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The Baptism of a Barbarian: Clovis the Frank

During the third and fourth centuries, the Franks were mere bands of marauders, always beaten and put to flight, but always collecting again. They had settled in the much-favoured land of northern France at least as early as the beginning of the fifth century, when Rome had been compelled to withdraw the legions from the defence of the Rhine, and had left the Gauls (like the Britons) to protect themselves.

Gradually and somewhat rapidly these Franks became something like a nation. Ferocious and careless of life, they knew no fear, and loved fighting for fighting's sake. The true Franks let their hair grow to its full length and fall over their shoulders; in battle they managed to pack it under their helmets.

Now everywhere the Barbarians fought under chieftains or the strongest soldiers, and in time these chieftains became princes and kings. The first king of the Franks, after they had settled in northern France, was called Clovis.

Looked at from our modern standpoint, Clovis was "a monster of wickedness -- cruel, false, relentless, sparing none in his wrath, and with a certain wild beast's joy in bloodshed."

But on Clovis his Christian wife, Clotilda, never ceased to exercise an influence for good. In time a child was born to the pair. There was an heir to the throne. "Christ claims him," said Clotilda, and Clovis acknowledged the claim. So the babe was brought to the font of a cathedral, decked out for the ceremony with all imaginable splendour. Alas! the child had scarcely been stripped of his baptismal robe before the little heart stopped beating, and he was gone. "It's his baptism that was the death of him," cried the king in his wrath. "Had I but given him to those old gods of mine he would have been alive now!"

Next year another son was born. Unshaken in her faith, Clotilda claimed that he, too, should be baptized. Again, after the child had been admitted into the Christian Church, he began to sicken. "He, too, will die as his brother did," growled Clovis brutally. But he did not die; he recovered, and grew strong.

Then came the great crisis in the life of Clovis (496). In the critical moment of a battle with his enemies, he had called upon Clotilda's God for victory, and swore that he himself would be baptized if God heard his prayer. The victory was his, and Clovis kept his promise. It was a hard promise to keep. Nothing can better show how great was the influence which the barbarian conqueror exercised over those wild warriors, than that they joined him by the thousand in renouncing the old gods. Soon Clovis became the greatest barbarian conqueror in Europe at that time.

The year before he died he paid his last visit to the famous city of Tours, whose great bishop, known as Gregory of Tours, wrote the history of these times. The emperor, now living not at Rome but at Constantinople, sent ambassadors to Clovis with gifts of a purple robe, a mantle, and a golden crown enriched with precious stones, and in their master's name they greeted him as a consul. Clovis then rode through the streets of Tours, scattering handfuls of gold as he went along, the people welcoming him as "Consul" and "Augustus!" He passed into the great church, and there he gave a public audience. Then he rendered thanks to God for the victories he had won. Next year he died at Paris (511); he was but forty-five years of age.