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The Life of Clovis by Gregory of Tours

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Gregory of Tours was born around 539 CE. He came from an aristocratic family in Auvergne (western France) and his ancestors included both Roman senators and wealthy landowners. They provided eighteen bishops of Tours before Geoffrey, who held the position from 573 CE until his death. Gregory wrote the History of the Franks in ten volumes: volumes 1-4 which describe their early history, and volumes 5-10 which cover their history in the sixth century CE. This selection describes the conversion of Clovis, the first king of the Franks, to Roman Catholicism at the urging of his wife, Clothild (Clothilda of Burgundy). His choice of Catholicism, rather than the rival version of Christianity called Arianism, was critical to the continued influence of Rome in the west.



This reading reveals details about two kinds of struggles that took place in western Europe following the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The first struggle was for political power -- the right to replace the Roman emperor as leader of the government and military forces. The second was for control over the religious beliefs of the inhabitants, which was linked to the first, since religion provided a guide for legal decisions, justified taxation which supported military forces, and could be used to justify a leader's right to rule over others.

The relationship between religion and government: Throughout history, leaders held their position because they possessed a source of power. One kind of power was metaphysical power, which originated outside the physical world and enabled humans to control things like nature, health, birth and death. The other kind was physical power which controlled things that humans did and, as technology improved, the characteristics of the human environment. Depending on the kind of problems that seemed most important to people, one kind of power or the other became most important. As warfare became more common, societies developed professional military leaders who were distinct from the leaders of the metaphysical world. This change began as early as 2000 BCE in Sumer (Mesopotamia), and coincided with the switch from deities of nature (i.e. the "fire god") to anthropomorphic deities like the Greek god Zeus.

Map of Merovingian France
Merovingian France

The division between physical and metaphysical power created the basis for disputes between their respective leaders. But as states grew larger, religion provided a sort of "glue" to hold them together, as long as religious and military leaders supported each other. If they did not, each type of leader could use its form of power to undermine the other. Specifically, since humans could not speak directly to deities, priests had the power to interpret the will of the deities, and they could report that the deity supported or rejected a military leader. Military leaders could offer threats and rewards, not only to ordinary people, but also to priests. The resulting balance was delicate, and subject to instability depending on the willingness of religious leaders to intervene in affairs of the physical world. It is easy to understand why leaders like Alexander of Macedonia wanted people to consider them "semi-divine" -- i.e. both physical and metaphysical -- or why leaders throughout history have claimed that "God is on our side."

By the fourth century CE, the Roman empire was in serious trouble, and religion offered a way to unify the population. Christianity was particular attractive to Roman emperors because it taught obedience to authority in both the physical and metaphysical world with verses like: Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. -- [Source: Matthew 22: 21, in The Bible, King James version]


In order to use Christianity to unify the empire, however, emperors had to make it uniform so that all religious leaders offered the same judgement about military leaders. Besides individual interpetations of the teachings of Christ, different forms of Christianity -- Arianism, Catholicism, Nazarene Christianity, Coptic Christianity, and others -- developed by the 5th century CE. To quiet doubters and suppress alternative voices ("heretical tendencies") Roman emperors called councils of religious leaders to standardize Christian doctrine. Emperor Constantine called the first imperial council at Nicaea in 325CE, and it established an imperial bureaucracy to administer the church. Rome and Constantinople became the centers of religion, the emperor gained the right to appoint "overseers" (bishops) to regulate the local clergy throughout the empire, and heresy became a form of treason. To reduce opposition from the leaders of the pre-Roman church, the emperors granted special rights to the patriarchs of five cities (called the Holy Sees): Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople in the east; and Rome in the west.

The result was unstable, however, especially after the western part of the empire fell to barbarians in the early 5th century. The city of Rome survived, but by the time of Clovis, "official" Christianity was divided between the Eastern Orthodox version that followed the doctrine of the Council of Nicaea, and a Roman version that was less accepting of the emperor's authority over religion. The patriarchs of Rome, later called "popes," became the religious leaders in the west, but as long as barbarians threatened further invasions of Rome, the patriarchs remained dependent on the eastern emperors for military assistance. Meanwhile, other Christian sects like the Arians and Copts rejected the authority of both Rome and Constantinople.

Emperor Constantine, from a 17th century tapestry by
Paul Reubens, on display at the Philadelphia Art Museum
Emperor Constantine (in red) made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century

As this reading shows, Clovis was a leader of barbarians called the Franks who lived in a world inhabited by Goths, Burgundians, Almanni and other barbarians. Early in his life, Clovis was a threat to the Roman church and attacked Roman lands that lay south of the Loire River. Clovis was not completely hostile, however, because after he and his army campaigned south of the Loire River, they returned somewhat "Romanized." For example, Clovis and his descendants (the Merovingian kings) adopted elements of Roman administration, such as the use of administrators chosen from among the people of conquered territories.


  1. Why did Clovis convert to Christianity?
  2. What rituals were used to symbolize Clovis' adoption of Christianity as his religion?
  3. What are some earlier examples of empires that used conquered leaders as administrators for their empire?
  4. Why did Clovis' soldiers loot? What role did the division of war booty serve?
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