Historians battle over Clovis, first French king

An event due to take place in five months, commemorating another event that may or not have taken place 1,500 years ago is causing a rumpus in academic, political and religious circles in France and reopening wounds thought to have been healed long ago.

At the centre of all the fuss are plans to celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis, a warlord from the Merovingian tribe who, in the fifth century, became the first king of France.

There is no doubt that all the stops are being pulled out. On 22 September, the Pope is to celebrate the commemorative Mass at Rheims cathedral where Clovis was baptised, and where the baptistry is being given an expensive facelift. A state committee, headed by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, will oversee the celebrations; numerous conferences, television programmes and books are in the pipeline.

Which is where the problems start, for it is not clear that there is an anniversary to celebrate. A television discussion in France last week had leading historians engaging in a verbal brawl, with raised voices and some very unacademic language, over the traditional date of the baptism: 13 April 496.

The only consensus seemed to be that if Clovis was baptised and if the baptism took place at Rheims, it was not in the year 496 and certainly not in September. The year, apparently, depends on the year from which Clovis's reign dates, which may be two, three or more years later than the date accepted by 17th-century historians. These same historians are also accused of changing the season of his baptism from Christmas to Easter on the grounds that Easter was more appropriate.

So why will France celebrate the event on 22 September1996? The simplest explanation is that this is when the Pope's programme enabled him to come to France. But sticklers for the constitutional separation of church and state in France divine a more sinister reason: 22 September is Republic Day in France. They see the coincidence as a deliberate attempt to link the baptism of France's first king with the inauguration of the French state.

But it is the association of state leaders with the anniversary - with the formation of the Clovis committee and the likely attendance of President Chirac at the Rheims Mass - that has raised most hackles.

The separation of church and state, though enshrined in the constitution only in 1902, is taken for granted in France as one of the achievements of the 1789 Revolution. Since he came to office, however, Mr Chirac has caused eyebrows to be raised on this score.

The most notable blurring of the division between church and state was his decision to arrange a Requiem Mass at Notre Dame for his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, a very public agnostic. But Mr Chirac is also the first post-war president to have made a state visit to the Vatican; he took a personal interest in the election of the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, into the Academie Francaise, and has been criticised for referring to France as the "faithful daughter of the church".

As the highly sensitive debate over the association of the Clovis anniversary with a Papal Mass and the foundation of the French state progressed, two further difficulties arose. The first was a public commemoration of the 13 April anniversary by a group of traditionalist Catholic clerics and the extreme-right National Front.

A ringing address from the National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and a torch-lit procession in Paris in honour of France's first Christian king, led to accusations that the extreme right was trying to undo 1789 and co-opt Clovis as a national symbol, rather as it has successfully co-opted Joan of Arc.

The second difficulty was the discovery by an American archaeologist that the Rheims baptistry could not have been the site of Clovis's baptism, because it was not built at the time. Remains of a far more primitive baptistry were found beneath the crypt, but were in no condition to be restored.

Drowned by the hubbub of protest over aspects of the Clovis anniversary are murmurings about not letting the controversies get out of hand. Marking the baptism of Clovis, these voices argue, is just another way of saying that France is a very ancient nation and making the French feel a little happier. But with five months to go and historians going at it hammer and tongs, such sweet reason looks unlikely to prevail.

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
Highs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam