Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Clovis...the most important man, ever

...from the point of view of the future of Mediaeval civilisation. It rather surprises me that he has been almost completely passed over in fiction. I find every aspect of his life fascinating. Let me give a brief timeline:

AD466. Birth of Clovis. His father was Childeric, a Frankish chieftain whose capital was the former Roman staging post of Tornacum (modern-day Tournai) that lay on the Roman road between Cologne and Boulogne. This area had been occupied by the Franks for about a century at the time of Clovis's birth. Childeric was an ally of the Empire, and exercised a loose overlordship over the tribes of Salian Franks, or the Franks on the western side of the Rhine.

Childeric had a bad reputation with the women, especially married women of prominent Franks, which led to his exile east of the Rhine. During his absence the Franks accepted the rule of Rome in the person of Syagrius, last Roman ruler of northern Gaul.

Childeric eventually regained the favour of his Franks and returned to Tournai. The absolute respect Clovis had for women, especially for his future wife Clotilde, suggests that he had learnt the lesson of his father's example and had made up his mind not to repeat it.

AD481. At the death of Childeric, Clovis becomes chieftain of the Salian Franks of Tournai. Shortly after this Syagrius conferred on him the post of administrator of Belgica II, one of the four provinces under Syagrius's control. This is mentioned by St Remigius, bishop of Reims, who wrote to Clovis:

Word of great import has reached us that you have received the administration of Belgica Secunda. This is not a new thing, that you should begin to be what your forefathers always were.

 For several years Clovis accepted the status quo as ally of Syagrius and lived in peace with him. He would have used this time to consolidate his power among the Frankish tribes (he was only fifteen when his father's men raised him on the shield), asserting his rank of over-king based on his status as Syagrius's foederatus.

AD486. Clovis defeats Syagrius in battle.  The causes of the war between Clovis and Syagrius are obscure and one has to read between the lines of the few scraps of evidence available. It seems Syagrius revoked Clovis's title of administrator over Belgica II and occupied Soissons, reasserting his own rights over the province. The subsequent battle at Soissons was a disastrous defeat for Syagrius, who, it seems, was deposed by his own provinces (largely controlled by a powerful militarised aristocracy) and fled to the Visigoths. He was later brought back as Clovis's captive and died at Soissons - murdered, according to the account of St Gregory of  Tours. The remaining Roman provinces did not capitulate to Clovis however, and successfully held him off during a war lasting ten years.

AD 493. Clovis marries St. Clotilde. This may have been done partly for political motives. Clotilde was a Burgundian princess, whose uncle controlled the Burgundian state after murdering her father and mother. She was also a Catholic. Clovis needed to conciliate the Catholic population of Syagrius's former provinces, who would not accept him as ruler since he was a pagan. Politics aside, it is clear he had a genuine love and respect for her, allowing her to baptize their children, even after their first child died immediately after baptism. It is also clear she deeply impressed him, even though her efforts to convert him to the Christian Faith were initially unsuccessful.

AD496. Clovis converts to Catholicism and is baptized. This is undoubtedly the single most important event of his life. A neighbouring barbarian people, the Alamans, made war against the Franks. Clovis's army was on the verge of rout in the battle. At the crucial moment he invoked the Christian God, promising to be baptized if he won. The tide turned and the Franks triumphed, killing the Alaman king. Clovis, who was not a mere political calculator, kept his word. About half his army followed his example and were baptized with him. With his conversion the war between Franks and Gallo-romans came to an end and the latter finally accepted Clovis as ruler.

AD506. Clovis defeats the Visigoths and conquers southern Gaul. The Visigoths had been the greatest of the barbarian powers that conquered the Western Roman Empire. Like most other barbarians they were Arians and had an uneasy rapport with their Catholic subjects. Intermarriage between Visigoth and Gallo-roman or Hispano-roman was forbidden and things sometimes degenerated into violent persecution. The only barbarian ruler who could fuse his people with the local inhabitants of the former Empire was Clovis, and it was his kingdom alone that in the end proved strong enough to stop the tide of Moslem conquest two centuries later. If the Visigoths - defeated with ease by the Moslems - had retained or extended their control over Gaul, it is probable Westerners would be chanting Allahu Akbar today. In any event Clovis's defeat of the Visigoths and his subsequent conquest of southern Gaul made the Franks the premier power in Europe, and it was the Frankish kingdom and its successor states that eventually became western Mediaeval Europe.

So Clovis mattered.

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