Salvian of Marseille wrote in the 440s that Barbarians are strangers to learning and know nothing unless it is taught to them. Thus, since they were taught heretical, or Arian Christianity, they held that theirs was the true faith and that Catholics were heretical just as the Catholics thought the same of them. This kind of tolerant attitude toward Arian Christians may not have been prevalent, but it may help to explain the tolerance, or at least the lack of antagonism, between the ecclesiastics of each brand of Christianity.
According to Salvian, Roman Catholics and barbarian Arians associated rather freely and probably were more unified by the common aspects of Christianity than they were splintered by dogmatic belief in either being the only true form. In Burgundy, the Roman Catholic Church was treated fairly, probably because the royal house had been divided between Arianism and Catholicism. (Some historians believe the Burgundians went from Catholicism to Arianism and then back again).
It seems that, in general, barbarian rulers kept their Arian bishops close at hand and didn’t appoint Arian bishops to cities, as was done in the Eastern Empire. They resided near him in his capital and performed services for the king and his retinue, but performed few other ecclesiastical functions. Thus, bishops formed a sort of sacred council and they performed special, mostly diplomatic, missions at the request of the king.
Perhaps the barbarian kings were paranoid and sought to keep powerful religious leaders close by to keep an eye on them. Gregory of Tours told the story of how Saint Aprunculus, Bishop of Langres, had become suspicious to the Burgundians because of word of a conspiracy of Catholics in Burgundy with Franks. After the Burgundians put out the order to kill him, Aprunculus “was lowered down from the walls of Dijon” and escaped to Clermont where he was made Bishop.
Ecclesiastics often were involved in plots against their overlords. Ralph Mathisen (“Barbarian Bishops”) wrote of how, when Gundobad captured Vienne, Godegisel fled to an Arian church and was there with an Arian bishop (cum episcopo arriano). Mathisen believed that this hinted that the Burgundians had a patriarch, at least in Vienne, whose loyalty to Godegisel was rewarded by death. Or, writes Mathisen, “perhaps this faithful Arian episcopus was the chief bishop of Godegisel’s sacerdotal college.” Finally, Mathisen showed that, with this one exception, there is little evidence of Burgundian Arian bishops.
Gundobad’s wife, Caratena, was Catholic, and, according to Bishop Avitus of Vienne, her “epitaph suggests that she practiced both sexual renunciation and asceticism.” According to Fortunatus, “she was…the mother of the poor and the advocate of the guilty” and she also “gave proof on the throne of every virtue, concealing beneath a smiling countenance the fasts and austerities with which she subdued her flesh.” For his part, Gundobad was friendly with Avitus, who often urged him to convert and, according to Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, may have at least partially succeeded in bringing Gundobad into the flock.
Randers-Pehrson noted that Avitus’ letter to Clovis congratulating him on his baptism must have had to have passed through the hands of Gundobad for approval, “in a way it was addressed more to him than to Clovis.” Avitus complimented Clovis for recognizing the true religion, unlike other barbarian rulers, and for breaking with tradition to do so. The implication being that any who used tradition as an excuse to hold onto heretical religion no longer had an excuse. According to Randers-Pehrson, “this argument was not lost on Gundobad, who had long wrestled earnestly with the problem and with his conscience.”
Further, Edward James explained that the process of royal conversion had at least three steps. First, the intellectual conversion whereby Christ is accepted; second the public announcement of the acceptance, and third the formal baptism ceremony and acceptance into the Christian community. According to Gregory of Tours, Gundobad reached the first stage but didn’t dare take the second for fear of reprisal among the Burgundians.
Though nominally an Arian and attended to by Arian bishops, Gundobad had a fertile mind and was able to intelligently argue theology with Avitus. He also encouraged debate between Avitus and his Arian bishops.
Burgundian Arianism seemed to be based on strict adherence to a literal interpretation of the Latin Bible. This literal familiarity with the Bible was an advantage for Gundobad and his bishops, who proved to be more adept than Avitus in citing specific scriptural passages. Avitus made at least one mistaken identification of a biblical excerpt during a debate with the Arians, though he may have been citing from memory rather than relying on a direct reference.
Despite their theological differences, Gundobad did respect Avitus and asked him to write his ‘Against the Eutychian Heresy’ after the Trishagion riots in Constantinople in A.D. 511. This illustrated both the scope of his religious inquisitiveness and that he was politically astute enough to want to be on the “right” side of a religious controversy.
Avitus was in line with the orthodox view evolving during his era and was a strong defender of the pope, whose actions he felt only God could ultimately judge. Avitus viewed the controversy surrounding Symmachus and the Laurentian schism as damaging to Catholicism as a whole, and was especially wary of the considerable strength of Arianism among the barbarian kingdoms.
In this, as in nearly all other theological writings that passed before the eyes of Gundobad, Avitus wrote on theology in hopes of bringing the Burgundians around. To these constant entreaties, Gundobad once replied that he couldn’t worship the Holy Trinity. Avitus assured Gundobad that he could avert attack, possibly from Clovis and his recently converted Franks, if he simply converted. Gundobad’s theological assignment to Avitus prompted Gregory of Tours to believe that Gundobad did eventually convert to Catholic Christianity.
There were instances that seem to indicate that the Burgundians may have encouraged, rather than merely tolerated, Catholicism. Notably, the Catholic bishops of the Burgundian kingdom met at Epaon in A.D. 517, under Avitus, and produced an influential list of canons that served as a basis for laws regarding incest. These included prohibitions against marrying your brother’s widow, deceased wife’s sister, mother-in-law, cousin or child of a cousin, uncle’s widow and stepdaughter.
A pamphlet written by Avitus in A.D. 517, “On Not Assimilating Basilicas of the Heretics,” provided additional information regarding the Burgundian Arian church. It was written in response to the fact that Gundobad’s son Sigismund had been converted to Catholicism. Avitus had been asked if churches and basilicas of the Arians were to also be converted. Avitus asked if the king had consulted with his Arian bishops and made it clear that the conversion of the king did not mean the conversion of the people. As such, the Arian religion continued to be practiced in Burgundy. Interestingly, Gundobad took much more than a philosophical interest in the Catholic church. In A.D. 499, he helped Avitus secure papal recognition making the Bishop of Vienne the primary church authority in Gaul over the bishop of Arles (held by the Goths).
In lands where the ruling class followed their teachings, Arian bishops seemed content and did not actively proselytize among the provincials. Lucien Musset (Germanic Invasions) postulated that “the reason for this was probably the intellectual inferiority of the Arian hierarchy, which was badly equipped for controversy and incapable of contemplating systematic missionary activity.” Danuta Shanzer and Ian Wood (Avitus of Vienne) observed that, while the Arian bishops under Gundobad engaged in a theological debate with Avitus, their penchant for being able to memorize and cite specific biblical passages did not necessarily indicate any ability to ponder deeper theological questions.
This willingness to allow Catholicism to spread and flourish within the barbarian kingdoms made Arianism less attractive and, ironically, ended a period of dynamic theological thought in Gaul. With no intellectual opponent, Gallo-Roman Orthodox Christian writers lost their rhetorical abilities and became more dogmatic in their theology as they relied on others, especially Augustine, to establish a new “theological uniformity,” according to Shanzer and Wood.
The belief that the Burgundians were mostly Arian seems to be an overstated one. Clotilda was a Catholic, as were her sister, and her aunt Caretena. Sidonius indicated that Chilperic I and his wife were friendly with Patiens. The only evidence of an Arian church was during the reign of Gundobad, in which he killed his brother, Godigisil. Yet, again, at this time Clotilda and her sister, and later their cousin Sigismund, were Catholic. As for Gundobad, Ian Wood (The Merovingian Kingdoms) theorizes that Gundobad may have acquired his Arianism during his younger years in Rome, through his relationship with his uncle Ricimer. With the exception of Gundobad, then, nearly every member of the Burgundian royal family seems to have been a Catholic.
UP NEXT: The Rise and Fall of Sigismund
Salvian in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Ralph Whitney Mathisen, “Barbarian Bishops and the Churches ‘in Barbaricis Gentibus’ During Late Antiquity,” Speculum 72, no.3 (1997).
Goffart, “Rome, Constantinople, and the Barbarians.”
Dill, Roman Society.
Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks.
Avitus of Vienne.
Kurth, Saint Clotilda.
Leblant, Inscriptions Chretiennes de la Gaule, Vol. I., 70, no. 31, in Kurth, Saint Clotilda.
Randers-Pehrson, Barbarians and Romans.
Hen, Culture and Religion.
Ian Wood, “Incest, law and the Bible in sixth-century Gaul,” Early Medieval Europe 7, no.3 (1998).
De basilicas haereticorum non recipiendis, Epistulae 7 (MGH AA 6/2:35 – 39) in Mathisen, “Barbarian Bishops.”
Marius Aventicensis, Chronica s.a. 523, ed. Theodor Mommsen, (MGH AA 11:225-39) in Mathisen, “Barbarian Bishops.”
Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
Musset, Germanic Invasions.