Friday, August 8, 2014

Queen Saint Clotilde's Life

I have not neglected to post about Clotilde, but I have failed in one thing, and that is to point out that she was in her time a VERY long-lived lady indeed.

In The Ax and the Vase, I placed her marriage to Clovis I at about age nineteen in 493 CE.  She was married to him until his death in 511, and so they had a little less than twenty years.

Given that Clotilde lived about SEVENTY years, it’s difficult to put her marriage into perspective.  All of the history touching on her centers upon the marriage, and even the tales of her life as a supposed bloodthirsty revenge-machine after his death, inciting war over decades-old other imaginary murders, tend to be brief in comparison with the hagiography of the saint who brought a king to Catholic Christianity.

The history of Christendom focuses heavily on Clovis I, First Catholic King in Europe – and, to be sure, I have myself framed The Ax and the Vase as exactly that story.  Clotilde’s role is venerated, and she earned her entire fame in history by being the importuning wife who brought a king to the Church – yet she herself is rarely examined except through the lens of her husband, her sons.  We have no tales of her alone, outside the context of the marriage and her children.  And that’s not the exclusive case of Frankish women in history.

Clotilde is, if we take what sources we have at historical value (we shouldn’t), the catalyst, the instigator.  It’s clear her personality was strong – and yet, the person passed down through the centuries is never her own.  Always the daughter, the wife, the mother, Clotilde is in some ways obscured by the very act which brought her the greatest power and the enduring fame of fifteen hundred years’ sanctification.

If Clovis was the first Catholic king in Europe, the mighty precedent of a faith and tradition which set the very course of western history itself after Rome’s “fall” …

Clotilde is the woman, the heart, the impetus, the persuader – who made it happen.

Clovis tends generally to be cast either as a Christian of the Arian faith – or, more often, as an outright pagan.  Historians and enthusiasts squabble enjoyably about “what kind” of pagan he was, but there is no question, his coming to Catholicism was both unexpectedly nonconformist in his day, and an epochal event in Gaul and, eventually, beyond.

If it had not been for the will of his wife, it’s quite possible Clovis never would have come to the Church.

Now, think about that.  Really consider – the course of European life for a thousand years, until the Reformation, the rebellion against that church, the extent and influence of the Catholic Church in most people’s lives and expectations, for so many centuries.  Think about the complexion of the world if he had been and remained a non-trinitarian Christian.  If he had never converted, and the Church grew, but never quite integrated with the royal houses of Europe as it was able to partially thanks to Clovis’ precedent.  The feudal world would have looked very different – the material world would have, without cathedrals and basilicas coming to represent and to attract the wealth and trade of cities.  Consider the increasingly-bound ties, through generations and centruies, of throne and mitre, of money and influence – and the very morality and way of life of such a vast swath of time and humanity.

Imagine that one of the fundamental precedents that set THIS world in motion, never occurred.  That Clovis never looked critically at the Roman Church – spiritual scion of the Roman empire he had assisted to *extinguish* in Gaul – that he remained Arian, or pagan, or perhaps that he did convert, but was never so powerful a monarch as he was to become.  Imagine a Catholic king surrounded by Arians and pagans, who succumbed to defeat at their hands, or who stayed at three small cities in Belgium, and was no tool for a growing Church to gain greater influence and power – and followers.

Because the followers – that is perhaps the greatest key to Clovis’ conversion and baptism, and their eventual effects and influence.

Clovis came to power by the CHARISMA of his blood.  And the stories of the thousands who followed him in ecstasies to the Catholic faith are consistent, whatever else we may say of the veracity or dependability of sources for Late Antiquity.  So are the tales of new converts who lashed out against Arians and pagans in the wake of the fervor accompanying the massive acceptance of Catholicism.

It is Clotilde, a woman Clovis may in part have chosen to marry precisely because of her religious connections, who brought him from friendly correspondence with bishops, to actual submission to her faith.

It is Clotilde, who lived seventy years – nearly three decades after the death of her king – whose influence on one man rendered so many more susceptible to conversion, to baptism, to the Church she had in fact importuned upon him for many years before he accepted.

Clotilde baptized their first son against the will of Clovis – and that son died.

Clovis resisted her testimony, her witnessing, for years – until, on the field of battle, he finally is said to have laid himself in HER G-d’s hands, and gained victory.  Became the king he did become.  And forged his relationship with her Church.

The thirty years after Clovis’ death seeem almost to bear no relationship to the foregoing tales of her conviction, her purity in faith.  The character left to history devolves to a vicious queen out to right ancient family wrongs, in revenge for her father’s (purported) murder – bringing Burgundy to war, and setting her sons to acts of bitterness and revenge which seem not only out of character with the story of Clovis’ life, but out of character with her own youth and queenship.

It is puzzling, in any research (or just causal reading) of a period, to come across a character so lionized and so demonized all at once, yet it is hardly uncommon.  Just as the saint and queen, depicted in her youth and matronhood as the highest ideal may become a crone obsessed with long-gone wrongs … a young woman of power and hope may become a poisoner, the tool of a story meant to illustrate sin and the worst in her gender.  For that matter, even the young warrior may become, over years of propaganda and lost human motivation, the scapegoat vilified for liking little boys, dissipated in wine and shame for a new king to conquer and damn him.  Ahem.

Over the years and years I have spent reading about all the figures of the time, I’ve found reason to doubt almost all the worst tales told.  Propaganda plays an enormous role in The Ax and the Vase, and anyone who reads it should keep in mind both that and the fact that the novel is told in first-person.  I consciously set Clovis up as a somewhat unreliable (and, in that bargain – *incomplete*) narrator, just as I make explicit every piece of propaganda he set forth – the making of his own legend.

The result ends up being that, though I feel her character has blood in her veins and flesh on her bones, Clotilde is done little more justice as a figure in history itself than she is most anywhere else.

None of us lives our lives with great attention paid to our posterity.  Those few who do often rotate around an axis of vanity; and personal forms of propaganda, at that – the well-chosen selfie, the stories told or posted subjectively.  Whether self-aware or not, we’re all writing our own life’s stories, and to author our lives with consideration far beyond how we look in the immediate is close to unheard-of.  So I couldn’t really write a novel in first-person, by a husband often frustrated by his queen – by a *man*, who could not see the woman in his bed as a saint nor a part of history – and DO her that justice.

I hope my readers do her a little better, and see beyond the constraints of creative narrative.

I know some, surely, see beyond the saint and the bitter dowager.  And see a remarkable woman, long-lived, and more than the sum of her husband, and her children.

No comments: