The Baptism of Clovis—1,500 Years of Catholicism in France
“IN THE name of the Pope, boom,” read the message that accompanied a makeshift bomb discovered in a French church that Pope John-Paul II was to visit in September 1996. This was an extreme example of the opposition that characterized his fifth visit to mainland France. Nevertheless, some 200,000 people came to the French city of Reims that year to commemorate with the pope the 1,500th anniversary of the conversion of the Frankish King Clovis to Catholicism. Who was this king whose baptism has been called the baptism of France? And why has its commemoration caused such controversy?
The Waning Empire
Clovis was born about 466 C.E., the son of Childeric I, king of the Salian Franks. Following their subjugation by the Romans in 358 C.E., this Germanic tribe was allowed to settle in what is now Belgium on the condition that they defend the border and supply soldiers for the Roman army. The close contact with the local Gallo-Roman population that followed resulted in a gradual Romanization of these Franks. Childeric I was an ally of the Romans, fighting against the incursions of other Germanic tribes, such as the Visigoths and the Saxons. This earned him the gratitude of the Gallo-Roman population.
The Roman province of Gaul stretched from the Rhine River, in the north, to the Pyrenees, in the south. However, following the death of the Roman General Aetius in 454 C.E., a power vacuum existed in the land. What is more, the fall of Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor in Rome, in 476 C.E. and the end of the western part of the Roman Empire brought great political instability to the region. In consequence, Gaul was like a ripe fig waiting to be plucked by one of the tribes settled within its borders. It is hardly surprising that after succeeding his father, Clovis began seeking to extend the frontiers of his kingdom. In 486 C.E., he defeated the last representative of Rome in Gaul in a battle near the city of Soissons. This victory gave him control of all the territory between the river Somme, in the north, and the river Loire, in central and western Gaul.
The Man That Would Be King
Unlike other Germanic tribes, the Franks had remained pagans. However, Clovis’ marriage to a Burgundian princess, Clotilda, had a profound influence on his life. A fervent Catholic, Clotilda tirelessly sought the conversion of her husband. According to the history recorded in the sixth century C.E. by Gregory of Tours, it was in 496 C.E., during the battle of Tolbiac (Zülpich, Germany) against the tribe of the Alemanni, that Clovis promised to abandon paganism if Clotilda’s God would grant him victory. Although Clovis’ troops were on the verge of defeat, the Alemanni king was killed and his army surrendered. As far as Clovis was concerned, Clotilda’s God had given him the victory. According to tradition, Clovis was baptized by “Saint” Remigius in the cathedral of Reims, on December 25, 496 C.E. However, some believe that a later date, 498/9 C.E., is more likely.
Clovis’ attempts to seize the Burgundian kingdom to the southeast failed. But his campaign against the Visigoths was crowned with success when, in 507 C.E., he defeated them at Vouillé, near Poitiers, a victory that gave him control of most of southwest Gaul. In recognition of this victory, Clovis was granted an honorary consulship by the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Anastasius. He thus had a status above all the other western kings, and his rulership was legitimized in the eyes of the Gallo-Roman population.
Having brought under his domination the territory of the Rhenish Franks to the east, Clovis made Paris his capital. In the closing years of his life, he strengthened his kingdom by giving it a written legal code, the Lex Salica, and by convening a church council in Orléans to define relations between Church and State. Upon his death, likely on November 27, 511 C.E., he was the sole ruler of three quarters of Gaul.
The New Encyclopædia Britannica calls Clovis’ conversion to the Catholic faith “a decisive moment in the history of western Europe.” Why was this pagan king’s conversion so important? The significance lies in the fact that Clovis chose Catholicism as opposed to Arianism.
The Arian Controversy
About 320 C.E., Arius, a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, began to spread radical ideas concerning the Trinity. Arius denied that the Son was of the same essence, or substance, as the Father. The Son could not be God or equal to the Father, since he had a beginning. (Colossians 1:15) As for the holy spirit, Arius believed that it was a person but that it was inferior to both the Father and the Son. This teaching, which gained wide popularity, roused fierce opposition within the church. In 325 C.E., at the Council of Nicea, Arius was exiled and his teachings were condemned.*
However, this did not end the controversy. The doctrinal crisis went on for some 60 years, with successive emperors siding with one party or the other. Finally, in 392 C.E., Emperor Theodosius I made orthodox Catholicism with its Trinity doctrine the State religion of the Roman Empire. In the meantime the Goths had been converted to Arianism by Ulfilas, a Germanic bishop. Other Germanic tribes were quick to adopt this form of “Christianity.”*
By the time of Clovis, the Catholic Church in Gaul was in crisis. The Arian Visigoths had been trying to suppress Catholicism by refusing to allow bishops who died to be replaced. Furthermore, the church was in the throes of two papal schisms, with priests from opposing factions killing one another in Rome. Adding to this confusion, some Catholic writers had put forward the idea that the year 500 C.E. would mark the end of the world. Thus, the conversion of the Frankish conqueror to Catholicism was seen as an auspicious event, heralding “the new millennium of the saints.”
But what were Clovis’ motives? While religious motivations cannot be ruled out, he certainly had political goals in mind. By choosing Catholicism, Clovis gained favor with the predominantly Catholic Gallo-Roman population and the support of the influential church hierarchy. This gave him a decided advantage over his political rivals. The New Encyclopædia Britannica notes that “his conquest of Gaul became a war of liberation from the yoke of the hated Arian heretics.”
Who Was the Real Clovis?
In the run-up to the 1996 commemoration, the archbishop of Reims, Gérard Defois, described Clovis as “the symbol of a well-thought-out and responsible conversion.” However, French historian Ernest Lavisse commented: “The conversion of Clovis in no way changed his character; the gentle and peaceful moral of the Gospel did not touch his heart.” Another historian declared: “Instead of Odin [a Norse god], he invoked Christ and remained the same.” Reminiscent of the conduct of Constantine after his so-called conversion to Christianity, Clovis set out to consolidate his rulership by systematically killing off all rivals to the throne. He exterminated “all his relatives to the sixth degree.”
After Clovis died, a process of mythmaking began that would turn him from a cruel warrior into a reputed saint. Gregory of Tours’ account, written almost a century later, is viewed as a conscious effort to identify Clovis with Constantine, the first Roman emperor to accept “Christianity.” And by making Clovis 30 years old at his baptism, Gregory seems to be trying to establish a comparison with Christ.—Luke 3:23.
This process was continued in the ninth century by Hincmar, bishop of Reims. At a time when cathedrals were vying for pilgrims, the biography he wrote about his predecessor, “Saint” Remigius, likely was intended to increase the renown of his church and to enrich it. In his account, a white dove brought a vial of oil to anoint Clovis at his baptism—clearly a reference to Jesus’ anointing with holy spirit. (Matthew 3:16) Hincmar thereby established a link between Clovis, Reims, and the monarchy and gave credence to the idea that Clovis was the Lord’s anointed.*
A Controversial Commemoration
Former French president Charles de Gaulle once said: “For me, the history of France starts with Clovis, chosen as king of France by the tribe of the Franks, who gave their name to France.” However, not everybody sees things that way. The commemoration of the 1,500th anniversary of Clovis’ baptism was controversial. In a nation where Church and State have been officially separated since 1905, many criticized the State’s participation in what they viewed as a religious commemoration. When the city council of Reims announced plans to pay for the dais to be used during the pope’s visit, one association had the decision overturned in court as unconstitutional. Others felt that the church was trying to reimpose its moral and temporal authority on France. Further complicating the commemoration was the appropriation of Clovis as a symbol of the far-right National Front and fundamentalist Catholic groups.
Others criticized the commemoration from a historical point of view. Clovis’ baptism, they said, did not convert France to Catholicism, since this religion was already firmly implanted in the Gallo-Roman population. And, they claimed, neither does his baptism mark the birth of France as a nation. They considered that this should be more properly placed at the division of Charlemagne’s kingdom in 843 C.E., making Charles the Bald, and not Clovis, the first king of France.
1,500 Years of Catholicism
How is Catholicism in France faring today after more than 1,500 years as the “Church’s eldest daughter”? France had the world’s largest number of baptized Catholics until 1938. Now it is in sixth position, behind such countries as the Philippines and the United States. And while there are 45 million Catholics in France, only 6 million regularly attend Mass. A recent survey among French Catholics revealed that 65 percent “take no notice of the Church’s teaching on sexual matters,” and to 5 percent of them, Jesus represents “nothing at all.” Such negative trends are what prompted the pope to ask during his visit to France in 1980: “France, what have you done with the promises of your baptism?”
The name Louis is derived from Clovis, after whom 19 French kings (including Louis XVII and Louis-Philippe) were named.
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Clovis’ baptism depicted in a 14th-century manuscript
© Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris
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Sculpture of the baptism of Clovis (central figure) on exterior of Reims Cathedral, France
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The visit of John Paul II to France to commemorate Clovis’ baptism caused controversy