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Clovis And The Legendary Vase of Soissons

Vase of Soissons

How did a vase go down in history? The legend of the Vase of Soissons, which the school books of the Third Republic magnified so much, is edifying in more ways than one.

The story takes place in 486 in the city of Soissons. The Battle of Soissons opposes Clovis to the Gallo-Roman chief Syagrius. The decomposition of the Western Roman Empire shattered Roman unity in Gaul, and a patchwork of Germanic states favors the expansionist views of their king.

Clovis, who succeeded Childeric I as King of the Franks in 481, decides to invade the neighboring Gallo-Roman state, the Kingdom of Syagrius, where the Roman Church is well established. Clovis and his troops were victorious and, in accordance with the customs of the time, pillaging and destruction, including churches, was systematic as well as the reduction of able-bodied men into slavery.

An affront that calls for revenge

According to the Frankish custom of sharing the booty, a fifth goes to the king and the rest is shared among the soldiers by drawing lots. In Soissons, an altercation took place between the king and one of his soldiers, because Clovis had withdrawn a richly decorated church vase that he had promised to return to the bishop of Reims, Saint-Remi, with whom he had good diplomatic relations. Furious, a warrior approached and, with his ax, broke the Vase of Soissons, declaring: "You will only receive what fate really gives you." Clovis had to endure the affront, but luckily recovered the vase and offered it to the bishop.

A year later, reviewing his troops before setting out on the campaign, he recognized the warrior, accused him of neglect in his uniform, and disarmed him. When the soldier bends down to retrieve his weapons, Clovis smashes his head with a violent axe blow, saying: "This is how you treated the Vase of Soissons."

Back to basics

The anecdote of the Vase of Soissons is taken from a chronicle of the early Merovingian Middle Ages by Saint Gregory of Tours, relating to the "baptism of Clovis". His History of the Franks, in 40 volumes, makes him the father of French history. Bishop of Tours from 573 to 594, this great prelate had a leading political role in the relations of the Church to the various Frankish States which then existed on the territory of France. He is a committed man who wants to educate the princes using edifying picturesque anecdotes, like evangelical parables, and convert as many pagan barbarians as possible to Christianity.

The historical truth

Is the authenticity of the fact questioned by historians? Today, if they point out the biases of Gregory of Tours, they readily acknowledge the reality of the event, but dispute the fact that the vase was broken and that it came from Soissons. In fact, in his will, Saint Remi asks that the liturgical vessel which belonged to his diocese, that of Reims, be melted down to make it "a censer and a chalice engraved with representations", which proves that it was made of silver and that it was only dented by the soldier. We can therefore assume that no one broke the Vase of Soissons and that it does not come from Soissons, but from Reims. However, behind this anecdote lies a set of truths that must be remembered.

Royal power versus ecclesiastical power

The relationship of the King of the Franks with his warriors does not correspond to the feudal relationship that is customary to us. The anecdote recalls a peculiarity of Frankish society: the king has all powers, including that of life or death over his subjects, only in time of war (spring and summer). In peacetime, he has no rights and no special authority. The first part of the episode takes place in peacetime (the sharing of the booty), the second in wartime (revenge).

This discontinuity of power underlines a major military problem inherent in Frankish society that Clovis will solve by… being baptized. Because, by his baptism, he will become a sovereign of divine right, which will confer on him a permanent precedence of a religious nature over his subjects and his warriors. This reciprocal support of a Church, which preserved the heritage of Roman legitimacy, and of a royal power in full reorganization created the first coherent political entity and, on the soil of France, laid the foundations of French royalty.

Church and king in difficult situation

At the end of the 5th century, the Kingdom of Clovis remained a small state against those of the Burgundian king Gundobad and of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great, who had just taken possession of Italy causing the fall of the last Roman emperor of the West, Odoacer. Their defense of Arianism, a deviance from Christianity rejected by Catholics, endangered the Roman Catholic Church, isolated and under the control of the Ostrogoths, and the Roman Catholic clergy knew they could not hope for any independence. However, this fragile cooperation between a Church respected by a section of the notables and approved by the population, and a king who wanted to take advantage of his credit ends up prevailing against his powerful neighbors.