Excerpt from History of the Franks
Published in Readings in European History, 1905
"And seizing his ax, he cast it on the ground. And when the soldier had bent a little to pick it up the king raised his hands and crushed his head with his own ax. 'Thus,' he said, 'didst thou to the vase at Soissons.'"
When one studies the relationship between medieval European kingdoms and the Catholic Church, it is hard to imagine a time when the kings of Western Europe were not Christians, or at least not Catholic. But before the time of Clovis (c. 466–511; ruled 481–511), tribal kings accepted a number of different faiths. Hence Clovis's conversion to Christianity in 496, an event recorded by Gregory of Tours (TOOR; 538–594) in his History of the Franks, was an event of key importance.
In Clovis's time, the Western Roman Empire lay in ruins, and a variety of invading tribes ruled most of Western Europe. Among these tribes were the Franks, Clovis's people, who eventually gave their name to the region they occupied: France. They were far from the most powerful among the tribes of Europe, which included the Visigoths who controlled Spain, or the Ostrogoths in control of Italy. Many of these groups had converted to Christianity, but to a form of the Christian faith that had been declared heresy (HAIR-uhsee)—that is, a doctrine that went against the Christian faith—by the pope, leader of the Catholic Church. This heresy was called Arianism, and it taught that Christ was not God, but simply another one of God's creations.
The Franks, meanwhile, had not converted to Christianity; instead, they remained pagan, worshiping a variety of gods, most of whom represented forces of nature. In addition to their traditional deities or gods, they had also adopted Roman deities, such as Jupiter and Venus. But in most other regards they remained thoroughly un-Roman; thus they, along with a number of other tribes, were regarded as barbarians, or uncivilized. Gregory's account of what Clovis did to a rebellious soldier in Soissons (swah-SAWn), a town in northern France, illustrates their uncivilized behavior.
About seven years after the incident at Soissons, in 493, Clovis married Clotilde (kluh-TIL-duh; sometimes spelled Clotilda; c. 470–545), a princess from eastern France. Her people, the Burgundians, were Christians, and Clotilde herself was a devout Christian. As Gregory recounted, she continually urged her husband to accept the new faith, but he refused—until the time came when he needed God's blessing in a battle against a group of tribes called the Alemanni (al-uh-MAHN-ee).
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from History of the Franks
- The two events described by Gregory of Tours took place about ten years apart: the incident of the vase at Soissons in 486, and Clovis's conversion in 496. In the meantime, Clovis married Clotilde, a Christian princess who soon gave him a son. Despite the fact that he had rejected Christianity himself, Clovis allowed her to have the infant baptized in a Christian church—and when the boy died, the king took this as a bad sign from the gods. They had another son, Chlodomir (KLOH-doh-mur), and again Clotilde arranged to have him baptized. This son, too, fell ill, and Clovis told her that Chlodomir would die as well; but according to Gregory, "his mother prayed, and by God's will the child recovered." Soon after the recovery of Chlodomir, Clovis converted to Christianity.
- Based on Gregory's account, it appears that long before his conversion, Clovis respected Christian leaders. Thus he sent back word to the bishop who requested that he return his vase that "… I will do what the bishop desires." This respect may have been the result of his wife's influence; on the other hand, "barbarian" kings were often noted for the admiration they had for religious figures—regardless of the religion.
- The priest who formally led Clovis to accept Christianity was Remigius (ruh-MEE-gee-us), bishop or leading church official for the town of Reims (RAM; also Rheims), which is in northern France.
- Christian baptism symbolizes Christ's death and rebirth: by being immersed in water and rising again, a believer symbolically ends one life and begins another. It is an important sacrament, or religious ceremony, though in Clovis's case the event became a particularly large celebration: he was king, and as a result of his conversion, his kingdom was converting as well. Though Gregory, using language taken from the Bible, wrote that "the power of God went before" Clovis, who gained his subject's support for the conversion to Christianity, it is doubtful his subjects had much choice in the matter. Clovis was a powerful and severe man—the same king who had earlier crushed a rebellious soldier's head.
Excerpt from History of the Franks
… At this time [A.D. 486] the army of Clovis pillaged many churches, for he was still sunk in the errors of idolatry. The soldiers had borne away from a church, with all the other ornaments of the holy ministry, a vase of marvelous size and beauty. The bishop of this church sent messengers to the king, begging that if the church might not recover any other of the holy vessels, at least this one might be restored. The king, bearing these things, replied to the messenger: "Follow thou us to Soissons, for there all things that have been acquired are to be divided. If the lot shall give me this vase, I will do what the bishop desires."
When he had reached Soissons, and all the booty had been placed in the midst of the army, the king pointed to this vase, and said: "I ask you, O most valiant warriors, not to refuse to me the vase in addition to my rightful part." Those of discerning mind among his men answered, "O glorious king, all things which we see are thine, and we ourselves are subject to thy power; now do what seems pleasing to thee, for none is strong enough to resist thee." When they had thus spoken one of the soldiers, impetuous, envious, and vain, raised his battle-axe aloft and crushed the vase with it, crying, "Thou shalt receive nothing of this unless a just lot give it to thee." At this all were stupefied.
The king bore his injury with the calmness of patience, and when he had received the crushed vase he gave it to the bishop's messenger, but he cherished a hidden wound in his breast. When a year had passed he ordered the whole army to come fully equipped to the Campus Martius and show their arms in brilliant array. But when he had reviewed them all he came to the breaker of the vase, and said to him, "No one bears his arms so clumsily as thou; for neither thy spear, nor thy sword, nor thy ax is ready for use." And seizing his ax, he cast it on the ground. And when the soldier had bent a little to pick it up the king raised his hands and crushed his head with his own ax. "Thus," he said, "didst thou to the vase at Soissons."
… The queen unceasingly urged the king to acknowledge the true God, and forsake idols. But he could not in any wise be brought to believe until a war broke out with the Alemanni. Then he was by necessity compelled to confess what he had before willfully denied.
It happened that the two armies were in battle and there was great slaughter. Clovis' army was near to utter destruction. He saw the danger; his heart was stirred; he was moved to tears, and he raised his eyes to heaven, saying, "Jesus Christ, whom Clotilde declares to be the son of the living God, who it is said givest aid to the oppressed and victory to those who put their hope in thee, I beseech the glory of thy aid. If thou shalt grant me victory over these enemies and I test that power which people consecrated to thy name say they have proved concerning thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For I have called upon my gods, but, as I have proved, they are far removed from my aid. So I believe that they have no power, for they do not succor those who serve them. Now I call upon thee, and I long to believe in thee—all the more that [I] may escape my enemies."
When he had said these things, the Alemanni turned their backs and began to flee. When they saw that their king was killed, they submitted to the sway of Clovis, saying: "We wish that no more people should perish. Now we are thine." When the king had forbidden further war, and praised his soldiers, he told the queen how he had won the victory by calling on the name of Christ.
Then the queen sent to the blessed Remigius, bishop of the city of Rheims, praying him to bring to the king the gospel of salvation. The priest, little by little and secretly, led him to believe in the true God, maker of heaven and earth, and to forsake idols, which could not help him nor anybody else.
But the king said: "Willingly will I hear thee, O father; but one thing is in the way—that the people who follow me are not content to leave their gods. I will go and speak to them according to thy word."
When be came among them, the power of God went before him, and before he had spoken all the people cried out together: "We cast off mortal gods, O righteous king, and we are ready to follow the God whom Remigius tells us is immortal."
These things were told to the bishop. He was filled with joy, and ordered the font to be prepared. The streets were shaded with embroidered hangings; the churches were adorned with white tapestries, the baptistery was set in order, the odor of balsam spread around, candles gleamed, and all the temple of the baptistery was filled with divine odor…. Then the king confessed the God omnipotent in the Trinity, and was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and was anointed with the sacred chrism with the sign of the cross of Christ. Of his army there were baptized more than three thousand.
What happened next …
Perhaps Clovis converted to Christianity because of his victory over the Alemanni, perhaps due to the influence of his wife—or perhaps because he recognized the political advantages that would come from conversion. His adoption of mainstream Christianity, as opposed to the Arian heresy, meant that Clovis was the only tribal king to receive the blessing of the Church, which would prove a powerful ally in times to come. As to whether his adoption of the Christian faith actually made the harsh Clovis a gentler man, not even Gregory of Tours could supply much evidence to suggest that it had.
Clovis belonged to the Merovingian (mair-oh-VIN-jee-un) dynasty or ruling house, and his reign marked the beginning of what historians refer to as the Merovingian Age (481–751). A series of military victories won Clovis control over a region larger than modern-day France, but his conquests did not outlast him by very long. At his death, he divided his lands between his sons (Chlodomir among them), and in the years that followed, the kingdom began to fall apart as his various descendants fought for control. Eventually power fell into the hands of palace officials called majordomos ("mayors of the palace"), of whom the most notable was Charles Martel (c. 688–741). Charles's son Pepin III (c. 714–768) founded the Carolingian dynasty (kayr-uh-LINJ-eeun), destined to produce one of the medieval period's greatest rulers, Charlemagne (SHAHR-luh-main; 742–814; ruled 768–814).
The strong relationship between Church and state established by Clovis was a lasting one. In 800, the pope would crown Charlemagne "Emperor of the Romans," and eventually this title would come to symbolize leadership over much of Europe in the form of the Holy Roman Empire.
Did you know …
- Long after her death, a number of romantic legends concerning Clotilde, the queen who brought Christianity to France, spread throughout Western Europe.
- The most popular name among French kings was Louis (LOO-ee), a form of Clovis and thus a tribute to the fifth-century king who virtually established the nation of France. In 1789, some 1,400 years after Clovis, Louis XVI was overthrown by the French Revolution, but from 1814 to 1824, his brother reigned as Louis XVIII.
- Not all Frankish names are as well remembered as that of Clovis: names such as Clotilde, Chlodomir, and Chilperic sound unattractive to most modern people. Chilperic was the name not only of Clotilde's father, but of Clovis's and Clotilde's grandson. Comprising a list of further unusual names: Chilperic's wives and lovers included Fredegund and Galswintha. Chilperic married Galswintha because he was jealous of his brother, who had married her sister Brunhilda.
For More Information
Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 8: Christianity and Islam. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996.
Dijkstra, Henk, editor. History of the Ancient and Medieval World, Volume 9: The Middle Ages. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1996.
Robinson, J. H. Readings in European History, Boston: Ginn, 1905.
Severy, Merle, editor. The Age of Chivalry. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1969.
"The Franks." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).
"Medieval Sourcebook: Gregory of Tours: On Clovis." Medieval Sourcebook. [Online] Available http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/gregtours1.html (last accessed July 28, 2000).