Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gregory on Clotilda and her Sons--Documenting Historical Vengeance or Creating Political Propoganda?

Gregory placed the revenge of Clotilda at the center of the Frankish desire to conquer Burgundy. Yet, as has already been discussed, Clotilda may have had nothing to avenge. She probably arranged the original alliance between Clovis and Gundobad around A.D. 507. This act of diplomacy would be difficult to accept of a woman with vitriolic hatred for her uncle. Further, as Ian Wood explains (The Merovingian Kingdoms), if Clotilda had "waited from the A.D. 490s until A.D. 523 the feud cannot have been uppermost in her mind."

Herwig Wolfram (Germanic Peoples) noted that both the Franks and Theodoric’s Goths invaded Burgundy, claiming revenge as a reason "that may well have been intended merely to veil hard power politics." Godefroid Kurth (Saint Clotilda) offered another viable counterargument to Gregory’s account.

If Clotilda was so eager for vengeance why did she not urge the duty on her husband Clovis, and why did she wait for the death of [Gundobad] in order to vent her wrath upon the innocent son of the latter?

He supported his belief with the fact that when Clovis had Gundobad within his power at Vienne, he left the field. Even when Gundobad failed to send tribute the next year, Clovis did not go to war with him. Instead, he made an alliance, and, according to Kurth:

...all this under the very eyes of Clotilda just at the time of his own conversion to Christianity, when we may presume that his wife’s influences was most potent with him.

Given this, it seemed Clotilda, if she had wrongs to avenge, must have forgotten them until after both Clovis, her “natural avenger” and Gundobad were dead. Kurth again:

[I]t was only after both offender and offended had been in their graves the one during nine and the other during twelve years, and when there was nobody to punish, that we are asked to believe that this pious widow, living in retirement and devoting herself to good works, separated from her sons and peacefully awaiting death, suddenly bethought herself to crown a life filled with good works by initiating a fratricidal war in which her own flesh and blood were to perish.

On the other hand, while advocating for the strong role that medieval queens played in politics, Suzanne Fonay Wemple (Women in Frankish Society) made the interesting argument that since:

Loyalty to the uterine line was inculcated in aristocratic males in their early childhood...we should not be surprised to learn that Clotild[a] asked her sons, not her husband, to avenge the murder of her parents.

Danuta Shanzer and Ian Wood (Avitus of Vienne) remarked upon the duality between the supposed vengeance wrought upon the sons of Gundobad and Gregory's account of the supposed murder of Chilperic and his wife. In fact, they observed that Gregory reveals a remarkable penchant for fratricide and patricide among many of the Franks' rivals (Thuringians, Ostrogoths, Visigoths and Burgundians). Given this, repeated accusations of murder and mayhem "may...have been an aspect of Merovingian political propaganda." Revenge as a reason for war. To this I might add that it is a common tactic in politics to accuse your opponent of those things that you have or would do. Could Gregory have ascribed so many instances of inter-family murder in an attempt to portray such acts as commonplace, thus diminishing the horrendous crimes often committed by the ancestors of his own Merovingian patrons?

Some believed that the story was invented by popular imagination in an attempt to explain the reason that led two closely allied families to go to war. Accordingly, a connection was made by portraying the story of Gundobad’s murder of Chilperic and his wife first to justify the nearly identical form of Clotilda’s supposed revenge. Because Clodomir killed Sigismund and his wife, the legend grew that Chilperic’s wife, (Clotilda’s mother) was killed with him and both thrown in a well. Because Clodomir also killed Sigismund’s two remaining sons, then Gundobad was said to have killed Chilperic’s two sons (though these may have never actually existed).

As Wood explains:
There is also a curious parallel between the manner of [Chilperic II’s] death, supposedly by drowning in a well, and the similar disposal of Sigismund’s body after his defeat and capture in 524. It seems that Gregory’s account of the murder of Chilperic and the subsequent bloodfeud reflected later assumptions, rather than historical reality. The marriage of [Clotilda], therefore, may not have had the ominous implications which the bishop of Tours attributed it.

A parallel can be drawn in the similarity between Gregory’s account of Clovis’s battlefield conversion and that of Constantine roughly two hundred years earlier. Gregory was not above using one event as a template for another if he deemed it convenient or necessary. After all, Gregory and Fredegarius were Merovingian chroniclers and probably desired to show their patrons in the best light, often at the expense of historical truth.

Kurth speculated that this legend grew up out of the medieval mind, so to speak.

[There is a] universal tendency of the popular mind to explain great misfortunes as being the expiation of great crimes. When Sigismund, king of Burgundy, was killed with his wife and children by his cousin Clodomir, it was supposed that he must have perished in expiation of some similar crime which one of his ancestors had perpetrated against some member of Clodomir’s family. And hence it was easy to assume that [Gundobad] had inflicted on Chilperic, the grandfather of Clodomir, the same treatment as, at a later date, Clodomir had inflicted on his son.

[Of] the pretext on which the sons of Clovis took up arms against their unhappy cousin we have no information, nor indeed is the question of much historic importance. The war may have been caused simply by that insatiable love of fighting and of glory which lies at the root of uncivilised [sic] nature, or again by that desperate avarice which gave men no rest so long as there remained anything to covet or to conquer.

J.B. Bury summarized, "We can thus safely conclude that the true Gundobad was not the sanguinary tyrant of later tradition, nor was Clotilda the bearer of tragedy and doom to the Burgundian house as she appears in the story."

Don't bet on historical certainty, JB!

UP NEXT: Epilogue


Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
Kurth, Saint Clotilda.
Wemple, Women in Frankish Society.
Avitus of Vienne, Shanzer and Wood.
Kurth, “St. Clotilda,” in Catholic Encyclopedia, 1908 ed.
Wood, The Merovingian Kingdoms.
Bury, Invasion of Europe.

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