Today I want to talk about Suger, one of the most important political and ecclesiastical figures of twelfth-century France (c. 1081-1151). And no, his name is not Sugar, it's Suger, pronounced soo-zhay. Here's an image of him from a stained glass window.
Suger is best known now as a counselor and biographer of King Louis VI (1108-1137) and as abbot of the monastery of St.-Denis. He was a lifelong friend of the king, because back when Prince Louis was attending school in Paris, young Suger was also. Schools were run by churches, and although the majority of the young men attending expected to have a career in the church, lay people might also attend as day students, as did Louis.
Suger became a monk at the abbey of St.-Denis, located not far outside of Paris. (You can get there on the metro. Be sure to get off at the "basilica" St.-Denis stop, not the "stadium" St.-Denis stop. France's biggest soccer/football stadium is right down the road from the old abbey.) This was considered a royal monastery, and many kings and queens of France were buried there, going back to the Merovingians.
It was dedicated to Saint Dennis, the supposed first bishop of Paris way back around the second century, who had been beheaded by the Romans for refusing to worship the pagan gods. He was martyred on Montmartre ("mountain of the martyr") but then, to everyone's surprise, he picked up his head and started walking. He'd gotten out to the suburbs before collapsing. The abbey was built over his remains. (One doubts he had gone out to catch one last football game.)
When the old abbot of St.-Denis died, Suger was elected abbot in 1122, presumably with some friendly hints from the crown. Although the monastery was never known for its austerity, unlike the new monastic orders such as the Cistercians, it was free from scandal, and the monks prayed and were serious, even if well-fed.
Suger's major accomplishment as abbot was to rebuild his abbey's church. He described the process proudly, including his miraculous discovery of enough old-growth oaks for the roof beams, when everyone told him there were no big trees left in the region. (Notre-Dame, built a generation later, had to get their roof beams--burned in 2019--from all over and float them down to Paris.) St.-Denis is considered the first Gothic church, marked by tall, thin walls and pointed (rather than rounded) arches. It was dedicated in the presence of the king in 1144. (Suger actually just rebuilt the western facade, seen below, and the choir at the opposite end, leaving the eighth-century nave in place, to finally be rebuilt a century later.) His abbey church looks rather sad today, but it went through a lot in the French Revolution (including having all the kings and queens buried there dug up and tossed out).
After the death of Louis VI, Suger wrote an admiring biography of his old friend, usually translated today as "Deeds of Louis the Fat." Well, it's not quite fair to think of Louis only in terms of his weight, because he was indeed a very effective and beloved king. His father, Philip I, had toward the end of his life been said to be too fat to ride a horse, which is something. Philip had also repudiated Queen Bertha, Louis's mother, because he said she was "too fat." Hormones. Louis didn't stand a chance.
When Louis VII (king 1137-1180), son of Louis VI, decided to go off on Crusade in 1147, Suger became regent of France. At this time usually wives acted as regents for absent husbands, but Louis VII's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, accompanied him to the Holy Land. But that's another story.
When Suger died, he had started a biography of Louis VII, obviously not completed as the king outlived him by almost thirty years. But Suger's name was permanently associated with the French kings.
© C. Dale Brittain 2020
For more on monks, kings, and other aspects of life in the Middle Ages, see my ebook, Positively Medieval, available from Amazon and other major ebook platforms. Also available in paperback!