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On or about Christmas Day, 1996, the ultra-right or ultra-nationalist but definitely ultra-French politico Jean-Marie LePen and his supporters celebrated the fifteen-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Catholic France. According to Gregory of Tours (writing  roughly a century after the event), the Merovingian King Clovis was baptized by St. Remigius (Rémy) at Rheims on 25 December 496. Unlike his Visigothic foes to the South in Spain (whom he would trounce at Vouillé in 507), and the Ostrogoths of  Northern Italy, Clovis passed directly from paganism into Orthodoxy without an intermediate Arian phase. (Arians did not subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, but believed that Jesus, as a created being, partook of a lesser divinity.)  This made Clovis the only Catholic ruler in Christendom other than the Eastern Emperor in Byzantium, and it made France the senior Catholic state in Western Europe.

But of course there was no France in 496. Clovis may have been a king, and he may have advanced his borders to include most of what we call France. But his sons adopted the title Rex Francorum, King of the Franks, and in 496 the Franks were a minority population in France, which was still largely known by its earlier name, Gaul. It is nowadays conventional to speak of 'Francia' as the region controlled by the Rex Francorum of the moment until the about the reign of Philip I (1060-1108), under whom the long, post-Carolingian decline of the monarchy was stopped. Philip's lifetime struggle was to secure the castellany of Montlhéry, on the road between Paris and Orléans, in order to control the Ile-de France, the small heart of France. Half a millennium earlier, Clovis was the military chief of an amorphous collection of towns, then run by their bishops, and rural areas, more of a policeman than a monarch. His descendants would variously rule three distinct regions, Neustria, Austrasia, and Burgundy. Nobody at the baptism at Rheims had ever heard of France.

And now it seems that while the baptism almost certainly occurred on Christmas Day, it didn't occur on that Christmas Day. Claude Gauvard, in her very readable overview, La France au Moyen Age du Ve au XVe siècle, states that the actual year may have been 499, 506, or 508. Gregory of Tours's account, among other problems, is too closely patterned on the conversion story of the Emperor Constantine to be entirely credible. "La chronologie du règne de Clovis est une traque des événements," she writes, resorting to a hunting image (beating the bushes to send flocks into flight) that I've never encountered before, at least in a historical setting. It's a memorable one. In the end, we know almost nothing about the reign of Clovis. Aside from the sparks cast by a handful of events that can't be dated with absolute confidence, it has become, for us, a very dark time.

It was certainly a time of transition. Neither ancient nor medieval, the world of Clovis had one foot in each period. Roman civic structures persisted, if feebly, on the local, urban level, but the system of hierarchical tenantries that we call feudalism lay far in the future. We don't really know what it means to say that Clovis was the leader of a 'tribe,' or, on the other hand, how Romanized his view of things was. Sometime prior to his conversion, he married the niece of the Burgundian leader, which raises the question of intermarriage. How 'different' were the Burgundians from the Franks? And what did the great mass of Gauls make of these upstarts from the Rhineland?

In his brief but reconstituting book on the genesis of European state formation, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton, 2002), Patrick J. Geary shows that the heightened tribal consciousness of the two Gothic kingdoms did not prevail under the Merovingian kings of Francia.

United by a common religion and a common legend of origin, nothing prevented Clovis's Franks and the Roman provincials of his kingdom from forging a common identity. This they did with considerable rapidity. Within only a few generations, the population north of the Loire had become uniformly Frankish and, while Roman legal traditions persisted in the south and Burgundian and Roman legal status endured in the old Burgundian kingdom conquered by Clovis's sons in the 530s, these differing legal traditions did not constitute the basis for a separate social or political identity. The great strength of the Frankish synthesis was the creation of a unified society, drawing on the legacies of Roman and barbarian traditions. 117-118.

It would be incorrect, Mr Geary urges, to regard the Franks as a military race that considered itself superior to vanquished Roman Gauls, but rather far more likely that powerful members of the latter group recast their own identities so as to look like Franks.  Something like this seems to have happened in Britain at that time. Although it has long been thought that waves of invaders pushed the 'native' Celtic population of pre-Roman Britain back into the hinterlands of Scotland and Wales, according to a new study of South English Y-chromosomes, reported in the the Times on May 27, 2003 (Nicholas Wade, Y Chromosomes Sketch New Outline of British History), that's not what happened. Having established that the Y-chromosomes of  a remote Irish population are almost identical to those of the Basques in Spain, Dr. David B. Goldstein went on to demonstrate that Y-chromosomes of Southern Englishmen bear a closer resemblance to the Celtic-Basque mutation than to the Saxon variant found in the North. In other words, the transformation of British Celts into British Anglo-Saxons was not a genetic development; the Celts are still there.

The celebration of Clovis's baptism, therefore, should not be such a big deal for M. LePen and others who regard being French as some kind of biological gift. Who knows? A test of his Y-chromosome might even prove that Jean-Marie LePen is a German! (May 2003)

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