The Pepsi Challenge was a successful marketing campaign mounted by Pepsi based on blind tests using Coke and Pepsi, where people would tell the better-tasting brand of cola. Imagine for a moment, though, of a speculative scenario- what if people took part in the Deity Challenge? The basis would be pretty simple- try believing in a couple of gods, see which of them makes your life most successful. Truth be told, it isn’t all that speculative; although not quite in the Pepsi Challenge style, the Frankish king Clovis did give the Christian god a challenge.
Before we get into the rather fascinating life of Clovis, however, I’d like to point out the major religions of Europe at this time. Remember that we’re talking about Middle Age Europe here, so religion is pretty important. The areas that had been under the Western Roman Empire (now fallen) usually had locals who were Catholic. However, the barbarian tribes that had moved into the now extinct Western Roman Empire were (most of the time) either Arian Christian, a form of Christianity that had been declared a heresy, or still worshipped pagan gods. Clovis belonged to the Frankish tribe, who were of the last group mentioned.
Not that the German pagan gods weren’t fit for the Franks. After all, these barbarians are warlike people; hardly a people to welcome Jesus with his turn the other cheek teachings. Gods like the thunderous hammer-wielding Thor or the war god Odin were much more fit for these people, aren’t they? Take the figure of Clovis himself. According to the main source about his reign, a chronicle written by Gregory of Tours, Clovis was rather prone to doing things like splitting peoples’ skulls with axes. The main achievement of his reign was waging numerous was turning against Roman governors, killing them, turning against other tribes and conquering them, and turning on his relatives and also killing them. By the end of his reign, he would have conquered an empire the size of modern-day France. This guy is hardly the person we’d have thought would become the first of the Franks to accept Christianity.
But strange things do happen. It turned out that the King of the Burgundians had a famously beautiful wife named Clotilda, whom Clovis requested to marry. Given a request from such a powerful (and warlike) king, the Burgundian king chose to accept and sent Clotilda off to Clovis. But Clotilda, unlike Clovis, was not a pagan; she was a Catholic Christian.
They soon had a son together. Clotilda wanted the son baptized in the Christian manner,
saying that “the gods whom you honor are nothing” and are “endowed with magical arts rather than divine power”; would it not, then, be better for the son to believe in the supposedly much more powerful Christian god, who “created from nothingness the heavens and the earth?” A rather pointed thing to say to King Clovis, and Clovis wasn’t convinced with her argument, saying that there is no evidence the Christian God can do anything, or was even a God. Clovis did relent, however, and allow the son to be baptized. The son died in his white baptismal robes.
It did not please Clovis that he had just lost his first heir at all; evidently, if the son had been made to follow the German gods instead of the Christian one, he would have survived, right? Still when their second son was born, Clotilda insisted that this son also be baptized, Clovis allowed, and the son fell ill (again).
Which led to a “I told you so” moment from Clovis, but Clotilda wasn’t going to give up, and started praying fervently; miraculously, the son healed. Still didn’t convince King Clovis, however, despite Clotilda’s repeated begging that Clovis convert to Christianity. Not until Clovis was forced to give the Christian god a try.
Basically, Clovis, who was still busy conquering territories to add to his ever-expanding Frankish empire, went to war with a tribe called the Alemanni. The Alemanni, in a battle with the Franks, now called the Battle of Tolbiac nearly destroyed the Frankish army as the morale dropped and the army was near complete destruction. Clovis, seeing this, was in full despair. Why weren’t his gods saving him? How could they allow him, the great hero of the Franks, to be defeated in a great battle like this? He decided, evidently, according to Gregory of Tours, to test-drive the Christian god: the Deity Challenge time. He’d already trusted in his gods that they would help him- and they did not. Would the Christian god help? He cried out to the sky:
Jesus Christ, whom my queen Clotilda calls the Son of the living God; I have invoked my own gods, and they have withdrawn from me. I cannot believe that they have any power, since they do not aid those who call upon them. Therefore, it is to you that I now call upon. If you give me victory over these foes, if I find in you the power that the people proclaim about you, I will believe in you and be baptized in your name!
And right after Clovis calls out these words, the Alemanni king was killed and the Alemanni themselves began to turn their backs and flee. Clovis had won the day, with the help of the Christian God it seemed.
After the battle, Clovis kept his word; he converted to Christianity, and eventually the rest of the Franks would convert. This is a huge event in history, because another of the most powerful barbarian tribes have now been converted, and not to the heretic Arian form either, but instead to the Catholic version. In time, the Pope would call upon the Franks to become the protectors of the Catholic Church based in Rome, and a Frankish king, Charlemagne, would himself be crowned the Holy Roman Emperor.
And this might not have happened, or at least not the way it had, had Clovis not have been driven to necessity to try out the Deity Challenge himself.
Thanks for reading.
This post was inspired by the Hardcore History episode, Thor’s Angels by Dan Carlin.