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Louis the Fat Dispenses Justice
Abbot Suger of St. Denis

The reign of Louis VI "the Fat" (r. 1108-1137) marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Capetian dynasty of France. Louis expanded the authority of his largely symbolic monarchy by asserting control over local vassals around Paris, forming a close alliance with the papacy, and matching some of his more powerful neighbors in battle. We can attribute much of his success to his close advisor, Suger, abbot of the monastery of St. Denis (1081-1151). Best known as the harbinger of the new Gothic architectural style, magnificently displayed by the renovations of St. Denis's abbey church in the 1140s, Suger served Louis as his chief domestic administrator, establishing the foundations of a royal bureaucracy. Suger's Life of Louis the Fat guaranteed the reputation of his late friend and provided Suger with a vehicle to air his own views on kingship.

Questions to Consider
  • How do the episodes related in this selection illustrate the weakness of the title "King of France" during the early Capetian period?

  • What qualities does Suger consider to be essential to kingship?

The young hero, Prince Louis, gay, gracious, and so friendly to all that he passed with some for a person of no force, had hardly come to man's estate when he proved himself an illustrious and courageous defender of his father's realm. He provided for the needs of the Church, and strove to secure peace for those who pray, for those who work, and for the poor. And no one had done this for a long time.

Now it came to pass at this time that certain disputes arose between Adam, the venerable abbot of St. Denis, and a nobleman, Burchard, lord of Montmorency [his vassal], concerning certain customs. The controversy waxed so hot and reached such extremes of irritation that all ties of homage were broken between vassal and lord, and the two disputants betook themselves to arms, war, and fire.

When the affair came to the ears of Lord Louis he was sorely vexed. He delayed not, but ordered the aforesaid Burchard, duly summoned, to appear before his father in the castle of Poissy for judgment. Burchard lost his cause, but refused to submit to the judgment. He was not taken prisoner, for that is not the custom of the French, but having withdrawn to his estates, he straightway learned what manner of injury and calamity the king's majesty can inflict on his disobedient subjects. For this famous youth [Prince Louis] carried arms thither against him and his criminal allies, Matthew, count of Beaumont, and Dreux of Mouchy-le-châtel, vigorous and warlike men. He laid waste the land of Burchard with fire, famine, and the sword; and overthrew all the defenses and buildings, except the castle itself, and razed them to the ground. When his enemies undertook to defend themselves in the castle he besieged them with the French and the Flemish troops of his uncle Robert, as well as with his own. By these and other means he brought the humiliated Burchard to repentance, bent him to his will and pleasure, and satisfactorily adjusted the dispute which had given rise to the trouble.

A king, when he takes the royal power, vows to put down with his strong right arm insolent tyrants whensoever he sees them vex the state with endless wars, rejoice in rapine, oppress the poor, destroy the churches, give themselves over to lawlessness which, and it be not checked, would flame out into ever greater madness; for the evil spirits who instigate them are wont cruelly to strike down those whom they fear to lose, but give free rein to those whom they hope to hold, while they add fuel to the flames which are to devour their victims to all eternity.

It is known that kings have long arms; and to show that the king's strength was not confined within the narrow boundaries of certain places, a man, Alard de Guillebaut by name, a clever man, with an oily tongue, came from the frontiers of Berri to the king. He laid the grievance of his stepson before his lord the king, and entreated him right humbly, that he would summon by his royal authority a certain noble baron, Aymon by name, surnamed Vais-Vache, lord of Bourbon, who refused to do him justice. Moreover he asked that the king should restrain Aymon from despoiling, with presumptuous audacity, his nephew, the son of his older brother, Archambaut, and to fix according to French custom what portion of goods each of them ought to have.

Now the king loved justice and had compassion on the churches and the poor. And he feared lest these wars should make wickedness flourish, and lest the poor might be vexed and bear the punishment for the pride of others. So, after vainly summoning Aymon, who would not trust himself to trial and refused to obey the summons, Louis gave way neither to pleasure nor to sloth, but marched with a great army toward the territory of Bourges. There he directed his forces against Aymon's castle of Germigni, which was well fortified, and strove to reduce it by a vigorous assault.

Then did Aymon see that he could not hold out, and he gave over hoping to save himself or his castle. He saw only this one way to safety--that he should throw himself at the king's feet. There he prostrated himself again and again, while all the crowd marveled, and prayed the king to have compassion upon him. He gave up his castle, and, humble now as he had once been proud, submitted himself utterly to the king's justice. The king kept the castle and took Aymon into France to be judged there; and right justly and piously, by the decision and arbitration of the French, did he settle the dispute which had arisen between the uncle and nephew.

King Louis spent freely both of money and the sweat of his brow to relieve the sufferings and oppressions of many. He was used to make many such expeditions throughout the country for the relief of churches and of the poor, but we must pass over these, as it would but weary the reader to narrate them.


Source: James Harvey Robinson, ed., Readings in European History (Boston: Ginn, 1904), 1:199-205.