Isabelle of France

Capetian Sanctity and Franciscan Identity in the Thirteenth Century

Sean L. Field

As the only daughter of Blanche of Castile, one of France’s most powerful queens, and as the sister of the Capetian saint Louis IX, Isabelle of France (1225-1270) was situated at the nexus of sanctity and power during a significant era of French culture and medieval history. In this ground-breaking examination of Isabelle’s career, Sean Field uses a wealth of previously unstudied material to address significant issues in medieval religious history, including the possibilities for women’s religious authority, the creation and impact of royal sanctity, and the relationship between men and women within the mendicant orders.

Field reinterprets Isabelle’s career as a Capetian princess. Isabelle was remarkable for choosing a life of holy virginity and for founding and co-authoring a rule for the Franciscan abbey of Longchamp. Isabelle did not become a nun there, but remained a powerful lay patron, living in a modest residence on the abbey grounds. Field maintains that Isabelle was a key actor in creating the aura of sanctity that surrounded the French royal family in the thirteenth century, underscoring the link between the growth of Capetian prestige and power and the idea of a divinely ordained, virtuous, and holy royal family. Her contemporary reputation for sanctity emerges from a careful analysis of the Life of Isabelle of France written by the third abbess of Longchamp, Agnes of Harcourt, and from papal bulls, letters, and other contemporary sources that have only recently come to light.

Field also argues that Isabelle had a profound effect on the institutional history of Franciscan women. By remaining outside the official Franciscan and church hierarchies, Isabelle maintained an ambiguous position that allowed her to embrace Franciscan humility while retaining royal influence. Her new order of Sorores minores was eagerly adopted by a number of communities, and her rule for the order eventually spread from France to England, Italy, and Spain. An important study of a medieval woman’s agency and power, Isabelle of France explores the life of a remarkable figure in French and Franciscan history.

SEAN L. FIELD is professor of history at the University of Vermont.

“Daughter of the king of France, sister of Saint Louis, sought after by the Emperor Frederick II who wished her to marry his son—Isabelle of France had every opportunity for worldly fame. But she turned her back on marriage and honors, and, out of Franciscan humility, chose to retire among the Soeurs mineures of Longchamp, seemingly slipping out of history and into the long shadows of obscurity. Sean L. Field brings Isabelle of France back into the light and at last does justice to her daring. Compact and lively, always lucid, his book demonstrates the remarkable nature of this woman who, a century after Heloise and a few years after Clare of Assisi, was among the very few to contribute to the composition of a rule of life for her sisters. Sean L. Field’s work is both fascinating and valuable.” —Jacques Dalarun, senior researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

“Beautifully written, based on meticulous and probing analysis of the sources, Sean Field’s admirable study of Isabelle of France illuminates not only the woman herself but also the fascinating and complex world in which she lived.” —Elizabeth A. R. Brown, The City University of New York

“In this book Sean Field has done a remarkable job in reconstructing the life of Isabelle, the sister of France’s saintly king, Louis IX. He has also explored in considerable depth and with great insight the process of making a saint in later medieval France. This is a first-rate study, one written with admirable economy and a judicious sensitivity to the complexities of the sources.” —William Chester Jordan, Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Princeton University

“Sean Field’s Isabelle of France is an important addition to our understanding of medieval sanctity, especially royal sanctity and the Capetian dynasty, as well as lay participation and leadership in religious life in the medieval church.” —Darleen Pryds, Franciscan School of Theology, Graduate Theological Union


“This exemplary biography, to a large degree based upon previously unknown or ignored primary sources, offers a close reading of the texts against the broader context. . . . [This book] combines an admirable attention to detail with an excellent analysis of the political and religious context.” — Journal of Ecclesiastical History

“The legacy of psycho-history for the interpretation of medieval sources has been long and problematic, and it is good to see here a biography based so firmly in textual criticism, where the reader is made acutely aware on almost every page of how far the evidence can take us securely. The result is a lively picture of Isabelle drawn from her actions, and not from psychological speculation . . . Isabelle of France has been grounded in modern scholarship in a way which will probably price definitive for some time to come.” — English Historical Review

“Nearly everything of importance to historians about the thirteenth century is here, refracted in the prism of a single individual’s life. . . . As recounted here, Isabelle’s life also illustrates the distinctive elements of women’s piety, with special attention to books and images; the way men saw holy women differently than holy women saw themselves; the conscious campaigning required to create a saint’s cult; the Capetians’ cooperation in taking care of family business; and the dynasty’s strong, royally distinctive piety, with its mendicant flavoring and emphasis on penance. . . Finally, Field’s discussion of the piety of both Blanche of Castille and Isabelle herself is very insightful, both in his recognition of the paradoxes both women embodied and in his deft characterization of Isabelle’s piety as ‘a studied simplicity.’ ” — The Historian

“A wide range of scholars will benefit from this book, certainly including Capetian specialists and Franciscan scholars, but it will also be of considerable interest to those with an interest in the question of women’s agency. . . . Isabelle of France would make a useful assignment for undergraduate classes on women and power or religion.” — Medieval Feminist Forum

“. . . An exploration of the development of Franciscan ideology and identity in the middle thirteenth century and a nuanced perspective on the culture and religiosity of the Capetian court. The audience for this book will range from those interested in medieval women, to those who work on saints and sanctity, the Capetians, or Franciscan institutional history and spirituality.” — The Catholic Historical Review

“Sean Field tells the story of family, solidarity, female agency, and monarchical spirituality through the life of Isabelle of France (1225-1270). . . . Complementing a hagiographical biography of the princess with new archival discoveries and close readings of the documents, Field’s contribution particularly expands our understanding of the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century and its relations with models of lay piety.” — H-Catholic, H-Net Reviews

“. . . provides a stimulating overview of Isabelle of France’s achievements. Field’s study thoroughly exploits the available historical evidence. When necessary, he speculates beyond his sources, to create a meaningful psychological profile of the historical actors. I think he has done the world of Franciscan scholarship a great service.” — Religious Studies Review