The 800th anniversary of the birth of Saint Louis, King of France, in 2014 provided an opportunity to obtain a sample of his relics for “scientific identification”. With all relics, the chain of custody and its backstory are critical for evaluation. Most of Louis’ relics held in the Basilica of Saint-Denis were destroyed during the religious violence of sixteenth-century Paris. Fortunately the process of preserving and transferring Louis home to France from the site of his death on crusade in Tunis, North Africa left bits of him in several locations. Part of the preservation process used at the time removed his intestines and other internal organs to be embalmed separately while the remainder of the body was boiled to clean the bones to return to Paris. The bones were enshrined in Paris, while the heart and some viscera were enshrined at the abbey of Monreale near Palermo by his brother Charles, King of Sicily, who oversaw the preparation of the body and its transport back to France.
During a stopover at Bologna en route to Lyon and then Paris, some of his viscera were removed and interned in the Basilica of Saint Dominic. In 1297 Louis, who had died on 25 August 1270, was officially canonized as Saint Louis of France. A portion of these visceral relics was given for the consecration of the cathedral of Turin in 1895, and these were transferred to the cathedral of Versailles in 1985. It is from this visceral relic that the 2 g specimen was obtained for scientific evaluation.
The plan is to do a full “medical and forensic anthropological analysis” of the remains. The first result released by Phillipe Charlier’s team is the discovery of a semicircular parasite viewed by Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) analysis, identified as a male Schistosoma based on its size and morphology. Schistosoma are a sexually dimorphic flatworm, also known as a blood fluke, that inhabits the capillaries of the abdomen (mesentery or bladder plexus depending on species) and releases their eggs into either feces or urine. The eggs hatch in fresh water and must pass through a freshwater snail before emerging as larvae that can inhabit a mammalian host. Only about 50% of the eggs produced actually exit the body. The adult worms and eggs that do not reach the feces or urine can cause extensive inflammation resulting in granulomas and fibrosis (scar tissue) to the abdominal organs (liver, spleen, intestines, bladder) and the blood vessels of the abdomen causing an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal cavity. Eggs that do breach into the lumen of the intestine cause chronic blood loss into the lumen producing chronic bloody stools. In the worst cases, the blood loss can cause anemia.
Compare to an SEM preparation of a modern (non-mummified) male Schistosoma:
King Louis had not been in Tunis long enough for him to contracted schistosomiasis upon his arrival only a month before his death. When and where he contracted the flatworm infestation is open to more speculation. Schistosoma have been observed in archaeological remains of one individual from 9th century France, but have not yet been commonly observed. Charlier et al. (2015) suggest that Louis’ previous crusade in North Africa between 1250 and 1254, spending some time imprisoned in Damietta, Egypt, is the most likely period for start of the infection. If this is true, then Louis would have had a chronic infection for about 20 years at the time of his death. Charlier’s team do not believe that Schistosomiasis contributed to his death.
So far they have not observed any other parasites in the sample. This is not necessarily surprising considering that they have not yet identified the anatomic source of the specimen. It is not possible to even guess at the anatomic source from the crumbling, blackened specimen pictured in their study (fig. 1). Their analysis is continuing.
Debating Saint Louis’ Cause of Death
As soon as the Schistosoma report was published, the debate on the cause of Louis’ death began in the letters of Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology (where the report was published). So let us begin with the best account of Louis’ death, and go from there.
Beyond skirmishing and entrenching the camp nothing was done, as King Louis was awaiting the arrival of his brother Charles of Anjou (now King of Sicily). Whilst they were waiting encamped, John Tristan fell sick, and died on board one of the ships on August 3rd. A few days later the Legate also died and many other persons, some of fever, some of dysentery. Philip, the King’s eldest son, fell sick with fever; and the King was taken with dysentery (the complaint to which he nearly succumbed in his first Crusade) and died on August 25th.
Guillaume de Nangis account in the Memoirs of Lord Joinville, Book 4, Ch. 4.
Strangely, the plague has traditionally been claimed as Louis’ cause of death. This is completely unfounded since the Black Death will not bring epidemic Yersinia pestis back to the Mediterranean for another 77 years! There is nothing in the account above to suggest plague. This has correctly been dismissed as Louis’ cause of death.
Eric Faure wrote a letter arguing that malaria was a possible cause based on reports of Louis’ history of tertian fevers dating back to 1242. Faure suggests that Louis went on his first crusade in thanksgiving for surviving “cerebral malaria with a coma” after a relapse in 1244. Cerebral malaria is usually caused by Plasmodium falciparum, which is not a chronic (relapse causing) infection. If Louis suffered relapses of malaria contracted in France then it was most likely Plasmodium vivax, which rarely causes cerebral malaria. Whether or not Louis had cerebral malaria in the 1240s, this doesn’t really help us with the state of his health in 1270. Faure also notes that some of the men on Louis’ last crusade had intermittent fevers suggestive of malaria. Faure reaches too far suggesting that the dysentery was a symptom of malaria. Gastrointestinal symptoms are possible but rare in malaria and usually then in children. Philippe Charlier responded with a letter dismissing Faure’s suggestion to look for Plasmodium in the remains because they would not have caused Louis’ death. Following the report in Lord Joinville’s memoir (quoted above), Charlier reports in his letter that his team is now looking for evidence of bacteria, viruses or amoeba in the embalmed “intestines” that are more likely to be the cause of the “dysenteric syndrome” reported in “Louis and his court”.
Based on Joinville’s memoir is appears that the “court” was suffering from a variety of camp diseases found in most medieval armies on prolonged campaigns. In such a situation, co-infection is highly likely, particularly with chronic parasites. Indeed, Louis was probably not the only one in camp with schistosomiasis lingering from previous travels. Although I doubt malaria caused Louis’ dysentery, it is quite possible he was suffering from chronic malaria and that it contributed to weakening his health, making him more susceptible to other pathogens. Indeed co-infection with Schistosoma and Plasmosdium could have made him quite anemic. It would still be worth knowing if Louis had an active malaria infection, even if Shigella or another enteric pathogen was the primary cause of death.
Charlier, P., Bouchet, F., Weil, R., & Bonnet, B. (Oct. 2015). Schistosomiasis in the mummified viscera of Saint-Louis (1270 AD). Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, 1–2. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12024-015-9722-4
Faure, E. (Dec. 2015). The infections of Saint-Louis: possible involvement of malaria.[Letter] Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, 1–1. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12024-015-9732-2
Charlier, P. (2016). Neither plague nor malaria, but dysentery as a cause of death for St. Louis. [Letter] Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology, 1–1. http://doi.org/10.1007/s12024-015-9738-9
The Memoirs of Lord Joinville. translated by Ethel Wedgwood, E-text. The University of Virginia Library.
Louis IV of France, Wikipedia.
Michael Walsh, Schistosomiasis on the Infection Landscapes blog. See this page for the best description of the medical effects of schistosomiasis.
The featured image above of Louis’ death comes from Grandes Chroniques de France The Death of Saint Louis.