Episode 5: Clovis, the First King - Conversion
The world was caving in on Clovis.
At least, that’s how he felt as he watched his line continue to be pushed back, to watch his best warriors falling near to him. From atop his magnificent black warhorse, he assessed the situation for the hundredth time, and for the hundredth time he saw a situation that was dire and about to get worse. On this day in 496, on the field of battle near Tolbiac, Clovis feared that his vaunted army may finally have met its match against the lesser power of the Alemanni.
He surveyed the scene immediately around him. To his left he saw his stalwart bannerman. Despite the heavy battle and imminent danger, the man never strayed far from his king. Beyond him, on the ground, were two of Clovis’s best fighters: one, the younger of the two, was prostrate on his back and, if not already dead, certain to die at any moment. The second of the pair, this one bearded and older, was trying to sit up and regain his feet. Clovis could only wish him good fortune, as in this melee it would be extremely difficult to regain your footing once down, especially if injured. In the heat of battle there was no one to help, no one who wanted to risk their own safety by stopping, even for a moment, to lend a hand.
Then suddenly, and in Clovis’s eyes, most tragically, one of his favorites, a young man in the prime of life, well-muscled and an excellent soldier who never showed fear, fell backward in front of him. In his chest was an arrow – or perhaps it was a broken spear shaft, things were moving too fast to be entirely sure – and in the young man’s face there was no fear, because the light of life had gone out in his features even before his body fell to the ground. This soldier was within feet of Clovis, and he now realized with utter certainty that he was not only likely to lose the battle this day in 496; he was likely going to die as well. It was at this moment of dawning comprehension to his mortality that Clovis turned to the god of his wife Clotilde; he had spoken to his gods before the battle, and seeing that they had been of no use, he saw no issue with turning to this Jesus that his Queen was so devoutly concerned with.
Clovis, in the midst and heat of a battle that was raging so hot that he couldn’t even spare time or energy to help one of his soldiers to his feet, turned his eyes to the sky. His mind was calm and able to filter out the noise of battle; in that moment, he felt the divine touch of the one true God. Fearing no injury, he stretched out his arms, raising his left hand to the sky, and implored, "Most mighty God, whom my queen Clotilde worships and adores with heart and soul, I pledge you perpetual service unto your faith, if only you give me now the victory over my enemies."
At the moment these words left his mouth, Clovis heard a hue and cry from further down the line. Something had happened, but he wasn’t quite sure of what. He noticed his fighters being able to push back slightly in the line; he wasn’t sure if this was because they had found a second wind, or if the Alemanni had relented ever so slightly. Five minutes later, his soldiers were pushing harder than they had that day and the other side continued to fall back. Rather than just looking weaker, Clovis saw confusion starting to set in in their eyes. It was as he spied this look that the messenger finally reached Clovis. Speaking quickly and in between gasps, the man told his King the wonderful news: the Alemanni leader had been killed by the blow of an axe not fifteen minutes prior. Clovis realized what the confusion was amongst the Alemanni soldiers: word was reaching them as well as him that their leader was dead. Not knowing how to react, and without having someone in command to direct the battle or send in reinforcements, their energy drained. Soon, confusion became alarm, and then alarm became panic. Alemanni soldiers not on the line began to abandon the field, leaving their comrades to fend for themselves. Those soldiers stuck on the line became more and more fatigued and, smelling blood, the Franks became stronger and more fierce. At the end of an hour the fight was over; the Alemanni were routed, and Clovis stood as the victor. Within sixty minutes he had gone from the precipice of defeat to the glory of victory. Still, he refused to take too much pride in the battle, because he knew that the glory belonged not to him, but to Clotilde’s God who had answered the call when Clovis needed him most. Clovis called over the same messenger who had brought him news of the Alemanni leaders death and gave him a new message to deliver, this to Bishop Remi of Reims. He told the bishop to come meet him and instruct him about this new God, and when the time was right, baptize him into the faith so he could make good on the word he had given in battle just minutes before.
The Bishop received this message with the greatest of joy and made his preparations. He instructed Clovis in the faith and, on Christmas Day 496, delivered the sacrament of baptism to Clovis and 3,000 of his warriors. Little did the bishop know when he did this that he would be setting forth a tradition for the monarchy of France that would last for nearly 1,400 more years.
This is Thugs and Miracles. Episode Five – Clovis, the First King: Conversion.
Alright, welcome back to Episode Five of T+M. As always, I am Benjamin Bernier, and this week we continue with the second of three deep dives into the history of Clovis. This week we’ll be focusing on religion and how Clovis’s conversion to Catholicism changed the course of history in Western Europe for centuries to come. Before we begin though, I want to make it clear that as we explore this topic, I will be looking at it from the point of view of a historian, and an amateur historian at that, and will be attempting to stay as dispassionate and factual as possible while I speak. If something I said offends you, well, my sources are always available on the website and I invite you to look through them. And if I or my sources are wrong, well, I always stand ready to incorporate new facts and new views to history. To me, this is not dogma, and I am always willing to learn. Alright, enough disclaimer / trigger warning; on with the show.
So, returning to Clovis and his battlefield conversion: Did it really go down this way? The simple answer is: No. For starters, it just seems a little unlikely that Clovis would be actively engaged in a battle, notice he was losing, and, rather than adjust his strategy or call in a reserve, simply think to himself, “Well, my gods aren’t working; why not try that new one Clotilde is always talking about?” This isn’t to say that he didn’t perhaps pray for support, but he would have had to have been losing pretty badly to think to throw out the quid pro quo of, “I pledge you perpetual service unto your faith, if only you give me now the victory over my enemies.” And for God to answer this? I mean, I’m no theologist, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how God is supposed to work. Changing religions and professing faith to an almighty overlord is not supposed to be the same going to a car dealership and haggling over options – “Throw in Bluetooth and you have a deal, Lord!”
Alright, alright, beyond this very basic approach to looking at Clovis’s conversion, let’s also consider some of the other factors at play here. First, Clovis’s wife, Clotilde, was a Burgundian princess with a strong Christian faith. She regularly pressured Clovis to take up her religion and went to extraordinary lengths to convince him to do so, even going so far as to take actions which, at best, would hurt a relationship in the best of times, and in the sixth century, were likely to get a person killed. Just check out this passage from Gregory of Tours:
“He [Clovis] had a first-born son by queen Clotilda, and as his wife wished to consecrate him in baptism, she tried unceasingly to persuade her husband, saying: "The gods you worship are nothing, and they will be unable to help themselves or anyone else. For they are graven out of stone or wood or some metal. And the names you have given them are names of men and not of gods, as Saturn, who is declared to have fled in fear of being banished from his kingdom by his son; as Jove himself, the foul perpetrator of all shameful crimes, committing incest with men, mocking at his kinswomen, not able to refrain from intercourse with his own sister as she herself says: Jovisque et soror et conjunx. What could Mars or Mercury do? They are endowed rather with the magic arts than with the power of the divine name. But he ought rather to be worshipped who created by his word heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is out of a state of nothingness, who made the sun shine, and adorned the heavens with stars, who filled the waters with creeping things, the earth with living things and the air with creatures that fly, at whose nod the earth is decked with growing crops, the trees with fruit, the vines with grapes, by whose hand mankind was created, by whose generosity all that creation serves and helps man whom he created as his own." But though the queen said this the spirit of the king was by no means moved to belief, and he said: "It was at the command of our gods that all things were created and came forth, and it is plain that your God has no power and, what is more, he is proven not to belong to the family of the gods." Meantime the faithful queen made her son ready for baptism; she gave command to adorn the church with hangings and curtains, in order that he who could not moved by persuasion might be urged to belief by this mystery. The boy, whom they named Ingomer, died after being baptized, still wearing the white garments in which he became regenerate. At this the king was violently angry, and reproached the queen harshly, saying: " If the boy had been dedicated in the name of my gods he would certainly have lived; but as it is, since he was baptized in the name of your God, he could not live at all." To this the queen said: "I give thanks to the omnipotent God, creator of all, who has judged me not wholly unworthy, that he should deign to take to his kingdom one born from my womb. My soul is not stricken with grief for his sake, because I know that, summoned from this world as he was in his baptismal garments, he will be fed by the vision of God."
After this she bore another son, whom she named Chlodomer at baptism; and when he fell sick, the king said: "It is impossible that anything else should happen to him than happened to his brother, namely, that being baptized in the name of your Christ, should die at once." But through the prayers of his mother, and the Lord's command, he became well.”
A lot, and I mean a lot, of what Gregory of Tours wrote has to be taken with a grain of salt, but this, in my opinion, is an amazing passage. Gregory could have simply said that Clotilda nagged Clovis until he converted, made a bad joke or two about wives, and then moved on to the next topic on his list. Instead, Gregory goes to great lengths to portray Clotilde as a hero, a fact that to me speaks volumes about the woman herself and the respect people in the 6th century carried for her. In this case, think about it: Clotilde first is shown to have the temerity to stand up to her husband and speak her mind, a strong enough act in and of itself. But then when she’s speaks her mind, she blasphemes his gods! I mean, she crushes them, calling them cowards and sodomites and purveyors of magic arts. She then upsells her Christian god as being the maker of heaven and earth and everything good, leaving Clovis’s with the weak, “I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I”-style response of, “Your God has no power and, what is more, he is proven not to belong to the family of the gods.” I mean, she just got done telling him that his gods are sodomites and the best he can say in return is that her monotheistic god is not a part of the family of the gods? She knows that, hence the mono- part of monotheist! Anyway, beyond arguing, Clotilde puts her thoughts into action and arranges for a baptism of her son, Ingomer, despite not having the blessing of the king. And the child dies! When he does, Clovis pulls no punches – verbally speaking, there’s no writing of domestic abuse with the couple – letting Clotilde know that his gods would not have let this happen. And Clotilde responds to this by having the next child baptized also, and when that child almost dies, we have to imagine that Clotilde’s time as Queen may have been growing short. I mean, she shows an almost superhuman level of religious devotion and willingness to speak back to her husband, a man who had split another man’s head open with an axe just a few years back over a vase! This attitude toward her religion, even if it was less than half of what Gregory portrays it to be, had to have had an effect on the way Clovis viewed the Christian faith.
Beyond his wife, Clovis had had ties to Christianity which dated back to his very first days as King. In taking power, much like any ruler of a non-homogenous area, he was expected to rule and stand in judgement above all of his people, not just his pagan tribesmen. To this end, Clovis received several letters over the course of his kingship from the Bishop Regimus, later to be known as Saint Remi. The first of these reads:
“The important news has reached us that you have undertaken the waging of another war; it is not a novelty, for you have been just as your kin always were. This must be done first of all, so that the judgement of the Lord should not waver from you, when on account of your merit – in fact, through the industry of your humility – it has reached the height of the peak and the summit. As people say, the action of a man is what is judged. You should summon advisers to you who can embellish your reputation, and your favour should be moral and honest. You will defer to your bishops and always have recourse to their advice, for if you are on good terms with them your province can fare better. Rouse your citizens, relieve the afflicted, support widows, look after orphans, if it is possible bring them up, in order that everyone love as well as fear you. Let justice issue forth from your mouth: nothing should be looked for from the poor or foreigners, any more than you should be willing to accept gifts or anything else. Let your headquarters stand open to everyone, so that no one should depart from there sorrowful. Whatever paternal wealth you possess, you will free captives with it and release them from the yoke of servitude. If anyone come before you, let him not feel that he is a stranger. Jest with the young, converse with the old, if you wish to be judged to reign nobly.”
This letter, hotly debated amongst historians both for its dating – was it delivered to a 15-year-old Clovis in 481, a 20-year-old Clovis in post-Syagrius 486, or even later – and for its intent, shows at a minimum that Bishop Remigius and the Catholic Church had enough power and respectability that they could deliver a letter to the King and expect that he would take possession and read it. For me, I think the letter did a good job of tiptoeing the line that Remigius undoubtedly had to be wary of: he provided advice and support to a young sovereign without sounding condescending, and rightfully realized that to place himself, his subordinates, and the Church as a whole at the disposal of the King would go much further in strengthening their relations than chastising the young man would. He snuck in a little religion to the young pagan, letting him know that “the judgement of the Lord should not waver from you,” and also let him know that, for Remigius, God was watching Clovis, even if Clovis was not watching God.
Clovis clearly seems to have taken this letter well and with the effect Remigius desired. It was Remigius who asked for Clovis to save the Vase of Soissons, a task the young King attempted to accomplish up until his axe-wielding kinsmen decided it would make a better story to cut it in half, and it was Remigius who later instructed Clovis in the ways of the Church when the King finally decided to make his conversion. And finally, it was Remigius who performed the baptismal sacrament on Clovis that officially brought him and 3,000 of his soldiers into the Catholic fold.
Clovis too would have understood the practical value of being associated with Catholism. There were benefits of conversion, such as closer ties with Roman elements still in existence, the established networks of land ownership and taxation that the local bishops had put in place, and ties to the Byzantine Empire, which Clovis couldn’t gain through paganism or Arianism. However, this religious malleability does much to indicate that Clovis’s conversion and subsequent baptism were much less likely due to his immediate battlefield need in a moment of panic at the Battle of Tolbiac than to his forward-looking political canniness. Indeed, Danuta Shanzer, writing for the Department of Classics at Cornell University, points out that Clovis’s baptism may have occurred as late as Christmas 508, a full 12 years later than Gregory would have us believe. This means that Clovis may have spent all but the last three years of his life as a pagan, changing his religious affiliation only when it garnered him great political advantage. Shanzer lays out a solid argument for this delayed baptism based on letters to and from Clovis around this later date, and given Gregory’s known proclivities for dropping troublesome facts from his “Histories” in order to satisfy his more pleasing version of events, it’s altogether believable that Clovis stalled and weighed his options for a very long time.
The final item to note when considering whether Clovis chose to convert due to his failing fight against the Alemanni or through patient, calculating contemplation of the best available political move, is the odd similarity between Clovis’s conversion story and and that of the great Roman emperor Constantine. The likelihood that Gregory, writer of spicy – If not always factual – history, chose to honor his King by dressing up his conversion to align with the greatest Christian ruler up until that time certainly seems to draw a line to the former, and less likely, explanation. Just as a reminder, Constantine too had been a pagan up until the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. Constantine, facing long odds and well out-numbered, was said to have had a vision on the night before the battle, directing him to have his soldiers mark the letters Chi and Rho, the first two letters in the Greek spelling of Christ, on their shields. The sign worked, Constantine won his battle, and he returned to Rome with the head of his enemy. The following year, 313, Constantine changed the Roman state religion to Christianity. Low and behold, just under 200 years later, Clovis needs a miracle, calls out to the Christian God, and defeats his enemy. It’s almost too good to be true... Ironically, the dubious validity of both battlefield conversions is the one area where we can draw an actual comparison, as research places more and more doubt on either story being true. But hey, at least Gregory wasn’t the only guy out there unwilling to let facts get in the way of a good story!
The symbology of Clovis as a “new Constantine” evoked strong and clear symbolism that benefited both him and the Church. Clovis cemented his legitimacy by tying his reign closely to that of a strong Roman emperor, and, considering that the Western Roman Empire was defunct while the Byzantine Empire, headquartered in Constantinople, was going strong, it was just all-around good branding. The actual act of the baptism was also significant; according to John Riddle:
“It [Clovis’s conversion] unified the newly enlarged Frankish state, and the church baptism ceremony to mark his conversion signified a new union between church and state. In a solemn and majestic ceremony in Rheims, St. Remi anointed Clovis…as a Christian, evoking the image in the spiritual account of when Saul was anointed king of Israel by the high priest. When Remi revived the ceremony, a precedent was set; from this time forth, the medieval church asserted its critical role in transposing a mere person into regal authority. Kings, dukes, and counts were never allowed to forget the importance attached to this ceremonial act.”
Clovis, despite having this new association, was actually fairly even-handed when it came to religion. He allowed freedom of religion for people to make their own decisions, which to me is a little surprising. I could have easily seen this story reading as Clovis forcibly converting anyone in his path, but then again, tolerance in this case makes sound ruling sense. Only half of Clovis’s army converted at the same time he did, so starting an internal battle with half of his fighting forces would have been a bad idea. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, he clearly realized that he was the King of all the people in his domain, not just the Catholics. Clovis did, however, give the Church some extra perks and protections, something that likely would have enticed those who had not yet converted to explore the religion of their monarch. Clovis declared all church property off-limits to pillage by his soldiers, respected the Church’s position as a protector of criminals and slaves, and forbade his men from violating consecrated virgins and widows. Besides enticing people to the “one true faith,” it also made sense for Clovis to work by, with, and through the Church due to its large size and preestablished networks. Again according to Riddle, “The church was so extensive in size that it was politically, economically, and militarily vital for the well-being of the Frankish state to control the church as much as possible.”
Clovis’s relationship with the church was largely reciprocal. His growth enabled the church’s growth, and as a result, many of the King’s rough edges and, well, murders, were looked past or glossed over. Gregory of Tours, writing from the Abbey of St. Martin of Tours, a church property greatly enhanced by the generosity of Clovis and Clotilde, was able to justify Clovis’s actions by saying “Thus did God each day deliver his enemies into his hands and increase his realm, because he walked with a perfect heart before Him and did that which was right in His sight.” This was an extraordinary get-out-of-jail free card for Clovis, if not a bit of a Catch-22 for anyone who got on the King’s bad side. Basically, Gregory said that Clovis was guided by God, and therefore any action he made couldn’t be bad or wicked, because it was God’s plan. Many politicians before and since would certainly have loved to have had the ability to whitewash their atrocities and shortcomings by simply saying, “God told me to do it.” But such is the nature of symbiotic relationships; in this case, the church was able to grow bigger, stronger and wealthier by pairing with an ascendant King, and the King was able to take the actions he felt necessary to spread his realm knowing that he had the sanction and support of the church. And as we’ll see next episode, Clovis definitely expanded the borders of the Franks further than anyone could have imagined when he stepped into power in 481.
BON VOYAGE: Okay, before we check out for the week, I want to say a quick bon voyage to one of today’s main players, St. Remigius. Remigius lived an exceptionally long life, especially considering the time at which he lived. Sources place his birth in 437 and his death in 533, making the good saint 96 years old when he finally left the world. Considering that Clovis died at 45, and the average lifespan at this time for a person who survived past age five and died a natural death – both big ifs – was mid-forties, it means Remigius essentially got to live the equivalent of two lives. During his life he was credited with multiple miracles, the most famous of which was the Baptism of Moribund Pagan. The story goes that a dying pagan asked Remigius for a baptism before his death; Remigius wanted to comply but was lacking the Oil of the Catechumens and the Chrism needed for the ceremony. In this situation, he did what any of us would have done: he got two empty vials, put them on an altar, and then prayed until they miraculously filled. He then conducted the baptism, allowing the pagan to die in the true faith and ascend to Heaven. In a similar story about the saint’s life, Hincmar archbishop of Rheims, wrote that Remigius was missing the baptismal oils when he went to baptize Clovis, and again, rather than going to a few churches and asking to bother theirs, Remigius instead prayed “and a dove appeared from the heavens, bearing in its beak an ampulla of chrism.” This ampulla, still filled with oil, was found in 869 when the grave of Saint Remigius was opened and discovered within. Now, not to be overly skeptical, but at the same time that Hincmar was writing this biography of the Regimius’s life and found this ampulla, he was also advocating for Reims to be the site of the coronations of French monarchs. He just happened to find the oil, and then used the combination of the miracles of Saint Regimius, the coronation of Clovis, and his timely discovery to lay out an argument that God clearly wanted kings anointed in Reims. Well, despite the obvious logical inconsistencies, the argument held and for the better part of 1,000 years the French kings were given their coronation at Notre Dame de Reims, also known as the Reims Cathedral, using the oil preserved at the abbey of Saint-Remi. The last king consecrated using the oil brought to St. Regimius as a miracle was Charles X in 1825. As with so many other relics – such as Childéric’s treasure - the ampoule was broken during the Revolution. A piece remains, as well as the ampoule’s contents, and are kept to this day in Reims Cathedral.
OUTRO: Alright, I know I had promised in the last episode to talk this time around about Saint Genevieve; well, all I can say is it’s amazing how fast things can get away from you while you’re doing research, and things you thought were only going to take a minute or two suddenly take 10 or 15. No worries though, we’re podcasting here and we can make our own rules, right? For me, I think it’s better to stay around 30 minutes, because if I start letting things creep now then six months from now we’ll be having two hour long episodes! No, Genevieve will come next episode, along with a discussion of how she is credited with saving Paris from Atilla, working with Childéric, and ultimately having her grave site become one of the holiest and most revered locations in European Christendom. We’ll also look at some of Clovis’s later battles and discuss how far he was able to push his borders before his death in 511, as well as his burial in the grave next to, you guessed it, Genevieve. There’s a ton of ground to cover, and I’m looking forward to getting into it with you in Episode Six.
Before we go, as always, the music used for the show comes from Josh Woodward and includes his songs “Bully” and “Lafayette.” For a free download of these songs or hundreds of other great tracks, check out his site at joshwoodward.com. Notes on this episode and a list of sources is available online at thugsandmiracles.com; please leave a comment. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can also hit me on Twitter at @thugsandmiracle, or leave a comment on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ThugsAndMiracles/. Finally, if you enjoyed the show and have a moment, I ask you to please leave a review on whichever platform you get your podcasts; this helps to get the podcast out to more people. If you feel the show is worth five stars, I will be forever in your debt if you take the time to put that online. Once again, my name is Benjamin Bernier, and I look forward to seeing you in two weeks with the next episode of Thugs and Miracles.