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§ 22. Conversion of Clovis and the Franks.


Gregorius Turonensis (d. 595): Historia Francorum Eccles. (till A..D. 591).

J. W. Löbell: Gregor von Tours und seine Zeit, Leipz. 1839.

A. Thierry: Recits des temps Merovingiens. Par. 1842, 2 vols.

F. W. Rettberg: Kirchengeschichte Deutschlands. Gött. 1846, I. 258–278.

Kornhack: Geschichte der Franken unter den Merovingern. Greifsw. 1863.

Montalembert, l.c. II. 219 sqq.

Comp. also Henri Martin: Histoire de France; Sir James Stephen: Lectures on the History of France (Lond. 1859); Guizot: Histoire de la civilization en France (1830 sqq.), and his Histoire de France, 1870.


The Salian Franks were the first among the Teutonic tribes which were converted to catholic or orthodox Christianity. Hence the sovereign of France is styled by the Popes “the oldest son of the church,” and Rheims, where Clovis was baptized, is the holy city where most of the French kings down to Charles X. (1824) were consecrated.9999    With the oil of the miraculous cruise of oil (Ampulla Remensis) which, according to Hincmar, a dove brought from heaven at the confirmation of Clovis, and which was destroyed in 1794, but recovered in 1824. The conversion of the Franks prepared the way for the downfall of the Arian heresy among the other Germanic nations, and for the triumph of the papacy in the German empire under Charlemagne.

The old Roman civilization of Gaul, though nominally Christian, was in the last stage of consumption when the German barbarians invaded the soil and introduced fresh blood. Several savage tribes, even the Huns, passed through Gaul like a tempest, leaving desolation behind them, but the Franks settled there and changed Gaul into France, as the Anglo-Saxons changed Britain into England. They conquered the Gallo-Romans, cruelly spoiled and almost exterminated them in the North-Eastern districts. Before they accepted the Christianity of the conquered race, they learned their vices. “The greatest evil of barbarian government,” says Henri Martin,100100    Vol. I. p. 394, quoted by Montalembert. “was perhaps the influence of the greedy and corrupt Romans who insinuated themselves into the confidence of their new masters.” To these degenerate Christians Montalembert traces the arts of oppression and the refinements of debauchery and perfidy which the heathen Germans added to their native brutality. “The barbarians derived no advantage from their contact with the Roman world, depraved as it was under the empire. They brought with them manly virtues of which the conquered race had lost even the recollection; but they borrowed, at the same time, abject and contagious vices, of which the Germanic world had no conception. They found Christianity there; but before they yielded to its beneficent influence, they had time to plunge into all the baseness and debauchery, of a civilization corrupted long before it was vanquished. The patriarchal system of government which characterized the ancient Germans, in their relations with their children and slaves as well as with their chiefs, fell into ruin in contact with that contagious depravity.”101101    Montalembert, Vol. II. p. 230.

The conversion of the Salian Franks took place under the lead of their victorious king Chlodwig or Clovis (Ludovicus, Louis), the son of Childeric and grandson of Merovig (hence the name of Merovingians). He ruled from the year 481 to his death in 511. With him begins the history not only of the French empire, its government and laws, but also of the French nation, its religion and moral habits. He married a Christian princess, Chlotilda, a daughter of the king of the Burgundians (493), and allowed his child to be baptized. Before the critical battle at Tolbiac102102    Tolbiacum Zülpich. near Cologne against the invasion of the Allemanni, he prayed to Jesus Christ for aid after having first called upon his own gods, and promised, in case of victory, to submit to baptism together with his warriors. After the victory he was instructed by Bishop Remigius of Rheims. When he heard the story of the crucifixion of Christ, he exclaimed: “Would I had been there with my valiant Franks to avenge him!” On Christmas, in the year 496, he descended before the cathedral of Rheims into the baptismal basin, and three thousand of his warriors followed him as into the joys of paradise. “When they arose from the waters, as Christian disciples, one might have seen fourteen centuries of empire rising with them; the whole array of chivalry, the long series of the crusades, the deep philosophy of the schools, in one word all the heroism, all the liberty, all the learning of the later ages. A great nation was commencing its career in the world—that nation was the Franks.”103103    Ozanam, Etudes Germaniques, II. 54.

But the change of religion had little or no effect on the character of Clovis and his descendants, whose history is tarnished with atrocious crimes. The Merovingians, half tigers, half lambs, passed with astonishing rapidity from horrible massacres to passionate demonstrations of contrition, and from the confessional back again to the excesses of their native cruelty. The crimes of Clovis are honestly told by such saintly biographers as Gregory of Tours and Hincmar, who feel no need of any excuse for him in view of his services to religion. St. Remigius even advised the war of conquest against the Visigoths, because they were Arians.

“The Franks,” says a distinguished Catholic Frenchman,104104    Montalembert II. 235. Comp. also the graphic description of the Merovingian house in Dean Milman’s Lat. Christ., Bk. III, ch.2 (Vol. I., p. 395, Am. ed.). “were sad Christians. While they respected the freedom of the Catholic faith, and made external profession of it, they violated without scruple all its precepts, and at the same time the simplest laws of humanity. After having prostrated themselves before the tomb of some holy martyr or confessor; after having distinguished themselves by the choice of an irreproachable bishop; after having listened respectfully to the voice of a pontiff or monk, we see them, sometimes in outbreaks of fury, sometimes by cold-blooded cruelties, give full course to the evil instincts of their savage nature. Their incredible perversity was most apparent in the domestic tragedies, the fratricidal executions and assassinations, of which Clovis gave the first example, and which marked the history of his son and grandson with an ineffaceable stain. Polygamy and perjury mingled in their daily life with a semi-pagan superstition, and in reading these bloody biographies, scarcely lightened by some transient gleams of faith or humility, it is difficult to believe that, in embracing Christianity, they gave up a single pagan vice or adopted a single Christian virtue.

“It was against this barbarity of the soul, far more alarming than grossness and violence of manners, that the Church triumphantly struggled. From the midst of these frightful disorders, of this double current of corruption and ferocity, the pure and resplendent light of Christian sanctity was about to rise. But the secular clergy, itself tainted by the general demoralization of the two races, was not sufficient for this task. They needed the powerful and soon preponderating assistance of the monastic Army. It did not fail: the church and France owe to it the decisive victory of Christian civilization over a race much more difficult to subdue than the degenerate subjects of Rome or Byzantium. While the Franks, coming from the North, completed the subjugation of Gaul, the Benedictines were about to approach from the South, and super-impose a pacific and beneficent dominion upon the Germanic barbarian conquest. The junction and union of these forces, so unequal in their civilizing power, were destined to exercise a sovereign influence over the future of our country.”

Among these Benedictine monks, St. Maurus occupies the most prominent place. He left Monte Casino before the death of St. Benedict (about 540), with four companions, crossed the Alps, founded Glanfeuil on the Loire, the first Benedictine monastery in France, and gave his name to that noble band of scholars who, more than a thousand years after, enriched the church with the best editions of the fathers and other works of sacred learning.105105    The brotherhood of St. Maur was founded in 1618, and numbered such scholars as Mabillon, Montfaucon, and Ruinart. He had an interview with King Theodebert (the grandson of Clovis), was treated with great reverence and received from him a large donation of crown lands. Monastic establishments soon multiplied and contributed greatly to the civilization of France.106106    The legendary history of monasticism under the Merovingians is well told by Montalembert, II. 236-386.



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