Baptism of Clovis Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The baptism of Clovis facilitated the conversion of the pagan Germanic Franks, which eventually spread Catholicism into France and Germany.

Summary of Event

The conversion of Clovis to Christianity Christianity;conversion of Franks was one of the major events of the early Middle Ages and established a pivotal political and religious relationship between the Germanic tribe of the Franks and the Papacy. The Franks Franks;conversion to Christianity are central to much of early medieval history because they were the basis of the political and religious institutions and of the social and economic organization that distinguished the medieval world of Gaul, which became the geographic center of Charlemagne’s empire and of the subsequent principalities and kingdoms of France and Germany. [kw]Baptism of Clovis (496) [kw]Clovis, Baptism of (496) Clovis France;496: Baptism of Clovis[0030] Religion;496: Baptism of Clovis[0030] Government and politics;496: Baptism of Clovis[0030] Clovis Clotilda Gregory of Tours

The significance of Clovis’s baptism was that he converted to the Nicene faith—the belief of Roman Catholicism and eastern Byzantine Orthodoxy. Most other Germanic tribes occupying the Western Roman Empire were followers of Arian Christianity. Arianism Arianism had been condemned as a heresy Heresy;Arian at the first ecumenical council in 325 because it denied the full humanity of Jesus. The Nicene faith proclaimed the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) and declared Jesus to be both God and human. Germanic Arians included the Goths (both the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Visigoths in Spain), who were converted to Arianism by the missionary Ulfilas in the mid-fourth century; the Vandals in North Africa; the Lombards in Italy; and the Burgundians in southern Gaul. Clovis was the first important Germanic ruler to become Catholic. Others followed: The Visigoths under Recared became Catholic in 589; the Burgundians converted under Sigismund (r. 516-523); and the Lombards had a Catholic ruler, Liutprand (r. 712-744); but these groups lacked the political significance of the Franks.

In the fifth century, the Franks were probably a client state of the Romans. Frankish aid was critical in the Roman victory over the Huns in 451 near Orléans. Clovis’s father, Childeric, was a protector of the Gallo-Roman population and the Catholic Church. Clovis succeeded his father in 481 and, although a pagan, continued his father’s policies. This meant he sought to preserve friendly relations with and to seek the advice of the Church. During the 480’, Clovis extended his power into the kingdom of Soissons, defeating and killing Syagrius, the last Roman commander in Gaul. Until his death in 511, Clovis waged constant wars against the Armorican Celts in Brittany, the Thuringi in the lower Rhine, the Alamanni north of Trier, and the Burgundians.

The fundamental source for the conversion of Clovis is Historia Francorum (c. 594; The History of the Franks History of the Franks, The (Gregory of Tours) , 1927), written by Gregory of Tours Gregory of Tours a century after the event. According to Gregory, Clovis was a pagan Paganism;Franks and a plunderer of churches. Like any Germanic warrior, Clovis could be ruthless and violent. Gregory described Clovis as personally capable of splitting the head of an enemy or of anyone who demeaned his honor. Clovis worshiped Roman deities, such as Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and Mercury. He also venerated various statues made of stone, wood, or metal, and he may have adhered to certain Celtic and Scandinavian deities as well as a sea god that was part man, beast, and bull. Since the powerful Burgundians, Ostrogoths, and Visigoths were all Arian, it is possible that Clovis may have considered converting to Arianism. His Burgundian wife, Clotilda Clotilda, Saint , was Catholic, however, and had urged him to accept the Nicene faith. To his wife’s entreaties, Clovis responded that Jesus was a god who could do nothing; perhaps Jesus was not even a god at all.

The Baptism of Clovis is depicted in this woodcut from Mirouer Historial de France, printed in Paris by Galliot du Pré in 1516.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

Clotilda had their infant son baptized, but he died while still in his baptismal robes. Angry, Clovis blamed the Christian god for his son’s death. To his surprise, Clotilda accepted it and tried to assure Clovis that the boy was now in heaven. It was a difficult concept for Clovis to understand. A second son, Chlodomer, was born and baptized and also became ill. This only further convinced Clovis of the ineffectiveness of the Christian god, but the child recovered because of Clotilda’s prayers, according to Gregory.

Clovis’s war with the Alamanni had decimated both armies. In desperation Clovis now turned to Christ, calling on him to aid the Franks in battle. Only with victory, as a sign and proof of the existence and favor of Christ, would Clovis accept baptism. The Franks won the Battle of Tolbac, and Clovis informed Clotilda that he would be baptized. With the urging of Clotilda, Clovis received secret religious instruction from the bishop Remigius of Reims Remigius of Reims . Secrecy was important because Clovis was not sure of the support of his troops for such a change. Gregory glossed over the difficulty by having the Frankish leaders already willing to accept their own and the king’s baptism. On Christmas Day in 496 (though 498 or even 506 is possible), Clovis was baptized in Reims by Bishop Remigius. Gregory portrayed Remigius as a learned and holy man who performed miracles and even raised a man from the dead, thereby underscoring the centrality of the Resurrection to Christianity. Three thousand Frankish warriors followed the example of their king and were baptized. Clovis affirmed the Nicene creed by accepting the Holy Trinity and by marking the holy chrism (oil) with the sign of the cross. A sister, Albofled, was also baptized. Although she died soon after, Clovis’s faith held. A second sister later converted from Arianism.

Clovis’s conversion made the cult of Saint Martin of Tours Martin of Tours, Saint a central part of the religious faith of the Franks. Born around the year 316 in Pannonia (Hungary), Martin was a Roman soldier who gave half of his cloak to a beggar. His remaining half became a sacred relic of Frankish kings. Martin was in the tradition of ascetic hermits, a holy man who attracted followers and preached in central and western Gaul. In 371, he was made bishop of Tours, and though he continued to live in a solitary cell, he did travel, even as far as Rome, to defend Orthodoxy. At first the cult and monasticism of Martin did not extend much beyond the Loire River, yet Clovis was attracted to this soldier who had become an ascetic, a defender of the Nicene faith, and an administrator of a bishopric. Because of Clovis, the cult of Martin spread to Paris, Chartres, Rouen, and other cities throughout the Frankish lands. In Gregory’s History of the Franks, Martin and Clovis are the two pivotal figures defining Christianity in Frankish Gaul—France and Germany (now). Clovis founded the Church of the Apostles in Paris, later called Sainte-Genviève.


For Gregory, Clovis was another Constantine the Great, a pagan warrior who converted to the true faith and brought that faith to his people. As a Catholic, Clovis could also justify new wars against the heretical Arian Burgundians and Goths in Gaul. Although Gregory chronicled the bloody events and brutality of Clovis, which included the elimination of family rivals and even his expressed regret that he no longer had living relatives to kill, he still described Clovis as one who did what was pleasing to God, because Catholicism had become the official faith of the Franks.

Gregory does imply that Clovis’s faith rested on the belief that Jesus was a powerful god who could aid the Franks in battle. It is not even certain whether Clovis became a strict monotheist. The consequences of the conversion, however, were immense. Unlike other Arian Germanic tribes, who stood apart from the indigenous Catholic populace, the Franks and the Gallo-Romans were not separated by religion. This allowed for a greater assimilation between the two peoples. Clovis’s wars could also marshal the support of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy, particularly of those who remained under Arian domination. The conversion had therefore an important political dimension in that it was part of Clovis’s political challenge against the Burgundians and the Visigoths at Toulouse.

It also helped Clovis obtain the support of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius Anastasius (Byzantine emperor) , whose fleets prevented the Ostrogoths from aiding the Visigoths in their conflict with the Franks. Anastasius also bestowed on Clovis the honorific title of consul. Clovis probably hoped for an imperial title, because he is described as having appeared at the Cathedral of Saint Martin of Tours dressed in purple and wearing a crown. The conversion permitted a closer political and working relationship with the Merovingian bishops, many of whom were of noble birth and whose families controlled bishoprics such as Paris, Tours, and Sens. Clovis

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Peter. “Relics and Social Status in the Age of Gregory of Tours.” In Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. An important analysis of religious attitudes among the Franks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fletcher, R. A. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Looks at the history of the development of Christianity in pagan Europe during the time of Clovis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geary, Patrick. Before France and Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. A study of society in Merovingian Gaul.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregory of Tours. The History of the Franks. Translated by L. Thorpe. New York: Penguin Books, 1974. The fundamental source for the reign of Clovis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacMullen, Ramsay. Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Surveys the relationship between paganism and the Christian world in the time of Clovis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Frankish Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. An important study of the Frankish church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wallace-Hadrill, J. M. The Long-Haired Kings. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1962. The standard study of early Frankish history.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Middle Ages</i>

Charlemagne; Saint Clotilda; Fredegunde; Gregory of Tours.

Categories: History