Perhaps the most sincere and guileless of medieval chroniclers was France’s Jean de Joinville, the Seneschal of Champagne. He lived from 1224 to 1317, reaching a maturity of worldly experience shared by none of his contemporaries except fellow historian Geoffrey de Villehardouin.
Joinville was the counsellor and confidant to King Louis IX (later the canonized St. Louis), and accompanied him on the Seventh Crusade. He wrote, in 1309 at the age of eighty-five, a work called the Histoire de St. Louis (Life of St. Louis); it is more of a personal testament than a biography, for it describes Joinville’s experiences at the right-hand of his beloved king.
Louis IX was France’s most pious monarch; he took seriously his responsibility as servant of national unity, and as a protector of the poor against the depredations of the powerful. He subjected himself to nutritional austerities as acts of faith; and he made it a point of principle to feed the poor, wash the feet of paupers, and lacerate his flesh in penitentiary flagellations.
Without question, his canonization twenty-seven years after his death was eminently deserved. Joinville’s Life of St. Louis is, among other things, a treasure-trove of Louis’s worldly wisdom. It is an intimate and vivid portrait of a man Joinville had come to love for his virtue, wisdom, and innate sense of justice.
In numerous anecdotes, he conveys his master’s ability to render equity, or deliver sound counsel, on nearly any occasion. After reading the entire account carefully, I have tried to state in my own words the most radiant bezels of wisdom from Joinville’s book, together with an illustrative quotation from the original source. These are displayed below. The complete text of the Life of St. Louis can be found in Joinville and Villehardouin: Chronicles of the Crusades (M. Shaw, ed., New York: Penguin Books, 1983). The quotations that follow below are taken from this translation of Joinville.
1. Govern justly and speak the truth.
“For I would rather have a Scot come from Scotland to govern the people of this kingdom well and justly than that you should govern them ill in the sight of all the world.” This upright king loved truth so well that…he would never consent to lie to the Saracens [i.e., Muslims] with regard to any covenant he made with them.
2. Do not drink to excess.
He used to add water to his wine, but did so reasonably, according as the strength of the wine allowed it…[He warned me] that if I did not learn to mix my wine with water…gout and stomach troubles would take hold of me, and I would never be in good health.
3. Do not disgrace yourself.
“You should avoid deliberately saying or doing anything which, if it became generally known, you would be ashamed to acknowledge by saying ‘I did this,’ or ‘I did that.’”
4. Be mindful of your words.
He also told me not to contradict or call into question anything said in my presence—unless silence would imply approval of something wrong, or damaging to myself, because harsh words often lead to quarreling, which has ended in the deaths of countless numbers of men.
5. Do not be too flamboyant in dress or habit. No one respects a coxcomb.
He often said that people ought to clothe and arm themselves in such a way that men of riper age would never say they had spent too much on dress, or young men say that they had spent too little.
6. Do not let your soul become corrupted by vice.
“So I beg you,” he added, “as earnestly as I can, for the love of God, and for the love of me, to train your heart to prefer any evil that can happen to the body, whether it be leprosy or any other disease, rather than let mortal sin take possession of your soul.”
7. Humble yourself by frequent acts of kindness and charity. They have a redemptive power.
“Your Majesty,” I exclaimed, what a terrible idea! I will never wash the feet of such low fellows.” “Really,” said he, “that is a very wrong thing to say; for you should never scorn to do what our Lord Himself did as an example for us. So I beg you [he said], for the love of God and for the love of me, to accustom yourself to washing the feet of the poor.”
8. When at dinner or revelry, speak only about pleasant subjects.
It happened one day that this worthy priest was sitting beside me at dinner, and we were talking to each other rather quietly. The king reproved us and said: “Speak up, or your companions may think you are speaking ill of them. If at table you talk of things that may give us pleasure, say them aloud, else be silent.”
9. Be careful with your money.
“Wise men,” said the king, “deal with their possessions as executors ought to do. Now the first thing a good executor does is to settle all debts incurred by the deceased and restore any property belonging to others, and only then is he free to apply what money remains to charitable purposes.”
10. Take action quickly to implement justice.
With all this there were so many criminals and thieves in Paris and the adjoining country that the whole land was full of them. The king…soon made himself familiar with the truth. In consequence he forbade the selling of the office of provost [who was often underpaid and corrupt] in Paris, and arranged for a good and generous salary to be given to those who should hold it in the future. He also abolished all taxes and levies that imposed unnecessary hardship on his people, and caused inquiry to be made throughout his kingdom to find men who would administer justice well and strictly, and not spare the rich any more than the poor.
11. Sympathize with those less fortunate than you.
Let your heart be tender and full of pity towards the poor, the unhappy, and the afflicted; and comfort and help them to the utmost of your power.
12. Manage wisely those you are tasked to serve.
Maintain the good customs of your realm and abolish the bad ones. Do not be greedy in your demands on your people, or impose heavy taxes on them except in a case of emergency.
13. Speak to someone when you are burdened with a problem.
If anything lies heavy on your heart, speak of it to your confessor or to some wise and discerning man who has not too glib a tongue. In this way your troubles will be easier to bear.
14. Surround yourself with worthy and capable people.
Take care to have around you people, whether clerics or laymen, who are wise, upright, and loyal, and free from covetousness. Talk with them often, but shun and fly from association with the wicked.
15. Take caution with backbiters and calumny.
Let no one be so bold as to say in your presence anything that may entice and move men to sin, nor do anything so presumptuous as to speak evil of another behind his back in order to belittle him. Nor must you allow anything in disparagement of God and His saints to be said before you.
16. Value justice over all.
In order to deal justly and equitably with your subjects, be straightforward and firm, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left, but always following what is just, and upholding the cause of the poor till the truth be made clear. If anyone brings suit before you, make full inquiry until you know the truth; for then your counsellors, having the facts before them, will be able to give sentence more confidently, whether for or against you.
17. Restore stolen property to its owner.
If through your own act, or the act of your predecessors, you hold anything which should belong to another, and his right to it is proved beyond question, restore it to him without delay. If on the other hand there is some doubt about the matter, have it investigated, promptly and thoroughly, by wise and knowledgeable men.
18. Do not allow quarrels and disputes to fester.
In the case of wars and dissensions arising among your subjects, make peace between the disputants as soon as ever you can.
It might be said that there is nothing new or earth-shaking in these morsels; this is so, but true wisdom is seldom accompanied by fireworks. Nothing is less glamorous that the truth. Nevertheless, Louis was like all of us a product of his age, and we cannot follow him in everything. Some of his precepts have not aged well, and place him squarely in the Age of Faith, as when he advises a knight as follows:
But a layman, whenever he hears the Christian religions abused, should not attempt to defend its tenets, except with his sword, and that he should thrust into the scoundrel’s belly, as far as it will enter.
Yet if perspective is the first lesson of history, we must rank the Life of St. Louis as one of its greatest first-hand accounts. Here is revealed the mood of an age like no dry official chronicle ever could. We share in the wisdom and goodness of a pious king; we grip the pommels of our swords with conviction and intensity as we sit, with composed countenance and respectful homage, at the feet of Louis during one of his speeches; and we share with our seneschal Joinville his heartache in leaving his family to follow his king on the Seventh Crusade. He relates with unabashed honesty:
I left Joinville [my home] immediately after—never to enter my castle again until my return from overseas—on foot, with my legs bare, and in my shirt. Thus attired I went to Blécourt and Saint-Urbain, and to other places where there are holy relics. And all the way to Blécourt and Saint-Urbain I never once let my eyes turn back towards Joinville, for fear my heart might be filled with longing at the sight of my lovely castle and the two children I had left behind.
Because Joinville was not a professional historian, his work is free of the ornament and affectation that a more educated writer might feel obliged to display. This gives his work a freshness and warmth that no other medieval work can approach, with the possible exception of the letters of Abelard and Heloise.
Louis died in 1270 on the Eighth Crusade in Tunis. After his death, papal officials made an inquest into his life and works, and he was canonized in 1297. Joinville wrote his history in 1309, at the advanced age of eighty-five; yet time had neither dimmed his memory nor obscured his judgment. We feel the living, breathing presence of real characters here, not the wooden caricatures of musty chronicles.
When Louis’s body was prepared for burial, it was discovered that his back was scarred by flagellations, performed in secret by himself as acts of ritual penitence. His faithful servant, Joinville, eventually built for him an altar “to the honor of God and in his own honor, and there masses shall be sung in reverent memory of him forever.” He remains for many the most just and wise of all of France’s medieval kings.
No more saintly hands ever grasped a scepter, or graced a throne.
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