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The alleged "banner of the Franks"

Last modified: 2011-06-10 by ivan sache
Keywords: franks | clovis | toad | fleur-de-lis |
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Clovis, King of the Franks

Clovis [Chlodweg] (465-511), became King of the Salian Franks in Tournai after the death of his father Childéric I in 481. He defeated Syagrus in Soissons (486°, the Alamans (495 and/or 505 or 506), the Burgunds (506), and the Wisigoths in Vouillé (507).
He founded the unified Frank monarchy and became the only king of the whole Gaul. The Byzantine Emperor granted him the title of Patrice. Clovis protected the Roman Catholic religion and called a Council in Orléans (511).

His baptism c. 496 made him the first "Barbarian" king to adopt Roman Catholicism as personal religion. The only documentation on his baptism is the book by St. Gregor of Tours and the year of the event is still controversial, as well as most of the "historical" events of Clovis' life.
The mythification of Clovis was one of the ideological bases of the absolute power of divine origin exerted by the king of France, and the Monarchists still consider his baptism as the founding act of France (as the "Senior Daughter of the [Roman Catholic] Church).

After his death, the Kingdom was divided among his four sons Thierry I (King of Austrasia), Clodomir (king of Orléans), Clotaire I (king of Neustria), and Childebert (king of Paris).

Ivan Sache, 22 October 2000


The "banner of the Franks"

An heraldic legend from the XIIIth century claims that Clovis used a banner charged with toads before his conversion to Christianism. The toads were considered as pagan and devilish animals.

During his baptism by St. Rémi in Reims on Christmas Day 496, an angel brought from the heaven a shield seme with fleurs-de-lis, which was immediatly adopted by the new Christian king.
The event explains the mythical divine origin of the arms of France and the specific protection granted by Christ, the Blessed Virgin (whose attribute is the lily), and the Holy Trinity to the King and the Kingdom of France.

The legend was widespread during the XIV-XVIth centuries. In the XVIIth century, it was undestood that coat of arms could not have existed before the XIIth century and the legend was rejected by heraldists. Anyway, it remained accepted in the United-Provinces and England during the wars fought by Louis XIV as a means of ridiculing France and its king. Louis XIV was often represented with a banner and a coat charged with toads.

Source: M. Pastoureau, Les emblèmes de la France [pst98]

Ivan Sache, 22 October 2000

Golden bees were found in the grave of Childéric (father of Clovis) in 1653, and these are the bees adopted by Napoléon to legitimize his royal claim. Given the primitive state of iconography in the Vth-XIth centuries (and the paucity of evidence that has survived), could it possibly be that the bees, toads and fleurs-de-lis are all one and the same?
It is possible that they were so stylized to begin with that their interpretation varied even in official circles. The bees from Childéric's grave were perhaps really toads and misinterpreted as bees. And perhaps those toads had in the meantime evolved into fleurs-de-lys.
A IXth century mosaic in Rome shows the Pope presenting to Charlemagne a green gonfalon sprinkled with gold dots. I think this has usually been interpreted as a proto-typical papal banner of ancient Roman derivation, but could it possibly be that the gold dots merely recognised pre-existing Merovingian-Carolingian toads/bees/lilies?

T.F. Mills, 22 October 2000

According to M. Pastoureau (op. cit.), the theory linking bees and fleur-de-lis has already been proposed by earlier scholars but was finally rejected. The toads seem to be a pure invention.
Only two of the original Merovingian jewels have survived. All of them were stolen in the Royal Library in 1831 and only a few of them (including the two "bees") were found in a bag which had been thrown in the river Seine. Pastoureau shows a black-and-white drawing of the "bees", which are now "locked up" in the Cabinet des médailles et des antiquités of the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library). The typical insect structure head-thorax-wings (or elytrons) is evident. The jewels cannot be lilies, the only flowers they could be associated with are tulips, which were not known in Western Europe in Merovingian times.

Ivan Sache, 2 November 2000