Celebrating Christmas… in the sixth century

On Christmas day 508, a Roman patrician and consul was baptised at Reims. He however was not a Roman in the traditional sense – he was instead a ‘barbarian’ king, a ruler who had, amongst other things, been recorded as personally bashing in his subordinates’ and his prisoners’ heads with an axe. He was of course Clovis I, king of the Franks and whose reign allowed the Merovingian dynasty to dominate Gaul for the next two centuries. Yet this barbarous man was also a consul, a title granted by Emperor Anastasius I of Constantinople as part of a Roman strategy to draw the Franks into a war against the Visigoths. The war was won in 507 and by 508 Clovis was the dominant force in Gaul, giving him the opportunity to put on a show in order to publicly demonstrate his commitment to his new faith. At this point I should probably add that although being baptised was important, Clovis may well have converted to Christianity years earlier, perhaps in 506. Regardless of the king’s actual beliefs, which we can probably never recover, this moment was memorialised by two important writers. One, the contemporary Avitus of Vienne, had this to say:

Therefore let Greece, to be sure, rejoice in having an orthodox ruler, but she is no longer the only one to deserve so great a gift. Now her bright glory adorns your part of the world also, and in the West, in the person of a new king, the ray of an age-old light shines forth. It is fitting that it began to shine on the birthday of our Redeemer, so that the vivifying water appropriately gave birth to you in your salvation on the very day when the world received the Lord of Heaven born for its redemption. On the day on which the birthday of our Lord is celebrated, let yours be too – the day on which Christ was born to the world, and you to Christ, the day on which you consecrated your soul to God, your life to those present, and your reputation to posterity.

Clovis was compared here with the emperor in Constantinople as another champion of ‘orthodoxy’ – no longer was there just an eastern Roman princeps, but a western one too. This played well into the wider ideological context of the time, as the ‘Arian’ king of Italy, Theodoric the Great, was also being proclaimed by his subjects as a new princeps and augustus, a ruler more akin to Trajan and Valentinian than our traditional image of a ‘barbarian’ king. Clovis was essentially portrayed as the ‘orthodox’ alternative to the ‘heretical’ princeps Theodoric. For the briefest of moments in the early sixth century, two men who may well have been seen as new emperors of the west ruled next to each other, eyeing each other up and bolstering their own legitimacy by drawing upon their Roman heritage, Little wonder then that Avitus praised Clovis to the skies, urging the new Christian king to send missionaries to foreign peoples, thus inaugurating a new golden age for the people of Gaul.

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A medieval interpretation of Clovis I’s baptism

Gregory of Tours’ account from many decades later is the more famous one and he was similarly effusive in his praise for Clovis:

Like some new Constantine, he stepped forward to the baptismal pool, ready to wash away the sores of his leprosy and to be cleansed in flowing water from the sordid stains which he had borne so long.

Gregory’s narrative was however written much later in the late sixth century, when the baptism had been transformed by legends into something else altogether and instead placed in 496, 12 years before when it actually happened. I still think that his words were representative of Clovis’ time though, as the bishop of Tours also noted that thousands of his men had converted with the king as well. As Clovis was both a capable warlord and a pseudo-emperor in his own right, Gregory’s comparison between him and Constantine I was a particularly apt one, a comparison that captured the full sense of imperial legacy Clovis and his descendants inherited; orthodoxy was important, but so was military power. This universalising tendency of the imperial ideology can effectively be summarised as ‘one God, one empire, one emperor’. We know very little about Clovis’ motivations, but I would suggest that his actions at this point played into this ideal perfectly.

91 years after Clovis’ baptism, another mass baptism took place, this time in Canterbury. We know this because Pope Gregory the Great wrote a letter to his friend the patriarch of Alexandria, Eulogius, in 598 describing the events of the previous year – the bishop of Rome had dispatched missionaries to the kingdom of Kent and within months this small group of Roman monks found success:

He [St Augustine of Canterbury and the leader of this mission] and those who crossed over with him are ablaze with such great miracles among the same race [the Anglo-Saxons], that they seem to be imitating the virtues of the apostles with the proofs that they provide. And in the solemnity of our Lord’s nativity, which was celebrated during this first indiction, it was reported that our brother and fellow-bishop baptised more than ten thousand English.

The pope was naturally jubilant at the news and seemingly could not wait to tell his friend in Egypt about it. The truth was of course more complicated, as the king of Kent had perhaps invited Roman missionaries to England because he wanted to be converted by them rather than by the Franks (an act that would place him further into their debt), and Gregory no doubt exaggerated the numbers involved to impress Eulogius, but it was still a significant moment nonetheless. By converting the Anglo-Saxons, a new people joined the Christian Roman commonwealth, and much like Clovis and his admirers, Gregory urged the king and his queen to act like Constantine and Helena, the first Christian emperor’s mother. The next sentence in the letter is particularly illustrative:

I described this so that you would know what you achieve by speaking to the people of Alexandria, and what you achieve through your prayer, at the edge of the world. For your prayers are at a place where you are not present, and their holy operations are revealed in a place without you.

Though England and Egypt were separated by an entire continent, they were now united by their common faith. Gregory saw not a divided world, but instead proclaimed a sense of Christian unity. The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, just as Clovis’ conversion did nine decades earlier for Avitus, led to Gregory hoping for a better future, in which kings would rule justly and restore the world to rights. For him, the Roman order was still alive and well, and his success in England represented a victory not just for the church, but for the Roman world as a whole. In the words of the historian Peter Sarris:

With the encouragement of Bertha [the Frankish queen of Kent], Æthelberht accepted baptism into the Catholic faith. Gregory took special care to remind him that the religion he was embracing was that of the Emperor Constantine and of the Roman state, whilst the Pope informed the queen that news of her husband’s conversion had even reached the ears of the Emperor Maurice. In accepting Christ, Æthelberht had thus acquired membership of a political commonwealth of Catholic monarchs that radiated outwards from the city of Byzantium.

Even in the depths of the ‘Dark Ages’, Christmas was a great deal more than just a religious festival. Though the two events I described here were deeply political in nature, it is still evident that all the authors involved saw them as the dawn of a new age, when Christian faith and goodwill would triumph over their enemies. Of course, their hopes would be dashed by wars and turmoil in the decades following these two baptisms, but I find this mutual sense of hope a fascinating one. In more ways than one, Christmas meant a new beginning, shaping the course of European history and, perhaps more importantly, providing evidence for how their sense of Romanness was transformed in the sixth century – when else would such ideologically potent moments occur but on Christmas day?

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