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The Preservation of Knowledge as Rome Fell

As the Roman Empire became Christianized, some conflicts between Greco-Roman culture and Christian values became apparent, but in general, Christianity embraced and attempted to assimilate and harmonize the classical heritage with its fundamental principles. This harmonization effort, however, was disrupted by the chaos resulting from the barbarian invasions, as Rome fell first to the Visigoths (476) and then to the Ostrogoths (493). The Western empire was gradually dismembered among the waves of invaders. Some degree of civilization was preserved in the city of Rome and its environs, as some Roman officials contributed their services to the new barbarian rulers, helping to restore some order.  Another thread of culture survived through exile and refuge. A number of monks from the European continent escaping from the barbarians emigrated to the isolated havens of Northern Britain and Ireland. These monasteries became important study centers, and the copying of classical manuscripts was a well established practice at these centers.[1]


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 of 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.[2] The first cultural step that Charlemagne took was to lure scholars to his court. Among these was Alcuin from York, England, who 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!"[3]



In 796 Alcuin was seeking to return to monastic life, and Charlemagne obliged by appointed him as Abbot of Saint Martin at Tours, and from there he continued his partnership with the king in the cultural enrichment of the kingdom:


I... am busy carrying out your wishes and instructions at St. Martin’s, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning, beginning to feed others on the fruits of grammar, while to some I propose to reveal the order of the stars, like the painted roof of a great man’s house.[4].


At Tours, Alcuin began the process of developing the art of copying manuscripts into a science. A more practical writing style was perfected, materials were carefully selected, and binding techniques were improved. The results were significant. From the first 800 years of the Christian era, there are 1800 preserved manuscripts. There are 7000 from the ninth century alone. 




Charlemagne's Palace Chapel Dome
Photo © www.sacred-destinations.com

In 787, Charlemagne published a legislative letter, entitled De Litteris Colendis. 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 individual...[5]


This prescription had tangible results. At least fifty monastic and cathedral centers in the Carolingian empire have left some record of their educational contributions.[6]


The First Universities

A large number of Greek scientific and philosophic works had been preserved in the Arab world. Much of this knowledge was translated into Arabic. The Islamic Arabs and Persians also made their own original contributions, particularly in Mathematics. As some Islamic cultural centers in Spain and Southern Italy passed into Christian control during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the increased contact with the rest of  Europe provided a fertile ground for the translation of documents and other cultural exchanges, resulting in a renewed interest in classical civilization and a general cultural renaissance.


Some of the educational centers created or enhanced by Charlemagne had gradually excelled due to the leadership of individual bishops or schoolmasters, and they were the primary beneficiaries of this renaissance. One of the most important of these centers was at Paris, which consisted of several schools. After the middle of the twelfth 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. The foundation date of the University of Oxford has not been established, but it acquired prominence after 1167. Historian Richard Dales summarizes the process that led to the first universities:


The universities came into being in response to pressing social needs, and this social function was always their most obvious characteristic. An increasingly urbanized society ruled by increasingly bureaucratic governmental units put a premium on legal education; the educated and wealthy citizens of the towns required scientific medical attention; and a society that was deeply Christian and assailed form all sides by reforming and heretical groups required thoroughly trained theologians.[7]


One of the most distinguished schoolmasters of the twelfth century was Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141). He was born in Saxony, studied at the monastery of Hamersleben, and went on to St. Victor in 1125 to continue his studies. St. Victor was one of the schools at Paris.  His most important work,  the Didascalicon, aims to select and define all the areas of knowledge important to man, and he orients education to moral action in the world:  “…that there may first come to its knowledge those things which moral earnestness will thereafter turn into action."[8] Hugh describes the process that lead to science:


All sciences, indeed, were matters of use before they became matters of art. But when men subsequently considered that use can be transformed into art, and what was previously vague and subject to caprice can be brought into order by definite rules and precepts, they began, we are told, to reduce to art the habits which had arisen partly by chance, partly by nature- correcting what was bad in use, supplying what was missing, eliminating what was superfluous, and furthermore prescribing definite rules and precepts for each usage.[9]


John of Salisbury (1116-1180), one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages, studied under Hugh of St. Victor and others. He was born in Salisbury, England. In 1136 he went to study Arts and Theology at Paris. Appreciative of his education, John dwells on the value of preserved and transmitted knowledge:


The very thing which several men have expended their whole lives in investigating, and which they have labored and sweated in discovering, can now be quickly and easily learned by one person. Our own generation enjoys the legacy bequeathed to it by that which preceded it. We frequently know more, not because we have moved ahead by our natural ability, but because we are supported by the [mental] strength of others, and possess riches that we have inherited from our forefathers.[10]


The Medieval 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 in Italy translated a number of Greek and Arab medical works into Latin during the eleventh century, making Salerno an important medical education center.[11]


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.


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.[12] The expanded Abbey of Saint Dennis (1135 to 1144) is considered to be the first Gothic building. The large stained 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

[1] Pierre Riche, Education and Culture in the Barbarian West (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976), 373-374.

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

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

[4] Ibid., 12.

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

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

[7] Richard C. Dales, The Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 234.

[7] Hugh of Saint Victor The Didascalicon (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 50.

[9] Ibid., 59.

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

[11] Richard C. Dales, The Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 151-152.

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