Sigismund, St.

Sigismund, St.
(d. 524)
   Burgundian king (r. 516-523) and saint, whose reign was marked by the introduction of important legal codes and strained relations with the Franks and Ostrogoths. The son of Gundobad and son-in-law of Theodoric the Great, Sigismund was nonetheless a convert from Arian to Catholic Christianity, like his cousin, Clotilda, the wife of the Merovingian king Clovis. Despite his conversion, Sigismund, according to the sixth-century historian of the Franks Gregory of Tours, was the victim of Clotilda's vengeance because Gundobad had allegedly killed Chilperic, her father and Gundobad's brother. Although that remains uncertain, Sigismund was clearly caught between aggressive Frankish and Ostrogothic powers and struggled to preserve his kingdom, in part by styling himself a traditional ally of the Roman Empire and seeking an alliance with the Eastern Empire. He was eventually overthrown and killed.
   Although he became king in his own name in 516, Sigismund was an important figure in the kingdom even before that time. He was made coregent by his father Gundobad in 501 and ruled with him until Gundobad's death in 516. Sigismund also played an important role in his father's diplomacy when he married the daughter of the great Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric. His significance extended to religious affairs as well; he converted to Catholic Christianity, from Arian Christianity, by the year 515. His conversion, like that of Clovis not long before, allowed him to cultivate better relations with the Roman people in the kingdom, especially with the bishops. Indeed, Sigismund had very good relations with the Catholic hierarchy in his kingdom, especially with the powerful and influential bishop Avitus, who wrote a number of letters for the king. Sigismund further improved his relationship with the Catholic hierarchy in 515 by his foundation of the monastery of St. Maurice at Agaune, which became one of the more important communities in the Middle Ages. The monks at the house participated in the laus perennis (perpetual prayer) so that God would be praised unceasingly.
   As king, Sigismund's greatest achievement was the codification and publication of Burgundian and Roman law in 517. Following the traditions of the barbarian successors to the Roman Empire, the Burgundian kingdom followed the legal principle of personality, according to which each person was bound by the laws of his own group. Like the Visigoths before him, Sigismund issued two separate legal codes, one that applied to his people and another that applied to his Roman subjects. The Lex Gundobad (Law of Gundobad), or Liber constitutionem (Book of Constitutions), was issued in its final form, although it was most likely originally prepared during the reign of Sigismund's father. This was a very important legal code, whose influence would last for several centuries. The king also issued the Lex Romana Burgundionum (Roman Law of the Burgundians), which was the personal law of his Roman subjects. Although a significant legal code, Sigismund's Roman law did not survive the fall of the kingdom; it was replaced once the kingdom fell to the Merovingian Franks.
   Although Sigismund introduced a number of major reforms in the kingdom, he was less successful in international relations. Upon succeeding his father in 516, Sigismund was faced with the challenge posed by the Franks and Ostrogoths. He was fortunate that his marriage to Theodoric's daughter enabled him to at least keep Theodoric from advancing against him. Even though Theodoric was surely displeased by Sigismund's conversion to Christianity, he maintained good relations with the Burgundian king and allowed him to make a pilgrimage to Rome. To improve his situation, though, Sigismund cultivated relations with the Byzantine Empire as a balance to potential threats from the Franks and, especially, the Ostrogoths, whose relations with Constantinople were strained. When he succeeded to the throne, Sigismund also inherited the Roman title of patrician, which his father had held. But good ties with Constantinople were insufficient to save Sigismund from his closer neighbors.
   In 522, Theodoric's daughter died, which removed any impediment to Theodoric's invasion of the kingdom. Moreover, relations with the Franks were long difficult, even though his relative, Clotilda, had married Clovis and, according to tradition, converted him to Christianity. Indeed, according to Gregory of Tours, Clotilda encouraged her sons to invade the Burgundian kingdom to avenge the murder of her father by Gundobad. In 522 or 523, Sigismund faced an invasion of both Franks and Ostrogoths, which he could not stop. He was defeated in battle and handed over to the Franks by his own people, who had abandoned him. In 524, he was murdered by the Frankish king, who ordered that Sigismund be thrown in a well. The kingdom preserved its independence for another ten years before it was finally absorbed by the Franks in 534.
   See also
 ♦ Drew, Katherine Fisher, trans. The Burgundian Code: The Book of Constitutions or Law of Gundobad and Additional Enactments. 1972.
 ♦ Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.
 ♦ Randers-Pehrson, Justine Davis. Barbarians and Romans: The Birth Struggle of Europe, a. d. 400-700. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
 ♦ Wood, Ian. The Merovingian Kingdoms, 450-751. London: Longman, 1994.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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