Jacques Le Goff
Translated by Gareth Evan Gollrad
“Life of a king, life of a saint, life of a man. In this work, Jacques LeGoff, one of the truly great medieval historians of our times, magisterially plumbs the depths of the fundamental contradiction of Saint Louis: is it possible to be both a king and a saint? St. Louis lies at the intersection of reasons of state and divine reason; he is an individual around whom LeGoff turns like a detective searching for an ever-elusive truth, that of a life and a legend inextricably intertwined. A fine, eminently readable translation. “ — Robert J. Morrissey, University of Chicago
Canonized in 1297 as Saint Louis, King Louis IX of France (1214-1270) was the central figure of Christendom in the thirteenth century. He ruled when France was at the height of power; he commanded the largest army in Europe and controlled the wealthiest kingdom. Renowned for his patronage of the arts, Louis was equally famous for his choice to imitate the suffering Christ as a humbly attired, bearded penitent, a choice that rejected the potent image of God in majesty on which much of the ideology of medieval kingship was founded, as well as the accompanying lavish, ceremonial style of monarchy.
Armed with the considerable resources of the nouvel historien, Jacques Le Goff mines existing materials about Saint Louis to forge a new historical biography of the king. Part of his ambitious project is to reconstruct the mental universe of the thirteenth century: Le Goff describes the scholastic and intellectual background of Louis’s reign and, most importantly, he discusses methodology and the interpretation of written sources—their composition, provenance, and reliability.
Le Goff divides his unconventional biography into three parts. In the first, he gives us the contours of Louis’s life from birth to death in the usual context of family dynamics and genealogy, courtly and regional politics, and shifts in economic, social, and cultural life. In sifting through the historical accounts of the king’s life, Le Goff determines that it is Louis IX’s profound sense of moral and religious purpose—his desire to become the ideal Christian ruler—that colors his every action from boyhood on; it is also, for Le Goff, what renders contemporary accounts problematic and what necessitates further scrutiny.
That dissection of sources occupies the second part. Le Goff’s intention is to pare away the layers of homily and anecdote produced by the King’s early biographers to discover the true St. Louis. Questioning whether St. Louis was merely the invention of his eulogists, Le Goff penetrates beyond the literary and hagiographical evidence to the human behind the legend. He brilliantly analyzes Louis’s progression toward his unique self-creation and its subsequent mythologizing. In the third part, Le Goff highlights the contradictions within Louis and his historical image that previous chroniclers have elided and overlooked. In the end, he leaves us with the saint, rather than the king, with all the paradoxes embedded within that dual role.
“A warm and largely admiring portrait of a king in whom power and goodness do indeed form two sides of the same coin. . . . Le Goff’s Louis is cheerful, ardent, devout, intelligent but unintellectual, skillful yet uncomplicated, a man in tune with his age but able to transcend at least some of its limitations . . . This is a rich and generous book, crammed with a lifetime’s learning.” — The New York Review of Books
“Jacques Le Goff’s brilliant biography, Saint Louis, came out in French in 1996, and is now published in a readable English translation. Its publication gives Anglophones a book to set beside W.C. Jordan’s Louis IX and the Challenge of the Crusade (1979) and Jean Richard’s Saint Louis (1983, translated in 1992). . . . Le Goff excels in his knowledge of the biographical sources, which he subjects to close analysis, against the background—Le Goff’s home territory—of European mentalités.” — London Review of Books
“More than simply a biography of Louis IX of France, this magisterial work by a member of the Annales School of historiography is an examination of the historian’s craft. After treating in detail Louis’s life, Le Goff . . . looks closely at the sources to determine what we can know of the real Louis, then considers particular topics—such as his relationship to his family, his religion—in more depth. Le Goff argues convincingly that Louis, while still a medieval figure, was also one of the first moderns. He provides the scholarly apparatus lacking in Jean Richard’s Saint Louis, the Crusading King of France. . . . Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries. — Library Journal
“Louis lives and walks through these pages. What Le Goff has given us is more than a biography; it is a work of literature. . . . Given the length of this book, many will be intimidated and will not take up its challenge. That is a pity, for Le Goff has much to offer here. There is no chapter that does not contain information and ideas that deserve to be discussed further.” — The Catholic Historical Review
“. . . Le Goff employs the methodological subtlety of his training to achieve a nuanced exposition of the interaction between thirteenth-century structures, both real and representational, and the person of the king. . . . With this attention to the mental, cultural and ideological structures which shaped the reign, the man, and his representation, Le Goff interweaves insightful and illuminating reflections on Louis’ personality. . . . Le Goff demonstrates how the historical biographer can legitimately evoke personality and psychology in a wider account of structures and discourses.” — English Historical Review
“In a massive piece of scholarship, Le Goff, doyen of French medievalists, plays the sleuth whose work results in more contradictions than clarity in the search for an integration of the three personae—king, saint, and man—of Louis IX (1214–1270). . . . Resolving to live with an inherently unstable and distorted historical figure hovering somewhere between memory, history, and legend, Le Goff thereby raises important questions about defining historical authenticity. Gollrad’s translation nicely preserves the lively and intimate prose of the French original (1996).” — Choice
“Historical revisionism has left the reputation of the saint king untarnished. And that is because he really was a man of extraordinary piety. He believed that the crown of France was given to him by God, who would hold him accountable for it. Le Goff’s history of Louis, originally published in 1996 and now translated into English, is probably the most complete available.” — First Things
“Le Goff’s Saint Louis is now and will serve for a long time as a valuable reference tool and source of inspiration for the study of Louis IX in English.” — The Medieval Review
“The publication of Jacques Le Goff’s massive study of the life of Saint Louis in 1996 . . . marks the clearest illustration of the marrying of annalist methodology to the traditional biographical genre. The solid translation of this work into English by Gareth Evan Gollrad provides an opportunity to consider again the strengths and limitations of annalist biography.” — American Historical Review
“Gareth Evan Gollrad’s imposing . . . translation is an accurate and lucid rendition of Le Goff’s original work, complete with genealogical charts and maps . . . Saint Louis is no mere biography, rather it is an exploration of the politics and society of thirteenth-century France, which shaped, and were shaped by, Louis IX, in life and in death.” — The Journal of Ecclesiastical History
“. . . What Le Goff has accomplished is more than what will undoubtedly be considered the definitive biography of St. Louis; he has established a standard against which other biographies will be measured. Saint Louis will be read and reread not only as a monograph (or perhaps three-in-one, a monographical trinity) but also as an indispensible reference book.” — The Historian
Critical praise for the French edition:
“What is the ‘truth’ about St. Louis? Can we recover an image of the ‘real man’? . . . Are the excavated multiple and tangled images of the king the only reality? ‘Saint Louis,’ wonders Jacques Le Goff, ‘a-t-il existé?’ In the pages of this wise and ruminative study, the distinguished French medievalist, in his longest and most impressive book, tries to provide an answer to this last question. . . . [Le Goff’s] question . . . is not so much a pleasant irony or an allusion to the methodological power of deconstruction but a profound meditation on the difficulty of doing history . . . [and] an earnest exhortation to new and profounder engagement with the sources of the past. It is the kind of question we have come to expect from Jacques Le Goff.” — William Chester Jordan, Speculum
“A Christ-like humility . . . and a cult of self-imposed suffering provide, for Le Goff, the key to Louis’s behavior. To this extent, the saint eclipses the king in this lengthy and provocative but, in many ways, tantalizing study. . . . Le Goff’s Saint Louis is . . . as much an extended commentary on the historian’s craft, and on the integrity of history as an intellectual discipline, as a ‘Life’ of an individual. As such, it is more than welcome.” — Malcolm Vale, Times Literary Supplement
Awarded the prestigious Prix Gobert by the Académie Française in 1996.