Letters and Sanctity: the Canonization of the Last Sainted King

Hannah Purtymun

The golden age of medieval epistolography

During the 12th century the practice of writing letters experienced a renaissance leading to what is now considered the golden age of medieval epistolography. This renaissance created the opportunity for communication to be improved and expanded upon, especially in regard to political and religious communications. Medieval letters were now used to persuade their intended audiences in a way that was clearer and more direct, while also being more forceful and effective. Letters written in this time period were also following the guidelines of ars dictaminis, ensuring that medieval letters were fulfilling their newfound purpose of helping members of the elite to exercise their political and even economic power. These letters were usually delivered orally by a messenger in front of multiple witnesses in order to hold the recipient accountable for the information received and ensuring a response. An example of such letters can be seen in relation to the canonization of Saint Louis IX, the last king to be sainted in the medieval period. The formal canonization of King Louis IX of France occurred in 1296, however, the events leading up to his canonization began as early as 1270, the year of his death. Louis’ sainthood can be traced back to letters written regarding his sanctity, advocating for his canonization, as well as requesting a formal vita to be written about his life and piety. The letters that directly relate to Louis’ canonization include Philip III’s letter announcing his death, Gregory X’s letter to Geoffrey of Beaulieu requesting him to write a vita of Louis’ life, and Jean of Chatillon’s letter advocating for his sanctity. Each of these letters was written with a particular intended audience and with certain political or religious motivations, but with the same end goal in mind: the canonization of Louis IX. Philip III, the son of Louis IX, wrote his letter proclaiming the death of his father to the prelates of France on the twelfth of September 1270. The intended audience is revealed in the salutation, which also provides insight into the motivation behind the letter. The salutation of his letter addresses religious leaders from priors to archbishops throughout France. Since Philip addresses all of the French prelates, it can be interpreted that he intended his letter to not only inform the religious sector of France of Louis IX’s death, but also to advocate for his sanctity. It is important that he does so within the prelates of France because his action allowed each of the prelates to individually advocate for Louis’ canonization. With the concerted effort of the prelates, a more convincing argument for canonization could be presented before the papacy. Another element of Philip’s letter that demonstrates his motivation in advocating for his father’s sanctity is the presence of allusions to Louis’ virtue and piety that are included throughout the narration. Only the most significant of these allusions will be examined, as they are numerous. When Philip first announces the death of his father he states: ‘Louis — of famed and pious memory, most famous king of France, beloved of God and honoured by men…whose life is known to have been beneficial for the entire Church, whose memory is a blessing, and whose praise is preached in church — rendered his happy spirit to the most high Creator.’ Present within this statement are many allusions to Louis’ sanctity which are intended to persuade Philip’s audience to advocate for Louis’ canonization. His use of the phrase ‘famed and pious memory’ which he then equates with ‘most famous king of France’ demonstrates one of the reasons behind Louis’ sanctity being his just kingship. Philip also states that Louis’ life was ‘beneficial for the entire church.’ As the letter is addressed to the French prelates, Philip’s inclusion of this phrase acts as a direct association of what Louis has done for the Church and possibly as a reminder to them of what they owe to his memory and even to the monarchy.
Letters and Sanctity: the Canonization of the Last Sainted King
Statue of Saint Louis IX in Sainte-Chappelle, a royal chapel that he commissioned to be built in the 13th century, in Paris, France (Credit Hannah Purtymun)

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Letters and Sanctity: the Canonization of the Last Sainted King
British Library, Royal 16 G VI f. 395

Louis died in a most pious and holy manner

The last allusion to Louis’ sanctity in Philip’s letter is his assertion that Louis died in a most pious and holy manner. Philip claims that in the last hour of Louis IX’s life he not only requested the sacraments of the Church and spoke his final confession, but also died in the same hour that Christ died and did so while lying on a cross of ashes. Louis’ final hour of life demonstrates his piety, his sanctity, and his worthiness for canonization. Philip includes a description of his death in his letter to not only provide a testimony to the memory of his father, but to also provide another example of why he should be sanctified because a ‘good death’ in the eyes of Christians made one worthy of sainthood. Gregory X began his papacy in 1271, a year after the death of Louis IX. However, while he was not pope during Louis’ lifetime, his first act once elected was to request a vita from Geoffrey of Beaulieu in a move towards the canonization of the French king. Gregory X’s letter to Geoffrey of Beaulieu, sent on March 4th, 1272, commissioning the writing of the Vita et sancta conversatio, can be examined in regard to both the motivation behind the letter and the context surrounding it. In sharp contrast to Philip III’s letter, Gregory’s salutation addresses only Geoffrey of Beaulieu. Within the narration is the petition in which the pope requests that Geoffrey does not speak of his request to anyone and that he sends his reply with the vita in a private, sealed letter. In medieval letters, when a petition is included, it is a request by the sender to the receiver and usually the intention of the sender is made known through the petition. However, the motivation behind this request of secrecy to Geoffrey is unknown. A prominent aspect of Gregory X’s letter that proves problematic is that he has intentionally left out his seal and name from the letter. However, Gregory claims that these elements have been left out because he has not officially been consecrated as the pope. The final letter that will be examined in respect to the sanctity of Louis’ IX is written by Jean of Chatillon in September of 1275. Jean was a Dominican priest within the Provincial Chapter of France. His letter to the Cardinals of the Church outlines reasons why Louis IX should be sanctified according to his Dominican chapter. The salutation of Jean’s letter follows the rules of ars dictaminis in that it addresses who the letter is intended for, as well as explaining the formation of the letter itself. Within the salutation it is revealed that the letter is addressing the highest members of the Church — the priests and cardinals. He demonstrates a large amount of support behind the claims included in the letter itself advocating for Louis’ sanctity by writing on behalf of two separate religious organizations: the Order of the Preachers and the Dominican Provincial Chapter.

Jean of Chatillon’s letter is longer than either Philip’s or Gregory’s

Jean of Chatillon’s letter is longer than either Philip’s or Gregory’s due to the length of the narration and the subscription at the end. What is most significant about Jean’s letter is that the reasons for sanctity which he lays out are much different than those in Philip’s letter. Jean bases Louis IX’s sanctity on, or at least emphasizes, his crusading. This emphasis is demonstrated as Jean refers to Louis as a ‘defender’ and he implies that Louis is the protector of the Christians of France. Jean’s letter also includes the first reference that is made to Louis being a martyr due to his crusades, as he states: ‘It is known that Louis, faithful in the struggle of this kind of persecution, following the path of the true Sun, finally set in the southern lands as though as the midday fervent love. Hence it can be easily believed that though the sword of the persecutor did not take his holy life, he has not lost the martyr’s crown.’ There has been much historiographical debate surrounding Louis’ martyrdom because he neither died in battle nor died within reach of the Holy Land. However, Jean attempts to solidify his martyrdom in acknowledging that he did not die by the ‘sword of the persecutor,’ but still retains a place in martyrdom through his devotion and crusade. This claim about Louis’ martyrdom is, however, mirrored in other letters sent to the curia by religious orders in northern France in the same year. In his letter Jean also deviates from earlier claims in that he does not highlight Louis’ just kingship. Instead, he equates Louis’ crusade with the ‘path of the true sun.’ This is an allusion to Pope Innocent III’s papal doctrine of the moon and the sun, the moon and sun being references to those things in the temporal and religious spheres. In the second half of the narration, Jean follows the previous guidelines of what is needed to prove an individual worthy of sainthood in the eyes of the papacy and speaks to the miracles performed after the death of Louis IX. The reference to miracles in the letter is significant to the canonization of Louis IX because it means that these miracle stories are backed by both the Order of Preachers and the Dominican Chapter in France. This backing provides the allusion that the petition for Louis’ sainthood is backed by popular sentiment present in religious orders throughout France. Unlike the previous letters, Jean of Chatillon writes his petition in a separate portion of his letter; thus, adhering more strictly to the guidelines of ars dictaminis. Jean asks in the petition for the cardinals to consider the claims he outlines in the letter and, if they find them worthy, to advocate for the canonization of Louis IX with Pope Gregory X. Within his petition, Jean includes many biblical references in speaking about Louis IX. In referencing the books of Luke, Matt and Mark, Jean attempts to fully equate Louis with what is considered the most pious and holy, demonstrating yet again that the purpose of his letter is to advocate for the canonization of a king. The last element of Jean of Chatillon’s letter that is distinctly different from previous letters is his inclusion of a longer and more complex subscription. The subscription, according to the guidelines of ars dictaminis was intended to close the letter and provide well wishes to the recipient. One of the significant aspects of the subscription in Jean’s letter is the presence of multiple seals; those of the priors mentioned in the salutation of the letter, the provincial prior, and the diffinitors. Jean also provides the names of all of the priors who supported the claims in the letter and the canonization. Jean’s inclusion of all of these elements in the subscription, especially the multiple seals, is intended to further persuade the Roman Church that not only was Louis IX worthy of sanctity, but his canonization was fully supported by members of the church. Medieval letters are a necessary source for the study of history. The same can be said for the letter collection surrounding the canonization of Louis IX, even though it includes gaps in the knowledge surrounding the motivations behind the individual letters. While it is also unknown whether they were presented orally and even whether they were a deciding factor in Louis’ canonization, they are still significant to the study of the process of canonization in the thirteenth century. While other primary sources, such as papal bulls and hagiographies, are more predominantly used in the study of sanctity, the letters of relating to Louis IX demonstrate the process of canonization, the context surrounding it, and the impact of popular support on the decisions of the curia. Without these letters, Louis IX may never have been canonized as a saint. This collection of letters provided the necessary impetus to formalize Louis’ sainthood because of the contents and the political and religious positions of the authors, resulting in the canonization of Louis IX, the last sainted king.
Letters and Sanctity: the Canonization of the Last Sainted King

Hannah Purtymun

Hannah Purtymun graduated in 2019 from University of Edinburgh with a MSc in Medieval History and is in her final semester of a MA in Library and Information Science. She is the creator and co-host of the Medieval Murder Podcast.
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