In St. Louis, History and Nostalgia Battle It Out

The city’s Catholic community faces off against protesters over a statue honoring the city’s namesake

As protesters citing Louis IX’s history as a crusader call for the statue’s removal, counter-protesters ardently protect it. (ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo)
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Before the Gateway Arch went up in St. Louis in 1965, a bronze equestrian monument outside of the city’s main art museum was arguably its most recognizable symbol. Installed in 1906, the Apotheosis of St. Louis depicts the city’s namesake, Louis IX of France, riding astride an armored horse, his sword raised upside down to form a cross. It’s a portrayal befitting a ruler renowned for his military prowess. But the statue fails to address the canonized king’s darker legacy—the totality of his accomplishments—and now, amid a spate of protests against systemic racism in the United States, the St. Louis monument is one of many public works at the center of a major cultural reckoning.

In recent years, events including white supremacist Dylann Roof’s June 2015 killing of nine church members in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as a neo-Nazi’s attack on counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have refocused attention on the prevalence—and meaning—of the memorials that dot the American landscape. Throughout, scholars and politicians alike have highlighted the importance of understanding why and when these statues were erected. A majority of the public has, in just the past few weeks, begun supporting the removal of these statues, and they have slowly begun to fall.

As protesters expand their focus to other controversial memorials across the country, it’s become all the more apparent that this conversation is not simply about the Confederacy, but what values the nation chooses to commemorate and celebrate in public. Statues of Christopher Columbus are falling as protesters cite his role in the genocide of America’s Native populations. And in St. Louis, groups are clashing over whether to remove the statue of the monarch who lends the city its name.

The Apotheosis of St. Louis
Louis IX’s acts as king certainly included care for the Christian poor—but they also encompassed moments of vicious anti-Judaism. (Ryan Ashelin via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 3.0)

Louis IX reigned over France in the middle of the 13th century. Like most medieval sovereigns, he implemented legal reforms and provided charity to the Christian poor. More significantly, Louis personally led two Crusades to North Africa against Muslims—the first to Egypt in 1248, and the second to Tunisia in 1270. These campaigns were simply a brief chapter in a much larger drama that saw Christians wage holy war throughout the Mediterranean world against Muslims, Jews, and sometimes their fellow Christians. The impact of the Crusades cannot be overstated, as this movement shaped the cultural, social, and economic direction of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East for centuries. Indeed, it continues to haunt the modern imagination.

Both of Louis IX’s Crusades failed spectacularly, with the king captured by the Egyptians and ransomed for an enormous sum in 1250 and dying of dysentery almost immediately upon arriving in Tunisia in 1270. Louis was canonized—largely for these efforts—in 1297, and he’s served as a symbol of France’s glorious past ever since. So, when French trappers established a fur-trading post on Cahokia lands in 1764, they named the site in honor of two kings: Louis IX and then-sovereign Louis XV. The settlement retained the name through French, Spanish and finally American occupation.

The Apotheosis of St. Louis came about in the afterglow of the city’s debut on the international stage with the 1904 World’s Fair. Erected in plaster at the fair’s entrance, it was flanked at its base by a female representation of the city, as well as images of two young boys who acted as the event’s “guiding spirits.” Though it was torn down along with all of the other temporary structures at the end of the fair, the statue proved to be a popular meeting point and favorite among artists and journalists. In October 1906, the work was recreated in bronze as a gift to the city from the fair’s organizers and unveiled by the mayor with great fanfare. The equestrian statue matched the times, seeming to fit not only Civil War statuary going up at that same time, but early 20th-century American imperial pretensions more generally.

The statue was only formally designated as a city monument in 1971, during the creation of a special cultural district encompassing the zoo and art museum, but the bronze Louis has long served as an informal, largely uncontroversial civic symbol.

Now, as protesters citing Louis’ history as a crusader call for the statue’s removal, counter-protesters, organized in part by an alt-right conspiracy theorist and supported by members of St. Louis’ Catholic community, ardently protect it. These demonstrators have prayed the rosary on successive nights, and one priest even blessed the statue with a (supposed) relic of the saint.

In late June, another priest stood at the base of the statue and spoke through a megaphone, claiming he was there to offer a history lesson of his own: “St. Louis was a man who willed to use his kingship to do good to his people.”

The day after this confrontation, the archdiocese of the city released a statement defending not just the statue, but the memory of St. Louis as a person, in terms similar to what the priest said. Arguing that the monument represents “respect for one’s neighbor,” the archdiocese lists examples of the Louis’ judicial reforms and charity toward the poor as the basis for his 1297 canonization. The statement continues, “For St. Louisans, he is a model for how we should care for our fellow citizen[s], and a namesake with whom we should be proud to identify.”

But as the Jewish and Islamic communities of St. Louis point out, the archdiocese only detailed part of the story. Louis IX’s acts as king certainly included care for the Christian poor—but they also encompassed moments of vicious anti-Judaism, including the burning of Talmuds in Paris in the 1240s; the arrest of all Jews in France and confiscation of their property in 1268; and the segregation of Christians and Jews, who were forced to wear a yellow star on their clothes as of 1269.

The protesters’ focus on Louis IX’s Crusades stands paramount much as it did during the 13th century. When Louis was canonized in 1297, Pope Boniface VIII justified his sainthood by mentioning not only his care for the (Christian) poor, but his Crusades and defense of the Church against its “enemies.” Even as late as the 1830 French invasion of Algeria, Louis was held up as a model for the colonizers, primarily for his martial spirit—a Christian king fighting against non-believers.

Vintage St. Louis postcard
Vintage postcard featuring the Apotheosis of St. Louis statue (Photo by Found Image Holdings / Corbis via Getty Images)

The lines of history that run through this monument are therefore confused. We have an early 20th-century bronze statue representing a 13th-century medieval king who serves as the namesake for a present-day city founded in the late 18th century. Now, in June 2020, a local Catholic community is rallying to the defense of that statue, which sits not in or near a church, but outside of an art museum.

In other ways, that confusion might, paradoxically, be clarifying. As historians who have written about how the modern world remembers the European Middle Ages, we untangle this knot by differentiating between the ways people think about the past, distinguishing between nostalgia and history. In the American imagination, the Middle Ages exist in an odd place—a part of the nation’s history but also apart from it. Most people think of the period as one of darkness, ignorance and violence (think “Game of Thrones”), but at the same time, whimsical, simple and pure (think Monty Python). It’s a blank space, or “dark age,” upon which we press contemporary concerns that we don’t want to believe are part of the modern world.

This line of thinking erroneously suggests that medieval people didn’t have to deal with issues of race, but remained plagued by violence modern humans have since moved beyond. Both tall tales are grounded in nostalgia, or comforting misconceptions that allow us to tell stories about ourselves. The historians’ job is to always say, “No, it’s more complicated than that. There is more context, more voices to consider.” That’s history.

The priests and counter-protesters, echoed by the archdiocese in its statement, see the attack on the statue not just as an attempt to “erase the past,” but as an attack on their religion. They perceive the statue through the lens of nostalgia, attempting to create a singular understanding of the past in order to lock observers into a particular political agenda: against the Black Live Matters protests toppling monuments across the U.S. This attempt is made even more explicit by the newfound religious devotion to the site, complete with blessings and prayer vigils.

These demonstrators want the statue to mean one thing. They want nostalgia. But the past is messy. Perhaps contrary to our expectations, the protesters in St. Louis are, in the words of Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot, taking history “in their own hands.” Those speaking out against the statue understand that it represents both a city at a crossroads among different communities and a history of state violence against Native and black Americans, from Indian removal under Andrew Jackson to police killings of Michael Brown and Anthony Lamar Smith. They know that it was built for a World’s Fair now famous for its racism, even as it was the leading image of civic pride until the construction of the Gateway Arch (itself, of course, a contested symbol built upon the destruction of a historically black neighborhood). In other words, they know well the history of racial inequality and violence in their city so well chronicled in a recent book by Walter Johnson, Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States. They know the statue commemorates a king who both fed the poor and persecuted Jews and Muslims.

This, ultimately is the battle for St. Louis: nostalgia versus history. Nostalgia wants a simple story; it wants to sell you something. History is messy. History brings up stories we might not otherwise want to discuss but should, in truth, know. It dispels rainbow connections to the past that skip over the “bad” stuff to focus on the “good.” It dispels the myths that erect monuments, be they of a Confederate general, a Genoese ship captain who stumbled upon the Caribbean, or a French saint and king.

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies in the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech. David Perry is a journalist and senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota. Follow them, respectively, on Twitter at @prof_gabriele and @lollardfish.

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