Remembering St. Louis the Crusader Saint

In the city of St. Louis there are two great churches honoring its namesake—the “old” cathedral, a Greek revival edifice sitting on a block dedicated for church use by the city’s founder, Pierre Laclede, in 1764; and the “new” Basilica of St. Louis, a massive green-domed neo-byzantine structure adorned with the world’s largest interior expanse of mosaics, called by Pope Paul VI “the outstanding cathedral of the Americas.”

A third work of art honoring the sainted king is “the Apotheosis of St. Louis,” an equestrian statue in front of the St. Louis Art Museum in Forest Park. The bronze casting of Charles Henry Niehaus’s original plaster model was, from its unveiling by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition committee in 1906, until superseded by the Gateway Arch in 1965, the “symbol of the city.” Both knight and horse radiate the Christian militancy of the thirteenth century. The king’s mailed fist grips his down-held blade, so that its intersection with the hilt still stands out against the sky as a cross—the very emblem of crusade. (I say still, because the more delicate replacement of the stolen original has an ambiguous curlicue cross guard.) The charger’s arched, armor-plated head, and backward-blown caparison prinked with fleur de lis, suggest the forward rush of a mount sharing its rider’s zest for battle. A stirring if anachronistic image, this apotheosis of St. Louis—and of a Church Militant.

Time staggers on, and in one of nervous mea culpas for Christian aggression, a crusader astride a war horse is—let’s face it—not what the age requires. A stainless-steel abstraction, an Arch, needs fewer explanations in Chamber of Commerce brochures.

Not that the statue of Louis IX bestirs the asinine pique that toppled generals Lee and Beauregard from their pedestals in New Orleans; or the “anti-colonialist” ressentiment that banished Père de Smet (beloved by the Indians, broker of peace between the Potawatomi and Sioux) from St. Louis University’s sculpture garden. Multiculturalist mobs are not howling for his removal. But the saint’s resort to the broadsword over “outreach” makes him susceptible to revisionist critique. In the first week of May, following a $50,000 cleanup and renewal, the monument was spray-painted with graffiti.

Saint Louisans are, in one sense, no different from natives of St. Cloud or San Bernardino, or hundreds of other American cities named for saints. Indifference, rather than hostility, characterizes their attitude toward their city’s eponym. A Cardinal face-off with the Cubs will stimulate more heated debate than the saint’s double header (he returned for an Eighth Crusade—also a shut-out) against the Saracens. A local blogger found that only two of thirty St. Louisans could identify their city’s namesake. My informal polling yields a similar result. During a recent visit to St. Louis, I asked several museum goers about that knight on horseback. No one knew anything about him beyond the visual clues suggesting some kind of ancient warrior. Inside the museum I encountered the same agnosticism, until a young man behind the welcome desk identified “Louis Nine,” who’d built Sainte-Chapelle to house the crown of thorns.

Will Durant, whose account is largely free of tedious presentism, remarks that Louis shared in the superstition of his credulous age. Consider the outlay of 11,000 livres (about twenty mil in our inflated currency) for the thorn-crown pressed on the head of Christ. An age that knows the value of a dollar scoffs at such extravagance. Maybe for Michael Jackson’s rhinestone wardrobe—but for a relic of doubtful provenance? Whether or not a counterfeit, it spurred the king to commission Peter of Montreuil to build Sainte-Chapelle as a worthy setting. Most visitors to this perfect jewel box of the High Middle Ages will thank God for such credulity—and for the Seventh Crusade. But for this ‘failed’ adventure the king would not have purchased the relic from King Baldwin II of Constantinople.

Reading the life penned–or more probably, dictated–by the seneschal of Champagne, Jean de Joinville, one hesitates to dismiss the Seventh Crusade as a failure. Inspiring, heroic, impossibly quixotic, maybe. It is true, however, that Louis didn’t wrest Jerusalem from the Saracens, the expressed aim of the crusade; or even pray at the Holy Sepulchre, until agreeing to an exorbitant ransom prior to returning to France. (When the Muslims miscounted and accepted a sum less than the negotiated price, the scrupulous monarch, over Frankish protest, characteristically insisted his purser pay the last écu.)

Much of Joinville’s memoir deals with the hair-raising valor of a king who, time and again, was first into the fray. Upon landing on the cost of Damietta, he leapt, in full armor, to have at the enemy. His knights protested, but as always, to no avail. When his brother, the Comte d’Artois, was being overwhelmed by “Turks” or “Saracens”—Joinville uses the terms interchangeably—the king wouldn’t wait for reinforcements; he hacked his way into their midst, redeeming what looked to be a personal loss and military calamity. In another melee, six Turks seized the king’s bridle to lead him off to captivity. Before a rescue could be mounted, Louis “delivered himself without anyone’s help by slashing at them with great strokes of his sword.” Joinville vows that he had “never seen a finer or more handsome knight! He seemed to tower head and shoulders above all his men; on his head was a gilded helmet, a sword of German steel in his hand.” Such descriptions rival those of Sir Walter Scott—as do the good-humored repartee of the king and his soldiery. All of this enlivens Joinville’s account, without fictive heightening. Joinville—like his master—confined himself to the truth.

At the end of the Seventh Crusade, Jerusalem remained in Muslim control. So what had the king to show after six years in Outremer? Wounds, disease, captivity, debt, the loss of his brother in battle—along with most of his friends and comrades in arms; and a storied reputation for valor and saintliness.

After those losses that reduced the tender-hearted monarch to tears (but never to depression or angst in the modern style), how did his crusaders regard their splendid king, now bald and bent, his face lined with bereavement? All that remained of a Joinville’s “handsome knight” was the magnetism of transparent virtue; that seemed enough. But the Holy City remained in Mohammedan hands.

When, in 1254, the crusaders turned their backs on what had proved a wasting desert of pestilence and defeat, not even those knights who had urged an earlier departure were disaffected or mutinous. Their king had always been at the forefront of battle and shared their grief for companions captured or slain. Even on campaign, he had heard mass, said his beads, read the Scriptures, fed beggars with his own hand, and washed the feet of the poor—but only of the blind in order to veil his charity. Stooped by illness and wounds, he retained the stature to point his lance back to the desert, or onward to la douce France—and they would follow.

In the thirteenth century, news was conveyed from Outremer by troubadours, a more poetic, but surely no less reliable source than our cable news. No doubt, his exploits provided themes for many a stirring chanson de geste at castle hearths during the six-year absence.

Once back in France, his legend, burnished by reports of saintliness and heroism, was greater than before he had embarked on his ill-starred enterprise. Such was his reputation for valor, justice, and piety—a word without ironic overtones in the thirteenth century—that the habitually warring barons, the kings of England, Spain, and Germany, sought his arbitration. He even persuaded Pope Innocent IV and Frederick II to come to terms for the good of souls. Because all parties trusted his disinterested benignity, peace could be imposed without recourse to arms. In the words of André Maurois, “here was an entirely new thing: respect paid to justice. Never had a united Christendom come closer to realization.”

Joinville lived fifty years beyond the death (on an Eighth Crusade) of his beloved king, an ample stretch of time in which to assemble the memoir that Boniface VIII consulted in Louis’ canonization. During the inquest, the king’s heroism counted for less than his piety. His memoirist recalls an exchange illuminating the king’s otherworldly perspective, even in the heat of battle. Louis asked Joinville something that might seem no more than a playful parlor-game question: would Joinville prefer to have a mortal sin on his soul or leprous lesions on his body? The always blunt, always honest seneschal shot back that he would sooner have thirty mortal sins on his soul than a taint of leprosy. Louis could not abide this preference for physical health over spiritual integrity and implored him to come to a better understanding. Joinville must have done just that, for their friendship endured. In fact, Joinville himself, suffering tertian fever, commanded his priest, swooning from the same sickness, to keep to his feet and conclude the sacrament. And so he did—the last mass this priest would live to say.

Physical health, the summum bonum that sends us to Web MD for instant advice on corporal matters, was to Louis and his seneschal, of trifling concern. The contrasting values of the thirteenth and twenty-first centuries, illustrated by this preference, challenge the progressive view of history.

Today the Crusades are dismissed by secular humanists, even by clerics and popes, as an embarrassment, a contradiction of an essentially pacifistic Christianity. G.K. Chesterton didn’t share this shame: “For those who think the idea of the Crusade is one that spoils the idea of the cross, we can only say that for them, the idea of the Cross is spoiled.” The idea of the Crusade, and of its apotheosis, Louis IX, still has the power to excite the admiration of Christians–and of students not terminally enervated by modern media. Perhaps our Catholic schools, especially in the city named for the canonized crusader, should bump the latest relevant best-seller in favor of Sieur de Joinville’s memoir. A noble effort, as the Life of Saint Louis reminds us, can never entirely fail.

Peter Maurice

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Peter Maurice, a native of New Orleans, is a retired teacher of French, English, and humanities, all levels from elementary through university. He is the recipient of several fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities to participate in summer seminars for school teachers. His writing has appeared in Touchstone, Gilbert Magazine and The Wanderer.

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