Legend has it that, during Clovis’ baptism, a dove from Heaven brought a phial containing holy oil.

Such a surprising story has obviously met with some scepticism from Historians, and even from people of the Church…  Some Benedictins, like Dom Mabillon, some Jesuits, like Father Jacques Longueval, some Bollandist Fathers, etc., have, over the centuries, delivered severe criticism of Hincmar’s text and have quite simply declared that it is only a legend…

All of these good ecclesiastics refuse to believe in the miraculous apparition of the holy phial.  And their objections have been taken up by the Historian Leber who lived in the XIXth Century.  He very curiously begins by refuting this story, not for “cartesian” reasons, but for material ones.

He doesn’t say:  “I don’t believe it because a dove can’t come from the sky with a phial in its beak.”  He says:  “I don’t believe it because there must certainly have been enough oil to proceed with the baptism…”  Here is his text:

“It is said that at the moment of baptizing Clovis, the holy oil not being there, Heaven deigned to supply it by sending a phial filled with a divine liqueur whose perfume filled the whole church.

“This fact does not have a believable character.  It is difficult to believe that the oil which was supposed to serve for the baptism of a monarch had not been prepared or brought ahead of time into the sanctuary, or that there was not enough of it to accomplish the ceremony.  As no-one was counting on a prodigy, the necessary precautions must have been taken.  The oil must have been prepared, not only for the King, but for six thousand subjects who were baptized with him;  or, according to Gregoire, three thousand soldiers and more, not counting the women and children.  The negligence that is supposed here cannot be conceived.  The fact is not likely in itself.”

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During the coronation of French Kings (here, Louis XVI), the holy phial was brought in great ceremony to Reims by members of the Order entrusted with its safekeeping.

There is another fact that troubles the Historians quite a lot:  none of the chroniclers who were contemporary to the prodigy mention it:  neither Gregoire de Tours, who recounts the baptism of Clovis however, nor Fredegaire, his continuator, nor Bishop Avitus, nor even Saint Remi in his testament…

Saint Remi only writes:

“Deus…  plurima signa ad salutem praefatae gentis Francorum operari facit!”

That is to say that some prodigies were done by God for the conversion of the Francs…  Some authors have concluded rather hastily that by “prodigy”, we must understand “holy phial”…  Which is known as “soliciting a text”…  In fact, the more rigorous Historians consider that this sentence of Saint Remi is extremely vague and that we do not have the right to see in it any allusion to the holy phial.  On top of which, if this prodigious event happened during Clovis’ baptism, a dazzled Saint Remi would not have just made a vague allusion to “prodigies”;  he would have related the fact in all its details…

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In fact, the first chronicler to really speak of the holy phial is Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, who wrote in the IXth Century, that is to say four hundred years after the event…  He claims to have taken his information from ancient chronicles.  Which ones?  He doesn’t say.  Therefore, Hincmar has been accused of completely inventing the story of the dove.  However, a few researchers have discovered that the story of the holy phial was known before Hincmar spoke of it, and that it belonged, in the form of a legend, to Reims folklore.

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The reconstituted holy phial was used for the last time on 29 May 1825 during the coronation of Charles X. Since then, it is part of the treasure of the Reims Cathedral.

The genesis of it has been reconstituted.  Clovis’ baptism having been the most important event in the History of the christianization of Frankish Gaul, it could be thought that fairly early – around the VIth or VIIth Century – the Reims priests must have shown to pilgrims the phial used by Saint Remi.  This phial, authentic or false, it doesn’t matter, was considered a relic.  And we know that sacred objects were frequently conserved in recipients in the form of a dove which were suspended inside the churches, above the altar…  As well as that, on the drawings, the fresques, the mosaics which represent a ceremony of baptism, there is often a dove – the Holy Ghost – which descends onto the head of the new Christian…  It was enough for the good people to see this reliquary in the form of a dove holding a phial in its beak, and a mosaic showing Clovis’ baptism, for the mixture to give birth to a legend…  A legend which the good Hincmar, in good faith, reported to us…

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And for over one thousand years, he was believed.  He made a mistake, but we must however recognize that it was a great idea.  An idea which was used for the first time in 869, during the Coronation of Charles the Bald, and which consisted in using Clovis’ balm for the unction of the Kings of France…  By this find, not only did he serve the interests of the city of which he was the Pastor (the Archbishops of Reims became in this way the consecrators of their sovereigns), but he made the Kings of France the only monarchs made sacred by the use of an oil from Heaven, which placed them above all of the Kings of Christendom.

This is how a marvellous story, born of a legend, was able to give, for around one thousand years, to forty Kings, the power and the prestige which was necessary for them to make France…

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