My thought on the The Carolingian Renaissance

IDe Carlo Magno, the ninth-century monk Notker the Stammerer juxtaposed truths and invention to depict the achievements of the Frankish king Charlemagne. For the biographer, Charlemagne’s revival of formal education represented one of his greatest achievements. This essay examines both the political and religious significance of the movement, as well as its achievements and limitations. In addition, it will explore the notion that the Carolingian renaissance was not a spontaneous event, but had its roots in the classical past and the early middle ages.

Notker opened his work by suggesting that the Frankish renaissance represented a revival of the greatness of Ancient Rome:

He who ordains the fate of kingdoms and the march of centuries, the all-powerful Disposer of events, having destroyed one extraordinary image, that of the Romans….raised up among the Franks the golden head of a second image, equally remarkable, in the person of the illustrious Charlemagne.

 We must understand, however, that Charlemagne and his contemporaries’ vision of the ideal Rome state was not based on that of the pagan empire ruled by Augustus, but that of a “holy” Roman empire led by Christian emperors like Constantine  and Justinian.[1] Consequently, the resurgence of learning under Charlemagne must be seen as his attempt to recapture the level of scholarship attained in the fourth and fifth centuries by Christian teachers such as Augustine and Jerome. Moreover, the Carolingian renaissance was just as indebted to sixth and seventh-century writers like Cassiodorus, Isidore of Seville, and the Visigothic men of letters who had continued the classical literary style. Therefore, the Carolingian renaissance was not a spontaneous event, but the culmination of years of scholarship, that had begun in the classical world and continued through the early middle ages.[2]

The first half of the eighth century was a difficult time for Frankish Gaul. Because of a threatened Arabic invasion, centers of ancient learning like Aquitaine had found it necessary to appeal to the Franks for military assistance. This request led to the political domination of these areas by the Franks, and ultimately the disappearance of these cultural centers. In the rest of Gaul, there was a sense that the Frankish clergy had fallen into barbarity. His education reform represented Charlemagne’s way of correcting this decline.[3]

In order to conduct this literary campaign, Charlemagne needed books, teachers, schools, and eager pupils. Furthermore, he realized the need to recruit scholars from outside of his realm. This anecdote by Notker, though simplifying the process, captures the spirit behind the revival:

Two Scots from Ireland happened to visit the coast of Gaul in the company of some British trader. These men were unrivalled in the knowledge of sacred and profane letters, at a time when the pursuit of learning was almost forgotten throughout the length and breadth of Charlemagne’s kingdom and the worship of God was at a very low ebb….In the end the news was carried by onlookers, who certainly found them remarkable and maybe wrong in the ears of King Charlemagne himself, who was always an admirer and a collector of great wisdom.

 The monk continued his story by relating how Charlemagne’s court, with its patronage of learning, became a center for intellectuals. Eminent scholars like the Englishman Alcuin became the emperor’s teachers and confidants. Notker portrayed Alcuin as a man “skilled in all branches of knowledge,” but emphasized that he had served as “a pupil of Bede, that priest of great learning, himself the most accomplished interpreter of Scripture since Saint Gregory,” This acknowledgement of Bede’s academic prowess illustrates the significant role that the Anglo-Saxon and Irish monks played in the Carolingian renaissance. As a result of these cultural exchanges with the Mediterranean community, by the end of the seventh century these monks had re-established links with the late antique cultural program.

    Despite Charlemagne’s best efforts, Notker revealed that the emperor feared that perhaps no amount of study would allow his clergy to match the early Church fathers’ acumen: “If only I could have half a dozen churchmen as wise and well taught in human knowledge as were Jerome and Augustine.”  One sees Charlemagne’s impatience and drive reflected in this quotation, which illustrates that the renaissance was driven, in part, by a sense of intellectual inferiority. Notker, nonetheless, believed that Charlemagne had initiated an academic renaissance, and exclaimed, His [Alcuin] teaching bore such fruit among his pupils that the modern Gauls or Franks came to equal the Romans or the Athenians.”

In order to achieve his educational and political goals, Charlemagne made sure that his reform was egalitarian. According to Notker, for Charlemagne when it came to learning, the wealth and the nobility of the aristocracy often served as a hindrance to intellectual achievement:

But you young nobles, you, the pleasure loving and dandified sons of my leaders, who trust in your high birth and your wealth, care not a straw for my command or for your own advancement; you have neglected the pursuit of learning and have indulged yourself in time-wasting follies and in the childish sport of fine living and idleness.

In sharp contrast, the children of the poor and the “middle-class” “brought [Charlemagne] excellent composition, adorned more than he could ever hope with all the subtle refinements of knowledge.” By educating the middle and the lower classes the emperor did more than establish a newly educated elite, his training of these individuals directly challenged the aristocracy’s authority. By creating a system where ability, and not birth, was essential, Charlemagne produced a large cadre of men both loyal and dependent upon his support. Consequently, the educational renaissance functioned as both a political and a religious movement to glorify its architect, Charlemagne.

The curriculum in these schools was based on a mastery of classical Latin. Scholars such as Alcuin, who had learned Latin as a foreign language, focused on eliminating uncouth speech and verbal mistakes. It also meant that the Carolingians would base their reform on classical and not contemporary Latin. To mispronounce a word or to use a wrong case ending would reveal one’s ignorance. In a transformation based on a reform of the Latin languages, it was inevitable that pagan as well as Christian writers would be used as literary models. Monastic, cathedral, and court scriptoria labored to provide Carolingian Europe with the necessary text for serious study and worship. Librarians and teachers built up their collections and continually sought out new books. Monasteries, such as Fleury and St. Martin, had been involved in copying books since the seventh century.[4] Indeed, Books lay at the heart of a Carolingian education, and the ninth century saw over 50,000 of them produced. Many of these books were works by classical pagan authors and their survival was a direct result of Charlemagne’s educational reform.

Though this educational restructuring revolved around grammar, young men studying for the priesthood were also expected to know, rhetoric, dialectic, mathematics, music, and astronomy. The early Church made these pagan texts acceptable for the Carolingians. There remained limits, however, to this rebirth of classical literature, and it essential to understand that for most Carolingians wisdom and learning were never an end to themselves, but only tools with which “to arm the soldiers of Christ and allow them to penetrate the mysteries of Scripture and lead Charlemagne’s people to paradise.”

The extent of this renaissance was also limited. Charlemagne had a sharp and inquisitive mind, but his intellectual achievements were modest, and like the majority of the population he was illiterate.  Notker illustrated the basic levels of education attained by the majority of the population when he stated, “that all those in the palace became excellent reader, even if they did not understand what they read.” The difficulty of living up to Charlemagne’s expectation may be seen in Notker’s story about the monk who had entered the choir and attempted to lip-sync his way through mass. Instead of condemning the man, Charlemagne praised his singing and gave him a pound of silver. This anecdote illustrates that for Charlemagne effort counted and that when it came to his educational reforms, not everyone was expected to excel.

Charlemagne’s need to correct what he perceived to be his Empire’s educational deficiencies led him to attack the problem of ignorance with the same determination with which he conducted his military campaigns. Although the Carolingians’ primary goal was to achieve the reform and the correction of their society, his ultimate achievement was a renaissance. This revival was not a sudden occurrence; indeed, classical learning had not just come to a screeching halt when the Western Roman Empire collapsed. Writers such as the early Church fathers, Augustine and Jerome, as well as the sixth and seventh century authors Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville, who had continued the classical tradition, served as models of acumen for the Carolingians to emulate. Therefore, the renaissance must be seen as the by-product of the Christian reform movement that sought to restore not only the greatness, but also the morality of the Christian Roman Empire under the “new” Romans, the Franks.




[1] Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, 135.

[2] John G. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance”, in Warren T. Treadgold, ed. Renaissances before the Renaissance: cultural revivals of late antiquity and the Middle Ages 1984:59-60.

[3] The best introduction concerning the rise of the Carolingians remains Pierre Riche, The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe, trans Michael Idomir Allen (Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania Press, 1993).

[4]I follow the lucid depiction of this process found in Rosamond Mckitterick, The Carolingians and the Written Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1989).


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