25 August, the memorial of St. Louis IX of France. St. Louis (1215-1270) was a contemporary of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, and, as a king, one of the better examples of medieval ideas of law and justice in practice. A short excursus into his life will perhaps help put some flesh to the ideas of law we’re getting from the Summa.
His mother, Blanche of Castile, one of the many grandchildren of the great Eleanor of Aquitaine, was worthy of her parentage. She was a very forceful person, an excellent organizer and administrator, and fierce in defending her family. When, in 1215-16 (remember the Magna Carta?), the English barons in revolt against King John offered the throne of England to Louis VIII, she organized the army and navy for the invasion of England to receive it, but in a land battle and a naval battle, the English forces loyal to John and his son Henry defeated them. She put down rebellions of French barons, and later defeated an English invasion of France in 1230. (The “English” and “French” barons tended to hold lands on both sides of the Channel; and the kings tended to be barons of each other, also, so the politics were rather convoluted; hence all the mutual “invasions” until the end of the Hundred Years War.) She protected and expanded the power of the French kings against the other great dukes and kings of England, France, and Germany. She was also a great papist in the various ecclesial politics of the day. She was, no surprise, chosen to be her son’s regent when Louis VIII died in 1226, and she continued to guide and support her son vigorously after his majority and marriage in 1234. She was regent again when St. Louis was crusading in Egypt, 1248-50.
St. Louis emulated these same qualities. He was politically astute and vigorous. But, he did not pursue royal power merely for the sake of accumulating more power. He was intent on using that power for the purposes everyone agreed he had it: to protect the poor and the Church against the abuses of the powerful; to govern with justice; to maintain peace as far as possible. He used diplomacy as much as he could, but he didn’t shy away from using force when necessary. He notably avoided a couple of “wars,” in France and in Sicily, that he could have pursued (and that someone like his grandfather, Philippe Auguste, would not have hesitated to pursue). He was not a great legislator, but he respected the laws and customs of his day, and extended the reach and the reliability of royal courts of justice. He himself sat as judge regularly, and his “king’s justice” was available even to the poorest peasants.
His own faith and devotion were very strong. As was the norm then, he used his power to curb abuses within the Church, and to fight against the Albigensian heresy (the “Albigensian crusade”). He built the fabulous Sainte Chappelle in Paris (pictures just don’t do it justice), and funded Robert of Sorbonne in founded the university that bears his name (originally as a theology school). His personal library numbered in the hundreds of books, and was one of the great collections of the day. He also pursued two extensive Crusades in Egypt, to defend the Holy Land by securing its approaches from the south. These were understood as wars of self-defense for Christendom. Both were ultimately unsuccessful.
If you read the Office of Readings this morning, you might have noted these ideas in the letter to his son which is the second reading for today. Faith comes first; from faith comes justice and right; and the king rules best when he serves as God’s instrument for the common good. “My dearest son, my first instruction to you is that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. Without this there is no salvation…. If the Lord has permitted you some trial, bear it willingly and with gratitude…. Listen to the divine office with pleasure and devotion…. Be kindhearted to the poor, the unfortunate, and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can…. Be just to your subjects, swaying neither to right nor to left, but holding the line of justice. Always side with the poor rather than with the rich, until you are certain of the truth. See that all your subjects live in justice and peace…. Work to remove all sin from your land, particularly blasphemies and heresies.”
That core definition of justice as “remove all sin from your land” is the point where faith fundamentally shaped politics. This goal is not mere human justice, a crude measure of “approximately fair;” the absence of sin is the only true justice there can be. Of course, if Christ is the unique Savior, then the absence of sin can only be achieved by the conversion of everyone, and therefore, quite unlike today, the medieval standard of justice judged the use of the state’s coercive power to defend and support orthodoxy to be not only licit, but even required. As we mentioned in class last time, it was not until the Reformation, Counter-reformation, and the devastations of the Wars of Religion and the 30-Years’ War that this idea really changed. Basically, before then, the consequences of not using the coercive power of the state in this way were thought to be worse than using it; but afterwards, the costs of using it became obviously higher than the costs of not using it.
Aside from these kinds of historical differences, St. Louis was justly renowned for being a strong king, but not abusing his power; regulating his royal courts for the rule of law, and being accessible himself as a judge, even to the very poor; leading with diplomacy, resorting to war only when necessary; self-restraint in his governing; patronizing the arts, learning, and so on; supporting the clergy while curbing abuses; and loving the Church and the poor. These are the sorts of actions which St. Thomas is implying in his definition of law as a rational, objective, and universal “rule and measure” of acts, enacted and promulgated by the sovereign and accepted as legitimate, for the common good.