Jean De Joinville and his Biography of Saint Louis on the Seventh Crusade

By Katherine Blakeney
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

The French historian Jean de Joinville was born into a noble and influential family in Champagne in 1224.1 He took the cross in 1248 to join the first crusade of Louis IX. His decision to go on crusade was at least in part influenced by the long and illustrious history of crusading in his family. His grandfather Geoffroy died at the siege of Acre in 1189, his uncles Geoffroy and Robert had both participated in the Fourth crusade, and his father Simon, had fought in the Albigensian crusade and alongside John de Brienne (titular king of Jerusalem) at the siege of Damietta. His uncle Geoffroy had so distinguished himself in fact, that a poem was written praising his courage, after his death in Syria in 1203. The young Jean was obviously affected by tales of his family’s heroic deeds, as he made a point of recovering his uncle Geoffroy’s shield and displaying it in a chapel at Joinville with a tablet detailing the achievements of his family. 2

His biography of St. Louis was written in 1309, half a century after the Seventh Crusade and twelve years after Louis’s canonization.3 The events he describes are therefore seen from the perspective of both greater age and historical hindsight. His chronicle details the entire reign of Louis IX including both of his expeditions to the East and his death and canonization. As Jean himself was present only at Louis’s first campaign and was not closely acquainted with him before then, he must have taken much of his information from earlier chronicles.4

The fragment provided in The Crusades: A Reader, describes Louis’s arrival in Damietta, the hardships endured by the army, and the peace negotiations with the Saracens.5 Joinville’s writing abounds with detail and emotion, giving his narrative a very personal feel. When talking about the epidemic that gripped the crusaders’ camp, he is far from cold formality in describing the soldiers’ suffering: “ Great pity it was to hear the cry throughout the camp…they cried out like women laboring in childbirth…”.6 Interestingly, his compassionate descriptions are not confined to commoners and soldiers only. He gives a moving and very human account of the pregnant queen’s fear and suffering at Damietta. Three days before the child’s birth, she develops an obsession with the idea that Saracens will barge into her room and capture her and the infant. To protect herself from this horror she convinces an old knight to “lie down beside her bed and hold her by the hand”. She also requests that he swear that “if the Saracens take this city, you will cut off my head before they can also take me.”7 Joinville does not see her as a lifeless political symbol, but rather as a frightened young woman, thrust by circumstances into an unfamiliar land when she is in a fragile and vulnerable state.

Joinville does not shy away from expressing his personal opinion on the events at hand. When the king consults his councilors on whether he should leave immediately to defend his lands at home or complete his vow in the Holy Land first, Joinville does not scruple to state openly that he believes it would be wrong for him to desert his mission. He even goes so far as to note that if Louis did choose to leave, he himself would stay behind in Antioch “until such time as another expedition came out to the land overseas…”.8

He praises the numerous virtues of the canonized king including “the king’s love for fair and open dealing”.9 He illustrates this particular virtue with an incident involving a damaged charter. According to this charter Louis had granted a certain piece of land to a man named Renaud de Trit. Inconveniently, the king’s seal on the charter was broken in half, rendering it almost invalid. Joinville speaks with great admiration of how Louis went out of his way to demonstrate that this was indeed a genuine fragment of his seal, and therefore the document was legitimate, although his council unanimously voted that he was not obliged to do so. 10

Despite his abundant praise and enormous respect for Louis, Joinville never loses sight of the fact that the king is still human and susceptible to human flaws and failings. When Joinville reports to Louis after escorting the queen, “who had but lately recovered from her confinement”, to Saida, he is displeased by the king’s indifference towards his spouse. He expresses his feelings in no uncertain terms asserting that “ it does not seem right and proper for a man to be so detached from his own family”.11 For all his saintly qualities, Joinville’s Louis is never artificially elevated to godlike perfection.

Jean de Joinville is evidently less interested in the political impact of the events he describes than in the people taking part in them, their private lives, emotions, and personal suffering. He creates a vivid picture of the daily lives of the participants of the Seventh Crusade and the people of the East. 12 This humanistic view of history greatly influences his perception of Louis as a leader. Although his crusade failed in its main goal, Louis conducted himself throughout honorably and courageously. Joinville respects Louis for what he attempted to do, and his unfailing zeal in the process.

It is evident from his actions that Louis was well acquainted with the failings and miscalculations that led to the demise of the fifth crusade. Ironically, although he managed to avoid some of the Fifth Crusade’s most glaring flaws, his own crusade ended up failing for some of the same reasons.

The Fifth Crusade had been fatally undermined by fluctuating numbers, constantly shifting leadership, doubtful organization, and the gradual disintegration, and in the case of Frederick II, total non-appearance of parts of the planned crusading army. Louis’s crusade in contrast, was united under one leader and practically organized by him single-handed.  Having organized a large, well-supplied army, Louis chose Damietta as his starting point. Starting the same way as the leaders of the Fifth Crusade had thirty years ago, he obviously intended to succeed by learning from their mistakes. The dazzling success of Louis’s amphibious assault, and the subsequent abandonment of Damietta posed a striking contrast to the devastating yearlong siege of the Fifth Crusade.

Louis again demonstrated his ability to learn from others’ mistakes when he made the decision to wait out the Nile’s summer flood in Damietta. This gave him time to wait for his belated brother, Alphonse of Poitiers, avoid being trapped by the flood, and make sturdy preparations for their march on Mansurah. The latter two considerations had both been unwisely dismissed by Pelagius of Albano in 1221 to his great discredit. By the time Louis set forth in November it seemed that his study of the Fifth Crusade had made his own endeavor infallible.

Unfortunately, perfect hindsight does not anticipate new mistakes. The well-stocked supply ships that accompanied the crusaders to their camp across the river from Mansurah were a wise move, another lesson from the Fifth crusade. He did not, however think of reinforcing his supply lines by storing some provisions along his route.13 Louis’s luck and preparation did not help him however, when his brother, Robert of Artois, openly defied his orders. Here the parallel with the Fifth Crusade was not made by Louis, but by Robert, and in the worst possible way. Just like Pelagius’s arrogant ambition and inability to listen had led him to defeat thirty years earlier, Robert’s suicidal decision to take Mansurah alone instead of waiting for reinforcements ended in tragedy. The crusaders were able to take the Muslim camp, but they were now trapped between Mansurah and the Nile River, and were soon cut off from their supply lines. The scattered, diseased army’s surrender on the way back to Damietta vividly mirrors the situation that ended the earlier crusade that Louis had learned so much from.

Louis’s capture and the subsequent surrender of Damietta along with a considerable amount of money are a sad end to an expedition that began so well.

Louis did everything he could to keep from repeating the mistakes of the past. He failed not because he was unprepared, but because he was perhaps too absorbed in preventing old problems to deal with the new ones that were surrounding him. If he could have predicted his brother’s insubordination, or the loss of contact with Damietta, he may yet have succeeded. The heavy supply ships that were an excellent idea in theory, created their own problems. Heavier and less adept at maneuvering in shallow water than14 light Egyptian galleys, they were easily blocked off from the crusaders. Louis had no precedent for this situation, so he had not thought of how to amend it. Unfortunately for Louis, it is much easier to fix other people’s mistakes that to see one’s own.

The restoration of the Holy Land had definitely been Louis’s main objective. The attack on Egypt had been merely a stepping-stone. It is unlikely that he had any personal ambitions in the matter, as he never attempted to bargain for the throne of Jerusalem. Personal financial gain was also not an issue. He spent enormous amounts of his own money both on organizing the crusade and on rebuilding the fortifications and strengthening the garrisons of the remaining Christian strongholds. His work in resolving diplomatic issues and strengthening defenses in the Holy Land shows that his true motive was the restoration of the Kingdom of Jerusalem to its former glory.15

Joinville’s humanistic view of history greatly influences his perception of Louis as a leader and as a person. Although his crusade failed in its main goal, Louis conducted himself throughout honorably and courageously. He did his best to compensate for his failure, both by painstakingly negotiating to free all of the remaining prisoners and to help the crusader states. Louis may not have been a brilliant tactician or a great military commander, but he was a deeply pious man with a strong sense of duty to his people and his own moral standards. Joinville respects Louis for what he attempted to do, for his motivations, and for his unfailing zeal in the process.


1.) “Joinville, Jean”, The Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, vol. 15 (New York, 1910-1911), pp. 492 – 493

2.) For a description of Jean’s family’s participation in various crusades see M.R.B. Shaw, “Introduction”, in Chronicles of the Crusades, (London, 1963), pp. 18 – 19

3.) “Joinville’s Life of St. Louis”, in The Crusades: A Reader, ed. S.J.Allen and E. Amt (Broadview Press 2003), pp. 343 – 347

4.) Shaw, Op.cit., pp. 19 – 20

5.) “Joinville’s Life of St. Louis”, in The Crusades: A Reader, ed. S.J.Allen and E. Amt (Broadview Press 2003), pp. 343 – 347

6.) Ibid.,  p. 344

7.) Jean de Joinville, The Life of St.Louis, trans. M.R.B. Shaw, in Chronicles of the Crusades, (London, 1969), pp. 262 - 263

8.) Ibid., p. 346

9.) Jean de Joinville, The Life of St.Louis, trans. M.R.B. Shaw, in Chronicles of the Crusades, (London, 1969), p. 178

10.) Ibid., pp. 178-179

11.) Ibid., p. 313

12.) The humanistic outlook of Joinville’s chronicle is discussed in depth in: M.R.B. Shaw, “Introduction”, in Chronicles of the Crusades, (London, 1963), pp. 20 – 21

13.) C. Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades, (Cambridge, MA, 2006), pp. 784 – 789

14.) See note 13

15.) For a detailed description of Louis’s work in the Holy Land see M.W. Labarge, Saint Louis: Louis IX Most Christian King of France, (Little, Brown and Company 1968), pp. 132 – 145 

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