c. 400 to 486 CE
We review the sources for the reign of Clovis the First, and review the scenario in northern Gaul when he came to power.
Today is the first episode of our discussion of Clovis the First, the first king of the united Franks and the first of the Merovingian dynasty of France. He was a contemporary of Theodoric the Great and the first Catholic king of a Germanic kingdom.
Now, when I started the series on Theodoric, I had no idea it would stretch out to eight episodes. The more I read, the more unfolded; more detail, more characters, more facets of Theodoric’s personality and reign to uncover. With Clovis, if I’m honest, I’ve had the opposite experience. There’s just not really that much available to us, and what there is kind of collapses into itself under close scrutiny. Unlike Theodoric, who became more complex and three dimensional the more I read, Clovis remains, to me, more caricature than character. Obviously I’ll do my best to bring out what I can; there are certainly stories that are entertaining and illuminating and worth telling, but I very much doubt it will stretch across nearly four hours like Theodoric’s series did.
The problem, you won’t be surprised to know, is the source materials. There aren’t many, and they aren’t much. The plan for today is to talk about the sources we have, going into some detail about one of them, and then do a quick recap of the situation in Northern Gaul to refresh all our memories. The last time we talked about it was way back in episode 18 of last season, I believe. That way we can talk about Clovis’ predecessors, and we’ll be able to bring the man himself on stage toward the end, with a famous story that illuminates something about his personality and his role.
First let’s meet our narrators, the handful of voices to take us through the haze of the early Frankish kings. There are essentially three chronicles that are relevant: the Chronicle of Fredegar, the Liber Historiae Francorum, and Gregory of Tours. On top of that are a couple of ecclesiastical letters that I’ll talk more about when they come up.
We start with Gregory of Tours, because as we’ll see, everything starts with Gregory. He’s both the earliest and most important chronicler of the first century of the Merovingian kings. Gregory was born in around 539, into an important family in the Auvergne, that region of central France that has already had such a high profile in our narrative. The details of Gregory’s life mainly come to us from his own pen. While personally very self-effacing, he was proud of his family lineage. Both sides of his family had held senatorial rank under the empire, and pretty much monopolized the bishoprics of the region through the 6th century. There was a long family tradition of both civil and ecclesiastical service, so it came as no surprise to anyone when Gregory was ordained as a deacon in 563 at the age of 25. Ten years later he was elected to replace the late bishop of Tours (who had also been his cousin). He was the 19th bishop of Tours, and would hold the position for 21 years, up until his death at age 55.
France at the time was ruled by the Merovingian kings, sometimes called the long-haired kings, the descendents of Clovis. The Merovingians are a tangled web riven by instability thanks to their habit of dividing the kingdom among multiple sub-kings who were always at each other’s throats. In an atmosphere of pretty much constant violence among the civil authorities, the bishops stood apart as exemplars of Christian principles. It is of course possible to take that characterization too far. In addition to their spiritual responsibilities, bishops were substantial landowners, which automatically inserted them into politics. They also saw themselves as bulwarks against heresy and heathenry, which sometimes led to conflict with the secular aristocracy. A bishop in Merovingian France bore both great power and great responsibility. It’s easy to be cynical about them, but in the brutal world of early medieval France, bishops often are the only authorities that show even a shadow of compassion or concern for principles of morality. They were also often the most stable authority figures, as they were much less likely to die in battle, and it was much more difficult for a hostile king or lord to dispose or dispose of them than their secular counterparts.
Gregory’s bishopric at Tours was a metropolitan see, meaning that Gregory had some authority over other bishops within his remit, almost an archbishop, though not quite. So in addition to his responsibilities to his home churches, he had responsibilities for Le Mans, Rennes, Angers, Nantes, and four other sees, kind of in the Northwest part of France, between the Loire and Brittany. Gregory was popular in his diocese, and had a reputation across most of France for learning and piety. In Tours, he was in a position to be well informed of goings on all over the kingdom(s). The city is a major port on the Loire and five old Roman roads converged there. Thanks to both his physical position and his official one, Gregory knew everyone and was known by just about everyone. He hosted visitors from abroad frequently, and so received information from sources as far away as Armenia and Antioch. The secular rule of Tours passed through the hands of four different kings or regents during his lifetime, and Gregory was familiar, if not always friendly, with all of them and worked as a diplomat for several.
Often sickly, and apparently quite short of stature, Gregory had a big heart that comes through in his writing. He tends to downplay his own role in stories that he clearly is telling from first hand experience, and not in the formulaic humble-brag kind of way. There is compassion for the citizens under his care, especially the children, and allows his own emotions to peek through here and there. And he wrote quite a bit, with eleven works that are known to us, nine of which survive. Among them are histories of the church fathers, books of miracles, a life of Saint Martin, and the one we’re interested in, the Decem Libri Historiarum – Ten Books of History, which is more commonly known as the Historiae Francorum, the History of the Franks. It’s pretty much the closest we can get to a contemporary source for the early Frankish kings and Clovis – Clovis having died 50 years or so before Gregory became bishop.
As a writer, Gregory is a breath of fresh air compared to many of his contemporaries. His prose moves right along and he has a sense of humor that sneaks up on you. His basic theory of history is where the title of this episode comes from. “A great many things keep happening, some Good, some Bad.” It’s hard to argue with his analysis.
As a historian,Gregory is an exemplary researcher. He lets us know about his sources, when he is unsure of a story, he tells us so, when he is using an oral history told to him by another, he makes a note. He set himself the task of figuring out who the first king of the Franks was, and drills into his sources with precision and admirable rigor to arrive at what was at the time a reasonable guess. Maddeningly, most of the sources he lists are lost to us, and quite a few of them aren’t referenced in any other works. Their citation in Gregory is all we’ve got. The joys of Dark Ages research, eh?
Though Gregory’s skills could pay his post-Roman bills, he was still limited by the circumstances of his time. The further from Tours we get, in time or in space, the more likely it is that Gregory leads us astray. Or, more correctly, the more Gregory is himself led astray. We can at least have the comfort of knowing that he’s not doing it intentionally. That’s not to say he doesn’t have an agenda, there are times when faced with multiple interpretations, he chooses the one that fits his narrative rather than the one that’s more likely. But then we all do that, don’t we? Nor is he immune from mistakes. He’s not great at chronology, for example, just about every time he gives a year that can be cross referenced with something else, Gregory is the one that has it wrong.
As an aside, this is fascinating to me that he could have had so much difficulty reconstructing events that had been so relatively recent. To put it into a personal context, Clovis’ death was to Gregory as temporally distant as Marylyn Monroe’s death is to me. Not that big a gap, is what I’m saying, yet Gregory seems to have only slightly less trouble unearthing the facts of the early Frankish rulers than we do. It would be like me not being able to find out when The Seven Year Itch came out. This is what I mean when I call the period the Dark Ages: it’s hard to see.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time on Gregory’s biography because he’s going to be with us for quite a while, and because as I said, he’s pretty much all we’ve got for these early kings. The other sources for the period largely use him as the foundation on which they build their own narratives.
Such as the Chronicle of Fredegar. Look, not all segues are seamless and perfect.
The Fredegar Chronicle was written (or compiled) in the 7th century, probably in Burgundy, by an unknown author or authors. The name Fredegar wasn’t attached to the book until the 16th century, so as far as we can tell, Fredegar as a person is fictional. The oldest surviving manuscript was made in 715, and is known as the Codex Clermontanus. It’s currently roommates with the treasure of Childeric at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. There are about 30 manuscripts known to exist in total, and they’re all a little different. Like a lot of books, it’s a thing of many parts, with chunks of other works reproduced within its pages, along with its own chronicle, which in the Clermontanus runs up until 658, in other manuscripts more material has been added. Gregory’s History is reproduced at length, and added to and changed around a bit in some interesting ways, which I will mention whenever they cross the interest threshold.
The Fredegar Chronicle has been digitized by the Library of Congress here.
In spite of the relative plethora of manuscripts, I looked high and low but have been unable to find an English translation of the Fredegar chronicle. There is one edition that includes only the fourth book, which covers years much after what we’re interested in here, and is stupid expensive. So unlike Gregory, which I have sitting next to me right now, I’m forced to rely on what other, more learned people can tell me about Fredegar. Also unlike Gregory, It’s impossible to be definitive about the Fredegar Chronicle’s author, since as I mentioned it’s a later, invented attribution.
Last among our main sources we have the Liber Historiae Francorum, the Book of the History of the Franks. This is another anonymous author, working in the 8th century, which is a shame, because a bunch of interesting things start to appear in the Historia. Whoever wrote it is again pretty dependent on Gregory’s work for the early history of the Franks and their Merovingian kings, there just wasn’t a lot of chronicling going on at the time, and certainly nothing that even comes close to the depth and detail of Gregory’s history. The Historiae, though, has a very clear agenda. The people who know about these things say that whoever wrote it seems to have been of a more secular mindset, and very class conscious. THere’s a clear agenda to bolster the legitimacy of the Merovingian Dynasty, but emphasizes the importance of consultation between kings and their great lords. In other words, it has an aristocratic, rather than monarchist or ecclesiastical bias. The Historiae adds details to stories that Gregory told to make them sexier, for want of a better term.
It really does all come back to Gregory of Tours, though. In spite of his problems with dates, he really is very close to being the only source we have for the Clovis and the rulers immediately preceding and succeeding. (In the interests of completeness, there are two other chronicles of about the same period. Together they make about twenty five pages in modern translation, so, not what you’d call sweeping epics.)
So much for sources. Let’s review and set the scene. Exterior day, northern Gaul. The camera sweeps down from space to the earth, settling over the lower Rhine, around the year 400. The land is dominated by the Franks, a Germanic people, probably not new to the area, but a confederation of the tribes who had always lived there and raided back and forth across the great river, and been the subject of Roman punitive expeditions for generations. Like everyone else along the frontiers, they traded, raided, and made deals with the Romans. Some have been settled on land on the west side of the Rhine, these are the Salian Franks. On the other side, the wild side, are the Riparian Franks. If you look closely, you can see Lou Reed over there, inviting you to take a walk.
Some Franks find high office in the military machinery of Rome; others join with their Saxon neighbors and launch seaborn raids and piratical expeditions along the narrow seas.
There is a story among some Franks that they are descended from Trojan refugees, just like the Romans, and once were united under a single king from a city in Panonia called Sicambria. They were given the name Franks by a Roman emperor in honor of their ferocity in battle. None of that story is true, but it helps to forge the smaller tribes of lower Germania into a larger unit.
When chaos overtakes the empire, the Franks are in the mix. Some fight against Aetius for influence in Gaul, then join him to face the threat of the Huns. Others are swept up in Attila’s army, and fight their cousins in the battle of the Catalaunian Fields. Chaos in Gaul creates danger and opportunities for the Franks, like all the other tribes we’ve talked about.
Among the Salian Franks a warlord named Chlodio emerged, and engaging in the age-old dance of contract re-negotiation with the Roman powers, seized Cambrai and made it his seat of power. His power may have extended as far south as the Somme, but very little is specifically known about him. Whether Chlodio was the root of the Merovingian dynasty isn’t clear, though according to Gregory, many believed he was, in some indirect way. The real root of the family is Merovech, whence Merovingian, and his origin story is much more exciting and maddening in the way that only early medieval history can be.
Gregory mentions Merovich only once, to note that he was Childeric’s father (and therefore Clovis’ grandfather. The Fredegar Chronicle has a more interesting tale to tell, if interesting is the right word. According to this version, Chlodio had a wife, and she went bathing in the sea. While in the waves, she was approached by “the beast of Neptune that resembles a quinotaur”. There’s no further description of what actually happened then, but according to the chronicle it was uncertain whether Merovech was Chlodio’s son or that of the sea-creature.
Okay, a few things to pull out of this. First, “resembles a quinotaur”. “Quinotaur” does not appear in any other source that I’ve been able to find, this is the only mention of it, so why are we using it as a point of comparison? The word itself suggests a bull with five horns, but it’s definitely a nautical critter – beast of neptune and all. Help a guy out, Fredegar, please. Spoilers, he will not.
So we have a king that may be descended from some kind of sea monster, which the definitely Christian Fredegar ties to the Roman God Neptune. This is in a way consistent with the kings’ genealogies among other Germanic people, which often extended back to some god. Most often the god was Woden, Odin, or his equivalent. In the Goths’ case, if you remember that far back, the Amals traced their line back to a god called Gaut or Gautaz, and they held onto that idea long after the conversion to Christianity, coming down to us through Jordanes. What’s different here is that the Merovingians aren’t descended from a god, but from a monster. The bull motif too is very common in Greco-Roman mythologies, Zeus’ rape of Europa in the form of a bull and the birth of the minotaur being the ones that spring to the top of one’s mind. So what we have here is a synthesis of a Greco-Roman mythical tradition with a Germanic one, rendered for us in church latin. Could be a metaphor for the whole era.
Out of what was undoubtedly a traumatic experience for the poor queen came Merovech, who might have spent some time in Rome, might have been adopted by Aetius, might have been one of the Frankish warriors who faced Attila in 451, might might might might might. He did certainly have a son of his own, Childeric, whose grave goods we have already taken a look at back in episode 16 of last season, Speaking Frankly. One thing that I didn’t mention about that grave, because I didn’t know it yet, later excavations of the site turned up the bones of a number of horses that had been killed and arranged around Childeric’s grave. That both further confirms that the grave belonged to a high-ranking individual, and indicates that the occupant of the grave was resolutely pagan. We know very little about Frankish paganism, but we know that no Christians anywhere were sacrificing horses in their funeral services. There will be much more to say about religion and its relationship with Clovis’ family later on, so clip and save.
Gregory has only spotty information about Childeric, and it doesn’t really add up to a coherent story. Childeric fought a battle at Orleans, presumably against the Visigoths. Meanwhile, a group of Saxons arrived at Angers, led by someone called Odoacer. Whether this is the Odoacer who went on to fame in Italy is probably unkowable. I personally am skeptical. About this time plague appeared in Gaul and carried off Aegidius, who you may remember had served Majorian as commander in Gaul, and refused to recognize Ricimer’s puppet emperor. Aegidius’ death opened up a power vacuum, with multiple players scrambling to fill it. Odoacer took hostages from Angers, the Goths attacked Britons under Riothamus and drove them away from Bourges, but were then defeated by a Roman commander named Paul. Paul’s army was a combination of both Romans and Franks. It seems that some kind of battle took place near Angers between Romans and Saxons, in which Paul was killed. Childeric slid into Angers and claimed it, while Roman command passed to Aegidius’ son Syagrius.
I will wait for a second so that you can mop up that nosebleed.
None of this makes a huge amount of sense. It’s a string of events with only the loosest of connective tissue. It’s not really clear whether Childeric was operating on behalf of the Romans, Franks, or whether he was an independent contractor, though the balance of the evidence seems to point toward independence. He may have commanded troops under Aegidius in the Roman chain of command before setting out on his own. About the most we can say about the 460s in northern Gaul is that it was at the mercy of a bunch of roving warbands, whose allegiances and interests changed with the winds. Some of them could claim to be upholding Roman rule, with or without the actual sanction of Roman authorities, while others were busy looking out for number one. It’s also clear that these war bands were not strictly ethnic entities. Some Franks were perfectly prepared to fight alongside Romans or Saxons, and under Roman commanders when circumstances dictated. It was a situation familiar to us from the life of Saint Severinus, with the cities probably still under the nominally Roman control of Aegidius and then Syagrius, with the countryside at the mercy of the barbarian bands.
Article on Childeric’s treasure with additional information on its symbolic use by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Childeric seems to have taken control of a significant force of Franks as Aegidius struggled to keep some kind of control over the north. Established at Tournai, Fredegar tells us that he was approached by Basina, the queen of the Thuringians. She explained that she desired to be wed to the strongest man available, and so had abandoned her husband to come and marry Childeric. On their wedding night she sent him to look outside, where he saw the symbols of their future descendents. At first there were lions, then leopards, unicorns, then wolves and bears, and finally dogs. The marriage story appears in Gregory, the animal vision does not. It’s part of a long tradition of framing the Merovingian story as one of continuous decline. We can’t know how much of any of this is true (though I’m pretty sure there weren’t unicorns out there stealing the leftover wedding cake) but it fits in broad strokes with archaeological and other evidence.
A silver ladle found in the Thuringian city of Weimar bears the name Basena, and the Roman and byzantine jewelry and coins found in Chlderic’s grave speak to a relationship with Rome on some level, but his exact position and the real outline of his life are impossible to see with any kind of real clarity.
There is one other contemporary source besides Gregory who may be able to give us the final word on Childeric’s real significance. The bishop of Rheims (which as an anglophone I am genetically incapable of pronouncing correctly, but I do try), named Remigius, wrote a congratulatory letter to Clovis when he succeeded his father Childeric. He congratulates Clovis on taking over his father’s position in Belgica Secunda, the territory encompassing Rheims, Soissons, Cambrai, Tournai, Amiens, Boulogne.
And with that, we finally arrive at the ostensible subject of this episode, Clovis. Historians debate about the dating of that letter. Are we surprised? No we are not. The choices are either 481 or 486. Childeric is believed to have died in 481, while Syagrius was defeated and driven from his seat at Soissons in 486. This is how it goes with Clovis, everything is up for debate and interpretation.
What is clear is that Bishop Remigius thought of Clovis’s authority still in terms of Roman provincial divisions, which may be significant. It also is clear that as of the time of the letter’s writing, Clovis followed his ancestral paganism. Remigius insists that in spite of that, Clovis should take the advice of the Christian clerics of his realm. We have to assume that Childeric operated under similar conditions, since his own fighting forces were probably just as religiously heterogeneous as they were ethnically.
It’s all a real mess, isn’t it? I’m sorry about that. Let’s introduce Clovis a little more fully and see if we can sort things out and leave on a note of something that sounds like clarity.
Clovis, son of Childeric and Basina, took over the leadership of the Salian Franks, presumably on the death of his father. He was probably in his late teens at the time. His name, in his native language, would have been something like Hlodovik, a word which would gradually morph through latinization and then natural evolution into the names Ludwig, Ludovic, and Louis. That native language, by the way, Frankish, probably is the most direct ancestor of Dutch. Some Frankish words made their way into French, but fewer than you might imagine, it remained firmly Latin at its core. Remind me to do an episode on language sometime. It’ll probably kill me, but I’ll give it the old college try.
Clovis made it clear right away that, like Lancelot, he would stick to his idiom. He and his men raided out from Tournai, striking at the tottering but still rich Roman towns around them. As a war leader, Clovis’ role was to increase his prestige and enrich his followers, and Clovis played his role, ruthless both with his targets and keeping his men in line.
And that brings us to probably the most famous story about Clovis. A story that all French school children know, where we ask and answer the question: “Qui a cassé la vase de Soissons?”
The Franks attacked Soissons in a raid, broke into the city with little difficulty and stripped it of its riches. The greatest bulk of those riches, obviously, came from the church. Among that booty there was a large vessel, a vase or ewer, of exceptionally fine workmanship and unusual size. The bishop of Soissons sent a messenger to Clovis. He did not begrudge the Franks the spoils that were the right of any victor, but he asked if Clovis might return the vase, as a special favor. Clovis was willing, but his power was not absolute. When his army gathered to divide the loot, Clovis asked them if they would agree to give him the vase in addition to his own customary share of the treasure. Almost all shouted their agreement, saying that all they had belonged to him anyway, they could not refuse his request. But one man held out. He said that it was customary to divide the loot equally, and that custom must be observed, he would not surrender his part. So saying, he took the vase and threw it on the ground, where it shattered.
Clovis seemed unmoved. He ordered the broken pieces gathered up and returned to Soissons, presumably with a note of apology.
Some time later, Clovis ordered his men to assemble and lined them up for an inspection. He examined each man’s gear, working his way down the line until he came to the man who had broken the vase. This man he berated. His shield was cracked, his clothes were dirty, his ax was a rusted disgrace. Clovis seized the offending weapon and threw it on the ground. When the warrior bent to pick it up, Clovis raised his own ax and split the man’s skull. “Just as you did to my vase in Soissons,” he growled before moving on.
Qui a cassé la vase de Soissons? Un guerrier franc a cassé la vase de Soissons.
The story shows us the change that had been working its way through the Germanic war bands. An egalitarian structure is giving way to the unquestioned authority of the leader. Clovis lines up his men for inspection like a Roman army, and holds their lives in his hands. On the other hand, he dared not claim the vase for himself without consulting with them first, and had the whole exchange not been witnessed beforehand, I doubt he could have executed the offender without consequence. Over the course of his life and reign, Clovis would slide along the scale from barbarian warband leader toward medieval king. Over the course of these episodes, we’ll track that slide, and talk about what that change meant.
Many thanks to all of you for your patience. I know I haven’t been very regular about getting episodes out. Part of that has been illness, both my own and others, part of it has just been the usual busyness of the end of the school year coming up. Valid as those reasons may be, it doesn’t keep me from feeling guilty when I don’t get an episode out every two weeks, and two episodes in two months is just unacceptable. Not much more I can say about that other than make my apologies, yet again.
The next episode will come out when it comes out, I’m not going to make any predictions or promises about it, other than it will be about the early career of Clovis, probably up to his conversion to Catholic Christianity, a pivotal moment in the history of the West, maybe we’ll use it as an opportunity to talk about the state of religion in general, who knows.
I haven’t been very good about answering emails. If you’ve sent me a message through the website, know that I read all of them, and will get back on the answering horse soon. Special thanks to the folks who have supported the podcast on ko-fi.com: to Scott, other Scott, Alex, and to a clutch of lovely reviews that have come in on the Apps. Thank you all for the encouragement, in all of its forms, and for listening.
Until next time then, take care.
Collins, Roger. 1991. Early Medieval Europe, 300-1000. N.p.: St. Martin’s Press.
Gregory of Tours. 1974. The History of the Franks. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. London: Penguin Books.
James, Edward. 1988. The Franks. N.p.: B. Blackwell.
Wood, Ian. 1994. The Merovingian Kingdoms: 450-751. London: Longman Group UK.