Clovis

(c. 466-511)
   The most important king (r. 481-511) and founder of the Merovingian dynasty, Clovis was a "magnus et egregius pugnator" (a great and distinguished warrior) according to the bishop and historian Gregory of Tours. At times a brutal and treacherous warrior, he unified the Frankish kingdoms and laid a foundation for later Frankish power and influence that was in part drawn from the more advanced traditions of the late Roman Empire. He cultivated good relations with the bishops in his realm and was the first Frankish king to convert to Christianity.
   Clovis waged a series of wars to expand the boundaries of his realm. Although there exists much debate over the exact chronology of these events and even over the extent of Clovis's war making, it is likely that he pursued an aggressive policy against other Germanic tribes and other Frankish groups that led to the enlargement of his kingdom. One of his most famous battles was his victory over Syagrius, the late Roman ruler of the kingdom of Soissons, in 486. He also enjoyed a series of other victories during his reign over other foes, including the Alemanni at the Battle of Tolbiac in 496, the Burgundians in 500, the Visigoths in 507, and various lesser Frankish kings in his last years.
   Although Clovis fought a great number of wars during his reign, he was careful, even before his conversion, to maintain the support of the Catholic bishops of Gaul that he had enjoyed from the beginning of his reign. He took great care to guarantee the support of the bishops by ruling that his soldiers should not harm the clergy or despoil the lands of the bishops, the tombs of the saints, or other sacred or church ground. An even greater example of the importance of the Catholic bishops to Clovis can be found in the story of the chalice of Soissons. According to Gregory, Clovis was approached after his victory by the bishop of Soissons, who asked that a precious chalice used for Mass be returned to him. Clovis promised he would return the chalice should it come to him during the division of spoils, and when he requested it all his warriors, save one, proclaimed he should have it. The lone warrior refused and cut the chalice in half, offering the king his share. Later, while Clovis was reviewing the troops, he came upon this same warrior. Clovis denounced the warrior as a bad example and threw the latter's sword to the ground. As the warrior bent to pick up, Clovis brought his great axe down on the soldier's head, reminding him that he had done the same thing to the chalice at Soissons. Although it is a most unlikely story, the tale of the chalice of Soissons reveals the importance of the Catholic bishops to Clovis.
   The wars against Syagrius, the Alemanni, and the Visigoths were given religious significance by Gregory, and, although an unlikely interpretation, it reveals the importance of the conversion of Clovis to this Gallo-Roman bishop. Moreover, there may have been some truth to Gregory's view of the king, because Clovis did convert to Christianity. Traditionally, the king's conversion was due to the influence of his wife Clotilda, who was a Catholic from the kingdom of Burgundy. In fact, as Gregory tells us, Clotilda baptized their first son, who shortly thereafter died. For Clovis this was a sign of the power of the traditional Frankish gods, but Clotilda remained undaunted. She baptized the second child as well, who in turn became deathly ill, but her prayers saved the child. Clovis remained devoted to his traditional gods, nonetheless, until the Battle of Tolbiac. According to Gregory, the battle was going poorly for Clovis and the king feared defeat. He vowed to the Christian god that should he win the battle he would then convert to the Christian faith. And, of course, he won the battle and, eventually, accepted baptism, along with 3,000 of his followers, at the hands of St. Remigius, the bishop of Rheims.
   Both of these stories are probably little more than pious legend, but Clovis did convert to Catholic Christianity at some point between 496 and 508. It is no longer generally held that Clovis converted directly to Catholic Christianity from paganism but that he converted first to Arian Christianity or at least was sympathetic to the Arian confession. His conversion did not greatly influence Frankish belief, nor should Clovis's Christianity be understood in very sophisticated terms. Clovis's conversion remains, however, one of his great accomplishments, because he was the first German ruler to adopt Catholic Christianity rather than the Arian form. Thus his conversion solidified relations with the Catholic hierarchy in his realm and provided his dynasty with an important source of political and religious support for generations to come.
   In his last years his power came to be recognized by the emperor in Constantinople, who may have granted Clovis an honorary consulship-perhaps as part of diplomatic struggles with the Ostrogoth, Theodoric-and even in Theodoric's kingdom in Italy. Also in his last years, he focused more on domestic policy by holding a church council at Orléans and by issuing the Salic law. This codification of the law-putting it into organized, written form rather than simply expecting people to follow the unwritten, customary law-was an act of some sophistication, one that reveals the influence of Roman legal and administrative traditions on the king and suggests that Clovis was a more "civilized" ruler than the traditional understanding of him implies. Roman influence can also be seen in Clovis's adoption of several imperial administrative structures, including the system of tax collection.
   At his death, the kingdom was divided among Clovis's sons, Theuderic I, Chlodomer, Childebert I, and Chlotar I. Traditionally, the partition of the realm has been seen as a consequence of the Frankish patrimonial view of kingship, in which the kingdom was understood as the king's personal possession to be shared among his family. The division, however, followed the established administrative boundaries of the Roman Empire, suggesting further Roman influence on Clovis. Whatever the precise meaning of the partition of the realm, it established a tradition that continued throughout Merovingian history.
   
   Baptism of Clovis by St. Remigius, fourteenth century (Archivo Iconografico, S.A./Corbis)
   See also
   Bibliography
 ♦ Bachrach, Bernard S. Merovingian Military Organization, 481-751. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972.
 ♦ Daly, William M. "Clovis: How Barbaric, How Pagan?" Speculum 69 (1994): 619-664.
 ♦ Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
 ♦ Geary, Patrick. Before France and Germany. New York: 1988.
 ♦ Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Long-Haired Kings. Toronto: Medieval Academy Reprints, 1982.
 ♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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