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Franks Convert to Roman Catholicism

By the late 400s, those Germans called Franks occupied an area in Gaul near the English Channel. Like the Visigoths and the Burgundians they had been federated into the Roman Empire. The Franks enjoyed singing about their past heroes, and they had many gods. They were ruled by a royal family that claimed descent from the gods. When their king died in 481, he was succeeded by his fifteen-year-old son: Clovis. When Clovis was twenty he moved with his army southward and west against other Franks, believing in himself and that he had the help of the gods. He won battles and extended his rule all the way to the river Seine, near what today is Paris. Then, intermittently, he fought more wars and enlarged his territory, assassinating, and plundering when he could, including Catholic churches.

Clovis' gains made him feared in neighboring kingdoms. An envoy that Clovis sent to the king of Burgundy told Clovis of the king's exceptionally attractive and graceful granddaughter – Clotilda. Clovis sent a representative to the king asking to marry Clotilda, and the king was afraid to refuse.

Clotilda was a believer in the Trinity and a Roman Catholic. A hundred years later, a Catholic historian, Gregory of Tours, would write that three years after Clovis and Clotilda had married, Frankish people fought a major battle near what today is Bonn, Germany, against invading Alemanni Germans. According to some modern historians, the Franks who fought the Alemanni Germans were led not by Clovis but by a king called Siegebert. At any rate, Gregory of Tours described Clovis' forces as suffering during the battle against the Alemanni and Clovis as calling on his gods for help. But no help was forthcoming.  Then, according to Gregory, Clovis "lifted his eyes up to heaven" and, "moved to tears," said:

Jesus Christ, Clotilda proclaims you the living God. You are said to give aid to those in need and to grant victory to those who have hope in You.

According to Gregory, Clovis told Christ that if he helped him he would have himself baptized in his name, and the battle then turned in Clovis' favor and Clovis defeated the Alemanni. Jesus had apparently taken an interest in Clovis' expansions and had seen in Clovis an agent in his cause. Again Jesus, according to Gregory, had become a god of war, as with the pagan Constantine almost two hundred years before.

Clovis continued to war for more territory and extended his rule as far south as Switzerland, to what today is the city of Basel, on the Rhine River just inside Switzerland. Italy's king, Theodoric, who was the elder statesman among the German kings in western continental Europe, warned Clovis to expand no farther toward Italy and no closer to the kingdoms of those Germans to whom he, Theodoric, was patron.

Meanwhile, Christian evangelists had been finding converts among Clovis' Franks. The Franks had been impressed by Christianity's association with Roman civilization, and they had no theology that rivaled that of the Christians. But despite the victory that Gregory claimed that Jesus had given him, Clovis remained unconvinced in his choice of faiths. Clovis' family was divided in religion: Clotilda's uncle (the new king of Burgundy) was an Aryan Christian; one of Clovis' sisters was an Arian Christian and married to the Arian king Theodoric; a second sister was also Arian; and a third was pagan. Clovis, the story goes, consulted those closest to him: his warriors. Then, on Christmas day – more than two years after his purported victory near Bonn – Clovis and several of his warriors were baptized Catholics. And the conversion of Clovis' subjects was soon to follow.


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