Medieval French king died after ‘refusing to eat salad’ says doctor

He was the last of the crusader kings who was thought to have died of the plague as he made one last - rather roundabout - attempt to recover the Holy Land for the Christianity.

Medieval French king died after 'refusing to eat salad' says doctor
French pathologist Philippe Charlier, aka Dr Trop Tard. Photo: AFP

But it now appears that France's King Louis IX – better known as Saint Louis – died because he committed the cardinal error of many a colonial invader: not eating the local food.

An international team of researchers led by a celebrated French forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier, known on Twitter as Dr Trop Tard (doctor too late), now believe he fell prey to scurvy.


Caused by a lack of vitamin C, the painful and potentially fatal disease was the scourge of sailors until the turn of the 19th century.

While the local food in Tunisia where the Eighth Crusade landed in 1270 contained lots of vitamin-C rich salads and citrus fruit, the crusaders' meat-heavy diet and Saint Louis' extreme piety appears to have been his undoing.

“His diet wasn't very balanced,” said Charlier, who has also examined the heart of Richard the Lionheart and confirmed that a jawbone held in Moscow belonged to Adolf Hitler.

“He put himself through all manner of penances, and fasting. Nor was the crusade as well prepared as it should have been,” he told AFP.

“They did not take water with them or fruit and vegetables.”

Dr Charlier is an authority on cause of death. Photo: AFP

Charlier and his team used carbon 14 dating to authenticate that the jawbone held in a reliquary at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris belonged to the king, who died five weeks after landing at Carthage.

Examining the bone, he said it was clear that Saint Louis suffered from scurvy, “which attacks the gums and then the bone”.

“Saint Louis did not die from plague,” as historians had always thought, Charlier added. 

“The scurvy is certain, but one cause of death can also hide another,” said the paleopathologist.

Chroniclers at the time recounted in gory detail how “Saint Louis lost his  teeth, spitting out bits of his gums, which is consistent with what we see on his mandible,” the pathologist told AFP.

As much as a sixth of the French army may have perished from disease — including Louis' son John Tristan — as they besieged Tunis in the summer of 1270.

A contemporary accounts by the king's friend Jean de Joinville describe how soldiers howled like “women in labour… as barbers (doctors) had to cut (away) the dead tissue to allow them to chew their meat”.

King Louis, however, lived on fish, a more humble food associated with abstinence in the Middle Ages. 

The new scientific report in the Journal of Stomatology, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery said that weakened by the scurvy, Louis could have succumbed to another condition.

The 'crusader' king Louis IX

“Tradition has conserved a cause of death as plague but this could be related to a bad translation of the ancient word 'pestilence',” it added.

“That he died of the plague is still there in the history books,” Charlier said, “and modern science is there to rectify that.”

Other accounts maintain that he died of dysentery, and experts are now examining his stomach, which was cut up and boiled in wine and spices to preserve it before being shipped back to Europe.

But the French were not the only ones to suffer during the crusade. De Joinville described both armies were decimated by trench disease, a louse-born illness that also hit soldiers fighting in World War I and II, with the river separating the French and besieged “Saracens filled with corpses”.

Saint Louis was an inveterate crusader leading both the Seventh and Eighth Crusades.

The Seventh Crusade, was a disaster, too. After initial success following his landing in Egypt in 1249, it ended with him being captured and ransomed by Cairo's Mamluk rulers.

While Muslims might have a different view, Saint Louis was regarded as a model for medieval Christian rulers.

An ascetic who tended to lepers, fed beggars from his table and washed their feet, he brought to Paris the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross on which Christ was said to have been crucified.

De Joinville, who was with him to Tunis, is also the source of the apocryphal story of the good king dispensing justice under an oak tree.

Member comments

  1. Ah “religion” (translated as: “My made-up fairy-tale ‘God’ can beat up YOUR made-up fairy-tale ‘God'”) — the cause of most of the misery, genocides, murder and wars across human history. All fear-based, made-up, tribal-conformist made up loony “concepts.” What a GREAT way to run a species (ours). Or to quote famed biologist E.O. Wilson: “Humanity has paleolithic emotions, medical beliefs and institutions, but god-like technology. Uh oh.” Food for thought on this first day of summer.

  2. maybe you might look at some of the wars and genocides in modern times. Second world war, Hitler – atheist, Russian genocide, Stalin – atheist, Cambodian genocide, Pol Pot – atheist. Often easy to say that most the genocides and wars are caused by religion but often not the case.

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Skulls, beer and a ‘cathedral’: Discover the secrets of underground Paris

You've certainly heard of the Metro, maybe the catacombs and perhaps even the Phantom of the Opera's underground lake - but there are some things lurking beneath Paris that might surprise you.

Skulls, beer and a 'cathedral': Discover the secrets of underground Paris

One of Europe’s most densely populated cities, Paris has over two million people living within its boundaries. As those inhabitants walk along the Champs-Elysées or Rue de Rivoli, they might be entirely unaware of the extensive underground world that exists below their feet. 

These are some of the hidden gems beneath the famous monuments in the City of Light:

Skulls, beer and police

The final resting place for over six million Parisians – the catacombs are the most well-known part of underground Paris, but did you know that the 1,700 metres of catacombs that are open to the public represent less than one percent of the whole of the catacombs in Paris? In fact, the underground network is thought to be around 300 km in size.

The catacombs are also known as the Ossuaire Municipal, and they are located at the site of former limestone quarries. The Ossuaire as we know it was created during the 18th century, because the city’s cemeteries could not withstand its population growth and public health concerns began to be raised. Gradually the remains of millions of Parisians were moved underground.

The bones of Parisians only comprise a small section of Paris’ ‘carrières‘ (or quarries), which can be seen in the above map.

These subterranean passages have fascinated cataphiles for many years – with stories of secret parties, illicit tunnel exploration and much more. During the Covid lockdowns, the catacombs infamously served as a location for clandestine parties. At one point, over 35 people were ticketed for participating in underground raves

The network even has its own police service, the Intervention and Protection Group, known colloquially as the cataflics, who are a specialised police brigade in charge of monitoring the old quarries in Paris.

Though these quarries might be a location to secretly throw back a few pints, they are also connected to beer for another reason, as they are the ideal environment to both store and make beer – with consistently cool temperatures and nearby access to underground water sources.

In 1880, the Dumesnil brewery, located in the 14th arrondissement, invested in the quarries underneath its premises, using them to store the thousands of barrels of beer that it produced each year. Over the years, the brewery simply turned its basement into a real underground factory. 

If you really want to visit the ancient underground quarries specifically, you don’t have to just go to the catacombs. You can also do so by visiting the “Carrières des Capucins.” Found just below the Cochin hospital, located in the 14th arrondissement, access to these tunnels is allowed to the public (with reservation) in small groups.

As for entering the rest of the old quarry system, that has been illegal to enter the old quarries since 1955, which has not stopped several curious visitors and explorers from trying to discover what secrets might be underground. 

Sewer Museum

Recently renovated, this museum might not be at the top of a tourist’s list in the same way the Louvre or Musée d’Orsay might, but the museum of sewers actually has a lot of fascinating history to share. It took almost a century to build Paris’ sewage system, and it is largely to thank for the city’s growth, protecting the public health of inhabitants by helping prevent disease outbreaks. 

Visiting the sewers is not a new activity either – according to the museum’s website, “as early as 1867, the year of the World’s Fair, visits were met with immense public success, the reason being that this underground space had always been hidden from the curious eyes of all those who dwell on the surface of Paris.”

Ghost stations

A total of 16 Metro stations go unused underground in Paris – some were built and never put into use, others were decommissioned after World War II.

The most famous is Porte des Lilas – a working Metro station that has an unused ‘ghost’ section which these days is used for filming scenes in movies and TV.

If you’ve ever watched a scene set in the Metro, chances are it was filmed at Porte des Lilas, which has a section of track that Metro cars can move along if needed for action sequences. 

The extra section was taken out of commission in 1939 due to under-use, and in the 1950s it served as a place to test new metro cars.

Beware if you find yourself in Haxo station – it does not have its own entrance or exit and is only accessible by following the Metro tunnels. It is one of the six that never opened, similar to Porte Molitor, Orly-Sud, La Défense-Michelet, or Élysée-La Défense.

Other stations were closed for being too close to other stations, such as the Saint-Martin station, which was closed after World War II as it was too close to Strasbourg-Saint Denis. 

These phantom stations are usually off-limits to the public, but sometimes access is allowed for special guided tours or events.

Reminders of World War II 

Paris’ underground played an important role during the Second World War.

First, there is the French resistance command bunker, which is now part of the Musée de la Libération at Place Denfert Rochereau.

It was from here that Resistance leaders co-ordinated the battle for the liberation of Paris in 1944.

There is also the anti-bombardment bunker near Gare de l’Est. Normally this is closed during the year, but it is opened on Heritage Day in September. (Journées de patrimoine). 

The bunker was originally commissioned in 1939 to keep trains running, even in the event of a gas attack, and it was completed by the Germans in November 1941. It is located between Metro tracks 3 and 4. The bunker itself – which can fit up to 50 people – has basically been frozen in time, featuring a control room and telephone. 

Another river

You’ve heard of the Seine, but what about the underground river that flows through the city of Paris? Prior to the 20th century, the Bièvre river flowed through the city as well, running through Paris’ 13th and 5th arrondisements. Once upon a time, tanners and dyers set up shop next to the Bievre, shown in the image below. 

The river eventually became quite polluted and concerns arose that it might be a health hazard, so in 1875, as part of his transformation of the city, Georges-Eugène Haussmann decided that the Bièvre had to go. It was mostly covered up, and now what remains of the river flows beneath the city, with some parts of it joining Paris’ sewage system.

The Phantom’s lake

If you are a fan of Phantom of the Opera, you would know that the Phantom’s lair is below the Palais Garnier (the Opera house), and that Christine and the Phantom must cross a subterranean lake to get there.

This body of water is not a figment the imagination of Gaston Leroux – though not an actual lake, a large water tank can be found below the grounds. It is even used to train firefighters to swim in the dark.

The Phantom’s not real, though (probably).


The Montsouris reservoir is one of Paris’ primary drinking water sources, along with L’Haÿ-les-Roses, Saint-Cloud, Ménilmontant and Les Lilas.

But while it’s undoubtedly very useful, it’s most famous for its looks.

The structure resembles a kind of underground water cathedral and is home to over 1,800 pillars, which support its numerous vaults and arches. It’s closed to the public, but its rare beauty means that it’s often photographed by urban explorers.

Mushroom farms

And last but not least – the ‘mushroom houses.’ Les champignons de Paris have been grown below the capital’s soil for centuries.

READ MORE: Inside Paris’ underground mushroom farms

“Paris mushrooms” have been grown since the 17th century. The rosé des près (meadow pink) mushrooms were a favourite of Louis XIV and were originally grown overground – their colour comes from the limestone that Paris is build on.

By the 19th century they went underground, which provided more space and allowed the fungi to be cultivated year-round, but eventually the construction of the Paris Metro pushed many growers out of the capital.

Today, there are just five traditional producers in operation – Shoua-moua Vang runs the largest underground mushroom cave in the Paris region, spread across one and a half hectares of tunnels in a hill overlooking the Seine river.