The careful reader, but surely the careful translator, comes to know his author, to appreciate his character, his tastes, his desires, and to gauge his achievement. Rigord aspires to depict a virtuous King Philip: to see him grow in holy wisdom, protecting the Church, its aims, its clergy, its property; to note the miracles asserting God’s favor; to relate the deeds of the crown and the affairs of state. He would claim his own place in the line of chroniclers of Saint-Denis where rest the bones of kings, where is kept the oriflamme, the battle flag of the Franks, where are the histories of France. A poet tells us that our reach really should exceed our grasp “or what’s a heaven for?” But Rigord, though disappointed in some respects, writes well, is interesting and informative, and can sketch a tale that grabs the reader. He is, after all, a chronicler. His work runs on year by year. Long digressions come at a cost.
It is clear that Rigord conceives of his work as a unified whole that has been polished for a final presentation. There is an introductory letter of dedication and a prologue. The words of the prologue suggest that it was written some ten years after he began his work, and it is thought that he offered it to King Philip when the king returned from crusade in the year 1191. Yet his chronicle runs on after this, even up to 1206 (with continuations to 1208). The dedicatory letter is not to King Philip but to his son, Louis, who was only four when his father returned from crusade but is now, most probably, entering young manhood. It may well be that King Philip was simply not impressed or even interested in Rigord’s work, and so Rigord dedicated it to Philip’s son Louis at a later date.
These two passages, the dedicatory letter and the prologue, are crafted in the traditional fashion: very apologetic, unassumingly modest, sprinkled with learned quotations and serious cant. What a relief it is to find that, straight into chapters 1, 2, and 3, Rigord writes very well when on his own. We rejoice with Philip’s father when his son is born and then we sit with the aged royal father as he confers with each of the bishops and abbots about Philip’s succession. Then the lad is found riding fast after a boar into the darkening wood, all alone, and there he meets a huge man with an ax. Next the youth is, in all righteous piety, commanding that foul-tongued gamblers be flung into the river and he then lends an eager ear, even more righteous, to learn the supposedly foul deeds of the Jews.
With the air of one informed of daily court affairs, Rigord tells of Philip’s first military efforts, campaigns to crush rebellious lords who have abused and plundered the clergy. Our monk of Saint-Denis is overjoyed to see Philip expel the Jews. He lays out the reasons, relates their atrocities, describes their murders, the wretched state of their bonded debtors, the resistance of the wealthy bankers, their bribery of the nobility, and, then, the firm determination of the youthful king whose faith prevails. Rigord is happy to record these victories of the Church and recite the letter of the emperor Heraclius to Dagobert that provides a historical precedent for King Philip. One senses that Rigord speaks from some authority, perhaps of his own making, but valid within his own work.
Knowledgeable of court affairs, Rigord notes how responsibly the young Philip attends to the market stalls at Les Halles and the walls in the forest at Vincennes. He relates the difficulties with Flanders, the obvious miracle of the unforeseen harvest endangered by the campaign. The defense of the churches in Burgundy leads him to the recitation of ancient royal immunities bestowed upon the churches of the Franks. Philip has seized Châtillon. The pious young king is prevailing. Rigord seems, at this point, to have found his stride. We are with him as the king, one day, glances out the palace window and sees that the Paris streets are deep in stinking mud. Of course this will not do. Who, of those who reigned before him, would have dared to undertake the task? Philip will. He gives his orders. The town and roads will all be paved. It will no longer be mudville, Lutetia, but Paris, so named for Paris Alexander, the son of the king of Troy. And so, holding fast to Rigord’s hand, we are off to work out the genealogy of the kings of the Franks, the knowledge of which is the treasure of the abbey of Saint-Denis.
Our chronicler has some talent and imagination. One feels, however, that the task of tidying up the threads of time historical, biblical, and mythological is not easy. He escapes from this tangled wood after five chapters, having done his best. Rigord is still in on the events of the day: the king of Hungary’s request to wed Philip’s sister; the death of Geoffrey, son of Henry II; the walls built for the cemetery at Champeaux; and Philip’s rebuke to the wastrel youths who lavish their finery on the immoral traveling players. Rigord shares the several letters now come to court from seers Jewish, Saracen, and Christian, foretelling great winds of destruction. Ill news from Outremer: Saladin now holds Jerusalem and the Holy Cross itself. The campaigns of Philip and Henry II wind down, and both kings come together all of a sudden and take the cross. The Third Crusade should now begin, and Rigord can and will tell us how Philip plans for it, funding it through the tithe of Saladin and arranging by his will that the Franks be ruled efficiently in his absence and be provided for should he die on crusade.
When all is going smoothly we suddenly find that Richard invades the lands of Philip in violation of the truce for the crusade. Philip repels him with God’s favor, for this is shown by the miracle of the rising river at the siege of Levroux. Thereafter Richard does homage to Philip for his lands. This also shows God’s support.
At this point in our story, chapter 71, when all is going so well, Rigord tells of a total eclipse of the moon on 2 February 1189, and then a strange omen, when, as he says, he was at Argenteuil. The moon, in full moonlight, descends to earth and rises back up again. The moon, we are told, represents the Church. This is immediately followed by “verses of a certain person,” a prophetic text of mythic characters pointing to eschatological events. Immediately the story returns to Philip successfully expelling Henry from Tours. Once more he succeeds by God’s help. He finds an unknown ford and leads his troops across. Then Henry dies, he to whom God had sent Philip, to be as a bit in Henry’s mouth to vindicate the blood of the blessed martyr Thomas of Canterbury and return him to the bosom of the church.
All is now running well. In 1190, in the church of the blessed martyr Saint Denis, Philip receives the battle standard of the Franks to unfurl before the enemies of the cross of Christ. He receives the blessing of the nail, the Crown of Thorns, and the arm of Saint Simeon the Elder. Commended by the prayers of the monks, he marches forth with the flags emblazoned in memory of the Saints Denis, Rusticus, and Eleutherius. This is a high point of the tale told by Rigord. The king is off on his way to Genoa, and Richard, now king of England, sails from Marseille.
Here Rigord inserts the text of Philip’s will and his directions to the regency in his absence. This is of vast historical interest but, when it is done, the reader senses that something is now different. There are no more chapter headings describing the deeds of King Philip. One is still uncertain about the strange omens of chapter 71. Did Rigord really mean to say that there were two full moons in February that year, one for the eclipse on 2 February and one for the moon’s descent on 10 February? Was this writing done some time after the return of King Philip from his crusade, when Rigord was feeling that his work found, to say the least, little favor with the king?
However this may be, the story continues to unfold. Rigord very deftly relates the facts, the disputes, such success as did occur in Outremer, and then he varies these achievements with the powerful deeds done by the relics of the monastery of Saint-Denis. After moving the rather disunited crusading forces on to Acre and relating the death of Frederick Barbarossa, we hear of the death of Pope Clement III and the election of Celestine, bad harvests and an eclipse of the sun. Back in Paris prince Louis has fallen ill, and all of Saint-Denis goes in barefoot procession to save the child. Rigord is here at his best. The whole monastery of Saint-Denis turns out with the nail, the Crown of Thorns, the arm of Saint Simeon the Elder. They proceed barefoot, in tears, down to Paris to be greeted by the bishop and all the religious houses, the canons, the clergy, the students. They assemble, they sing, they preach, they pray, they sign the cross on Louis’s stomach with all the relics. He kisses the relics and he recovers, and, by the way, so does Philip, who has fallen ill in Outremer. Such is the power of the prayers of the clergy and people that calm and temperate weather returns to the land, for “the Lord had rained over the land for a long time, due to the wickedness of men.”
Wickedness, indeed! We find no mention of miraculous deeds of Philip overseas. In fact we are next told of the assassination of the bishop of Liège who was foully slain by knights sent from the emperor Henry VI. Again we turn to Saint-Denis and the relics. The archbishop of Reims and Queen Adele have them brought out in great celebration and prayer for the success of the king and army in the Holy Land. Rigord then turns back to Philip and his success at Acre, runs over the main points, and has him coming home with tears in his eyes while Richard remains behind with notable success at Ascalon. When home, Philip rushes to Saint-Denis to lie down flat in prayer and praise of God and the blessed martyrs for their aid.
At this point it is clear that Rigord’s heart is with the monastery of Saint-Denis and its relics. King Philip will have to be on his own for a while. All the good that Rigord can say of him is that in a fit of religious faith he rode off to burn at least eighty Jews at Bray-sur-Seine for supposedly hanging a Christian. We are then treated to more omens: battle lines of knights are seen to come down from the sky to do combat on the ground and suddenly vanish. We then see the fear and seclusion of Philip when news arrives that the Assassins may be coming for him, and feel his relief when the news is found to be false. With his customarily efficient pen Rigord relates the difficult return of Richard the crusader and then tells of Henry, count of Champagne, who stood by the land of Outremer when it was “so abandoned by the departure of the two kings.”
It is with the marriage to Ingeborg that Philip reaches his nadir in the eyes of Rigord. Things are on the mend, for the king has recovered all of Norman Vexin and Saladin has died. But the repudiation of Ingeborg, for no apparent reason—surely the work of the devil—and the rapid annulment and the powerless pope, legate, archbishops, bishops, and abbots, now “dumb dogs not able to bark, afraid for their own hide,” are appalling to Rigord. From this slough of despond, which he so effectively delineates, our author struggles to recover. Philip and Richard war back and forth, seesawing for control while Rigord reports strange omens: powerful storms, thunder and lightning out of all memory, egg-size stones falling from heaven. Amid the storm fly crows bearing hot coals setting houses aflame. Crops are ruined and people killed. Such prodigies, he says, should terrify men and keep them from wickedness. But wicked they are, for Richard mistreats clergy and so does Philip, expelling monks and stealing revenue.
No more is heard of any virtue from Philip until, during the famine following such evil weather, he is “moved by piety” to give and to encourage others to give greater alms to the poor, and Saint-Denis gives all it has. Things do begin to improve for Philip militarily. Richard does homage for Normandy, Poitou, and Anjou. Peace is struck, and Philip, mindful of his patron, returns to render gifts in thanks to Saint-Denis. Then, in 1196, in the great flood of Paris, as the people and clergy come in prayer and weeping procession, Philip joins in “as though but one of the people … humbly sighing and crying,” while the monastery of Saint-Denis, with all it relics, leads them blessing the waters, which recede shortly to their old channel. Perhaps the hero of this work, in the eyes of its author, is no longer the king but Saint Denis.
But battles resume. Now up, now down, the forces sway but Rigord follows them efficiently and skillfully. Much preaching is done and some miracles, but they are done by priests not royalty. Prodigies continue: wine and bread visibly become flesh and blood on the altar, a knight returns from the dead. Honey-flavored dew infuses the corn. Crops are destroyed, and more egg-size stones come down. Floods bring famine while rumor tells of the birth of Antichrist in Babylon. As if no worse could occur, Philip brings the Jews back to Paris! The next month, of course, Philip suffers military defeat, is almost captured, “but for the mercy of God,” yet he still does not realize “his offense of God.” At this point Richard dies, and, as John succeeds him, Philip starts to gain the upper hand, controls Arthur, receives the submission of Eleanor, a peace is concluded, and he returns to give gifts of thanks to Saint-Denis, pledging his love and devotion to God and the blessed martyrs.
Despite this success the papal legate arrives to place the kingdom under interdict. In rage the king lashes out at his bishops, evicts them, and seizes their lands. Peace with John occurs but how and on what terms we are not told. Prince Louis marries Blanche of Castile and under the stern warning of the papal legate Octavian, Philip takes back Ingeborg to wife and sets aside Agnes, his concubine, who dies the next year. To Rigord’s evident chagrin, the pope orders her two children by Philip made legitimate. As Philip rises in military dominance, John, his unruly liege man, loses his grip in his French lands.
Now Rigord steps forth and states that he wants, at this point, to relate the deeds done at Constantinople, that is, the events of the Fourth Crusade. These are not the deeds of Philip. Rigord is stepping outside the parameters of his espoused endeavor to render, in excellent, deft, efficient prose, an account culminating in a breathless rendition of battle, given in the classic historical present tense, of the final, crucial engagement when the aged doge dons his helmet, the youth, the son of blind Isaac, takes charge, and the day is won; the Franks are given money, transport, and provisions and sent off to the East. Upon his death Baldwin, count of Flanders, is elected emperor and the Eastern Church surrenders itself to the pope. What a tale! What a splendid success and well told! If one should wonder why, one has only to wait four chapters to find Philip bestowing on the church of the Blessed Denis the Areopagite, “with dreadful reverence,” the relics that Baldwin, the emperor of Constantinople, had received and now is giving to the Franks. This paragraph is the soul of our author, writ large. He humbly states, “Blessed be God in all things who granted to me, his servant, though unworthy and a frail sinner, now entering old age, to behold these things by divine goodness.”
Perhaps the significance of the writing of Rigord is to be found in a quotation from Ernst Kantorowicz (to which William Jordan directs our attention in his preface to The King’s Two Bodies) in Laudes regiae: “It was St. Louis, who in every respect enriched that treasure of grace on which all his successors would thrive. It was he whose kingship was elevated to transcendancy by the Spiritualist and Symbolists of his age and who, in turn, bestowed the thin and light air of the angelic kingdoms upon his country.”1 This is the story that Rigord truly wanted to write. His subject did not live up to his expectation, and so he turned to his beloved relics. The next time that relics come around, things are different. Walter Cornut picks up the tale of Emperor Baldwin and his descendants. His account of their success is told in his tract “On the Feast of the Translation of the Holy Crown of Our Lord.” It is a gripping, fast-moving story written in a style reminiscent of Rigord. When the relics arrive, however, they do not go to Saint-Denis, but are housed in a chapel built for them by the king who will become Saint Louis.2 This little writing was well known. Indeed, it was incorporated into the liturgical celebration for the Crown of Thorns, and may be the text so mentioned by Geoffrey of Beaulieu in his Life of Saint Louis.3 Hardly thirty years after Rigord finished writing, lessons have been learned. Did the rising Dominicans and Franciscans in their youthful, spirited zeal, and did even the parents, Louis VIII and Blanche, perceive the possibilities to be achieved by good writing and a pious example?
It cannot be said that the writing of Rigord has the sweep of Otto of Freising or the emotional temper of Liutprand of Cremona. But he surely could tell a tale, and quite likely one that showed a path to those who came after him.