      March 2016). Translated by Sir Frank Marzials. Originally published in London by     JM Dent & Sons and in New York by EP Dutton & Co


Gaposchkin, M.C. (2008), The Making of Saint Louis: Kingship, Sanctity, and Crusade in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press


Hallam, E.M. and Everard, J. (2001) Capetian France, 987-1328. 2nd edn. Harlow: Pearson


Jordan, W.C. (1979) Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade: A Study in Rulership.       Princeton


Labarge, M. W. (1968), Saint Louis. London, Eyre & Spottiswoode


Richard, J. (1992) Saint Louis: Crusader King of France. Trans. J. Birrell. Cambridge:       Cambridge University Press


Swanson, R.N. (1995), Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215-c.1515. Cambridge:         Cambridge University Press





[1] Jordan, W.C. (1979) Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade: A Study in Rulership. Princeton, p. 152

[2] Richard, J. (1992) Saint Louis: Crusader King of France. Trans. J. Birrell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 237 and Labarge, M. W. (1968), Saint Louis. London, Eyre & Spottiswoode, p. 17

[3] Swanson, R.N. (1995), Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215-c.1515. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21 – 22

[4] Richard (1992), p. 152

[5] Charlemagne, Charlemagne’s First Letter to Leo III. From the Lecture One Handout

[6] Hallam, E.M. and Everard, J. (2001) Capetian France, 987-1328. 2nd edn. Harlow: Pearson, p. 299
ibliographyity, and Crusade in  of the highest importance to Louis.of piety and good kingship were deeply connected. oblem to b

[7] Swanson (1995), p. 2

[8]  Gaposchkin, M.C. (2008), The Makking of Saint Louis: Kingship, Sanctity, and Crusade in the Later Middle Ages. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, p. 8

[9] De Joinville, J. (1309) HE MEMOIRS OF THE LORD OF JOINVILLE A NEW ENGLISH VERSION. Available at: (Accessed: 6 March 2016).Translated by Ethel Wedgwood. Accessed via the University of Indiana.

[10] Jordan (1979), p. 184

[11] Ibid, p. 185

[12] Ibid, pp. 187 – 188

[13] Gaposchkin (2008), pp. 4, 5

[14] Swanson (1995), pp. 126, 155

[15] Gaposchkin (2008), p. 48

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, pp. 59 – 60

[18] Ibid, pp. 30 – 31

[19] Hallam and Everard (2001), p. 306

[20] Ibid. p. 308

[21] Ibid, p. 308

[22] De Joinville, J. (1309)

[23] Gaposchkin (2008), p. 65

[24] De Joinville, J. and Villehardouin (1908) Memoirs of the crusades – 1908, page v by Villehardouin, Jean De Joinville. Available at: (Accessed: 6 March 2016). Translated by Sir Frank Marzials. Originally published in London by JM Dent & Sons and in New York by EP Dutton & Co, p. 311

[25] Gaposchkin (2008), p 195


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