'Il faut que la France survive' These words are a kind of motto for a certain kind of Frenchman: it is necessary that France survive. Not just necessary for France, but for the world, for humanity. France, this motto suggests, has a message for mankind. And it isn't Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, either. In this view, the France that was born at the conversion of Clovis in 496 created something deeply important. I'd like to explore that a little.
The Roman Empire disintegrated in the West incrementally between (very roughly) the fourth century and the sixth. The low point was the sack of Rome herself in August 410, and the main agents of this disintegration (besides the internal problems of the Empire) were those groups of peoples the Romans called 'Barbarians' (because they couldn't speak Latin, going 'ba-ba-ba' instead). The Christianized Roman Empire had come to identify itself in some way with the Kingdom of God. The degree of identification can be disputed, but the Emperor had become a sort of Ikon of God and the Empire a sort of Ikon of his Kingdom.
This means that those who would wish to profess the Gospel must put themselves under the governance of the Empire. In later centuries there was an amusing sequel to this, when the Bulgarians, who wished to join themselves to Byzantine Christianity, were told that they must first take their trousers off. They were considered a barbarian thing, you see. But it also resulted in almost no missionary work being undertaken outside the Empire's borders for a very long period. Indeed, the only significant example that I can think of was the mission to the Goths by, er, the Arians! Which is why the Goths became Arians. I think that, arguably, the mission of St Augustine to Canterbury (sent by St Gregory) was the first real example of the Empire doing its duty. Perhaps some of you know others—there was the work of Frumentarius among the Ethiops, of course. But that was rather an independent scheme.
The sack of Rome in 410 brought profound heart-seeking among orthodox Christians, for it seemed that God had abandoned his Kingdom. In the shadow of this, the increasingly pessimistic St Augustine wrote his monumental work The Kingdom of God, in which he worked his way round to his insight that God's Kingdom cannot be identified with any earthly state. It is a fascinating work, and really I can't do it justice here, so I won't try.
The baptism of Clovis represented a new way. A despised, barbarian kingdom accepted the Orthodox Catholic Gospel, in contradistinction to the Arian Goths who were in Southern Gaul at the time, and this seemed to signal a change in their fortunes, and its king and its people were baptized by St Remigius in 496.
Get that: God's kingdom does not require a particular earthly political allegiance.
Now, there were political reasons for this, without doubt. And one cannot deny the appeal of wanting to be like the classy people in Rome. (Forgive this analogy). Revolutionaries may begin by living on onions and sleeping on straw, but before long their leaders find the palaces of those they have overthrown very attractive. Clovis clearly wanted to hitch his wagon to the glorious history (not to say lifestyle) of Rome. But he did so in a very different way. He and his men didn't really stop beating other people up, for instance, or (probably) putting their feet onto the table at dinner. He didn't stop being a Frank: he was just a Christian Frank. Or Frankly Christian.
(Has it ever crossed your mind to ask where we get the word 'frank' from?)
To those in the Roman Empire, Clovis remained a barbarian: the problem was all the more acute because he was very successful in his enterprises, thrashing the Arian Goths in the south of Gaul. But the Church had to decide what best to do. Should it applaud, or should it tut-tut?
It did what it does best; it havered, and waited a few centuries. The Emperor was distant, in Constantinople (he regarded the Pope as his viceroy for the West for much of this time), and Rome herself was in a pretty awful state, with various strong families dominating the scene, and the Emperor so far away that all he could do was demand taxes without fulfilling his part of the bargain to provide the necessary defence that was required.
This all came to a head in the reign of Pope Leo III (reigned 795-816). He was a surprise election, a nobody, really, who was bullied quite egregiously by the Roman families (one account has him castrated and blinded by them), and (to cut a very long story short) threw himself into the arms of the Frankish monarch, whom we know as Charlemagne. He got the support he needed, and in return, on Christmas Day 800 was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Rome.
To be continued………