Gregory of Tours (539-594):
The Conversion of Clovis
Book II of Gregory of Tour's History of the Franks focuses
on Clovis, the first king of the Merovingian dynasty to convert
to Catholicism. This selection of chapters, rather than merely
giving the account of the conversion [cc.30-31]
seeks to set a context.
Consider the following issues questions:
- The place of marriage and Christian wives in spreading Christianity.
[Compare c. 28 with Bede's account of the Conversion of England.
- The influence on Gregory of Tours of other conversion accounts.
[Compare cc.30-31with Eusebius' account of
the Conversion of Constantine]
- The political advantages to Clovis of Conversion. [See c. 38 below.]
- The uses of the conflict between Arians and Catholics. [See c. 37 below]
- The effect of Christianity on Clovis's behavior [see c. 42 below]
History of the Franks: BOOK II
28. Clovis marries Clotilda.
29. Death of their first son in his baptismal garments.
30. War with the Alamanni.
31. Clovis's baptism.
37. War with Alaric.
38. King Clovis is made patrician.
42. Killing of Ragnachar and his brothers.
43. Death of Clovis.
Now the king of the Burgundians was Gundevech, of the family of
king Athanaric the persecutor, whom we have mentioned before.
He had four sons; Gundobad, Godegisel, Chilperic and Godomar.
Gundobad killed his brother Chilperic with the sword, and sank
his wife in water with a stone tied to her neck. His two daughters
he condemned to exile; the older of these, who became a nun, was
called Chrona, and the younger Clotilda. And as Clovis often sent
embassies to Burgundy, the maiden Clotilda was found by his envoys.
And when they saw that she was of good bearing and wise, and learned
that she was of the family of the king, they reported this to
King Clovis, and he sent an embassy to Gundobad without delay
asking her in marriage. And Gundobad was afraid to refuse, and
surrendered her to the men, and they took the girl and brought
her swiftly to the king. The king was very glad when he saw her,
and married her, having already by a concubine a son named Theodoric.
He 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 any one 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
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.
The queen did not cease to urge him to recognize the true God
and cease worshipping idols. But he could not be influenced in
any way to this belief, until at last a war arose with the Alamanni,
in which he was driven by necessity to confess what before he
had of his free will denied. It came about that as the two armies
were fighting fiercely, there was much slaughter, and Clovis's
army began to be in danger of destruction. He saw it and raised
his eyes to heaven, and with remorse in his heart he burst into
tears and cried: "Jesus Christ, whom Clotilda asserts to
be the son of the 1iving God, who art said to give aid to those
in distress, and to bestow victory on those who hope in thee,
I beseech the glory of thy aid, with the vow that if thou wilt
grant me victory over these enemies, and I shall know that power
which she says that people dedicated in thy name have had from
thee, I will believe in thee and be baptized in thy name. For
I have invoked my own gods but, as I find, they have withdrawn
from aiding me; and therefore I believe that they possess no power,
since they do not help those who obey them. I now call upon thee,
I desire to believe thee only let me be rescued from my adversaries."
And when he said thus, the Alamanni turned their backs, and began
to disperse in flight. And when they saw that their king was killed,
they submitted to the dominion of Clovis, saying: "Let not
the people perish further, we pray; we are yours now." And
he stopped the fighting, and after encouraging his men, retired
in peace and told the queen how he had had merit to win the victory
by calling on the name of Christ. This happened in the fifteenth
year of his reign.
Then the queen asked saint Remi, bishop of Rheims, to summon Clovis
secretly, urging him to introduce the king to the word of salvation.
And the bishop sent for him secretly and began to urge him to
believe in the true God, maker of heaven and earth, and to cease
worshipping idols, which could help neither themselves nor any
one else. But the king said: "I gladly hear you, most holy
father; but there remains one thing: the people who follow me
cannot endure to abandon their gods; but I shall go and speak
to them according to your words." He met with his followers,
but before he could speak the power of God anticipated him, and
all the people cried out together:/ "O pious king, we reject
our mortal gods, and we are ready to follow the immortal God whom
Remi preaches." This was reported to the bishop, who was
greatly rejoiced, and bade them get ready the baptismal font.
The squares were shaded with tapestried canopies, the churches
adorned with white curtains, the baptistery set in order, the
aroma of incense spread, candles of fragrant odor burned brightly,
and the whole shrine of the baptistery was filled with a divine
fragrance: and the Lord gave such grace to those who stood by
that they thought they were placed amid the odors of paradise.
And the king was the first to ask to be baptized by the bishop.
Another Constantine advanced to the baptismal font, to terminate
the disease of ancient leprosy and wash away with fresh water
the foul spots that had long been borne. And when he entered to
be baptized, the saint of God began with ready speech: "Gently
bend your neck, Sigamber; worship what you burned; burn what you
worshipped." The holy bishop Remi was a man of excellent
wisdom and especially trained in rhetorical studies, and of such
surpassing holiness that he equalled the miracles of Silvester.
For there is extant a book of his life which tells that he raised
a dead man. And so the king confessed all-powerful God in the
Trinity, and was baptized in the name of the Father, Son and holy
Spirit, and was anointed with the holy ointment with the sign
of the cross of Christ. And of his army more than 3000 were baptized.
His sister also, Albofled, was baptized, who not long after passed
to the Lord. And when the king was in mourning for her, the holy
Remi sent a letter of consolation which began in this way: "The
reason of your mourning pains me, and pains me greatly, that Albofled
your sister, of good memory, has passed ; away. But I can give
you this comfort, that her departure from the world was such that
she ought to be envied rather than e mourned." Another sister
also was converted, Lanthechild by name, who had fallen into the
heresy of the Arians, and she confessed that the Son and the holy
Spirit were equal to the Father, and was anointed.
Now Clovis the king said to his people: "I take it very hard
that these Arians hold part of the Gauls. Let us go with God's
help and conquer them and bring the land under our control. Since
these words pleased all, he set his army in motion and made for
Poitiers where Alaric was at that time. But since part of the
host was passing through Touraine, he issued an edict out of respect
to the blessed Martin that no one should take anything from that
country except grass for fodder, and water. But one from the army
found a poor man's hay and said: "Did not the king order
grass only to be taken, nothing else ? And this," said he,
" is grass. We shall not be transgressing his command if
we take it." And when he had done violence to the poor man
and taken his hay by force, the deed came to the king. And quicker
than speech the offender was slain by the sword, and the king
said: "And where shall our hope of victory be if we offend
the blessed Martin ? . It would be better for the army to take
nothing else from this country." The king himself sent envoys
to the blessed church saying: "Go, and perhaps you will receive
some omen of victory :. from the holy temple." Then
giving them gifts to set up in the holy place, he said: "If
thou, O Lord, art my helper, and hast determined to surrender
this unbelieving nation, always striving against thee, into my
hands, consent to reveal it propitiously at the entrance to the
church of St. Martin, so that I may know that thou wilt deign
to be favorable to thy servant." Clovis' servants went on
their way according to the king's command, and drew near to the
place, and when they were about to enter the holy church, the
first singer, without any pre-arrangement, sang this response:
"Thou hast girded me, O Lord, with strength unto the battle;
thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me, and
hast made mine enemies turn their backs unto me, and thou hast
utterly destroyed them that hated me." On hearing this singing
they thanked the Lord, and paying their vow to the blessed confessor
they joyfully made their report to the king. Moreover, when he
came to the river Vienne with his army, he did not know where
he ought to cross. For the river had swollen from the rains. When
he had prayed to the Lord in the night to show him a ford where
he could cross, in the morning by God's will a hind of wonderful
size entered the river before them, and when it passed over the
people saw where they could cross. When the king came to the neighborhood
of Poitiers and was encamped some distance off, he saw a ball
of fire come out of the church of Saint Hilarius and pass, as
it were, over him, to show that, aided by the light of the blessed
confessor Hilarius, he should more boldly conquer the heretic
armies, against which the same bishop had often fought for the
faith. And he made it known to all the army that neither there
nor on the way should they spoil any one or take any one's property.
There was in these days a man of praiseworthy holiness, the abbot
Maxentius, who had become a recluse in his own monastery in Poitou
because of his fear of God. We have not put the name of the monastery
in this account because the place is called to the present day Cellula sancti Maxentii. And when his monks saw a division
of the host approaching the monastery, they prayed to the abbot
to come forth from his cell to consult with them. And as he stayed,
they were panic-stricken and opened the door and dragged him from
his cell. And he hastened boldly to meet the enemy to ask for
peace. And one of them drew out his sword to launch a stroke at
his head, and when he had raised his hand to his ear it became
rigid and the sword fell. And he threw himself at the feet of
the blessed man, asking pardon. And the rest of them seeing this
returned in great fear to the army, afraid that they should all
perish together. The man's arm the holy confessor rubbed with
consecrated oil, and made over it the sign of the cross and restored
it to soundness. And owing to his protection the monastery remained
uninjured. He worked many other miracles also, and if any one
diligently seeks for them he will find them all in reading the
book of his Life. In the twenty-fifth year of Clovis.
Meantime king Clovis met with Alaric, king of the Goths, in the
plain of Vouillé at the tenth milestone from Poitiers,
and while the one army was for fighting at a distance the other
tried to come to close combat. And when the Goths had fled as
was their custom, king Clovis won the victory by God's aid. He
had to help him the son of Sigibert the lame, named Chloderic.
This Sigibert was lame from a wound in the leg, received in a
battle with the Alemanni near the town of Zulpich. Now when the
king had put the Goths to flight and slain king Alaric, two of
the enemy suddenly appeared and struck at him with their lances,
one on each side. But he was saved from death by the help of his
coat of mail as well as by his fast horse. At that time there
perished a great number of the people of Auvergne, who had come
with Apollinaris and the leading senators. From this battle Amalaric,
son of Alaric, fled to Spain and wisely seized his father's kingdom
Clovis sent his son Theodoric to Clermont by way of Albi and Rodez.
He went, and brought under his father's dominion the cities from
the boundaries of the Goths to the limit of the Burgundians. Alaric
reigned twentytwo years. When Clovis had spent the winter
in Bordeaux and taken all the treasures of Alaric at Toulouse,
he went to Angoulême. And the Lord gave him such grace that
the walls fell down of their own accord when he gazed at them.
Then he drove the Goths out and brought the city under his own
dominion. Thereupon after completing his victory he returned to
Tours, bringing many gifts to the holy church of the blessed Martin.
Clovis received an appointment to the consulship from the emperor
Anastasius, and in the church of the blessed Martin he clad himself
in the purple tunic and chlamys, and placed a diadem on his head.
Then he mounted his horse, and in the most generous manner he
gave gold and silver as he passed along the way which is between
the gate of the entrance [of the church of St. Martin] and the
church of the city, scattering it among the people who were there
with his own hand, and from that day he was called consul or Augustus. Leaving Tours he went to Paris and there he established the
seat of his kingdom. There also Theodoric came to him.
Ragnachar was then king at Cambrai, a man so unrestrained in his
wantonness that he scarcely had mercy for his own near relatives.
He had a counselor Farro, who defiled himself with a like vileness.
And it was said that when food, or a gift, or anything whatever
was brought to the king, he was wont to say that: it was enough
for him and his Farro. And at this thing the Franks were in a
great rage. And so it happened that Clovis gave golden armlets
and belts, but all only made to resemble gold-for it was bronze
gilded so as to deceive-these he gave to Ragnachar's leudes to be invited to attack him. Moreover, when Clovis had set his
army in motion against him, and Ragnachar was continually sending
spies to get information, on the return of his messengers, he
used to ask how strong the force was. And they would answer: is
a great sufficiency for you and your Farro." Clovis came
and made war on him, and he saw that his army was beaten and prepared
to slip away in flight, but was seized by his army, and with his
hands tied behind his back, he was taken with Ricchar his brother
before Clovis. And Clovis said to him: "Why have you humiliated
our family in permitting yourself to be bound? It would have been
better for you to die." And raising his ax he dashed it against
his head, and he turned to his brother and said: "If you
had aided your brother, he would not have been bound" And
in the same way he smote him with his ax and killed him. After
their death their betrayers perceived that the gold which they
had received from the king was false. When they told the king
of this, it is said that he answered: " Rightly," said
he, " does he receive this kind of gold, who of his own will
brings his own master to death;" it ought to suffice them
that they were alive and were not put to death, to mourn amid
torments the wicked betrayal of their masters. When they heard
this, they prayed for mercy, saying it was enough for them if
they were allowed to live The kings named above were kinsmen of
Clovis, and their brother Rignomer by name, was slain by Clovis'
order at the city of Mans. When they were dead Clovis received
all their kingdom and treasures And having killed many other kings
and his nearest relatives, of whom he was jealous lest they take
the kingdom from him, he extended his rule over all the Gauls.
However he gathered his people together at one time, it is said,
and spoke of the kinsmen whom he had himself destroyed. "Woe
to me, who have remained as a stranger among foreigners, and have
none of my kinsmen to give me aid if adversity comes." But
he said this not because of grief at their death but by way of
a ruse, if perchance he should be able to find some one still
After all this he died at Paris, and was buried in the church
of the holy apostles, which he himself had built together with
his queen Clotilda. He passed away in the fifth year after the
battle; of Vouillé, and all the days of his reign were
thirty years, and his age was forty-five. From the death of St.
Martin to the death of king Clovis, which happened in the eleventh
year of the episcopate of Licinius, bishop of Tours, one hundred
and twelve years are reckoned. Queen Clotilda came to Tours after
the death of her husband and served there in the church of St.
Martin, and dwelt in the place with the greatest chastity and
kindness all the days of her life, rarely visiting Paris.
Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. Ernest
Brehaut (extended selections), Records of Civilization 2, (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1916)
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