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le roi tué par un cochon

7 august 2022

Le roi tué par un cochon, like all of Michel Pastoureau's books, takes a leisurely route to its revelations and conclusions, doubling back over its own territory, and including areas (color, other animals) covered in Pastoureau's other works. The king killed by a pig was Philippe (1116-1131), who never reigned in his own right. It was a custom in the Capetian dynasty to crown the king's heir as a sort of co-king, in the interests of a future transition. While his father Louis VI was still alive, Philippe was done in by the title pig. Not by the pig directly – the pig somehow got under the legs of Philippe's horse, which threw the young king off and trampled him. But importantly, argues Pastoureau, it was a pig, a street animal of medieval Paris. A great boar of the woods would have inflicted a noble death. To be killed by a plain old pig was "infamous."

One might expect such a pig to be brought to trial and convicted of kingslaughter. But Pastoureau says that putting animals on trial was a later medieval development, one that lingered into the early modern period. In the 12th century, people had enough sense not to prosecute a pig.

But the Capetians did spend the ensuing reign of the ineffectual Louis VII, Philippe's younger brother, trying to live down the shame. Surprising things seemed to come out of the intervention of the fateful porker. Abbé Suger at Saint-Denis went in for adoration of the Virgin Mary, and adopted the color blue in decorating his abbey; it would become the national color of France. The great monk St. Bernard also showed Marian tendencies, and encouraged Louis VII to go on an ill-fated crusade.

As in Pastoureau's other books, the material gets somewhat repetitive; the exposition is deliberate, to say the least. But the whole presentation is genial and quirky. Le roi tué par un cochon is a contribution to documentation of the butterfly effect in cultural history: though with the role of the butterfly here being played by a pig.

Philippe's death, aside from being linked to the rise of blue and the primacy of the Virgin Mary, had other resonances. His very name had been unusual, an import from a Slavic queen who married into the Capetian line, but it became a standard royal name in the years ahead (as if to live down the ignominy of his death; they could as easily have dropped the name to bury his memory). Philippe, on Suger's advice, was buried at Saint-Denis, and his brother Louis crowned at Reims, cementing the traditions associated with each place (which were not inevitable burial and coronation spots at the time).

Le roi tué par un cochon features a true historian's awareness of the biases and elisions in its sources. One principle that Pastoureau develops is the elaboration that source-writers practice on received material. You'd think that chroniclers writing close to an event would say the most about it, and that later digesters would write less and less, till the outlines of what really happened faded away to bare mentions. While that can happen, more likely is that contemporaries didn't say much (not needing to; why tell people about things they also remembered?) And then later writers would engage their imaginations to flesh out those initial hints. "Plus on avance dans le temps," says Pastoureau, "plus les sources se font bavardes" (48): the farther along you get, the chattier the sources become. In some ways, his own book is a demonstration of the principle. The death of Philippe had become a footnote to footnotes; Le roi tué par un cochon brings it to life again for the 21st century.

Pastoureau, Michel. Le roi tué par un cochon: Une mort infâme aux origines des emblèmes de la France? Paris: Seuil, 2015.