Karl Steel's Reviews > The Deeds of Louis the Fat

The Deeds of Louis the Fat by Abbot Suger
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's review
Apr 22, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: medieval
Read in April, 2009

As the translators emphasize, Abbot Suger wrote the Deeds rather than Life of Louis: this difference supposedly accounts for the absence of much of what might interest us, although it says more about what counts as a "deed." There's nothing, or virtually nothing, about Louis's wife and children (so we see a distinction, I think, between private "life" and public "deeds," even with a family as public as that of a King), nothing about his interests--apart from war-making--and thus nothing about, say, whether he read, or what he ate [although the evidence is: too much and too often (135)]. The contrasts with, say, Asser's Life of Alfred are startling.

It's also illustrative to compare the Deeds of Louis to that of another young King, contemporary to Louis, who tried to bring (his own) peace to his disunified realm, namely, Arthur, as written by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Arthur handily defeats each of his enemies, and never has to fight anyone twice; Louis scrambles from place to place throughout his reign, killing his vassals' men and having his killed in turn, sometimes winning, sometimes losing, and only very rarely, and only at times of weakness, negotiating a peace; at least he doesn't fall, as Chrétien's Erec does, to idleness (61). The differences can be blamed on the difference between Norman Kingship in England (which I believed attained a monopoly on legitimate violence quickly) and the French Capetian Kings, who only began to attain a monopoly on legitimate violence during Louis's reign. Note, then, that throwing down tyrants is among Louis's duties. We would expect the King to be the sole possible tyrant of France, but this would mean mistaking the feebleness of a medieval French King for the grandeur of Louis XIV. What does Louis actually accomplish? Toward the end of his reign, he's able to take a host from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand without being accosted and to impress the Aquitaine Duke so much that he gives his daughter, Eleanor, to Louis's son in marriage; earlier, he assembled a host to meet the German emperor, who decides that invading France would be too much trouble. Louis's greatest victories, then, are when he intimidates rather than kills (131-32).

But Louis does kill a lot. We learn a lot about medieval juridical violence: the troops of a rebellious lord surrender to Louis, who has their right hands chopped off and makes them return "carrying their fists in their fists" (136); I lost track of how many people he blinds and castrates; and the punishments he inflicts on the murderers of Charles the Good in Bourges are terrible (cf. The Murder of Charles the Good ): the chief conspirator is hanged with a dog, which angrily bites off the conspirator's face and covers him in its shit (141). Here's an example of what Suger admires:
Attacking them with swords, they piously slaughtered the impious, mutilated the limbs of some, disemboweled others with great pleasure, and piled even greater cruelty upon them, considering it too kind. No one should doubt that the hand of God sped so swift a revenge when both the living and dead were thrown through the windows. Bristling with countless arrows like hedgehogs, their bodies stopped short in the air, vibrating on the sharp points of lances as if the ground itself rejected them [note, this an allusion to lore about Judas's suicide, a point our translators missed:]. The French hit upon the following unusual revenge for William's unusual deed. When alive he had lacked a brain, and now that he was dead he lacked a heart, for they ripped it from his entrails and impaled it on a stake, swollen as it was with fraud and evil. (80)

Also notable: still more evidence of Le Goff's errors on the sociology of missile weapons; we get a sense of how minimally well someone has to behave to earn Suger's admiration: Pope Paschal visits the church of St. Martin of Tours and doesn't walk off with all its gold: what a model of good behavior! You want a cookie? (48); we see Louis's great enemy Hugh of Crécy escape by disguising himself at times as a jongleur and at times as a prostitute (67: man or woman?); Abbot Suger hates the Germans (e.g., "they gnashed their teeth violently as Germans do" (50), and we might cf. Suger on the wily Emperor Henry V to Odo of Deuil on the wily Emperor Manuel Komnenos), but admires the Normans (e.g., 70); he is not of the party of Anacletus II, née Peter Leo, but he says nothing (146-51) about his Jewish ancestry (see The Jewish Pope ), which suggests that Anacletus's lineage wasn't common knowledge; we see an antipope, Burdinus, made to ride through Rome on a camel wearing bloody undressed goatskins (121); anyone interested in the investiture crisis will love Suger's terror when he's elected Abbot of St. Denis without Louis's knowledge (125): he had condemned the HRE repeatedly for curtailing the independence of the church, and now, finding his own church independent, he's nearly crushed between his ideals and the political reality; he admires the crusaders no more than he does any other knight (e.g., 104), which is to say, he apparently doesn't believe that any special grace accrues to those who go to fight in the Holy Land: note how he speaks of Flanders being "baptized" after Louis avenges the murder of Charles the Good; we've a record of Philip's death-by-demonic-pig (149-50; for more on this, see Michel Pastoureau); we see Suger cite Merlin's prophecy as truth (69); and, most astonishing for me, we see that the Jews of Paris traditionally (from when? for what purpose?) presented New Popes with a Torah scroll: "and even members of that blind synagogue of the Jews of Paris came forward and offered him the scroll of the Law beneath a veil" (148)

To be praised for its lively translation, deep notes, and a very thorough map.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Josher71 (new)

Josher71 This guy sounds like a real asshole.

Karl Steel Agreed. That's what being a king's all about.

Ryan I can't agree more with you Karl on:
"The differences can be blamed on the difference between Norman Kingship in England (which I believed attained a monopoly on legitimate violence quickly) and the French Capetian Kings, who only began to attain a monopoly on legitimate violence during Louis's reign"

Although I'd argue that the Normans pretty much had this monopoly after The Conqueror laid waste to the North of England.

Anyways thanks for this.

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