Obesity and the Birth of France: Louis the Fat and Centralization of Power

Louis the Fat

Nothing is new under the sun, including the problems of obesity.

Is obesity ever a good thing?

What if someone told you that obesity, in essence, led to what we now know as the nation of France? It throws French food into a whole new light, actually.

Abbot Suger in Stained Glass at St. Denis

If you believe the comments of Abbot Suger in his “selective biography” — or better said “panegyric” — of France’s Capetian king, Louis VI or “Louis the Fat” (Louis le Gros in French), Louis’s corpulence played a huge role in the early centralization of power in France. From his vantage point of St. Denis, Abbot Suger wrote Vita Ludovici grossi [The Life of Louis the Fat], saying:

The lord King Louis was in the process of failing not in mind but in body, as men habitually do, worn out by his corpulence and by the continual strain of his tasks; for should anything offensive to royal majesty occur anywhere in his kingdom, he could not bear to let it go unpunished. Although he was sixty, he was so knowledgeable and hardworking that, had it not been for the perpetual obstacle of his swollen body, he would have overcome and destroyed all his enemies.

Starting with his ancestral domain of the Ile-de-France, Louis managed to subdue the brigandage of robber barons, fight the English, and grant royal charters to towns.  Wresting power from the hereditary position holders surrounding him, he turned more and more to churchmen like Abbot Suger for advice, setting in motion both the power of the Catholic Church in France and the prominence of the Ile-de-France.

Due to his increasing “corpulence,” Louis found it difficult to move from place to place, needing to be carried about on a litter or in special carriages.  And in order to bask in the King’s beneficence,  the lords and ladies of the kingdom came to him, in Paris.

Abbot Suger left us a very vivid, possibly too much so (an early case of TMI), account of Louis VI’s last days:

On his return from this expedition, at the new castle of Montraer, he had a very serious attack of diarrhoea, as sometimes happened, and began to be very worried.  … Day by day his diarrhoea troubled him more, and in order to stop it the doctors gave him many unpleasant potions, forcing him to swallow various extremely bitter powders, which even healthy and vigorous men could not have borne.

Church at Bethisy Saint Pierre

Louis VI likely died August 1, 1137 at a Chateau in Bethisy-Saint Pierre. His first son, Philip, died in his teens after being thrown from a horse and breaking his neck, and so the second son, Louis VII, ascended the throne, married to Eleanor of Aquitaine.

You might think this a simplistic supposition, but sometimes the so-called simple things change events dramatically. In the past, when the king’s or queen’s health took a turn for the worst, when the cook used a slightly rotten piece of meat in a stew and the king died of dysentery (as Louis VI did), or the wrong mushroom popped into the pot, well, the domino effects of history stand out.

What food would have made Louis VI so fat?

Lacking specifics, shall we guess bread, butter, spit-roasted meat (game), and cheese?

Not such a different menu from today, is it?

© 2011 C. Bertelsen

3 thoughts on “Obesity and the Birth of France: Louis the Fat and Centralization of Power

  1. I am learning so much via these posts. I’ve never heard of Abbot Suger; fascinating man. The political connection to the King’s “corpulence” (read “health”) makes complete sense. It’s food affecting history at work. Wonderful.

  2. Nancy, yes he did do that – that little bit of stained glass in the post shows the Abbot as portrayed in the stained glass in the cathedral of St. Denis. Very unusual man he was, in so many ways, including forging deeds and other papers to increase the holdings of the King and abbey! But what a wonderful legacy nonetheless.

  3. I have a soft spot for Abbot Suger. He was so instrumental in the developmental of stained glass being used in cathredals. Whatever else I like him because of the glory of light he helped introduce.

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