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The Carolingian Renaissance

The Franks were one of the many barbarian groups that had invaded the Roman Empire, settling in what would become France and part of Germany.  Charles, known as "the Great" (Charlemagne), was king of the Franks from 768 to 814, and he significantly expanded the frontiers oh his kingdom, which came to include France, Germany, part of Spain, and Northern Italy.

A number of factors came together to make possible the cultural rebirth in the reign of Charlemagne, but there is general agreement among scholars that the primary force propelling this process was his personal initiative.[1] The first cultural step that Charlemagne took was to lure scholars to his court. Peter of Pisa, Paul the Deacon, and Paulinus of Aquileia came from Italy, Agobard and Theodulf from Spain, and Alcuin from England. Alcuin directed a "palace school” from 782 to 796 at the court of Charlemagne, and he passed on to his pupils his love of learning: "How pleasant life was when we sat among the writings of the wise, surrounded by a wealth of books and the worthy thoughts of the fathers, lacking nothing we needed for the religious life and the pursuit of knowledge!" [2]

Charlemagne's Palace Chapel Dome
Photo ©

In 787, Charlemagne published a legislative letter, entitled De Litteris Colendis in 787. This letter, which was to be circulated to all bishops and abbots, stated:

Be it known, therefore, to your devotion pleasing to God, that we, together with our faithful, have considered it to be useful that the bishoprics and monasteries entrusted by the favor of Christ to our control, in addition to the order of monastic life and the intercourse of holy religion, in the culture of letters also ought to be zealous in teaching those who by the gift of God are able to learn, according to the capacity of each that those who desire to please God by living rightly should not neglect to please him also by speaking correctly.[3]

An order to establish schools was more specifically stated in another letter in 789. These prescriptions had tangible results. At least fifty Carolingian monastic and cathedral centers have left some record of their educational contributions. [4]

In his identification with biblical kings, Charlemagne took seriously his role as protector of the weak and the guardian of public order. He condemned the hoarding of agricultural products and speculation, defined just prices, and set standards of measure.[5] Charlemagne’s legislative letters also strove to protect the common people from the great landowners. Church institutions were given a special responsibility to help the needy. Charlemagne wrote in 789: "Let there be hospices in different places for travelers, places in monasteries and clerical communities to welcome the poor."[6]  Alcuin enjoined one of his monastic disciples: "Be as a father to the poor and unfortunate, humble in service and generous in giving, that you may receive their blessing."[7]

The First Universities

Some of the schools that had been founded since the time of Charlemagne gradually excelled due to the leadership of individual bishops or schoolmasters, and they attracted students from all of Europe.  There were several schools at Paris, and during the twelfth century, along with the growth of the French monarchy and the city itself, these schools rose to the forefront of European education.[8] After the middle of the century, the number of masters and students in Paris required some sort of organization. The masters took the lead on this, and some regulations were established on curriculum and the length of study.  A similar development took place at Bologna, another important urban center, except that at Bologna the students took the leadership and were better organized. Paris and Bologna are considered to have been the earliest universities.

John of Salisbury (1116-1180), one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages, studied at Paris and perhaps also at Chartres, and he exalted the value of the liberal arts which had enabled the learned to "comprehend everything they read, elevated their understanding to all things, and empowered them to cut through the knots of all problems possible of solution."[9] His teacher, William of Conches, advised the Duke of Normandy about the social value of studies: "If you devote yourself to some valuable study, you will be of use to others...Hence it is that the wise man allows no time for idleness; he is always doing something of use to others, not for himself [10]."

The Medical and Legal Professions

Throughout the Middle Ages, many monasteries had infirmaries and herb gardens to take care of the medical needs of the monks, and some of the monks became skilled in surgery. Benefiting from Arabic contacts at nearby Sicily, monks at the monastery of Monte Cassino and at Salerno translated a number of Greek and Arab medical works into Latin during the eleventh century, making Salerno an important medical center.[11] The school at the city of Montpelier in southern France appears to have had a fully developed faculty of Medicine by 1137. Its reputation increased during the twelfth century due to its proximity to the translation centers in Spain which had been partially re-taken from the Arabs by the king of Spain, and its incorporation of a number on new translations of medical works from this source. By the end of the century it was rivaling Salerno as the most important medical school in Europe [12].

The early medieval world was ruled, to the extent that there was any rule by law, by what is called customary law. This mostly verbal law was based on Germanic traditions with some element of Roman law. During the twelfth century some of these laws began to be written down. The formalization of legal education was primarily the result of the leadership of Bologna. Law was initially taught there as a branch of grammar or rhetoric, but there appeared during the late eleventh and early twelfth century series of respected law professors that developed Bologna into the leading law school.

Master Masons and Gothic Architecture

The art of working with stones was preserved and cultivated throughout the Middle Ages. The construction demand caused by economic progress and the increasing appreciation of the artistic aspects of building design encouraged the development of the trade of the master masons. A new architectural style emerged during the twelfth century that would match the spirit of progress of this century. The most distinctive achievement of Gothic architecture was the use of lighter walls with large pictorial windows that could nevertheless support high roofs in churches of a very large size. This was accomplished through the use of ribbed vaults on the roofs that connected to vertical piers on the walls and to support buttresses on the outside. [13]

The expanded Abbey of Saint Dennis (1135 to 1144) is considered to be the first Gothic building. Abbot Suger played a very active role in the design and construction of Saint Denis. He believed that our minds can rise to the spiritual through the inspiration of material objects: "the beauty of the house of God... has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial..."[14] The large tained glass windows were often used to depict biblical scenes for the benefit of the illiterate faithful. Architecture would not become a truly scientific profession for several centuries, but it is clear that the master masons took a significant step in the direction of professionalism during this century.

St. Denis Abbey Church, Paris
Photo © Clint Albertson, SJ
Loyola Marymount University

Religious Orders and  Medieval Science

The Franciscan and Dominican religious orders were founded in the early thirteenth century to re-kindle a more faithful following of the teachings of Jesus. These orders soon found out that they needed a better education for their preaching work, and they took advantage of the newly founded universities by establishing study centers at Paris and Oxford. In addition to their  theological and philosophic work, they became captivated with the scientific works being translated from the Greek and Arabic. Franciscans Roger Bacon (1220-1292) and John Pecham (1230-1292) advanced the science of optics, and Dominican St. Albert the Great (1206-1280) made significant contributions to the biological sciences and mineralogy.

The friars were able to combine their religious and scientific zeals. Dominican Humbert of Romans (1200-1277) wrote: "Creation is a book. Those who know how to read this book well draw from it many things which are serviceable for helping people to grow." [15] And Franciscan St. Bonaventure  (1221-1274) saw science as revelation: "sciences have certain and infallible rules, like rays of light shining down upon our mind from the eternal law. And thus our mind, illumined and flooded by such brilliance, unless it is blind, can be led through itself to contemplate that Eternal Light." [16]

[1] Walter Ullmann, The Carolingian Renaissance and the Idea of Kingship (London: Methuen and Company, 1969),4.

[2] Alcuin of York, Alcuin of York- His Life and Letters, ed. Stephen Allott (York, England: William Sessions Limited, 1974), 131.

[3] Laws of Charles the Great, ed. Dana C. Munro (Philadelphia: Department of History of the University of Pennsylvania, 1900), 12-15.

[4] John J. Contreni, "The Carolingian Renaissance” in Warren Treadgold, ed., The Renaissances before the Reniassance (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1984) p. 72.

[5] Pierre Riche, Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 120-122.

[6] Ibid., 270-271.

[7] Alcuin of York, Alcuin of York- His Life and Letters, 136.

[8] Sidney R. Packard, 12 th Century Europe (Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1973),157.

[9] John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon (Westport, CO: Greenwood Press, 1955), 36.

[10] William of Conches, Dragmaticon Philosphiae (Notre Dame: Universsity of Notre Dane Press, 1997), 57.

[11] Richard C. Dales,The Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 151-152.

[12] C. H. Talbot, Medicine in Medieval England (London: Oldbourne Press, 1967), 56-57.

[13] Banister Fletcher, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967), 371.

[14] Abbot Suger , "De Administratione” in Erwin Panofsky, Abbot Suger on the Abbey Church of St.-Denis and its Art Treasures, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 63-64.

[15] Humbert of Romans, "Treatise on the Formation of Preachers, Things That a Preacher Needs" in Early Dominicans: Selected Writings by Simon Tugwell (NewYork: Paulist Press (1982), 216-217

[16] Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 85.