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Converting husbands

The saint of the month told by Sandra Isetta

During the Middle Ages the construction of European civilization rests on foundations that are also hidden, the strength and intelligence of great Christian women. This is the case of the origins of the French kingdom, linked to the vigorous personality of Clotilde, daughter, wife and mother of a king, a sinner and then a saint.

Clotilde is part of a long tradition inaugurated by Helena, mother of Constantine, which combines a religious vocation with a political destiny, the Church and one’s lineage. She is not the only one among medieval women - married by conquering kings to expand their domain with ties of kinship - whose life is marked by a series of tragedies and of royal murderers, but whose mission is the conversion of sovereign husband and therefore of entire peoples: in England Berta wife of Ethelbert of Kent, in Spain Theodosia wife of the Duke of Toledo. In Russia, the Princess of Kiev, Olga, is the first sovereign baptized and Jadwiga of Poland embarks on the conversion of the Baltic countries.

The information about Clotilde is in the Historia Francorum of Gregory of Tours and the anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum . She was born in Lyon in 475, while the Roman empire was collapsing in the West (476) and Roman Gaul was disintegrating into various barbarian kingdoms. She was the daughter of Chilperic II King of the Burgundians, a Germanic group settled along the Rhine and the Rhone, of Arian religion. Hers was a childhood of violence, passed in fratricidal struggles between her uncles and father who was beheaded by his brother Gundobado in 486. Her mother was thrown into water with a stone tied around her neck. Clotilde never forgot these brutal acts of violence and her mission will in fact be the demand that personal vendetta be replaced by divine justice.

An orphan, with her older sister Crona she was exiled in Geneva, near her other uncle Godegiselo. Here the two sisters will convert to Catholicism and will give themselves to prayer and service. The renown of her moral qualities and her beauty reach the royal courts. In this way she is taken as wife by Clovis, the young king of the Franks who ascended to the throne at fifteen years of age, and a descendant of the legendary Merovee, will become the founder of the Merovingians, a Germanic people established north of the Seine.

With the marriage, the religious scenario of the family does not improve. If the father was an Arian, her husband was a pagan who, however, although quite uncouth, treated Christians with humanity: he was seduced by the gentleness with which Clotilde spoke of her religion. He consented to the baptism of their first child, who died almost immediately, in a white robe. The assertions made against the "God of Clotilde" gave way to admiration for the faith with which the queen faced the trial, repeating itself with the birth of their second child, Clodomiro, saved by her prayers. Clovis was converted in 496, at Tolbiaco, near Cologne, during the battle against the Alamanni. Instructed by the queen, just as Constantine at the Milvian Bridge had implored the help of Christ, changing the dreaded defeat into victory: "I will believe in you and I will be baptized in your name" a promise which he kept, along with three thousand franks, on Christmas night of the same year in the cathedral of Reims, also receiving from St. Remigius the "royal touch", the healing power against scrofula. Clovis died in 511, hailed as a sovereign given by God to Catholic Gaul, the future France "eldest daughter of the Church".

The toughest tests were yet to come: Clotilde asked her sons to avenge the murder of their grandparents and God, to purify her, punished her with suffering. Her daughter died of the ill-treatment of her husband, Clodomiro, her son, was killed. She took care of their children, falling into a more serious fault: since her uncles wanted to eliminate the heirs of her brother, Clotilde was faced with the choice of killing them or cutting their hair (since long ringlets were the privilege and therefore the sign the royal condition, cutting them this privilege would have been lost).

Clotilde preferred "to see them dead rather than deprived of the kingdom": the earthly homeland had obscured the heavenly one, in the soul of the queen. To atone for this offence she retired from the world, in Tours, and lived in a state of humility in order to forget that she was queen. Like many saints she forecast her death, which took place on June 3, 545. She was proclaimed a saint by acclamation and then canonized by Pope Pelagius.

Her cult spread in Normandy, at Andelys-sur-Seine, where the water of a spring, mixed with wine, is given to the sick to drink, in memory of a miracle of Clotilde that was said to have refreshed the workers who built the monastery with water that took the flavour of wine. Women turn to her for the conversion of their husbands and she is invoked against sudden death, fevers and troubles in the legs (through the analogy between the root of her name and the verb claudiquer ). She is also responsible for the replacement of the three toads with three lilies in the shield of the French monarchy, which a mysterious hermit gave her in the forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In Argentina, she is protectress of orphans and the patron saint of the village of Beruti, in the province of Buenos Aires.

Sandra Isetta teaches ancient Christian literature at the University of Genoa. She has written several essays, including, Il mito delle origini in La grande meretrice. Un decalogo di luoghi comuni sulla storia della Chiesa (2013). She has edited, among other things, L’eleganza delle donne (2010) and Il velo delle vergini (2012) by Tertullian, and the volumes Letteratura cristiana e letterature europee (2007), Il volto e gli sguardi. Bibbia, letteratura, cinema (2010)  and Apocalisse. Il senso della fine (2012).




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 29, 2020