In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Louis XI, King of France

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Renaissance and Reformation Louis XI, King of France
Joël Blanchard
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0491


Louis XI, king of France from 1461 to 1483, is the sovereign who most strongly marked the late Middle Ages. On the one hand, his reign corresponds to a turning point in the history of state building. The last convulsions of the Hundred Years War had not yet died out; the last feudal and princely rebellions were still shaking and testing the royal authority. And yet the authority of this king, who came to the throne at the mature age of thirty-eight, emerged strengthened from these trials, and the power of the monarchy was reinforced. On the other hand, in an unstable Europe in which threatening forces often formed powerful coalitions against the king (England, Castile, Aragon, Empire, Italian city-states, the papacy), Louis XI showed remarkable political intelligence by approaching such resistance with the aim of circumventing it. The originality and modernity of his methods correspond with an important moment in the development of Italian diplomatic methods, which he was able to adapt with discernment. Both flexible and intransigent on his function, he embraced pragmatism as a doctrine. With the possible exception of his reign’s last years, he retained this flexibility in all areas of exercise of his power. A final point concerns the historical assessment of Louis XI. Few kings have been tagged with such worn stereotypes, notably the simple and sinister image of the “universal spider” that has clung to him over the centuries, especially during the Romantic era. But for the past fifty years, the approach to the reign of Louis XI has been more scientific and transversal: historians have relied on remarkable documentation based not only on archival sources but, more surprisingly, on the voluminous correspondence (nearly 1,300 letters) that this sovereign carried on with other European political actors. Armed with this documentation, historians have taken a fresh look at the fields of political, economic, diplomatic, military, and religious history. One area has seen a complete overhaul of analytical methods thanks to the publication of previously unpublished documents: law and justice, especially ordinary and extraordinary criminal proceedings, which evidenced a remarkable intensity under the reign of Louis XI. All these scientific and critical approaches reveal the unique and exceptional character of this monarch’s private and political conduct.

General Overviews

There is a plethora of works and critical editions of texts relating to the history of Louis XI, but a few general, well-documented studies make it possible to approach the history of the reign in its entirety: biographies that emphasize the unfolding of events, either total or partial, and mixed essays that combine event history and the thematic dimension. Over the past fifty years, inaugurated in particular by the pioneering study of P. M. Kendall, works have multiplied the tracks, based on a return to historical and literary sources. The publication of documents found in Italian collections and new critical editions have modified the traditional portrait of the king, the black image inherited from Romanticism. The studies have made it possible to better situate Louis XI in his European environment, going beyond the usual conflict between him and Charles the Bold to which he was reduced. In particular, they underline the unusual nature of the royal policy and conduct, which escaped the standards of monarchical rituals adopted by his predecessors or successors. It is now possible, on the basis of unpublished documentation, to define in each field the character of this atypical king, both traditional and modern. A new approach, more focused on the political context, is found in Lewis 1968; Allmand 2000; and Fletcher, et al. 2015. The first real biography of the king is Kendall 1971. The reception and posterity of Louis XI are addressed by Bakos 1997, followed by Scordia 2015. Three biographies, Heers 1999, Favier 2001, and Sablon du Corail 2011, give an extensive account of the reign, unfortunately without notes and references to sources. Blanchard 2015 offers the first thematic biography with precise and extensive scientific references. Blanchard 2020 completes the picture with a thematic and transdisciplinary study of the context.

  • Allmand, Christopher. War, Government and Power in Late Medieval France. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846314421

    A series of chapters that gives an excellent approach to the public of late medieval France. It relies on the testimony of contemporary writers, chroniclers, and commentators, and addresses the main aspects of the exercise of political power, of the relationship between the court and those in authority in far-flung reaches of the kingdom. A very good book for a first approach to political issues

  • Bakos, Adrianna. Images of Kingship in Early Modern France: Louis XI in Political Thought, 1560–1789. London: Routledge, 1997.

    Bakos uses the changing nature of Louis XI’s historical reputation to explore the intellectual and political climate of early modern France. This is the first documented study of the reception and posterity of Louis XI. This work provides an excellent starting point, as it outlines a few concepts or notions that are loaded with meaning (e.g., constitutionalism, parliamentarianism) and form the basis of the narrative.

  • Blanchard, Joël. Louis XI. Paris: Perrin, 2015.

    DOI: 10.3917/perri.blanc.2015.01

    Following a thematic plan, this portrait sheds light on essential aspects of the sovereign’s character and politics: institutions, justice, religion, money, the army, political personnel (advisors, defectors), the king’s relationship with the written word, censorship, secrecy. A substantial part is devoted to the functioning of extraordinary penal procedures and lèse-majesté. It presents for the first time a complete bibliography of manuscript sources relating to the reign of Louis XI (pp. 307–320).

  • Blanchard, Joël. La fin du Moyen Âge. Paris: Perrin, 2020.

    Overall study of the last Valois, including of course the reign of Louis XI, seen from four angles or approaches: political, literary, military, and anthropological and legal.

  • Favier, Jean. Louis XI. Paris: Fayard, 2001.

    Monumental biography that presents interesting elements on the diplomacy and economic and financial history of the late Middle Ages. The analysis of the networks on which the king relied is well documented. Unfortunately, the absence of notes does not allow us to verify the sources.

  • Fletcher, Christopher, Jean-Philippe Genet, and John L. Watts, eds. Government and Political Life in England and France, c. 1300–1500. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Two political currents are opposed in the European field between, on the one hand, the widening of the representation (England, Aragon, Castille), and, on the other hand, the generalization of the juridical absolutism with the rituals and majesty (France).

  • Heers, Jacques. Louis XI, le métier de roi. Paris: Perrin, 1999.

    Heers wants to break with romantic clichés, the black image of the king since the 15th century, by analyzing the king’s various fields of activity, in particular diplomatic, economic, financial, and commercial issues, which constitute the book’s main field of analysis. But here again, as with other biographies relating to the reign of Louis XI, the absence of notes makes it impossible to verify the sources.

  • Kendall, Paul Murray. Louis XI. London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1971.

    The first true biography of Louis XI, based on diplomatic sources, particularly Italian, showing the political genius of the king in the face of a hostile European environment. This work has opened up many avenues but unfortunately remains poorly informed on the reign’s economic and judicial policy. The juridical dimension of the reign is little addressed, but the work remains a “great classic” and a pioneering work on the subject. French translation: Louis XI “l’universelle araigne” (Paris: Fayard, 1974).

  • Lewis, Peter Shervey. Later Mediaeval France: The Polity. London: Macmillan 1968.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-00563-5

    A now classic study of the early Valois. Translated into French in 1978, it includes numerous references to the reign of Louis XI and highlights the continuities and contrasts of the reign of Louis XI compared with the preceding and following reigns.

  • Sablon du Corail, Amable. Louis XI ou le joueur inquiet. Paris: Belin, 2011.

    The target audience for this biography is historians and educated readers. The author uses the familiar recipes of the biographical genre: cross-referencing and criticizing testimonies, establishing and interpreting facts, comparing the life and work of the king with the historical context. The emphasis is on the king’s military policy. Unfortunately, the notes are removed and important aspects of Louis XI’s reign are ignored, such as justice and political trials.

  • Scordia, Lydivine. Louis XI: Mythes et réalités. Paris: Elipses, 2015.

    In the same spirit as Adrianna Bakos’s work, Scordia’s follows the assessment of Louis XI’s image up to the twentieth century, which it completes for the period after the sixteenth century. The documentation is abundant, but it does not dwell enough on the play of filiations from one century to another, from one author to another.

  • Stein, Henri. Charles de France, frère de Louis XI. Paris: Picard, 1919.

    A very extensive study of the life of the king’s brother, his court, his politics, and the intrigues in which he participated. His difficult relations with his brother, the intrigues to which they gave rise, and the rumors about Louis XI’s involvement in his brother’s death are documented here by solid current sources. The work is of primary importance for the analysis of Louis XI’s networks.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.